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Forum Takes Canada’s Heartbeat : A former editor is traveling the country, sampling opinion to help the prime minister decide what to do about Quebec separatism.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The province of Quebec threw down the gauntlet this week: It promised to conduct a referendum on the sovereignty question by October, 1992, and challenged English-speaking Canada to do something to stop it.

Baffled, worried and fed-up English-speaking Canadians are now waiting to see what their elected officials will tell Quebec on their behalf. One man who is helping to come up with a response is Keith Spicer, head of the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future.

Spicer, 57, a former newspaper editor, was named last November to travel the length and breadth of Canada, listen to the grievances and suggestions of “ordinary Canadians” and report his conclusions in July to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Mulroney will then presumably use the findings to help decide what to do about Quebec--and to help solve some of the other problems plaguing this country.

For Mulroney, Spicer’s activities are a means of buying time to heal from the political body blow he suffered last year when his vaunted attempts to reunite Quebec with the rest of Canada collapsed. The Citizens’ Forum also lends a needed touch of populism to the Mulroney government, which has come under criticism for bringing elites and “old boys” together behind closed doors and attempting to settle Canada’s political rifts without counsel from the common man.

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Spicer himself seemed at first to doubt that his efforts would do the country much good. He gave a press conference upon accepting the assignment and said he feared Mulroney’s people would hijack his findings and turn them to their own partisan purposes.

But since then, the canny, determined Spicer has plunged into his duties. For months, Canadians have seen him on the evening news, striding through airports in his trademark black fedora and long, flapping overcoat. Spicer has traveled to town meetings, set up satellite links and toll-free hot lines and taken thousands of letters.

Despite Spicer’s enthusiasm, controversy has trailed him. There have been flaps over the cost of the forum, initially estimated at about $8.5 million but now approaching $24 million. There have been complaints about the scope of its achievements: Spicer originally pledged to consult with 1 million Canadians but has heard from only about 150,000.

And jaded Canadians have predicted that, come July, the Citizens’ Forum won’t tell English-speaking Canadians anything they couldn’t have found out by going to the neighborhood tavern.

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Canada’s main political ailment for the moment is, of course, the restiveness of Quebec. Yet when Spicer set out on his mission last winter, he began not in the Francophone province but in lonely Tuktoyaktuk, a native settlement on the Beaufort Sea in northwestern Canada. There, he surprised locals--who had wanted to spend the day telling him about their alienation from white, southern Canada--by asking them to bring their favorite poems about the country.

Southern pundits howled. The Toronto Globe and Mail took to writing doggerel editorials on Spicer’s activities. And in Quebec, sovereigntist leader Lucien Bouchard pooh-poohed the fledgling Spicer Forum as “a monumental waste of time.” Picking up the cue, few Quebecers have participated in Spicer’s town meetings.

And the criticism hasn’t stopped there. One of the forum’s 12 commissioners, Quebec newspaper publisher Robert Normand, recently charged that other unnamed commissioners were overbilling for their work and “trivializing” the Quebec sovereignty issue. He later backed away from charges of outright fraud. But that didn’t stop opposition politicians from seizing the opportunity to haul Spicer to Ottawa to make him testify on how he is spending the public’s money.

Spicer presented an interim report, which said Canadians were telling him that they were sick of politicians, opposed to giving Quebec any special treatment and ashamed of the country’s treatment of native peoples.

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“I think 27 million (Canadian dollars) is an awful lot of money to spend to be told that people don’t like politicians,” scoffed Sheila Copps, deputy leader of the largest opposition party, the Liberals.

Spicer replied that the price tag wasn’t too big for the job at stake: that of saving Canada.

THE MIND OF CANADA

As head of the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, Keith Spicer’s job is to listen to the grievances and suggestions of “ordinary Canadians” and report to the prime minister. It has been a controversial project for several reasons:

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THE COST

Original estimate: $8.5 million

Latest estimate: $24 million

THE SCOPE

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Projected interviews: 1 million

Actual interviews: 150,000

MAJOR FINDINGS SO FAR

Canadians are sick of politicians

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Canadians are opposed to giving Quebec any special treatment

Canadians are ashamed of the country’s treatment of its native peoples.


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