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CONSTITUTION ACT SIGNED IN OTTAWA -- Queen Elizabeth II signs Canada's constitutional proclamation in Ottawa on April 17, 1982 as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looks on. The Constitution Act signed by the Queen on April 17, 1982 gave Canada control over its Constitution and guaranteed the rights and freedoms in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter) as the supreme law of the nation. Credit: Ron Poling / The Canadian PressRON POLING/The Canadian Press

Canadians have overcome their aversion to tinkering with the country's constitution, a new poll suggests.

After almost two decades of constitutional peace, Harris-Decima survey conducted for The Canadian Press indicates a majority is now willing to risk re-opening the constitutional can of worms to accomplish some specific goals.

For instance, 61 per cent said they're prepared to re-open the Constitution to reform or abolish the appointed Senate. And 58 per cent said they're willing to offer constitutional amendments in a bid to finally secure Quebec's signature on the Constitution. Fifty-eight per cent also said they're willing to open up the Constitution to change the country's electoral system.

The apparent readiness to engage in constitutional wrangling is in stark contrast to the visceral antipathy to all things constitutional that followed the demise of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords in 1990 and 1992.

Those agreements, aimed at meeting Quebec's constitutional conditions, ended up bitterly dividing the country. Their failures were followed by a spike in separatist sentiment in the province, which came within a whisker of voting to secede during a 1995 referendum.

"I'm pretty sure that this level of comfort with the idea of opening up the Constitution to make any sort of change, this is evidence that there's no longer nearly as much fear about what that process actually entails," said Doug Anderson, senior vice-president of Harris-Decima.

While the poll suggests Canadians are ready to engage in specific constitutional reforms, the Meech and Charlottetown experiences proved it's well-nigh impossible to confine negotiations to only certain subjects. Once opened, those negotiations quickly became a swamp of conflicting demands from provinces and various interest groups.

"Maybe all we need is another round of constitutional hearings or negotiations to remember that, oh yes, this is trickier than we think," Mr. Anderson said.

Since the demise of Meech and Charlottetown, most politicians have avoided like the plague any suggestion of re-opening the Constitution. But in the recent federal election campaign, NDP Leader Jack Layton broached the idea of once again trying to satisfy Quebec's constitutional demands, although he stressed that wasn't an immediate priority.

His controversial suggestion appeared to boost NDP support in Quebec and did not seem to hurt the party's fortunes elsewhere. The NDP swept Quebec and scored a strong second-place finish overall for the first time in its history.

The poll probed the kinds of democratic reforms Canadians would like to see, some of which could be accomplished without amending the Constitution.

Only 10 per cent said they want the Senate to remain an appointed chamber. Thirty-nine per cent favoured an elected Senate, 20 per cent said senators should continue to be appointed but subject to term limits and another 20 per cent wanted the upper house abolished altogether.

The poll was conducted May 12-15, before Prime Minister Stephen Harper prompted outrage by appointing three defeated Conservative candidates to the Senate. Mr. Anderson said the appointments may well have increased the desire for reform.

With respect to the country's first-past-the-post electoral system, 34 per cent said they prefer the status quo, compared to 32 per cent who preferred a system of proportional representation and 24 per cent who chose a preferential ballot process.

Almost three-quarters of respondents (72 per cent) supported the idea of voting directly for the prime minister, much the way Americans directly vote for their president.

Respondents were effectively evenly split on whether voting should be mandatory (50 per cent opposed, 47 per cent in favour) and on whether Canadians should be allowed to vote by phone or over the Internet (50 per cent in favour, 47 per cent opposed).

The telephone poll of just over 1,000 Canadians is considered accurate within plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20.

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