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Canada Ponders New Quebec Plan

Liberal Party proposal to revamp Constitution would leave less for federal government to do

QUEBEC'S ruling Liberal Party is proposing that Canada's Constitution be rewritten to hand over most federal government functions to the provinces. It is a last chance to keep Canada intact. If this new proposal is rejected by other provinces, as was the far less radical Meech Lake Accord last June, Quebeckers appear willing to secede from Canada.

But critics of this last-ditch proposal to keep Quebec in the union say the plan would make the federation little more than a customs union with an army. It has raised protests from provinces and politicians unwilling to take such measures to keep Quebec in the fold.

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In a report issued last week that spelled out the proposal, the Liberal Party said the adjustment to Canada's Constitution is a last chance to give Quebec the political breathing room it needs. If that doesn't work, the party says it will initiate a referendum on pulling the province out of Canada. Opinion polls show 70 percent of Quebeckers favor independence.

``A profound reform of the political and constitutional framework that governs Quebec society,'' is the report's self-stated aim. The report lays out details of Liberal Party proposals that might keep Quebec in the federation.

``It is the moment of truth for Canada,'' says Robert Bourassa, Quebec's Premier, leader of the provincial Liberal Party, and architect of the report. ``After 25 years of futile discussions, Quebeckers are perhaps hostile toward federalism.''

The party's radical plan would leave the federal government in charge of: collecting funds to sustain an army for mutual defense; customs operations; and distributing government funds to provinces. The report recommends:

Allowing Quebec to govern and provide for itself in 22 areas of jurisdiction currently shared with, or controlled by, the federal government. These include communications, energy, environment and agriculture.

Participation by Quebec in decision making on foreign affairs, native affairs, taxation, justice, fisheries, and transport.

A provision that the federal government retain defense, customs, and currency functions.

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Abolishing Canada's Senate - a part of Parliament that several western provinces want to see given expanded powers.

Requesting that the Supreme Court of Canada not have jurisdiction over civil issues such as laws mandating the dominance of the French language in Quebec.

A provision that the central bank, the Bank of Canada, and its interest rate policy be partly controlled by Quebec.

Critics of the Liberal proposal say it creates ``internal sovereignty'' that would create a country within a country. Much of English-speaking Canada has already balked at the plan.

``This report is completely out of touch with the constitutional aspirations of the rest of Canada,'' said Preston Manning leader of the Reform Party, a small but growing party.

`I THINK the vast majority of English Quebeckers will regard this report as an outrage, as an absurdity and they will regard English-speaking politicians in the rest of Canada as fools if they don't dismiss it out of hand,'' says Peter Blaikie, a Montreal lawyer and former leader of an English-speaking rights group.

Ontario Premier Bob Rae, who speaks fluent French and appears on TV in Quebec as a commentator on elections, says he does not agree with ``the kind of complete dismantling that is being talked about in terms of some areas of [federal] jurisdiction.''

Still, Mr. Rae agrees there must be change or it will result in the breakup of Canada.

The Liberal Party proposal follows last June's failed constitutional reform dubbed the Meech Lake Accord. It would have declared Quebec a ``distinct society'' and given the province only slightly more powers than it has now. It was defeated by provincial politicians in Manitoba and Newfoundland, who thought the agreement went too far.

``What Meech would have done is give us some breathing room to sort some of these longer-term problems out,'' Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said after hearing of the Quebec plan.

Though radical, the Quebec proposal could be seen as a bargaining position, politicians say.

``It's a negotiating position it seems to me,'' says Audrey McLaughlin, leader of the federal New Democratic Party.

The Quebec report does call for strengthening of Canada's economic system, making it more like the European Community.

``The Canadian economic union has been shown to be beneficial to the interests of Quebec and Canada,'' reads the preamble.

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