Robert Lewis,Ian Anderson,Roy MacGregorSeptember221980
AN EXERCISE IN FAILURE
Eleven men who let a nation down
By Robert Lewis, Ian Anderson and Roy MacGregor
The television show most missed by English viewers who complained about the CBC’s gravel-to-grovel constitutional coverage was The Edge of Night. It was only slight consolation that political life seemed to imitate the soap that didn’t show. The highlight of last week’s Edge episodes portrayed the wealthy Nadine Scott preparing to leave for London— not to visit the Queen, but to change her will and settle a family inheritance. Over tea, Nadine has a furious argument with her daughter. Distraught, Nadine leaves, only to die in a flaming car crash.
The outcome of the constitutional show was only slightly less morbid as it went off the air last Saturday with no indications of a prompt rerun. “Canada will carry on,” as Manitoba’s Sterling Lyon observed at the final, gloomy round table. But the voyage to a joyful renewal of the federation was botched, in a process dominated by closed minds
and big books. The history of Canada was not so much rewritten as reinterpreted during an extraordinary, at times mind-dulling, 27 hours of debate under hot lights. The problem in the end was that there were two texts— with entirely divergent gospels. In one, strong and buoyant regions pursue their own priorities and identities to make the nation thrive. In the other, a central government with broader interests sets standards and helps the weak pull even with the hardy. As Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau concluded, after blistering provincial attacks on his stance: “There are, indeed, two conceptions of Canada—and that is why we failed.”
The real loss in the impasse is that significant constitutional reform has been set back for years—if not for good. As one premier lamented privately: “We came here looking like the new Fathers of Confederation. But now it’s starting to look like we might end up
as the Fathers of Destruction.”
Ahead lies the uncertain prospect of an acrimonious and unilateral move by Ottawa to patriate the constitution. Court challenges are likely from several provinces, almost certainly by the Quebec government (see story page 25). Trudeau may seek to skirt all that grief by appealing over the heads of proud, watchful premiers to “their” people in a national referendum. He probably could win the plebiscite, but his words on the night of the Quebec referendum could return to haunt the larger clan: “There is no one among us who has not suffered some wound.”
Beyond the flip offering that, “I like the idea of a referendum,” Trudeau wouldn’t say what he plans to do next. Patriation of the constitution by year’s end is “still my desire.” But since only Ontario and New Brunswick support the idea, the symbolic act would be meaningless in the world of realpolitik.
Any changes in the distribution of power could be done, by 50-year-old custom, only with the consent of all 11 governments—and there was no agreement about the 12 items on the table last week.
“The strategy,” said Trudeau, “is in our mind—it’s not on paper.” The remark was an evident attempt to downplay the negative impact of the bestread document of the conference, an Aug. 30, MINISTERS’ EYES ONLY strategy submission to the cabinet meeting in Lake Louise. Although the document misquoted Machiavelli, it anticipated a deadlock and laid out a scenario for unilateral action and an earlier recall of Parliament. The Quebec delegation’s leak of the memo poisoned the well of sentiment for an agreement. The coldly analytical suggestions for dividing provinces for a conquest infuriated the premiers, since it vividly portrayed how they were to be sandbagged: “The linking of progress on economic union to progress on resources has forced the western provinces to have to choose between the status quo on resources, which they know is good for the federal government, and agreeing to make a concession to the federal government on economic union.” In private sessions with Trudeau, the premiers would pretend to thumb through the 64-page document and inquire mischievously, “What page are you on now, Pierre?”
The memo also revived the premiers’ worst thoughts about Trudeau, which are plentiful. In fact, the disastrous personal chemistry of the 11 is at the root of their inability to agree on anything. Trudeau is so unlike most of the premiers that enforced togetherness simply intensifies their sense, as British Columbia’s Bill Bennett put it, that “your vision of the country and what it’s all about, is far different than the one around the table.”
