SINCE 1990, Quebec's drive for independence from federal Canada has locked the United States' neighbor to the north in a constitutional crisis. Will Canada satisfy Quebec's fierce separatists and keep them in the fold? Can Quebec get special status without other provinces demanding the same?
The failed 1990 Meech Lake Accords did not solve the problem of Quebec, or the need for a new federal order. The crisis needs resolution so Canada can focus on its seriously souring economy, national-debt crisis, and the financial viability of national health care and public-school funding that have always been a unifying Canadian theme.
Resolution is what Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sees in a new "Meech II" agreement that Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark is hammering out. Meech II envisions a more confederal Canadian structure that would give the 10 provinces most powers held by the federal government, with the exceptions of defense and foreign policy. Meech I did not go nearly so far.
Besides devolving the federal government, Meech II is really Meech I plus Indians' "right to self-government." The complexities are many, but Ottawa wants a federal package of proposals completed by the end of June and agreed to by all 10 provincial premiers - including Quebec's Robert Bourassa. From there, it is hoped, Parliament votes in July, there's a romp to a national plebiscite on Labor Day, and Canada lives happily ever after.
Or does it? Perhaps what needs real attention in coming weeks are the sober voices arguing that Meech II may be an inadequate vessel for the kind of combustible forces at work in Canada.
First, there is danger that a new confederation will produce a chaotic federal system, amplifying regional power and dismantling the sense of Canada as a national whole. Provinces may begin trying to cut their own deals in areas from taxes to rights. The federal budget would be ill-served; inequities in schools, services, and social security could result - and rankle.
Second, Meech II could quiet the French-English question for a time, but nationalist Quebeckers may soon want more sovereignty.
Other ideas need more airing - especially renewed federalism based on an asymmetry wherein Canada's federal system with nine provinces remains unchanged, but Quebec's de facto autonomy is recognized and powers formally handed over to it. In exchange, Quebec gets reduced representation in Parliament. This idea retains Canada's identity with less divisive regionalism - something Canadians might reconsider before other, more radical changes.