As French-English accommodations break down, and demands by multicultural and aboriginal groups increase, the question no longer is whether Canada will change, but how extensive that change will be.
Six months ago, Canada failed its attempted constitutional compromise with Quebec. Now fractious political and ethnic groups across the country want radical changes.
Since the failure of the Meech Lake Accord last summer, Quebec has boycotted national forums and meets with Ottawa only on a one-to-one basis. Quebec's limited demands for powers in areas like immigration, included in the proposed accord, now are part of a growing list extending to its own currency.
On Nov. 1, Quebec's Belanger-Campeau Commission started asking Quebeckers their opinions on future relations with Canada in the hope of finding a consensus.
So far, Quebec's Chamber of Commerce, its Federation of Labor and the province's largest financial institution have said federalism is a failure.
"The new orthodoxy is more power for Quebec and economic independence," said Guy Badeaux, editorial cartoonist for the Ottawa newspaper Le Devoir.
Why does Quebec, which already has a quasi-immigration service, language laws and immense federal influence, need independence?
"Quebec wants autonomy to have more power," said Pierrette Venne, member of Parliament from St. Hubert, Quebec.
Ms. Venne, though a member of the governing Progressive Conservative Party, wants "drastic" changes in confederation. She envisions five new "states" -- Ontario, Quebec and Labrador, the Maritimes, the Prairies and Northwest Territories, and British Columbia and the Yukon -- with increased powers.
Failure to "redefine completely the concept of Canadian federation," she said, means "we are heading toward the breakup of the country."
In a 1980 referendum, Quebeckers rejected negotiating sovereignty. Now, polls show support for sovereignty-association at 66 percent and climbing.
From the anti-bilingualism Confederation of Regions Party in Atlantic Canada, to the pro-sovereignty Bloc Quebecois and the western Reform Party, Canadians are scurrying to regional interest groups.
Yet, English Canada, preoccupied with recession and taxes, is unprepared for the speed with which events are moving in Quebec.
"English Canada hasn't figured out the question, let alone the answer," said Sylvia Kish, former president of Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce.
English Canada wants to put Quebec "on the back burner for three years, come back, and then we'll come to a wise conclusion," she said. But "Quebec's attitude is 'We haven't got three years.' English Canada says, 'Fine, fly with it, but you can't rob us of our time.' "
The French-English dynamic is not the only issue. Canadian citizens of neither French nor English descent, now 25 percent of the population, and the aboriginal community also want changes.
Canada must rethink its concept of the "two founding nations," said Dwight Whylie, first vice president of the Black Business Professionals Association. "There's a subtle pecking order. The closer you are to French or English and white, the more acceptable you are. The further away from the norm -- a Sikh with a turban or a Black Muslim -- you are not quite 100 percent Canadian in the eyes of most Canadian institutions."
Innu Chief Daniel Ashini of Sheshatshiu, Newfoundland, on the Labrador coast, says aboriginals are Canadians because of colonialism and they seek a return to "nationhood."
Tensions have also stirred a racist backlash.
The Reform Party, the strongest political movement on the Prairies, wants an immigration policy that won't "suddenly alter the ethnic makeup of Canada."
In an editorial, the Toronto Sun argued non-white immigrants haven't adapted.
"Where once Canada accepted mostly white European immigrants, it now chooses some 70 percent of new Canadians from the Third World. For years," it added, "challenging this policy was called 'racism' by the 'immigration lobby.' "
Pollster John Wright of Toronto's Angus Reid Group, says the next election, expected in 1992, could see a coalition of equally split national and regional parties.
A Parliament with strong regional voices, he said, could "radically opening things up."
The new Canadian identity is "a pragmatic one and removed from any understanding of idealism," said Michael Adams, Environics president. "It's one that recognizes a far more decentralized Canada than we now have. There may be some poetry in it, but only threads."
Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney agrees the constitution, drafted in 1867, must be "modernized, made more flexible and more precise." But, with only 15 percent support in the polls, his credibility is considered damaged beyond repair.
Worse, no other leader fares better. Neither Jean Chretien of the Liberal Party nor Audrey McLaughlin of the New Democratic Party scored more than 10 percent when respondents were asked which best reflected their view of the country.
Brian Gable, editorial cartoonist at the Toronto's Globe and Mail, says Canadians fear no federal solution can "satisfy the divergent regional demands. When the underlying tenet cannot be satisfied, people truly wonder whether this country can work."
Next year, Quebec's commission will present its report. This and an expected referendum on its proposals, could spark a new round of constitutional negotiations. If Ottawa refuses to negotiate or takes a hard line, many Quebeckers say, "Declare independence, then negotiate."
Adams believes the threat of a 20 percent drop in Canadians' standard of living "should the divorce get too ugly," will keep the discussions civil. "The Canadian dollar may be the thing that unites us in the end."