Little wonder, since Trudeau, the elitist, is almost incapable of the Lyndon B. Johnson-style of backslapping so crucial in heated bargaining. He some-
times appears to forget premiers’ names and evinces no sense of humor about backroom political camaraderie. He grew up in sheltered, leafy Outremont. Nova Scotia Premier John Buchanan worked in the searing hearth at the Sydney Steel plant. Trudeau understandably grows impatient with some of the inconsistencies and firstminister airs of the provincial leaders. They routinely say “I” and “mine” instead of talking about rights and opportunities of the people of their province. They paint such a dark portrait of Ottawa it sounds like the federal government has never done anything right.
While their public debates offered moments of eloquence and wisdom, few important shifts in position were made during the first three days. With no hard agreement on any issue, the first ministers adjourned the conference centre Thursday evening, intent on deal-making in the privacy of 24 Sussex Drive. “Let’s get out of here,” an impatient Trudeau murmured into his microphone. They did, and the premiers hammered out their “Château consensus” over breakfast next morning in Lyon’s Château Laurier suite. A sad and angry Bill Davis, of Ontario, viewed the new position as one more truculent than
consensual: “There was consensus—with everybody having their reservations.” The premiers’ package attempted to pry economic concessions from Trudeau before offering agreement on Trudeau’s “people package.”As Quebec’s René Lévesque knew, the fact that the premiers’ package made no mention of linguistic rights was alone enough to doom it. Saskatchewan’s Allan Blakeney and New Brunswick’s Richard Hatfield, who offered minimal support to the “consensus,” had hoped linguistic rights could be entrenched voluntarily
by the provinces. Ontario, New Brunswick and Manitoba could take the lead, and be followed by Quebec—if Liberal leader Claude Ryan defeated Lévesque.
Predictably, Trudeau rejected the modest proposals Friday morning when he met the premiers privately. Running down the list, he assigned a terse “no deal” to each item. Any spirit of compromise had withered. Lined solidly together were Bennett, Newfoundland’s Brian Peckford, Alberta’s Peter Lougheed, Lyon and Lévesque. Trudeau’s attempt to prove that his Liberal party has historical roots in the West, using statistics from the time of Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent, was met with derision. “We said: ‘are you trying to tell four western premiers that you understand the West?’ ” recalled Lyon.
To sour the meeting further, Lougheed sought assurances from Trudeau that the federal government would not impose an export tax on Alberta natural gas. Trudeau would give no such assurance, even though it was clear Lougheed might offer some concessions in return. With Alberta’s oil supply declining, Lougheed had come to Ottawa intent on playing only one major card—the gas tax. “It’s been a cloud over our heads for the entire conference,” he declared. De-
spite entreaties from fellow premiers, Lougheed chose to shun the limelight last week, knowing full well he would be leading the resource-rich provinces in the impending pricing battle with Trudeau this fall—for him a more important battle.
The week’s largest potential loser was the one with the least to gain —Peckford. His only major demand, control of off-shore resources, was one Trudeau rejected utterly. His fellow premiers, Davis and Buchanan excepted, rallied unequivocally to his support, though some, such as Blakeney, did so more out of political compassion than ideological sympathy. “You couldn’t leave Peckford out in the cold,” said an Alberta delegate. “If I stand for all [the premiers],”
said Bennett, “I will stand for one of them.” Because of that defence of Peckford’s stand, control of off-shore resources became the single most difficult item to deal with, said many officials.
Trudeau’s only ally in the West left Ottawa unhappy and frustrated. Blakeney felt he had not been given enough weapons to win the war, though his vision of Ottawa’s role lay close to Trudeau’s. Trudeau showed scant appreciation for Blakeney’s role as the honest broker. Blakeney tried and failed in a last-minute effort to bring Peckford into Trudeau’s camp by proposing changes in the National Energy Board that would give Newfoundland advantages in hydroelectricity in return for movement on off-shore resources. The deal failed in the grim atmosphere of the 60-minute meeting Friday night at Trudeau’s estate. Without any agreement from Trudeau, the premiers then adjourned to Lyon’s suite in a last-ditch effort to reach a compromise on an amending formula. “They were trying to salvage something of appearance, if not substance,” an official explained. They could not get any agreement.
