Canada

Nails for the rhetoric of rage

Robert Lewis September 1 1980
Canada

Nails for the rhetoric of rage

Robert Lewis September 1 1980

Nails for the rhetoric of rage

Canada

Robert Lewis

The salient behind-the-scenes feature of last week’s premiers’ conference in Winnipeg was not so much the message of a House on the Prairie divided, but the manner of its deliverance. By long-standing practice, many key players held news conferences announced only to reporters from their respective provinces. Ontario and Alberta officials even barred “outsiders” from sessions with Bill Davis and Peter Lougheed—acts that relegated wider understanding of their causes to the sweaty heap of rugby-style scrums in the corridors of province power. There is now better access to the views of foreign delegations at economic summits abroad than there is to premiers at home. An even funnier thing happened on the way to the final press briefing: nine otherwise irrepressible hucksters caught a dose of stage fright and dispatched host Premier Sterling Lyon to face the 196 media messengers all by himself. Later, the newly reluctant nine staged separate—but simultaneousnews conferences.*

The puzzling process spoke volumes for the flimsy compromises the premiers eked out of their two-day session. The tortured prose of their communiqués barely concealed the splits unspoken. Even their own press secretaries resorted to such descriptions as “fudge” and “mush.” In speaking mainly through their chosen, the premiers filled the growing library of misunderstanding and confusion that hangs over intergovernmental affairs on the eve of September’s crucial constitutional talks in Ottawa. In escalating their rhetoric for home consumption, the primas em-

phasized the areas of disagreement rather than accord. The nation knows what they are “agin” but not always what they are for.

The final communiqué on the constitution was striking mainly for its omissions. Lougheed, Lyon and other hawks wanted to bash Ottawa for stepping up the pace of the talks. Ontario and the Atlantic provinces did not—and they prevailed. Instead of a strident assertion of province power, the conference wounded Fowler’s English Usage by insisting that “provinces, as the original components of the federal system, and whose governments in the vast diversity of Canada are closer to the people, be not weakened but reinforced.” In one of the many drafts that were discarded

in a three-hour wrangle there was, in the words of an Ontario official, “wording that got dangerously close to the ‘community-of-communities’ ” espoused by PC leader Joe Clark. Because of objections from Lyon to a charter of rights, the conference waffled in proposing protection for individuals only “by the most appropriate means.” The 10 did reiterate their long-standing view that a new division of powers should come in tandem with agreement on subjects closer to Pierre Trudeau’s heart—patriation of the constitution from Westminster and American-style written guarantees of rights for citizens. The premiers also rejected as “artificial” the federal effort to make the September meeting a deadline for decision on 12 areas ranging from a new Senate and Supreme Court to control over resources and cable television. On-

tario was alone in affirming that, failing consensus, the feds had every right to go ahead with unilateral action.

The conference—again, Ontario dissented—condemned Ottawa talk of an export tax on natural gas and electricity as “a direct attack upon provincial proprietary rights over resources”; and it called for an accelerated move of domestic oil prices toward OPEC levels. As for the over-all economic situation, the provinces called for a second first-ministers’ conference before year’s end.

As they have for most of the past 21 years, the premiers left town proclaiming their content. Quebec’s René Lévesque went so far as to characterize the talks as “serene and friendly”— which indicates how a referendum loss can turn mortal thoughts away from sovereignty-association to staying in power. Davis all but beamed from his limbo, knowing full well that the appearance of defending the national interest against provincialist hordes makes for good politics back home when an election is looming.

Hanging was the word for the mood after portions of a leaked memo to Trudeau from his chief bureaucrat, Michael Pitfield, were published by the Ottawa Citizen on the last day of the Winnipeg conference. Aides to premiers queued at the photocopier for impressions of a story laying out a federal contingency plan lest the constitutional talks fail. The proposal, part of a scenario for “a very difficult session indeed” this fall, suggests an early recall of Parliament—the week of Sept. 24, instead of Oct. 15—and a special debate on a resolution to patriate the constitution, even if the provinces don’t agree—which they don’t. Pitfield speculates that a fractious patriation debate could delay the long-overdue budget, disrupt plans for a major energy package and shelve several important bills.

Many delegations saw the hand of a Machiavelli in the leak, which they suspect was aimed at disrupting the talks in Winnipeg. A senior Ontario official speculated that Jean Chrétien had lost out to Trudeau’s office in arguing that an intense summer of intergovernmen-

tal talks would produce consensus. Lougheed looked ahead to the September meeting and spoke for many premiers: “I can’t be optimistic.” Ontario Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Tom Wells sided with Ottawa, observing: “We are not overly concerned.” Davis’ unabashed embrace of Trudeau’s goals has the other provinces seething publicly about both men. Lougheed snipes that the Ontario pre-

mier is “sitting in Mr. Trudeau’s lap.” Lyon snickers that Trudeau’s passion for an entrenched bill of rights is “a trendy little idea.” Fearing the loss of “thousands of jobs” and reduced sales, Lougheed snorts that a federal export tax on natural gas would amount to “a declaration of war” against the West.

In Western Canada there is wide support for the rhetoric of rage after years of neglect—imagined and real. Winnipeg Tribune columnist Frances Russell is lonely in her lament: “Where are the Western federalists? Western premiers,” she adds, “choose to wrap their own settling of ancient scores in the flag and call it a new Canada. But it is nothing more than regionalism.”

While the New West now holds the economic clout, there is the sense in the constitutional debate that Trudeau has the numbers. Saskatchewan AttorneyGeneral Roy Romanow believes that Ottawa could win a referendum on the

Constitution in his province—probably even in Alberta. The Gallup poll taken in July shows striking support in a nationwide sample of 1,057 for Trudeau’s pet projects: 91 per cent for a bill of rights, 83 per cent for sharing of wealth, 81 per cent for constitutional guarantees that minorities can be schooled in their own language, 78 per cent for patriation.

Working from this base in the glare of next month’s televised conference, where conflict cannot be buried in communiqués, Trudeau will exploit differences among the premiers. They were edgy enough about their disputes when they closed the doors on the nation in Winnipeg. The tension was palpable when Davis opened with a complaint— that Lévesque had an ashtray and he did not. In a playful parody, Lévesque responded that, typically, he had taken the initiative and demanded one. Lyon quipped that everyone assumed Davis simply would take one. That, Davis parried, is presumably why the chairs in the legislative chamber are bolted to the floor. The bonhomie aside, it was one of the few items the conference nailed down.