With the Meech Lake Accord formally dead, the government of Quebec is reviewing its position in Canada, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa said Saturday.
But in measured and restrained remarks at a Quebec City news conference, Bourassa stressed that, for now, he remains committed to Canada but is keeping his options open.
While he outlined a more independent attitude for the province, he stopped short of calling for Quebec's long-term continuation within the confederation or a new movement toward some measure of sovereignty.
He said he would negotiate with the central government on such issues as more control over immigration policy so that the province can preserve its French character.
Earlier Saturday, a gloomy Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney went on national television Saturday and urged calm in the wake of the death of the Meech Lake Accord.
"Today is not the day to launch new constitutional initiatives. It is a time to mend divisions and heal wounds and reach out to fellow Canadians," Mulroney said during his noon address.
English and French Canadians begin a wary and potentially dangerous process of sorting out the future of their country Saturday after the proposed amendment expired at midnight.
Hopes for the accord actually died Friday night after the legislatures in Manitoba and Newfoundland recessed without passing it before the Saturday deadline.
The accord, a proposed constitutional amendment, was designed to entice Quebec to sign the constitution over which Canada had assumed full control in 1982.
It met five demands put forward by Bourassa in 1985, including recognition of the province as a "distinct society." It also would have transferred some other powers from the federal government to the provinces.
Under the formula for changing the Canadian constitution, it had to pass all 10 provincial legislatures and the federal Parliament within a three-year period that began when the first provincial assented. Quebec started the clock by approving it on June 23, 1987.
In the somber address that appeared to be directed as much to foreign money markets as to his own constituency, Mulroney said he was "dismayed that Quebec will not be able, at this time, to join the constitutional family with honor and dignity."
In his speech, Mulroney said the amending process must be improved.
"In the coming months and years, we must find a way to reconcile the need for public participation and open democratic process with the legal requirements now in the constitution," he said.
Although Mulroney vowed to continue to work toward bringing Quebec under the constitution, Bourassa told the news conference in Quebec City that he no longer would participate in constitutional negotiations.
When asked about the possibility of the province seeking sovereignty, Bourassa avoided making precipitous threats, cautiously responding, "Quebec has a freedom of choice and is going to make its choice in realism and calm."
During the news conference, he repeatedly mentioned that Quebec has "assets" and its own economic base, saying at one point, "In important decisions on the future, the economic dimension is very important."
Bourassa also said the amending formula wasn't working.
"We have concluded that the process of revising the constitution in Canada has been discredited," he said.
Both Mulroney and Bourassa attacked Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells, whose decision Friday night not to put the accord to a vote in the Newfoundland House of Assembly effectively killed the proposal.
Wells, who said he was convinced the accord would fail, did not want Newfoundland to be depicted as the province that killed the measure. The federal government and Quebec, however, criticized him because Wells broke his promised to put it to a vote.
Following Bourassa's news conference, Sen. Lowell Murray, the federal minister for federal-provincial relations, said Canada would have to seek some means to accommodate Quebec.
"We're going to have to find ways to respect the interests of Quebec in all our programs and policies . . . and to do what we can to protect the culture of Quebec," Murray said. "The constitutional book is closed: There's no way you could bring the (prime minister and 10 provincial premiers) together with any hope of success."
Bourassa announced that, with the rejection of the Meech Lake Accord, the platform of the Liberal Party of Quebec also was rejected, and he would conduct public hearings on rewriting it.
He also said the government of Quebec would not participate in constitutional conferences involving the other provinces and federal government. It also will negotiate its development only with the federal government and will negotiate with the other nine provinces only on matters involving its own interests and then only one at a time.
Bourassa remained vague on exactly what he had in mind for the province. But he hinted that extended powers to control immigration into Quebec would be sought and stressed that the underlying requirement for the safety of the French culture is the strength of the economy.
Manitoba leaders tried to bring the accord to a vote, but were blocked by a lone Indian legislator who promised to kill the accord because he wanted a similar recognition as distinct for native people.
"While the world gears up for the 21st century," Mulroney said, "we have failed to resolve a debate that predates confederation itself.
"To my fellow Quebeckers, I want to say how dismayed I am that Quebec has not, at this time, been able to rejoin the constitutional family with honor and enthusiasm," said Mulroney, who was born in Quebec. "But Quebec emerged from these negotiations with its dignity and its principles intact."
Many in English Canada feared the accord would have given Quebec extra powers. But constitutional experts said the "distinct society" clause would have had few practical effects.
It would have required the Canadian Supreme Court to take Quebec's special character into consideration when ruling on challenges to laws under the constitution.
On Saturday, Mulroney seemed anxious that the constitutional squabble not affect Canada's economy or discourage potential investors.
"To our friends and partners abroad, I urge that this situation be kept in perspective," he said. "Canadians have always overcome challenges to our unity and will shall do so again."