CANADA'S nationwide `no' vote on a new federal union Oct. 26 might at first seem to be another example of the often unschooled nationalist and separatist tendencies sweeping the post-cold-war world from Prague to Montreal. And in some ways it is. Canada's Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and 10 provincial leaders spent two years and enormous political capital devising a new constitution that would give francophone Quebec a more culturally distinct place in Canada and would empower western provinces and abor ginal groups. Mr. Mulroney wanted to check the growing separatist movement in Quebec, Canada's most populous province and keep Canada whole.
Monday's referendum, which required ratification by all 10 provinces, was resoundingly rejected by six of them. In political terms, that's a big "no." Quebeckers didn't think they were getting enough power; provinces such as Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Nova Scotia, while having their own grievances with the new constitution, felt Quebeckers were being too pampered.
Yet the Canadian cloud of noes may have a silver lining. What Canada's leaders over the past two years had not counted on was that their own people, traditionally deferential and somewhat apolitical, would want to get involved in the process. They do, it turns out. The new Canada signed off on in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, last August by political leaders reminded too many Canadians of nothing so much as the recent Maastricht agreement in Europe - an elite making far-ranging decisions without m uch input from citizens. Canadians want a more democratic process. They refer more often to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms - a rough equivalent to the US Bill of Rights. A more participatory sense is creeping into Canadian democracy.
Ironically, that sense, through the "no" vote, must now be interpreted by Ottawa as a demand to focus not on constitutional questions but on Canada's ailing economy. Interestingly, the referendum pushes back by two years any formal effort by Quebec to vote for autonomy, or "sovereignty." In the interim, we hope disunion is thwarted - but by a more inclusive and mature union-building.