Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on Thursday urged Newfoundlanders not to play into the hands of Quebec separatists by blocking an accord making the French-speaking province a willing partner in the constitution.
Mulroney traveled to Newfoundland in a last-minute effort to sway its legislature to ratify the Meech Lake Accord, which expires Saturday night if it is not passed by all 10 provinces.
Newfoundland and Manitoba are the last of the provinces to vote on the accord, which would recognize French-speaking Quebec as a distinct society and make it part of the 1982 constitution.
Mulroney said if the accord is not ratified it would strengthen the separatist movement in Quebec and lead to constitutional paralysis. Failure also would send a "negative signal around the world . . . because money moves in search of stability," he said.
"On that night, when you're sitting there with your family and your children, one thought is going to go through your mind: do you mean to tell me that we could have avoided all of this for Meech Lake?" Mulroney said.
He argued that the changes were not revolutionary and definitely not worth risking the breakup of the country. "Meech Lake has become a lightning rod for much misunderstanding across the country," he said.
Newfoundlanders are involved in a passionate debate over whether to allow the accord to pass.
Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells is against the accord because he believes it gives too much power to Quebec at the expense of poorer provinces such as Newfoundland. But Newfoundlanders are worried their fragile economy would be hurt if Quebec goes through with a threat to separate if the accord fails.
At the urging of Mulroney, Wells agreed to hold a free vote in the legislature where members, after consulting their electorate, will be allowed to vote their conscience. A poll released by the federal government found Newfoundlanders evenly split on whether the accord should go through.
But the Newfoundland vote, expected to be held by tonight and too close to call, could be academic because it is unlikely a vote will be held in Manitoba.
In that prairie province, Cree Indian leader Elijah Harper has used several delaying tactics to prevent the province from moving to a public hearing on the accord.
Stroking an eagle's feather, he sat and uttered "No" each time the issue came up for introduction in the legislature.
Many Canadian Indians believe their societies are as distinct as Quebec's, and they also want to be recognized in the constitution.
Quebec refused to sign the country's new constitution in 1982 because its demands were not met for special powers to protect its French culture. In 1987, Mulroney and the 10 provinces struck a deal with a three-year deadline at Meech Lake, Quebec, to recognize Quebec as a "distinct society" within Canada and make the province part of the constitution.