OTTAWA — Canada's leaders signed a tentative agreement to amend the constitution and grant special status to the French-speaking province of Quebec in an attempt to head off a brewing constitutional and linguistic crisis.
The deal, coming after a week of high-pressure, closed-door talks among Canada's 10 provincial premiers, puts Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as close as he has ever been to achieving one of the most sought-after and elusive goals of his administration: persuading the French-speaking province of Quebec to sign the national constitution.
But there are still roadblocks, and the cost of getting Quebec's signature has been high. It is unclear whether the new agreement--hammered out in a secrecy many Canadians found offensive--will do much to ease Canada's underlying linguistic and regional tensions.
"This compromise won't satisfy people, because it will recognize one set of rights for Quebec and another for the rest of the country," predicted Robert Bothwell, a history professor at the University of Toronto.
Even as the prime minister and the 10 premiers signed their deal in a blaze of television lights Saturday night, there were unmistakable signs of just how fragile the compromise really is. Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells told assembled national dignitaries that the deal "is not the proper way to be generous to Quebec . . . and at the same time be fully faithful to the principles of federalism."
He said that, while he did sign the agreement, his signature does not mean he accepts it but simply that he will take it back to his Liberal Party caucus in Newfoundland. There, he said, he will ask fellow Liberals whether he should put the new agreement to a vote in the provincial legislature, or put it to the entire Newfoundland citizenry in a referendum. He said he hoped he would have a decision today.
If the new, hard-won deal should go to a referendum in Newfoundland, nearly anything could happen. Newfoundland is Canada's newest and poorest province, and it has long had prickly relations with Quebec, its powerful and relatively wealthy neighbor. Given the opportunity to air their opinions in a referendum, Newfoundland voters might decide to punish their French-speaking neighbors by nixing the deal. If that happened, all hopes would be dashed for constitutional reform in the foreseeable future.
Canada's other nine premiers sat stony-faced as Wells indicated in his remarks Saturday night that he knew holding back full support from the deal was risky. He called taking the stance "the most difficult decision I have ever made."
Canada has been in a state of legal confusion since 1982, when the constitution was "repatriated" from England, where it had formerly been enacted by the British Parliament. At the time Quebec, one of the country's most populous provinces, declared that it couldn't sign the constitution, citing some 22 objections.
When Mulroney was elected in 1984, he made it one of his foremost goals to bring Quebec into what he often calls "the constitutional family." In 1987, Mulroney and the 10 premiers met at a resort called Meech Lake and worked out a package of constitutional amendments that was intended to placate Quebec.
Quebec's premier, Robert Bourassa, came to the meeting saying he had stripped down the 22 objections to just five "minimal demands" that would have to be met before his province would sign the constitution. A central one was that the constitution would have to officially recognize Quebec as a "distinct society" within Canada.
All the premiers initially supported what emerged from those meetings, the so-called Meech Lake Accord, which did contain a "distinct society" clause. But before all of them could ratify the accord in their legislatures, some were voted out of office. After that, three newly elected premiers--those of Newfoundland, Manitoba and New Brunswick--revoked their provinces' support for the Meech Lake Accord.
Wells, in particular, said he was worried about whether naming Quebec a "distinct society" would give it enough power to enact laws objectionable to the rest of Canada. The other two holdouts named other objections to the accord, which also deals with issues of immigration, federal spending and how supreme court justices and senators are appointed.
This week's round of heavy duty arm-twisting was a last-ditch effort by the Mulroney government to bring the three dissident provinces into line. If all 10 provinces don't ratify the Meech Lake Accord by June 23, the document will become void, and any further attempts to make the constitution acceptable to all will have to begin at square one.