Privately, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa was already preparing his failback plan. For the past month, he has devoted many of his working hours in the offices he maintains in both Quebec City and Montreal to refining his thoughts on Quebec's future in—or

alongside—Canada. Like the country’s nine other premiers, the 56-year-old Bourassa spent some of those hours pondering the chances for success of the Meech Lake constitutional accord. But he devoted more time, said one senior member of his staff, to putting his personal stamp on his contingency plan for Quebec’s response if the accord fails. Declared the aide: “Short of a unilateral declaration of independence, just about every other alternative was considered.” Said Bourassa himself, in an interview with Maclean ’s last Friday (page 34): “I have a responsibility to Quebecers to be prepared for all outcomes.”

Bourassa’s preparations underscored a fundamental change in the national politics of Canada—and of Quebec. Even before Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the premiers agreed to meet over dinner last Sunday to discuss the country’s constitutional future, many Canadians in every region had come to the conclusion that the sour tone of the constitutional debate had irrevocably altered the country’s destiny.

Said Gary Doer, the leader of Manitoba’s New Democratic Party: “We have started to pull apart the fibre of this country. Constitutions only reflect values—and the values in this country have really gone downhill.”

Tension: In the atmosphere of palpable tension that dominated the days before the First Ministers’ meeting, that pessimistic assessment was widespread.

Within Quebec, Bourassa emphasized the benefits to both the province and Canada of passing the accord.

He called the agreement “the incarnation of good sense and logic.” But the magnitude of the issue caused even some of Meech’s formerly ardent oppo-

nents to search for a solution. Most notably, federal Liberal leadership favorite Jean Chrétien, once the standard-bearer of Pierre Trudeau's anti-Meech vision of Canada, joined the backroom negotiations to break the stalemate. Then, on the weekend, he told the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir : “I have said that Meech needs clarifications. Today, there are points that seem to be well clarified. I hope it passes.”

Chrétien’s position demonstrated the recent dramatic shift in Canadian attitudes. Like Trudeau, Chrétien was originally an outright opponent of the accord. But, in the past several months, he has gradually distanced himself from that hard-line policy to soften the impression that he is hostile to Quebec’s constitutional demands.

In fact, Chrétien has been working behind the scenes since March to improve chances for Meech Lake’s approval. He met New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna the night before the premier unveiled a companion resolution on March 21. Last week, he continued his

efforts, making telephone calls to, among others, his old nemesis Bourassa.

At a news conference late on Saturday, Chrétien said that his comments in Le Devoir did not represent a policy reversal. He added, “I hope that Meech Lake passes with amendments, with clarifications on the Charter of Rights and the Senate.”

Many Quebec provincial Liberals said that they agreed with Chrétien’s explanation. Declared Sylvie Godin, a Bourassa aide: “Chrétien’s position is consistent with what he has been saying and doing for some months in support of the accord.” At the same time, Canadians in other regions were expressing unprecedented measures of ill will towards their fellow citizens in the rest of the country. Said pollster Allan Gregg, whose company, Decima Research Ltd., routinely surveys the attitudes

of Canadians on a variety of subjects: “There is a new sense of resentment and aggression surfacing. Fair play and tolerance towards one another are no longer rules of the game.”

The debate over Meech appears to have led many Canadians to conclude that their country faces sweeping changes, regardless of the outcome of the First Ministers’ discussions. Preston Manning, the leader of the Alberta-based Reform Party of Canada, declared that many of his fellow westerners would prefer to see the Meech accord die and to negotiate a new constitutional arrangement with Quebec. Said Manning: “The sooner we open negotiations on that, the better.” And Bourassa, who has repeatedly described himself as a federalist and called Quebec’s gains through the Meech Lake accord “the bare acceptable minimum,” made little secret of his desire to expand the province’s powers still


Many other self-described federalist Quebecers also said that they favor loosened ties with the rest of Canada. The result could be startlingly similar to the sovereignty-association option that the Parti Québécois supported in the 1980 referendum—but Quebecers rejected by a 60-to-40 margin. Many Quebecers have praised Georges Mathews, a professor of economics at the University of Quebec in Montreal, for his proposal of a Canadian community—similar in structure to the European Community but, he says, with “much tighter ties.” Mathews’s community would offer freedom of movement for people, manpower and capital, as well as a single passport and monetary policy.

