Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, warning that the country is in imminent danger of breaking up, appointed a special commission to determine if Canadians want to remain a nation.

Mulroney told Parliament Thursday that the country needs a "new consensus" to take it into the 21st century. "The situation is urgent . . . the problem is serious," Mulroney said.He said the country is in danger of "fracturing along linguistic and regional fault lines" that have run deep throughout its history.

The 12-member commission, representing labor, native groups, business and cultural groups will hold public forums across the country and present its report next July 1, coinciding with the country's 124th birthday.

It will be preceded, however, by another report on Quebec's future in Canada, commissioned by that province's Liberal government shortly after the failure of the Meech Lake constitutional accord aimed at preventing Quebec's secession.

The accord, essentially a constitutional amendment drafted by the federal government, would have granted

Quebec special powers to promote and preserve its French language and culture.

It was killed in June when two provinces, Manitoba and Newfoundland, refused to support it.

Recent opinion polls indicate Quebecers are more concerned with the national economy - Canada is in a recession brought on by high interest rates and massive public debt - than with sovereignty.

Nonetheless, the Quebec government hopes the report, due next March, will help wangle additional concessions and powers from Ottawa.

But some consider Mulroney's special commission a ploy to divert attention from the economy and to arrest the Conservative government's dramatic fall in popularity.

According to Mulroney, the catch-all commission will examine Quebec's future in Canada, regional hostilities, western alienation, the distribution of powers among municipal, provincial and federal governments and reform of parliamentary institutions, including the Senate.

It will also examine minority groups and the plight of natives.