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New assertiveness in Canada in face of powerful neighbor. Next week's election turns on the free-trade deal with the US. A series beginning today examines Canadian concerns that the pact may threaten their way of life.

Canadians have usually regarded themselves as a modest people, perhaps even lacking in self-confidence. That is changing. There is a new pride and assertiveness in the nation.

Whether that self-assurance has advanced far enough so that Canadians will embrace their powerful southern neighbor in a free-trade deal remains to be seen. It will be determined by a national election next Monday.

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The latest public opinion polls indicate the Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the leading opposition party, the Liberals, are in a dead heat. Since the Liberals and the other opposition party, the New Democratic Party, are opposed to the free-trade agreement, an opposition victory would scuttle the pact.

Defeat of the agreement, some here say, will send a message to the world that Canadians still want to avoid the risk of enlarging already immense economic ties to the United States.

Critics of the free-trade pact point constantly to the differences between Canadian society and government and that of the US, arguing that an even greater merger of the two economies would threaten those differences.

Whatever the election results, most Canadians say their country has matured a great deal in the last 20 or 30 years.

``My feeling is that we are conquering our inferiority complex at last, and that sometimes a large nation can become a great nation,'' says Peter Newman, a prominent author and columnist. He is pleased to see Canadians less inclined than they once were to measure their own worth by comparing their achievements with those of the US or of individual Americans.

Nonetheless, Canadian pride is often based on favorable comparisons of their own society with that of the US. For example, Canadians say their nation suffers less from violence and crime than than the US does. Its cities, Canadians say, are cleaner and better governed.

Canada is a more caring society than the US, Canadians tell themselves. Canadians are willing to pay through a heavier tax burden for a universal medicare system, children's allowances, a generous unemployment insurance system, and equalization payments that permit high-quality education, good roads, and other government services in poorer regions of the nation. Far fewer Canadians than Americans slip through the social safety net to become homeless. ``We are a little more community-minded and a little less individualistic,'' says Norman Webster, editor of the Globe and Mail, Canada's national daily newspaper.

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He also says there is more quiet tolerance in Canada - again as compared with the US. ``There isn't the racism here.''

Decades ago, Canada was primarily Anglo-Saxon, with a minority of Francophones. As a result of heavy immigration, about one-third of Canadians today originate from other nations.

``The integration of the various groups has happened pretty quietly, pretty successfully,'' notes Mr. Webster. Though Canada has an official policy of multiculturalism, helping immigrants maintain their native languages and culture with financial aid, in fact their children soon become ``Canadians'' as their education progresses.

In Toronto, there has been ``some crime problem'' with immigrants from the Caribbean, he admits. But it is considered generally safe to walk anywhere in this city of 3 million, even at night.

``For the most part you don't have to worry about being hit on the head, and you really don't have to worry about being shot,'' says Webster. Canadians are generally proud of their tight gun-control laws, regarding the American lax controls as crazy, if not tragic.

Robert Fulford, former editor of a leading Canadian magazine, Saturday Night, points out that Canadian foreign policy today differs from that of the US more than it did about two decades ago. Such differences are not usually trumpeted. But they are important in such areas as dealing with South Africa, Nicaragua, developing country debt, or membership in United Nations organizations.

Canada, however, did not ``patriate'' its Constitution from the British Parliament until 1982. This enables Canada itself to make amendments to that revised Constitution. Before, it had to request Westminster to alter the nation's original constitution, the British North America Act of 1867.

Canadians are used to living under authority - the Hudson's Bay Company at first, later colonial governments, and eventually their own government. They had the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to maintain law and order in the West and prevent the slaughter of Indians.

Canadian nationalism, though deep, is not so overt as that of Americans.

``We are a northern people,'' says Pierre Berton, another prominent Canadian author, who, unlike Mr. Newman and Webster, is opposed to the free-trade deal. ``We are not an emotional society. George Bush wouldn't make two votes here with all that stuff about the flag. To Canadians, it is just hilarious. If you make too many patriotic statements in this country, you are laughed at. Patriotism is there, but you don't have to talk about it.''

Regionalism is stronger in Canada than in the US. Most Canadians live within 200 miles of the American border, but stretched out over 4,000 miles and separated by three mountain ranges, 1,000 miles of rocky Canadian shield, and waterways. Canadians do not move as much as Americans. Their provincial governments are more powerful than state governments in the United States.

Canadians, especially French-speaking Quebeckers, are becoming more entrepreneurial, more interested in making their companies multinational. Canadian businessmen have more connections abroad. But the Canadian economy remains more ``mixed'' than that of the US. There are far more government-owned companies, known as crown corporations, and more regulations.

``It is not a free-enterprise country,'' says Mr. Berton. ``It is a mixed-enterprise economy.''

Whereas trade union membership and influence has declined in the US since the 1960s, Canadian membership has risen, and some Canadian leaders, such as Robert White of the Canadian automobile workers union, remain household names.

To Americans, the differences in Canada are not obvious, says Berton. ``But if you live here, you know the differences.''

First in a five-part series. Next: Canadian cultural community in turmoil.

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