TORONTO, JUNE 2 -- In an age when Western Europeans are moving toward a new landscape of economic and political union based on burying their differences, Americans could be forgiven for failing to comprehend what is going on these days just across their border in Canada.
Canada, which historically has been a nation characterized by compromise and accommodation, is moving exactly in the opposite direction at an unsettling pace. If its federal and provincial leaders fail this weekend in a last-ditch effort to compromise on proposed constitutional reforms, the union is likely to split up, virtually every credible political leader in Canada agrees.
Predominantly French-speaking Quebec, feeling more alienated than ever amid Canada's English-speaking majority, is even closer now to breaking away from the 123-year-old Canadian confederation than it was in 1980, when 40 percent of Quebecers voted for political sovereignty in a referendum led by the separatist Parti Quebecois.
Largely as a result of a new feeling of confidence that the province can prosper alone -- unlike 10 years ago, before the era of free trade with the United States and expanding global markets -- most Quebecers are now impatient for some form of political independence from Canada. Recent polls show that 61 percent of the province favors Quebec sovereignty.
And more than at any time before, English Canada is saying that if independence is what Quebec wants, let them have it.
Friction over language and culture is hardly a new phenomenon in Canada.
It goes back to the founding of the union in 1867 and can be tracked through such painful events as the conscription crisis of 1942, demonstrations over a visit by Queen Elizabeth II to Quebec in 1964, the introduction of bilingual air traffic controller services in 1975, the Front for the Liberation of Quebec's terrorism campaign in 1970, and the separatist referendum 10 years later.
But the current bickering has been accompanied by an atmosphere of mean-spiritedness that even the perpetually optimistic prime minister, Brian Mulroney, concedes is unprecedented in Canadian history.
In its simplest dimension, the fight is over a set of amendments to Canada's 1982 constitution that were signed by Mulroney and the 10 premiers, or governors, in April 1987, at an isolated Quebec fishing lodge at Meech Lake.
If ratified by parliament and all of the provincial legislatures by June 23, the amendments, known collectively as the Meech Lake Accord, would designate Quebec as a "distinct society," explicitly recognize the coexistence of French and English language groups as a "fundamental characteristic of Canada" and give the legislatures of the provinces -- meaning primarily Quebec -- the role of preserving their linguistic character.
Not surprisingly, Quebec was the first province to sign the accord because it redressed grievances that had made it impossible for it to sign the new Canadian constitution five years earlier.
Similarly, the nine English-speaking provinces endorsed the amendments because of decentralizing provisions that would permit them to opt out of shared-cost federal programs, have more say in the nomination of senators and Supreme Court judges and give them the right to veto any future reforms to the appointed and mostly powerless Senate, or upper house, of Parliament.
The Meech Lake conference was originally called "the Quebec round" because, as Mulroney said at the time, it was intended to end "Quebec's estrangement from the Canadian constitutional family" and make Canada "whole" by recognizing in the charter the province's distinct character, with its different language, culture and legal system based on French civil law instead of British common law.
Quebecers became disillusioned when, following changes of their governments in elections, three provinces -- Manitoba, New Brunswick and Newfoundland -- either rescinded or refused to ratify what had been agreed upon at Meech Lake and reaffirmed a month later in Parliament.
Quebecers, for the most part, had voted against separation in the 1980 referendum on the basis of promises by English Canada and then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau that their turn in constitutional reform would come with the next round of charter amendments -- the Quebec round.
The province had reduced its 23 demands to a "minimal" five, had accepted hard-fought compromises and had signed the resulting agreement -- only to discover that the heads of three provinces with a combined population only about a third of Quebec's now were turning their backs on Quebecers' aspirations.
The antagonisms deepened in 1988, when Quebec adopted a law prohibiting the use of English on outdoor commercial signboards and then reaffirmed the measure after the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional. They deepened even further when Canada's western and Atlantic Maritime provinces, reflecting their own feelings of alienation from the dominant province of Ontario and the central government in Ottawa, presented their own shopping lists of constitutional reforms, some of which appeared to dilute the gains Quebec had won at Meech Lake.
