Parliament, Provinces Shape Canada's Future Process to Reform Constitution Is Aimed at Settling Issue of Quebec's Relationship to Union

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CANADA has reached a critical period in its history, with the next eight months likely to determine whether it will remain a united country or see Quebec split off to form a new nation.

Recommended revisions to Canada's Constitution will be delivered today to the House of Commons by a parliamentary committee. The revisions draw on conferences with "ordinary" citizens across Canada.

From these recommendations a constitutional amendment will be drafted, as early as May, that redistributes many federal powers to the provinces and recognizes Quebec as a "distinct" society. It will also address language and native issues, Senate reform, economic union, and a social charter.

The amendment is to be approved by Parliament, then by each of Canada's nine English-speaking provinces. Approval by seven provinces with at least 50 percent of the population would ratify most changes.

Then all eyes will be on Quebec.

In an Oct. 26 referendum, it will be French-speaking Quebec's turn to look at the constitutional amendment and vote - thumbs up or down - on Canada's future. Thumbs down could well lead to separation.

"What we are doing right now is the basis of the Canada of the next century," says Pierre Anctil, director general of Quebec's ruling Liberal Party. "The next few months are crucial for the future of Canada."

Already a battle for the hearts, minds, and votes of Quebeckers is intensifying in Montreal, where public opinion seems as volatile as in New Hampshire before the recent United States presidential primary.

Forty-six percent of Quebeckers favor independence, according to a poll last week by the Center for Public Opinion Research, an independent Montreal polling firm. The peak in favor of independence was 64 percent after the Meech Lake Accords failed in 1990.

Meech Lake was meant to pave the way for Quebec to finally ratify the 1982 Constitution that was "patriated" from England by then-Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The accords' failure left sour feelings and fanned the pro-independence movement. Since then, however, a poor economy and studies critical of independence have dampened enthusiasm.

Leading the charge to keep the public's separatist feeling high against a host of unbelievers is the Parti Qucois (PQ), whose officials say an independent Quebec is viable despite predictions of economic hardship and a tripling of debt to more than $140 billion.

Bernard Landry, PQ vice president, cites his own polls showing 60 percent of Quebeckers favor independence.

"We are expecting a fantastic material positive output" after independence, Mr. Landry says, arguing that being part of a federal system has restrained Quebec's prosperity. "We have been assessing the situation for years. …