Canadians Appear Likely to Defeat Constitutional Deal

AN agreement to remake Canada's Constitution to more firmly anchor Quebec within the Canadian federation is in serious trouble and appears headed for defeat in a nationwide referendum Monday, pollsters and political analysts say.

Polls last week and early this week show voter support continuing to erode nationwide as it has since the Aug. 28 signing of the constitutional-unity agreement by 10 provincial premiers and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The deal is furthest behind in Quebec, British Columbia, and Alberta.

Monday's vote is seen as particularly significant because many in Canada, including the prime minister, have warned that the fate of the country hangs in the balance. A "no" vote, they say, might begin a difficult-to-halt process whereby Quebec, which has demanded to be recognized as unique among provinces, might leave the federation.

If the pact is defeated (it requires a simple majority in each province to pass), it will be the third time in 10 years that the government has tried and failed to revise the Constitution to meet disparate demands of provinces and native peoples.

The last rejected agreement was the 1990 Meech Lake Accord, which was blocked on a procedural vote by a single native legislator in Manitoba and was staunchly opposed by Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells. This time around Indian leaders and Mr. Wells are part of a "dream team" including all 10 premiers, the prime minister, and the three major federal parties.

DESPITE this political firepower, early broad support for the agreement has evaporated. Nationwide support for a "yes" vote has fallen from around 70 percent just after the deal was signed Aug. 28 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, to the low 40 percent range, polls show. A national poll by Toronto-based Environics Research Group Oct. 9-15 showed just 41 percent of Canadians would vote yes to the agreement, while 49 percent said they will vote no and 10 percent were undecided.

"When this thing [the Charlottetown accord] started off, there was just the euphoria of pulling off the deal, a sense of elation, a sense that, `If we can do this everyone will be grateful to us,' " says former Ontario Premier David Peterson.

But the "dream team" got off to a slow start, several analysts say, waiting almost four weeks after the deal was signed to begin an active campaign. In the mean time, a gaggle of "no" groups emerged, including: the Reform Party in western Canada; the separatist Parti Qucois (PQ) in Quebec; the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, the nation's largest women's group; and even former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Proponents were overconfident and "felt they'd win it," Mr. Peterson says. "They had 70 percent support. But ever since the referendum was announced, it's been totally downhill."

Hans Brown, one of three "yes" committee coordinators in British Columbia, has been trying to push the public back up the hill after seeing "no" sentiment rise from 51 to 55 percent and "yes" support fall from 34 to 26 percent.

"We have narrowed our message to working the undecided voters," Mr. Brown says. "If we can get our message out that there is a threat to the country from voting no, we can take the bulk of the undecideds."

But pollster Donna Dasko at Environics says 70 percent of Canadians do not believe a "no" vote will result in breakup of Canada, a dramatic switch from a month ago when only 54 percent felt that way.

In Montreal the "yes" side is up to 36 percent following a debate between federalist Premier Robert Bourassa and separatist PQ leader Jacques Parizeau. Yet 53 percent of those polled last week by the Center for Public Opinion Research said they would vote no, with 11 percent undecided, says director of research Claude Gauthier.

"I don't see how they can make up the ground," he says of the "yes" side. "They need a big event to change this trend."

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