CANADA

A secret proposal

PAUL GESSELL July 28 1986
CANADA

A secret proposal

PAUL GESSELL July 28 1986

A secret proposal

The confidential dispatch from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to the premiers last week included both a request and a warning. The three-page letter, obtained by Maclean's, asked the nine predominantly English-speaking provinces to set aside their demands for constitutional reform while Ottawa seeks a formula for bringing Quebec into the Constitution. Only by concentrating on Quebec’s demands, Mulroney ar-

gued, can a compromise be found that would persuade the province to sign the document it rejected in 1981. At that time, Quebec—arguing that it had not been granted adequate powers—was the only province to reject an accord, which led to the proclamation of a new Canadian constitution in 1982. Said the Prime Minister in his letter: “The only realistic way to proceed is first to bring Quebec back into the fold, and to undertake a more extensive revision of the Constitution at a later stage.” A failure to reach an agreement with Quebec, Mulroney warned, “would be very serious for the future of Canada.”

Polite but firm, the missive was a clear signal that Mulroney intends

to make a solution to the constitutional impasse a top priority in the second half of his government’s term. The Conservative leader unofficially launched his constitutional campaign on June 5. At a meeting in Quebec City between the Prime Minister and Premier Robert Bourassa, both men agreed to work toward breaking the deadlock. Since then, Mulroney has instructed his newly appointed minister for federal-provincial relations,

Senator Lowell Murray, to oversee informal talks with the provinces. The first results of those contacts are expected to be discussed at the annual summer conference of provincial premiers in Edmonton Aug. 11 to 12.

But the longstanding constitutional grievances held by the provinces could obstruct a deal with Quebec. The provinces’ demands, forcefully expressed during the acrimonious debate of the early 1980s, cover a wide field. They include guarantees to safeguard provincial control over property rights, reforms giving the provinces a say in Senate appointments and undisputed provincial control over such industries as fisheries and petroleum. Mulroney’s letter,

however, makes it clear that he wants those problems to wait. “Given past experience and the busy schedule of all our governments,” he wrote, “we should avoid attempting to do everything at once.”

Quebec’s demands alone will be difficult to satisfy. The province’s most important—and most controversial-constitutional demand is a veto over future amendments. At present, changes can only be made with the consent of seven provinces representing at least 50 per cent of Canada’s population. Under a formula proposed at the 1971 Victoria Conference, constitutional changes would require the approval of two Atlantic provinces, two Western provinces, Quebec and Ontario. That would give Quebec a veto over amendments.

Mulroney has yet to express his government’s position on veto powers for Quebec. But in his letter, he reminded the premiers of a promise he made in the last election campaign to study possible changes to the amending formula. As well, Senator Murray has hinted that he favors at least a limited veto for Quebec. Said Murray, in a 1981 Senate speech that he still cites: “I believe that most Canadians acknowledge, as an essential fact of our national existence, that Quebec has had and does have a veto on changes which affect her own status and the powers of her legislature.”

Apart from the veto, Quebec has four additional demands: recognition of the province’s distinct character as a French-speaking society; more powers over immigration; limits on federal spending power; and a voice in the appointment of Supreme Court justices. Bourassa plans to brief the other premiers on these points at the Edmonton meeting next month. However, some premiers have already said Quebec’s demands are excessive. Said Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine: “I am opposed to one province having a veto.”

Mulroney has said he would like to enter the next federal election campaign with Quebec’s signature on the Constitution. That achievement might reinforce Conservative party efforts to increase its support in Quebec, which recent opinion polls have shown to be flagging. But by reopening the constitutional debate, Mulroney also risks raising the ire of Quebec, if its wishes are frustrated. Said federal Youth Minister Jean Charest, a member of the cabinet committee overseeing the constitutional negotiations: “That is a risk we’re willing to take.”

— PAUL GESSELL in Ottawa with correspondents’ reports