The deal between French and English Canada to recognize Quebec as a "distinct society" and bring it back into the Constitution has bogged down in arguments over minority and women's rights and the future of the nation's political system.

Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and other critics want last year's agreement scrapped. Trudeau, a leader in creating the nation's new Constitution in 1982, says the pact could lead to the breakup of Canada's federation of provinces.Others want the accord renegotiated. Women's groups, the country's 500,000 Indians and Eskimos, and language minorities in several provinces want their rights enshrined in the Constitution. The Northwest Territories and Yukon claim the deal makes it virtually impossible for them to become provinces.

The accord's importance stems from Quebec's refusal to sign the 1982 Constitution because it failed specifically to protect the province's French culture.

Despite all the critics, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa thinks he can persuade the country to ratify the agreement, which was signed by the federal government and the 10 Canadian provinces a year ago at Meech Lake, Quebec.

But his chief provincial ally, Ontario Premier David Peterson, says there's only a 50-50 chance. "I wouldn't bet the family farm on it," he said recently.

However, Peterson warned that "the political consequences of not signing this could be very severe.

"It will be an enormous political risk for the country to refuse it. We don't need it to survive, but we do for political stability," he said.

The risk of unrest isn't always apparent in Quebec. The mainly French-speaking province has evolved in the past decade from a bastion of French separatism into a prosperous society of 6.6 million.