As far as the premiers were con-
cerned, the week began as it should have—handshakes all around. But already there were signs. “Hello, Brian,” Trudeau said as he greeted the Newfoundland premier at the Sunday night dinner, “I thought I’d need a work permit to shake your hand.” Three days later, following an assortment of continuing tangles with the prime minister, Peckford sat over pea soup and a medium-rare steak in the Château Laurier’s Canadian Grill, shook his head and conceded that he, and perhaps some other premiers, had been “a bit naïve” in thinking they could come to Ottawa expecting everyone to bargain in good faith.
But that was but one of several preconceived notions which changed last week in Ottawa. The premiers arrived as stereotypes: Sterling Lyon, the size and imagination of a field stump; Bill Bennett, the crybaby; Peter Lougheed, the bully; Bill Davis, the teacher’s pet; René Lévesque, the homewrecker. But few of these ideas held up. Lougheed was soon the muted voice of western reason, the welcome calm before the looming energy storm. Lyon joined Blakeney as the most articulate
arguer for provincial rights.
Seen as drama, this constitutional conference suffered a plot that was twisted and difficult to follow. When Lougheed made reference to The Sting during a Tuesday break, it was an understandable comparison. There were deals in the air, as there had to be: the victims, however, were suffering identity crises. Saskatchewan had come to Ottawa hoping to work out some say
in international trade. British Columbia wanted a new upper house. Nova Scotia was anxious that fisheries remain in federal hands, feeling its cod industry would be safer with Ottawa than it would if Newfoundland gained its desired “shared jurisdiction.” There would be trade-offs and bargains. “This week is not a magic week,” Peckford said on Monday. Nor was it to be hopeless. Blakeney optimistically predicted as many as six of the 12 agenda questions would be settled.
Then, however, they discovered the deals were also in the script, contained in the now-infamous federal strategy document. There would be agreement, but if there was not agreement, the federal officials would manipulate the conference “to show that disagreement leading to unilateral federal action is the result of an impossibly cumbersome process or, of the intransigence of the provincial governments, and not the fault of the federal government.” In the shiny, slippery black-and-white photocopies, the deals were laid out: isolate Alberta on resource ownership by striking a compromise with Saskatchewan on international trade; demonstrate the
“apparent generosity” of the federal government regarding ownership of off-shore resources by dangling a deed to anything within the 12-mile limit— “This proposal would be of very special interest to British Columbia.” And on and on and on.
Buchanan sighed on Tuesday and wondered if the conference wasn’t already “a preordained exercise in futility,” and yet—even with the provinces in on the game plan—it still worked to some extent. Wednesday saw the pre-
miers launch their best attack of the week, on Trudeau’s dearly-held “nonnegotiable” charter of human rights. Knowing that nothing would-serve Trudeau better than this motherhood issue to go to Parliament, or even to the people on, they scuttled it anyway, though not entirely without immediate regret. “Some of us, including myself,” Blakeney said on Saturday’s close, “may have been less conciliatory than the circumstances required.”
One of the week’s most passionate ar-
guments was the tangle between Trudeau and Peckford over Newfoundland’s ownership of off-shore resources. No one seriously expected the federal position to cave in, but it was also quickly clear that Peckford would not back off. “We have no mandate to enshrine our inequality in the constitution,” he argued. But Trudeau showed no interest whatsoever in complying with Peckford’s intriguing definition of compromise: “He’s got to take a step toward me.”
By the end of the week, with the con-
ference in tatters and the country numb with overload, the premiers were anxious to save something from a performance that looked suspiciously like they had played into the federal master plan. They turned, instead, to the strategy document as a blessing in disguise. “As a result of this conference,” Prince Edward Island’s Angus MacLean said, “the role of the provinces as bad boys is no longer valid.” One reason, as Lyon explained, was that “we had four full days of television exposure to put our case, instead of being victims of the pap put out by the eastern press.” In fact, not a few Ottawa-based scribes conceded that some old perceptions had changed.
The same could not be said about the heart of the problem—two struggles, as Blakeney defined them: “One, constitutional renewal for Canada; the other, the continuing contest for the hearts and minds of the people of Quebec. In that latter contest,” he went on, “nothing offered was enough and nothing demanded was too much. Until there is some resolution of that contest, success will continue to elude us.” That has not changed since the battle of the Plains of Abraham. Last Saturday was its 221st anniversary. In Ottawa, it went unnoticed.
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