TORONTO, OCT. 12 -- "It's a street fight," western Canada political leader Peter Lougheed said of the national debate beginning in Canada over the tentative trade deal with the United States.

In the House of Commons in Ottawa, both sides have squared off in a bellowing argument that is often nasty and personal. After cab drivers here finish grousing about the season-end collapse of the Blue Jays, the only issues on which they comment are trade, jobs, national identity and the dangers of entering into an economic union with an elephant -- the United States.

Lougheed, one of the leaders of the coalition of business and consumer groups campaigning for the agreement, said he expects the debate to rage in the coffee shops, factories and small town Rotary Clubs.

"It really comes down to a local chamber of commerce meeting in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan," he said. "It's going to be a tough battle for us."

Arrayed against Lougheed's coalition in the competition for public opinion are labor unions, the two opposition political parties, artists and intellectuals who accuse Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of "selling out" to Washington.

The tentative trade agreement would lower the tariff barriers and other restrictions that have protected Canadian industry and commerce from U.S. competition since the creation of this country. It is to be ratified by Parliament early next year.

All sides predict that it will be the hottest debate since World War II, when a bitter argument over conscription hindered Canada's war effort and nearly ripped the country apart. The last Canadian government to negotiate a bilateral trade deal with the United States, in 1911, was booted out of office by the voters and its successor quashed the pact.

The trade deal has brought to the fore the complex and often contradictory feelings of admiration, envy, fear and disapproval Canadians harbor about the people they call "our American cousins."

Nearly everyone here says that former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau put it best when he told Americans in a speech 18 years ago to the National Press Club in Washington: "Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly or even-tempered is the beast . . . one is affected by every twitch and grunt."

Now the wobbly Mulroney government is trying to persuade a doubting populace that it can and often does compete effectively with the elephant -- yet it will gain from a closer economic relationship.

"We are saying that this country must become more outward-looking, more forward-looking and not look inward and into the past," said Finance Minister Michael Wilson.

One of his predecessors in the post, Donald Macdonald, also strongly backs the agreement.

"I don't see Canada as a sort of sheltered workshop for the inefficient, the incompetent or the less than capable," Macdonald said.

Mulroney's critics in the militant labor unions and the opposition parties paint him as a pushover in the bargaining with the Americans.

"The prime minister gave up Canadian sovereignty without a single shot being fired," snapped John Turner, leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Commons.

"All of Canada is now open to American proprietorship," Turner argued. "This country will be a satellite of the United States. We will become the number one takeover target of American business . . . . The Americans already own too much of us."

Canadian Auto Workers union President Bob White remarked casually of the deal in a television interview, "I'd say it takes us down the road to what I call the Rambo, dog-eat-dog society."

The comment was a clear appeal to the Canadian belief that their society is more humane than the United States. Mulroney's communications director Bruce Phillips observed recently that Canadians do not like the gun culture of Americans, do not want their race problems and are uncomfortable with what they consider Washington's foreign policy adventurism.

Said Diane Wood, secretary treasurer of the British Columbia Government Employes Union, on a union radio commercial being broadcast across Canada, "Canadians who travel to the United States say, 'I would not want to live here and I certainly wouldn't want to get sick here.' "

Canadian governments over the past three decades have spent liberally on subsidies in areas of high unemployment, pensions for the elderly and high-quality health care for everyone, rich and poor. They are even considering creation of a government-financed national child care program. Thre is a firm national consensus on these expensive programs, especially the government-financed health insurance plan, even though Canadians pay higher taxes than Americans.

Canadians are proud of their national railroad system, which was built with government and business working side-by-side, their government-owned airline and their government-owned television and radio broadcasting networks, which have provided common cultural links against the powerful pull from their southern neighbor.

Obscured in the heat of the debate, however, are the generally close and amicable relationships between individual Americans and Canadians. Virtually every Canadian has visited the United States.

The economies and cultures of the two countries are already intertwined. Canadians flock to American movies, buy Time and Newsweek and often prefer American television soap operas and sitcoms to their own.

Politicians on both sides have always remarked proudly on the world's longest undefended border. Canadian author Margaret Atwood contends it could be more accurately described as the world's longest one-way mirror. Canadians constantly watch the Americans. The Americans see only themselves.

"Americans are almost totally insensitive to the aspirations of smaller countries," said Peter Herrndorf, publisher of Toronto Life magazine. "There is the assumption that the rest of the world wants to be American."

Canadians have a hard time defining their culture and they eschew the flag-waving patriotism of Americans.

Canadians also say they have greater respect for order than Americans, are more accepting of authority, more cautious, more pessimistic and concerned about survival because of harsh weather.

Some here argue that because of these attitudes Canada should open its borders further and let some fresh air in.

"The free-trade debate is not really about bigger markets," said John Godfrey, editor of the nationally circulated Financial Post, "it is about changing Canadians' basic attitudes by forcing us to compete, forcing us to develop a cult of winning, of success, by making us, in short, a different people."

Donna Dasko, a vice president of the Environics polling firm, said that kind of argument might help to rally the business community here but it will not be effective with the broader public. Instead, she said, if Canadians are assured by Mulroney that there will be cushions for the inevitable economic dislocations, they will accept the argument that the trade agreement is insurance against trade retaliation by a protectionist U.S. Congress.

Nancy Riche, executive vice president of the Canadian Labor Congress said her organization, aided by allies that include the the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Farmers Union, artists and intellectuals, plans to "spend whatever it takes" to defeat the agreement. Ontario Premier David Peterson and two other provincial premiers have expressed disapproval but they have not yet indicated how vigorously will oppose it.

In an effort to respond to many Canadians' concerns about being overwhelmed by American culture, the agreement specifically exempts from trade restrictions newspapers, magazines and other "cultural industries."