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Tuesday, July 24, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Oh? Canada? -- Canadians Here Keep An Eye On Their Constitutional Crisis

For several months now, a small but spirited community of people in the Seattle area have watched as their home country wrenched itself through the gravest political crisis in its history. Many of them even considered the unthinkable, that their nation might disintegrate.

Romanians? Maybe Soviet emigres? Perhaps Czechoslovaks, biting their nails as their nation ground through a revolutionary transformation?

No.

They're Seattle's Canadians. And they're joined in their concern by Americans who might be described as Canada-watchers: trade officials, academics or simply people of Canadian heritage.

What has galvanized their attention in recent months - and especially this summer, when various deadlines lapsed and ultimatums were issued - is Canada's Meech Lake crisis. That crisis comes down to this: Quebec, Canada's French-influenced province, wants more power, and it is pressing the national government to get it.

``Everyone is watching with great care,'' said John Rushbrook, a Canadian-born administrator at the University of Washington. ``It's a moment of great anxiety and concern for all of us.''

Rushbrook, conversing with trademark Canadian reserve, refers to his homeland's most serious constitutional row since Canada became a free nation just 123 years ago. It could result in what is known as a ``New Canada,'' a reshuffling of the nation's 10 powerful provinces. The secession of Quebec, along with 6 million of Canada's 26 million people and the tax money they pay, is a distinct, if unlikely, possibility. A more realistic scenario is that Quebec could evolve into a semi-independent territory.

``I went to a party recently, and found most of the people there, mostly Americans, didn't know how serious it is, and thought that it would all settle down, and I just don't think that's the case,'' said Douglas Jackson, the Ontario-born chairman of the Canadian Studies Program at the University of Washington.

``With us, it isn't really a hot topic, though it should be,'' said Jack McKenzie, assistant city treasurer whose grandparents emigrated at the turn of the century from Ontario. ``We in the U.S. suffer from cultural blindness.''

Jackson, McKenzie and others offer Americans a range of reasons to care about what happens in Canada, just 105 miles away. A stable neighbor is always helpful, especially along the world's longest unfortified border. The United States and Canada also share intertwined histories as well as current geopolitical priorities. And millions of people of Canadian ancestry live in the United States.

In addition, they say, Canada - not Japan, not West Germany - is the U.S.'s No. 1 trading partner, and Washington state has a mammoth stake in things. Trade passing back and forth through Washington state and Canada rose from $7.6 billion in 1988 to $8.8 billion last year.

A distinctly Canadian affair, the Meech Lake crisis is about political power and cultural identity.

The imbroglio takes its name from the watery resort north of the Canadian capital of Ottawa. There, in 1987, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney gathered the nation's 10 provincial premiers to get them to sign onto Canada's constitution.

The constitution had been ``brought home'' from Britain only in 1982 in a lavish ceremony involving the queen of England.

Mulroney, grappling with the modern, multicultural Canada, had to knit together a complex amendment to gain French-flavored Quebec's agreement to the constitution. Among other things, the ``Meech Lake Accord'' would have:

-- Declared the province of Quebec a ``distinct society'' owing to its vibrant French culture.

-- Allowed Quebec more control over provincial immigration, powers not enjoyed by the other provinces.

-- Let Quebec receive federal compensation to pay for provincial government programs that would supplant federal programs now operating in Quebec.

The premiers agreed to the accord in 1987, but that agreement was scuttled with the subsequent election of one new premier who opposed the idea. Then, this summer in the province of Manitoba, a provincial legislator, a Canadian Indian, blocked the body's approval of the amendment. He argued that the Meech Lake accord was flawed because it did not also grant Canada's native peoples ``distinct society'' status.

``Quebec says now it will deal only with Ottawa,'' explained Paul Heppe, who is retired now but taught Canadian society courses at the University of Puget Sound for 23 years. ``Quebec says it will not deal with the other provinces.''

With Meech Lake dead, Canada's constitution is not agreed upon by its provinces. The breakdown throws into doubt the nation's fundamental, guaranteed rights, maybe even its relationship in the international community (the 1989 Free Trade Agreement with the United States is the most frequently mentioned example). So far, trade with the United States has not been affected, said Don Jackson, associate director of the Canada program with the Washington state Department of Trade and Economic Development.

``We may see some slight disruption and it's a concern, but so far I don't see Meech Lake having a big effect,'' said Jackson.

The controversy has the local Canadian community buzzing. It's not an especially vocal community, but people know each other. Key organizations that loosely unite local Canadians are the Canadian Society of the Northwest, the Canadian Consulate, the UW Canadian Studies program (a ready source of information) and even the Royal Canadian Legion, a veterans group. The Alliance Francais, for those who speak French, also counts French-speaking Canadians among its membership.

More evidence of the community's numbers came in June, when a cable television service that broadcast nightly Canadian news announced it would cancel that program. That idea drew howls of protest, and the decision was rescinded. The broadcast is one way Canadians can keep in touch with their country; Canada does not seem to attract much interest from Americans or the U.S. media, they say.

``Meech Lake is not something you read about every day in the Times or P-I,'' says Bob Williamson, a former 42-year employee of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, which closed its Seattle office last year. ``I can't imagine Canada being separated anymore than you can imagine the U.S. without New Mexico.

``We never could visualize the Berlin Wall coming down, could we? So, anything can happen,'' added Williamson.

The Canadian Society of the Northwest started out as an organization to foster trade between Canada and the United States. In recent years, it has turned into more of a social vehicle for its members. Each October, some members gather for Canadian Thanksgiving, and the group tries to host regular lectures by Canadian luminaries.

Jackson, who helped found the society in 1982, said the current political climate has generated an unusual amount of interest,especially among his Canadian friends.

``There have been phone calls from people who are quite hysterical,'' he said. ``One woman said, `What can I do? Is my country falling apart?' ''

Canada is not quite falling apart, Jackson believes. Pete McMartin, a correspondent for the Vancouver (B.C.) Sun who has written extensively on Quebec, offers a hypothetical U.S. parallel: How would Americans feel if Hispanics in California demanded a bilingual society for the entire nation, or even just for California, or demanded special political status in the United States because of their dominance and influence in California?

While it's conceivable that such moves in California would be diluted by the sheer size of the United States, similar initiatives in Canada (it has one-tenth the population of the U.S.) have tremendous sway.

``Here in the U.S., our identity is pretty well fixed,'' said Jackson, a naturalized U.S. citizen. ``In Canada, there is a great deal of decentralization and the provinces have created a lot of loyalty.''

The reality of the changing Canada is also challenging Canadians' notion of their nation. Increasingly, Canada cannot be perceived as English Canada and French Canada. Canada is becoming increasingly multicultural, with people from Asia, North Africa, even French-speaking islands in the Caribbean reshaping some of its regions. In addition, the historical demands of Canada's native Indian tribes continue.

McMartin, however, believes Canadians sense of themselves as a nation is strong, even if the current politics weaken the central government of the federation. One of the nation's unifying characteristics, McMartin said, is its constant bickering about its constitution and the provinces' relationship to Ottawa.

``I think Canadians have a pretty strong sense of what Canada means,'' McMartin said. ``We're just not flag wavers. We're not a demonstrable people. This is very serious now, but these constitutional battles have been going on for 150 years.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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