TORONTO, JUNE 25 -- The collapse of constitutional negotiations aimed at keeping Quebec in the Canadian confederation has set off renewed self-examination of this country's national identity, but there are no signs that the country is heading toward a precipitous breakup any time soon.
The central government in Ottawa and the mainstream federalists in the governing Liberal Party in Quebec City acknowledge that the political structure of Canada will never be the same because of the divisive constitutional debate that has just ended.
But both sides already are moving toward a middle ground of agreement they hope will save the country from fragmenting. All seem to agree that nothing should happen quickly and that a cooling-off period lasting through the rest of the summer is in the best interest of the entire country.
The central government and the governing political leaders in Quebec are asking Canadians to observe a moratorium on constitutional bickering, at least until the fall, and to engage in their summer national pastime of going to their cottages in the lake districts with canoes strapped atop their cars.
However, there is also a growing awareness among Canadian political leaders that even if the unity of the country can be salvaged, Canada appears to be headed inexorably toward a looser confederation. Following Quebec's lead, some of the more prosperous western provinces are seeking more political autonomy than they already have under the country's relatively decentralized system.
British Columbia, in an effort to gain more autonomy, already has given notice that it will deal directly with Ottawa on key issues left unresolved by the constitutional debate.
Geographically isolated from the rest of Canada by the Rocky Mountains and inundated by a wave of Asian immigration and money that has made it as much a part of the Pacific Rim as of the rest of the country, British Columbia has shown increasing signs of the same kind of alienation from the central government that has afflicted Quebec.
The province's premier, William Vander Zalm, told the Canadian Press news service that British Columbia would not separate but "will certainly seek a different type of confederation, perhaps similar to a Quebec-type association within Canada."
But for the moment, the federal government has focused its efforts on placating Quebec and giving its moderate premier, Robert Bourassa, tangible concessions with which to counter a surge of militant separatism among the 7 million Quebecers who make up a quarter of Canada's total population.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has signaled the start of what political analysts are calling a "feel-good agenda" of national reconciliation initiatives designed to soften Quebec's sense of rejection by English Canada and counter a growing tide of militant separatism in the predominantly French-speaking province.
Quebec nationalism was given a major boost on Saturday after the English-speaking provinces of Newfoundland and Manitoba failed to ratify constitutional amendments drafted at a conference in 1987 at Quebec's Meech Lake.
One aim of the amendments, known as the Meech Lake accord, was to persuade Quebec to sign Canada's 1982 constitution. The amendments would have given Quebec special status as a "distinct society" and given more power to the provinces. Ratification of the accord required approval of all 10 Canadian provinces within a three-year period ending last Saturday. Newfoundland and Manitoba were the only holdouts in the ratification process.
In an effort at damage control, Mulroney's minister for federal-provincial relations, Sen. Lowell Murray, has promised that despite the failure of the Meech Lake accord, Ottawa will on its own authority "respect the distinctiveness of Quebec in all our policies and programs."
Aides to the prime minister said Mulroney will announce an agreement with Bourassa this week that gives the province more control over immigration policies, especially with respect to immigrants from French-speaking countries.
One of Quebec's five "minimal demands" that were to have been satisfied in the Meech Lake accord dealt with increasing the province's control over immigration policy as a means of protecting the French language and culture in Quebec.
While not disclosing the specifics of the agreement, Murray said, "We'll do what we can to respect the cultural security of Quebec."
For his part, Bourassa, a committed federalist, has come under increasing pressure from the separatist Parti Quebecois -- the official opposition party in Quebec's National Assembly -- to move quickly toward holding another provincial referendum on "sovereignty association." The phrase is a euphemism for a political arrangement that would grant independence to Quebec while keeping the province in some form of economic union with the rest of Canada.
In 1980, when it was then in power, the Parti Quebecois led a sovereignty referendum that was defeated by a 60 to 40 percent margin, but with half of the province's French speakers favoring a political break with Canada.
Since the weekend collapse of the constitutional accord, Bourassa in his public utterances has been walking a tightrope between the federalists -- who want more provincial autonomy in a looser confederation -- and the separatists -- who seek an independent republic that would have its own international borders and own army but maintain a common currency with Canada.
Mindful of recent public opinion polls showing that nearly 60 percent of Quebecers now favor political sovereignty in an economic union with English Canada, Bourassa has tried to moderate the debate over the province's future without driving a wedge between himself and militant Quebec nationalists.
Calling the possibility of another sovereignty referendum at any early date "speculation," Bourassa repeatedly has said he will confront Quebecers' bitter reaction to the Meech Lake defeat with "realism, lucidity and calm."
He said he will no longer participate in any constitutional conferences or even attend meetings of the country's 10 provincial premiers and the prime minister. But he also has said that "nothing will be done to compromise the economic stability of Quebec."
Quebec's French-speaking business establishment, which has played a more central role in the current debate than it did in the 1980 referendum, has begun actively promoting caution and restraint. At the same time, however, the business community continues to advocate a new and more independent relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada.
In 1980, French Canadian business leaders campaigned against sovereignty. But during their unsuccessful drive to promote the Meech Lake accord, they moved closer to endorsing political independence for Quebec, saying that if the accord were not ratified, the province should re-examine its relationship with English Canada.
Pierre Laurin, vice president of Merrill Lynch Canada Ltd. and secretary of the Association for the Meech Lake accord, said in Montreal Sunday that the failure of the accord had left Quebecers with a "mood of rejection."
"I don't think anything dramatic will happen in the summertime. But in the fall, yes, we will see a lot of pressure on Mr. Bourassa to do something different."
Many French Canadian business leaders maintain that the vibrancy of the province's economy, coupled with the benefits of the U.S.-Canada free-trade agreement and expanding global trade opportunities, would make a politically independent Quebec within a Canadian economic union viable.
This perception has been boosted by risk analyses released by several leading investment firms, including Merrill Lynch, which have suggested that an independent Quebec would be economically practical.
What is less certain are the potential effects of a more fragmented confederation upon trade by Canada as a whole, which is the biggest trading partner of the United States.
About 60 percent of Canada's total output is trade-based, and some economists have questioned how long a fragmented Canada could withstand growing competition in global trade markets.