OTTAWA — The province of Quebec, which toyed with the idea of independence seven years ago, has finally joined Canada as a full partner.
Under a constitutional deal, struck by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the 10 provincial premiers late Thursday after 10 hours of private talks, Quebec will finally sign Canada's constitution, signaling that it no longer views itself as separate from the rest of Canada.
The agreement supports the legal status of Quebec as a largely French-speaking "distinct society" with the legislative authority to "preserve and promote" its identity as the center of French culture in North America.
"What you have now is a whole country, as opposed to part of a country," an overjoyed Mulroney said about the agreement, to be fixed in law within a few months. "It completes a very important dimension of our nationhood. I think it's good for Canada."
"It's a historic breakthrough for Quebec as a Canadian partner," said Premier Robert Bourassa of Quebec, a province with which former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, himself a Quebecker, negotiated over constitutional change through most of the 1970s.
In 1980, the separatist Parti Quebecois, led by then-provincial Premier Rene Levesque, sought a mandate through referendum to enter into "sovereignty-association" talks with the federal government--independence negotiations, in effect. The referendum failed, but Quebec, under Levesque, continued to spurn Trudeau on the constitutional issue, on which agreement was ultimately reached between Ottawa and all provinces except Quebec in 1981.
In 1982, the old British North America act, which had served as the country's basic law since 1867, was converted into a purely Canadian instrument, but until now, Quebec had never agreed to sign that document.
For Mulroney, like Trudeau a fluently bilingual Quebecker, the new agreement fulfills one of the key goals he had set for his Progressive Conservative government during the 1984 election campaign.
For Quebec's Bourassa, a Liberal Party premier, the deal is more of a political gamble. The Parti Quebecois, today the main provincial opposition party, had demanded provincial jurisdiction in large areas of the economy, civil law and international affairs. Under Thursday's agreement, Quebec will get virtually full control of immigration to the province and will nominate three of the nine justices of the Supreme Court of Canada.
'Power to Say No'
The deal extends to Quebec and each of the other provinces a veto over fundamental changes to the constitution. Bourassa entered the talks demanding that Quebec have a veto unique to itself over any future changes, a demand flatly rejected by several English-Canadian premiers.
In spite of that setback, "We have the power to say no," when a proposed change in Canada's division of powers violates Quebec's interests, Bourassa declared.
Mulroney referred to the result of his lengthy day of negotiations as a sign of "the spirit of compromise which characterizes the Canadian people."
A formal conference will be held within a few weeks to put the final touches on the document that Bourassa will sign. Parliament and the provincial legislatures are expected to ratify the deal by July.