Canada

Falling through the looking glass

Ian Anderson November 24 1980
Canada

Falling through the looking glass

Ian Anderson November 24 1980

Falling through the looking glass

Canada

It could be excused as a Freudian slip. David Crombie, the tiny Toronto Tory, tripped over his tongue last week in reference to “section 42 of the revolution—er, resolution, I mean.” Amid the strained laughter from fellow members of the committee studying constitutional change, Crombie smiled brightly like a cherub caught farting in choir pratice. “Sorry,” he demurred. “It slipped out.”

Any malodor from Prime Minister Trudeau’s constitutional proposals is taking a long time to slip out of Ottawa. With the country largely asleep to the issue, with Trudeau jetting about the Middle East this week, with British parliamentarians largely ignorant and unconcerned about opposition to the constitution, the 25-person committee began its examination of witnesses last week in heat and anonymity. But like a prairie storm, the darkness building perceptibly on a distant horizon, an effective opposition began to crystalize.

First there is the time factor. Due to report back to the Commons by Dec. 9, the committee has just 27 more sessions to go. At least half of them must be devoted to rewriting the legislation, but another 61 individuals and groups have requested to make submissions, and a further 20 expert witnesses are expected to be called. Each hearing drags since every question seems to make the resolution more murky than clear. The New Democrats want the deadline shoved back to February. “It’s very difficult to justify not letting the people be heard when you’re deciding their constitution,” reasons Lome Nystrom of the NDP, perhaps the brightest light so far among the MPs on the committee. “The more it’s talked about, the more people are having reservations about sections of the legislation.”

That is putting the matter lightly. The only other NDP representative, Svend Robinson, discovered the proposed charter of rights does not even conform to the United Nations Covenant on civil and political rights. Gordon Fairweather, Canada’s human rights commissioner, agreed and called the charter “seriously flawed” since, as Robinson noted, any right could be imperilled by the government’s ability to define “reasonable limits as are generally accepted in a free and democratic society.”

The generally hazy language through much of the document had lulled most of the Liberal members into a somewhat uncomplimentary submission, particularly toward the first witness, Justice Minister Jean Chrétien. In one partisan vote, the Liberals en bloc allowed Chrétien to keep from the committee—as long as he thought necessary—the results of a government opinion poll he ordered on public reaction to the constitution proposals. Skilfully inserting both feet in his mouth, Ron Irwin, the leader of «the Liberal side, argued publication of these poll results might alter public opinion. Amid the ensuing guffaws a voice was heard: “That’s just the point, Ron.” Later, Irwin tried to prevent a Tory from challenging Chrétien on the legality of having Britain pass the charter of rights in London before patriating the entire constitutional package into Canadian hands. This exceeded the committee’s mandate, Irwin argued, unsuccessfully. “I can’t believe this,” said the stunned Tory, Perrin Beatty: “It’s like we’ve fallen through the looking glass.”

But the flaws in the Trudeau proposal emerged as the week progressed. Like a patient lepidopterist pinning a fluttering Chrétien to his specimen board, Conservative Senator Arthur Tremblay defined the erosion in provincial rights that the proposal could start. The former constitutional adviser to Quebec premiers Robert Bourassa and René Lévesque argued that Ottawa will change the balance of power by giving itself, and not the provinces, the right to seek constitutional change by national referendum in case of deadlock. “Who decides when there is a deadlock?” he asked. “It looks very much like the federal government decides. But what if the provinces disagree there is a deadlock? Can they present their views anywhere? It looks very much like unilateral action.” Concluded Tremblay: “In a federal state, you should never play one

level of government against the other.” “The referendum is a terrible tool in the hands of the federal government,” agreed Liberal Louis Duelos, one of three Liberal MPs to openly argue that the resolution requires change. None of the three is a committee member. “The federal government chooses the time, it drafts the question. It has quite an edge over the provinces.” Only last week Duclos realized the referendum could result in Quebec losing its right to veto any change to the constitution. This would be anathema to the majority of Quebeckers who regard their provincial government as having special responsibility for protecting French language and culture.

While various premiers have spoken of lobbying against the proposals in Britain, few in Ottawa believe Margaret Thatcher’s government will resist any request for patriation, even if it includes a Trudeau-made amending formula that conceivably could, in time, curtail provincial powers. British officials report that extreme pressure has been put on Thatcher by Canada, including even the threat of pulling out of the Commonwealth. The British standing committee on foreign affairs which will examine the Canadian proposal when Ottawa finally approves it early next year has no power to do anything but recommend a course of action to Thatcher’s cabinet. The committee’s chairman, Anthony Kershaw, was given a taste of things to come when the Canadian High Commission abruptly cancelled a recent luncheon it had planned for him. Christian Hardy, Canada’s deputy high commissioner in London, explained that Canada merely sought to avoid the appearance of trying to influence Kershaw, but the action was interpreted by the British as Canadian displeasure over the fact the committee was making any sort of inquiry at all. On the face of it, however, any such retaliation seems excessive. “In Britain, it’s not generally realized that the government of Canada consists of the provincial as well as the federal governments,” said one Labour MP last week of his efforts to rally some support for the dissident premiers. Ian Anderson, with files from Alan Harvey and Len Shippey in London