COX'S COVE, NEWFOUNDLAND, JUNE 16 -- With the unity of Canada's 123-year-old confederation possibly hinging on next week's decision by Newfoundland legislators on whether to grant Quebec recognition as a "distinct society," Premier Clyde Wells's body language is becoming more important each day.

The enigmatic and sometimes volatile 52-year-old provincial leader is touring his election district on the rugged southwestern coast of the island of Newfoundland, which along with Labrador on the mainland makes up this province. It is an exercise he has asked the province's 52 legislators to perform in an informal test of public opinion on crucial constitutional amendments designed to keep predominantly French-speaking Quebec from declaring its political independence from the rest of Canada.

Wells, a populist premier with a reputation for being scrupulously honest and uncompromising, is something of a folk hero in this poor and geographically isolated island. Polls show that if a referendum on the constitutional question were held, a majority of Newfoundlanders would vote however Clyde Wells told them to vote.

But during a constitutional conference in Ottawa last week, Wells came under intense pressure from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the country's other nine provincial premiers to approve the amendments, known collectively as the Meech Lake accord, and preserve the union. One premier is said to have shouted at Wells, "It will take you a long time to wash the blood of Canada off your hands."

The amendments were initialed in 1987 by Canada's federal and provincial leaders but were later rejected by Newfoundland, Manitoba and New Brunswick. They would provide for recognition of Quebec as a "distinct society," give the province three of nine seats on the federal Supreme Court and a proportionate share of immigrants entering Canada, and allow provinces to opt out of shared-cost federal programs.

Wells, the last of the three holdout premiers, last week signed the accord, saying his approval was conditional on either a referendum by Newfoundland's 568,000 residents -- 2 percent of Canada's population -- or on a vote by the provincial House of Assembly. Since there is not enough time for a referendum before next Saturday's deadline for approval of the accord, Wells ordered the informal canvass by the legislators so they will know how their constituents want them to vote.

Many mainland Canadians have interpreted Wells's condition for signing as meaning that the second-smallest province -- and the last to join the confederation -- intends to holds Canada's constitution hostage until its own grievances have been redressed.

With the legislative vote scheduled for Friday, Wells repeatedly has said he would not let his well-known opposition to the Meech Lake amendments influence either the legislators or their constituents. He also invited Mulroney and the provincial premiers who voted for the accord to come to Newfoundland to campaign for the amendments.

The issue could become academic next week, because ratification of Meech Lake in the western province of Manitoba's legislature has become bogged down in procedural wrangling and a filibuster by a maverick legislator, a Cree Indian who feels that aboriginals' rights are not represented in the accord.

If the constitutional amendments are not approved by Manitoba and Newfoundland by Saturday, they will expire. Quebec political leaders have said that if that happens, they will reexamine their province's political relationship to the rest of Canada in response to a growing separatist movement among French Canadians.

As he toured this tiny fishing village in his Bay of Islands home district, nearly 300 miles across the island from the capital of St. John's, Wells appeared to be uneasily walking a tightrope between keeping his promise not to prejudice the outcome of the vote and holding fast to his firm conviction that the Meech Lake accord will be bad for Newfoundland and Canada.

What began as a posture of stoical detachment at the start of his tour Thursday gradually broke down in many little -- and some not so little -- ways as the canvassing entered the second day Friday.

During a radio call-in show broadcast from nearby Corner Brook, in which 19 out of 20 callers urged him to veto the constitutional amendments, Wells gamely tried to tread the middle ground. But he gradually found himself bending to the overwhelming negativism expressed over the air by Newfoundlanders, who over the years have grown increasingly resentful of the federal government in Ottawa and even more resentful of prosperous Quebec, just across the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the mainland.

At a community meeting in the village of Meadows, Wells's disdain for Meech Lake became more evident as he received one standing ovation after another from an audience that clearly regarded him as a folk hero for standing up to Quebec and the federal government. But he still sidestepped attempts by his questioners to get him to renounce his signature on the accord and flatly urge its rejection in the legislature.

"It was my view we should reject Meech Lake, because I didn't want to be a premier who entrenched in the constitution provisions which would give one province more than the other provinces. It still is my opinion, but . . . ," Wells said, pausing for effect and holding up a cautionary finger as if his advocacy was becoming too focused.

"In the opinion of the prime minister and others, failure to approve Meech Lake would cause irreparable harm to Canada, resulting in political disharmony, economic upset and possibly the breakup of the country.

"That's their opinion. I don't agree with them, but I have to acknowledge to you that they may be right. Some say it's a strategy to build up pressure and manipulate us. . . . I have to admit I cannot stand before you tonight and say that there is no possibility that rejecting Meech Lake will not adversely affect Canada," Wells added.

If his audience wondered how Wells intends to vote on Friday, it didn't get any specific assurances. But there seemed to be little doubt where he stood, and one speaker after another praised the premier and said he should be elected prime minister for taking a hard-line stand on Meech Lake.

One man, observing that Newfoundland has only seven of the 295 seats in Parliament, declared, "I feel we have been bullied, and killing Meech Lake is the only exercise of power we have to show."

In the windswept villages along the rocky coastline of the Bay of Islands, there also appeared to be little ambiguity over the question, although most fishermen interviewed seemed more concerned that lobsters last week fetched only $1.50 each and that the catches are shrinking because the United States has raised the minimum measure to 3 1/4 inches in its territorial waters.

"I don't know much about all this Meech Lake stuff, but Clyde Wells is our premier, and if he says he's against it, I'm against it," said Ludrick Crane, who seemed more concerned that the 230 traps he set on Wednesday snared only 20 legal-sized lobsters.

Like many Newfoundlanders, fish packer Douglas Hussey's anger was directed at Quebec because the French-speaking province in the 1960s won rights to exploit profitable hydroelectric power resources in Labrador, which is part of Newfoundland, while Newfoundland continues to depend on a federal-government dole for 48 percent of its annual budget because of depleted fishing stocks.

"Quebec wouldn't even sign the {1982} constitution, and now they want it all changed before they sign. What did Newfoundland get? Nothing," said Hussey.

Foster Murrin, another plant worker, reflected the deep divisions over Canada's perennial language disputes: "Quebec never considered itself part of Canada anyway. They speak good English over there when they want, but they don't want anybody speaking English."

The rising feelings over Meech Lake are similar to those of the confederation referendum in 1948, in which only 6,900 votes kept Newfoundland from remaining separate from Canada.

In their own dialect of English, handed down by seafarers and preserved by the island's geographical isolation, Newfoundlanders are continuing to debate complex constitutional formulas in a homegrown manner.

But mostly they are trusting in the almost Platonic logic being offered up daily by their Jesuit-trained premier, and looking for subtle signals that do not always come easily to these old-fashioned people.

"By opposing Meech Lake, you've given Newfoundlanders back 90 percent of their pride. The rest will come when it is finally rejected," said one of Wells's constituents.

Enigmatic as ever, the premier replied, "I didn't want to campaign, and that's why I'm not campaigning now."