Meech Lake became a lightning rod for a plethora of provincial grievances, ranging from sparsely populated Manitoba's opposition to proportional representation to economically depressed Newfoundland's smoldering resentment over Quebec's immensely profitable exploitation of energy resources in the wilderness of Labrador.
More importantly, the Meech Lake agreement became a symbol to Quebec and the rest of Canada that far transcends the substance of its relatively innocuous provisions.
To French-speaking Canada, the accord represents nothing less than an acceptance of Quebec and its Frenchness by English Canada. Most Quebecers say they want to be part of Canada but they also want to be recognized as a distinct part.
To many English-speaking Canadians, Meech Lake represents nothing more than an attempt by Quebec to grab powers that would be held by no other province, and to diminish the power of the English-dominated central government.
Many English-speaking Canadians say simply that they are tired of trying to determine what it is that Quebec wants.
But the dispute in the last week has evolved to a point where it has less to do with language and culture than it did, and more to do with decentralization and provincial autonomy -- long a contentious point in Canadian politics.
Only one of Quebec's five remaining constitutional demands in 1986 focused on the "distinct society" issue.
The rest dealt with such issues as control over appointments to the Supreme Court, authority over federally funded programs and a veto over any attempt to reform the appointed and mostly powerless Senate in Parliament.
For the most part, the holdout premiers are now willing to accept, with slight modifications, Meech Lake's "distinct society" clause. But they are still unwilling to accept Quebec's demand that the provinces have veto power over changes to the Senate.
Mulroney has invited the 10 provincial premiers to dinner Sunday to determine if there is "sufficent will" to call a formal meeting of premiers on Monday to try to salvage the accord.
The powerful emotions unleashed by the Meech Lake debate have their roots in differing interpretations of agreements made long before Mulroney and the 10 provincial premiers met at the remote bass fishing lodge in the hills north of Ottawa three years ago.
Canadians have always disagreed over what Canada should be. From the creation of the union under the crown of Great Britain, the French and the English had differing views on what the enabling legislation, Westminister's British North America Act, intended for Canada.
The English fathers of confederation felt that the central government -- largely English-speaking and Protestant -- would be dominant, while a French-speaking Catholic people would live with their own language and traditions as an integral part of the union, but with something less than an equal status in terms of power.
The French, for their part, felt that the confederation was little more than a new social contract between two founding nations -- the deux nations concept imbedded in the constitution that resided in London and that gives Canada a British monarch who reigns but does not rule.
Many French-speaking Canadians were skeptical, fearing that confederation would make them an even smaller minority. However, a narrow majority of Quebecers was convinced that they would face a greater danger of cultural extinction outside of Canada because of the possibility of annexation by the United States.
For the next century and a quarter, Canadians struggled to preserve a constitution that ostensibly had the concept of mutual acceptance by two nations as its fundamental principle. But at the same time, as wave after wave of European and Asian immigrants poured into Canada and gave it the population base it so desperately needed to prosper in its physical vastness, Canada was rapidly changing in fundamental ways.
The principle of multiculturalism became entrenched in the constitution, and the notion of "two founding nations" faded from the memory of many people outside Quebec, where the concept remained a linchpin of Canadian federalism in the minds of the French Canadians. The notion of collective rights flourished, further obscuring in the minds of many Canadians the usefulness of the two-nation concept.
During cross-country public hearings held last month by a parliamentary committee charged with salvaging the Meech Lake Accord, one speaker after another -- representing women, native Indians and Eskimos, Asians, Europeans, blacks and other groups -- questioned when their "round" of constitutional amendments is coming and why Quebec should be given a special status when they are equally "distinct."
The bickering continues, threatening to bury the Meech Lake agreement.
If the accord collapses before its ratification deadline, the political leaders of French-speaking Canada say, the time will have come for Quebec to consider anew its relationship with the rest of Canada.
And, most federal leaders in the capital say, a period of healing will have to begin, during which Canadians, yet again, can start the elusive search for what Canada should be.