Canada's Bold Move

FROM the country that practically invented the use of troops as peacekeepers, not invaders, comes another real-world recipe for helping avert strife from cultural and ethnic differences: Mix the fine art of compromise with dashes of tolerance and good will.

Canada is boldly attempting to remake itself into a post-cold-war, 21st-century nation acceptable to 27 million diverse people - including 6 million French speakers, 1 million aboriginals, and a host of immigrants among its English-speaking majority.

The historic compromise recently struck by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and 10 provincial premiers should be applauded abroad - and ratified at home. Though imperfect, it is an example of government bending to meet a rising demand to empower cultural and ethnic communities, not just to govern them.

Many Canadian's anger still smolders from the failed 1990 Meech Lake accord. That accord aimed to close Canada's French-English split by mollifying Quebec's growing separatist mood.

But differences between Meech Lake and the new unity plan are large. Meech was rejected as a deal that met Quebec's demands, yet it failed to address concerns of aboriginal Canadians and the western provinces. From the Meech debacle was born the caricature, much ballyhooed by Quebec separatists, that English Canada had "rejected" Quebec, not just a flawed pact. With emotions hot, 64 percent of Quebeckers then favored a split from Canada. A new poll shows 38 percent of Quebeckers think the new deal would make them better off. But the undecided vote leaves the province up for grabs.

Canada's new unity deal, in contrast, builds on months of public meetings and offers historic recognition of aboriginals' right to self-government. It will create an elected, equal Senate to meet western provinces' demands for more representation.

Most of all, the pact truly embraces Quebec's francophones, recognizing the province as a "distinct society." It also guarantees Quebec representation in the House of Commons despite the province's declining population.

This compromise is resisted both by many English Canadians, who desire provincial equality, and by francophone separatists, who argue Quebec did not get all it demanded. Both make a point. But it is a sound deal nonetheless.

As a compromise that leaves many unsatisfied, the accord needs a strong pitch from Canada's leaders before the Oct. 26 national referendum and later ratification by provinces and Parliament. That's a tall order since Canadian politicians are no more popular than those in the US.

Nationalists on all sides are ripping into the pact. Emotion and impatience threaten it. Yet patience and labor have given Canadians a plan of which they can be proud, and which promises unity in the century ahead.

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