Taxes: At the same time, Quebec would collect all taxes on its own territory, and have its own constitution and army. According to senior Quebec Liberals, the proposal is similar to ones that Bourassa was contemplating as he prepared for last weekend’s meeting with Mulroney and the other premiers.

The Quebec premier will plainly face no shortage of proposals for alternative constitutional arrangements. Last February, Bourassa es-

tablished a party committee to discuss the province’s future constitutional options—whatever the outcome of the Meech debate. Since then, the committee has met with executive members of almost two-thirds of the party’s 125 riding associations in its search for ideas. Although the committee will not release its full report until next February, it will make some of its findings public in August. And its Liberal members already acknowledge that they will include a wide range of options, virtually all of them favoring a dramatically loosened Canadian federation. Said Jean Allaire, the president of the 17-member committee: “We have to be prepared for every eventuality, or we are going to be in trouble.”

The committee’s work has been complemented by Bourassa’s separate personal preparations. As the three holdout provinces of Newfound-

land, Manitoba and New Brunswick continued to criticize the accord, and with nationalist feeling rising sharply in Quebec, Bourassa decided in April to begin preparing a response in case Meech Lake is not ratified by its June 23

deadline. If the accord dies, senior Quebec Liberals told Maclean’s, Bourassa will make a speech immediately afterward to lay out his new stance.

In it, he would forcefully assert Quebec’s rejection of the status quo and present a new list of constitutional demands. Some senior Quebec Liberals, in fact, concede that a looser federation is their long-term goal.

Even if the Meech Lake accord is passed, Quebec is likely to take measures soon to try to gain greater jurisdiction over communications, including radio, television, the print media and telecommunications. Said one senior Liberal: “We would be looking at much more of a commonmarket arrangement with the rest of Canada." The result, added the same close observer of the Quebec leader’s plans, would “mean that Canada as we know it would no longer exist.”

Debates: In fact, opponents of the Meech Lake accord have declared that it would be better for Quebec to separate soon than to continue protracted and debilitating constitutional debates. But defenders of the accord

argued that its passage would mark the difference between a fractious debate and a less painful, long-term decentralization. Said an official in Bourassa’s office: “With Meech, we gradually make a new Canada that is a proper confederation of regions. Without it,

Quebec and the rest of Canada tell each other to go to hell.”

The depth of the differences separating Quebec’s view of its future from that of other provinces was particularly evident in the final

week before the First Ministers’ meeting. Mulroney, who had insisted that he would not call the premiers together unless there was a “reasonable chance for success,” waited until last Thursday before deciding that such a chance existed. When he announced

the meeting, he sombrely told the House of Commons: “What is in dispute is modest, extremely modest, when compared with what is at stake. What is really at stake is Canada.”

Meanwhile, several incidents earlier in the week underlined the tensions among the country’s political leaders. The deputy Speaker of the Commons, Quebec MP Denis Pronovost, was so angered by Clyde Wells’s objections to the accord that he called the Newfoundland premier a “mental case” on an open-line radio talk show. Pronovost publicly apologized to Wells the next day, and resigned from his post as deputy Speaker.

Ontario Premier David Peterson also came under fire when the media obtained a controversial memo, prepared by members of his staff, that suggested ways to put pressure on the dissenting premiers. The memo proposed that Ontario officials try to discredit the holdouts by, among other things, portraying Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon as “politically erratic,” accusing Wells of “an overwhelming lack of trust” and branding McKenna as “part of the problem.” A furious

Filmon told reporters in Winnipeg, “It certainly undermines the trust that we

will have in some people in this process.” And Peterson, who said that the

strategy was rejected outright without the memo ever reaching him, tele-

phoned his fellow premiers to apologize.

Despite the signs of a deteriorating public atmosphere, Mulroney and the premiers used more conciliatory tactics behind the scenes. When Senator Lowell Murray, the federalprovincial relations minister, took constitution-

al lawyer Roger Tassé to St. John’s, Nfld., to brief Wells on the legal implications of the accord’s “distinct society” clause at a hastily convened midweek meeting, Wells was favorably impressed, according to federal Tories. And even as secretaries in Wells’s office worked until 2 a.m. answering mail—most of it supportive—that poured in from across Canada, the Newfoundland premier talked regularly with both Murray and Filmon.

