MAUDE BARLOW is momentarily quiet as she ponders the innocuous-sounding question many Canadians seem to dread: "What is it about Canada and its people that makes them different from, say, the United States and Americans?"
It is a question Canadians have been hashing out for decades, but it has become acute as constitutional crisis, Quebec's independence drive, and regional alienation create a need to define Canada's national identity and to understand why 10 provinces - spread across 5,000-mile-wide Canada - should bother to remain united.
"We're going through a very deep, soul-searching period about who we are and what makes us distinct from the United States," says Ms. Barlow, a best-selling author, self-avowed "economic nationalist," and social activist. "People are asking: `Who are we?' "
It may be just one aspect of a bigger identity problem. For many Canadians, social "safety net" cutbacks in such national icons as universal health care and unemployment insurance - as well as moves to reduce cost-sharing among provinces - are hard to swallow. The erosion of these national institutions make it difficult to explain how Canada will continue to distinguish itself as the "kinder, gentler" cousin to the US.
"We're such a young country, we are so diverse, I worry deeply that if we lose our commitment to each other through the loss of these shared [social and cultural] institutions that, in fact, the identity crisis will be very real," Barlow says.
To make Canada's human values stand in bold relief against a backdrop of increasing privatization and laissez-faire economics, articulate defenders of Canada's traditions have come forward in recent years. Barlow is one, offering a uniquely Canadian response to one facet of what sets Canadians apart:
"We pride ourselves as peacekeepers," she says. "We pride ourselves that our soldiers go off and fight ferociously, but when they come back, they put their guns down. We don't play at war. We don't make war movies. We don't make war toys. It's a very different society in that sense, much less violent - although heaven knows we seem to be getting our share recently."
Well-known in Canada mainly as an outspoken opponent of the conservative government's free-trade policy, Barlow unsuccessfully fought the 1988 Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and is fighting tooth and nail against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
What has the free-trade debate to do with preserving Canada's identity? "Everything," says Barlow, who leads the Ottawa-based Council of Canadians, a 25,000-member group dedicated to "saving" Canadian democracy by getting the free-trade agreements revoked. In the past six years she has helped organize the council and the affiliated Action Canada Network, which boasts a membership of about 50 mostly labor groups representing around 10 million members.
Despite losing the FTA fight in the first round, Barlow says both that deal and NAFTA are at risk as the Canadian public mood sours over recession and the perception that free trade is partly to blame for 11 percent unemployment. Indeed, the threat of free-trade reversal and Barlow's attacks on "transnational corporations" and conservatives for "selling out" Canada have hardly endeared her to either group.
"I've known Maude for a number of years, and at a personal level find I enjoy chatting with her," says Tom d'Aquino, who heads the Business Council on National Issues, a group made up of the chief executives of Canada's 150 largest corporations. "At a working level, I find her economics are very dubious, to put it kindly."
He charges Barlow with being a zealot who manipulates facts and statistics in "singular pursuit" of her goals while "preying on the fears and weaknesses of many to preach a warm and cuddly view of a Canada that never was." Others strongly disagree.
"She and her group are providing a major public service," says David Barrett, former premier of British Columbia, now a Member of Parliament and the New Democratic Party's federal trade critic. "I find most of the attacks are on her rather than the substance of her argument. She is unabashed in her subjective opinion, but has established a reputation of being fair and accurate."
Neither praise nor broadsides seem to faze Barlow, who responds in neutral fashion that despite hyperbole on both sides, the bottom line is that free trade is an issue forcing nationwide consideration of Canada's future.
"There is a fear of cultural assimilation, and that's what the fight is when you talk about identity," she says. "It's a fight to maintain a separate notion of ourselves up against a rich and dynamic [American] culture."
A best-selling book she coauthored, entitled "Take Back The Nation," is billed as a national "call to arms," though she claims not to be an isolationist. Yet major decisions should be made here, "not in a board room in another country," she says. Polls show the public agrees with her, with national approval for NAFTA at just 28 percent in a June poll by Environics, a Toronto-based polling firm.
Still, it is the constitutional crisis and Quebec that is claiming top billing during the push for ratification this fall. An Aug. 22 national unity package was designed to satisfy demands by western provinces for a reformed Senate, Quebec's demands for autonomy, and natives' demands for self-government. A national referendum will be held Oct. 26.
Amid Canada's multifaceted crisis of identity, Barlow offers both hope and a warning.
"I see these crises as a tremendous opportunity, if we can get our act together, realize that we are on the verge of enormous change, and recognize that fact constitutionally, economically, politically, and culturally," she says. "Then we can start preparing to build something quite exciting. But if we fail, we stand to fail very big because the differences are so very great."