There were other signs of eagerness to

resolve the stalemate. Mulroney underscored the mood of crisis by calling both acting Liberal opposition leader Herb Gray and federal NDP Leader Audrey McLaughlin to his official residence at 24 Sussex Drive on Friday for a private briefing. Later,

McLaughlin said that she had agreed, at Mulroney’s request, to talk to Manitoba’s Doer about the risks for the country if Manitoba were to hold up a settlement.

Vigil: Elsewhere, there were other expressions of many individual Canadians’ desire to overcome their constitutional disagreements.

Two pro-Meech citizens groups placed full-page advertisements in several newspapers urging the First Ministers, in the words of one of the ads, “to keep our country whole.” In Toronto, another group posted bulletins inviting their neighbors to “light a candle for Canada” in front of the Ontario legislature in a vigil that was to coincide with Mulroney’s planned Sunday dinner with the premiers. And in Ottawa, residents of the suburb of Cumberland planned a “community march” for the same time to demonstrate their concern.

In Halifax, Nova Scotia Liberal opposition leader Vincent MacLean noted his province’s dependence on federal

aid. He concluded: “We have to protect federalism. Atlantic Canada needs a strong federal government.”

Meanwhile, in Edmonton, publisher Mel Hurtig called on Mulroney and the premiers to approach change cautiously. Declared Hurtig: “Canada is already the most decentralized federal nation in the world, and many people believe it has become so decentralized it has become impossible to govern.” But others demurred, insisting that the federal government’s desire to satisfy Quebec and Ontario— which together account for 174 of the 295 seats in the House of Commons—has tradition-

ally led it to ignore the needs of other regions. Observed Alberta’s Manning: “We must aim for a new Canadian Constitution by the year 2000—one in which political and emotional blackmail do not figure.”

The country’s uncertain future also sparked unaccustomed attention from the United States. In one editorial, The Washington Post noted that Quebec “has not yet come to the point at which secession is clearly preferable to the continuation of an intractable, obsessive,

destructive hostility within the present federal union.” But it added, “That is the direction in which Canadian politics is moving.” And on Wall Street, executives at major investment firms also said they were monitoring developments in Canada with heightened attention. Declared David Germany, a vice-president and senior economist with Morgan Stanley in New York City: “People here never expected it to come to the point it has, and everyone is just beginning to ask ‘What if?’ But we do not think there is going to be an explosion.”

Still, concern over Canada’s future has led

mid-level officers in the state department, Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency to prepare reports on Canada’s political crisis. One White House official, meanwhile, told Maclean’s that the Bush administration was approaching the issue with “extreme sensitivity.” He and other officials were particularly wary of suggestions that they would welcome a breakup of Canada in order to absorb some areas of the country into the United States. Declared the official: “We do not want anyone

to get the impression that we are trying to encourage provinces to become states.” Terms: U.S. government trade officials said that the United States has no formal policy on how to deal with an independent Quebec. But they privately added that Washington would likely offer the terms of the existing Free Trade Agreement to the province if it became a sovereign entity—a key expectation of the pro-independence Parti Québécois. Meanwhile, in Montreal, investment manager Stephen Jarislowsky observed that, whatever changes occur, they are likely to be gradual. Said Jarislowsky: “It is not something that is going to happen in a day. You can’t just say, ‘Now we’re independent,’ and print your own money. Everybody is going to be Canadian for a while, so there’s going to be lots of time to pick up your stakes and leave.”

Indeed, an independent Quebec—even a more sovereign one that continues to fly the Canadian flag—remains only a hypothesis. But as the premiers prepared for their Sunday dinner with Mulroney, the mood had changed markedly from the day, exactly three years earlier, when the 11 First Ministers of that time originally approved the accord. Then, in an essay written for Mac-

lean’s, Mulroney said that the Meech Lake accord meant a “springtime of hope for our country. The rest of Canada has finally said yes to Quebec.” The agreement, he added, was critical to a country that “could not afford another constitutional failure.” Three years later, those phrases had an especially prophetic ring.