CANADA

Constitutional discord

PAUL GESSELL August 17 1987
CANADA

Constitutional discord

PAUL GESSELL August 17 1987

Constitutional discord

Conservative MPs exchanged anxious glances as Parliament’s grand old master of the Constitution, retired senator Eugene Forsey, testified last week before a SenateCommons committee studying the Meech Lake constitutional accord. The outspoken Forsey, 83, said that the pact, which would add Quebec’s signature to the Constitution, was riddled with “ambiguities and obscurities.”

The accord, he warned, could do everything from limiting the rights of linguistic minorities to weakening the powers of the federal government. But the next day, Tories on the 17-member committee were all smiles. Gordon Robertson, a retired adviser to previous federal governments, praised the agreement reached on June 3 by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the 10 provincial premiers. Said Robertson: “It’s most improbable we could get a better arrangement.”

Those conflicting views typified the first week of televised hearings on the Meech Lake pact, which are expected to last a month. Indeed, after the testimony of 16 individuals and groups, the only clear verdict to emerge was that there are as many opinions as there are experts. The debate itself may be

academic. Senator Lowell Murray, the minister of federal-provincial relations, said again last week that Ottawa would not entertain major changes to the agreement. And although both opposition parties have reservations about the deal, they will not mount a major campaign to demand changes.

The accord gives provinces greater control over certain federal expenditures and future constitutional amendments, as well as a say in selecting senators and Supreme Court judges. It also designates Quebec “a distinct society,” an amendment that the Quebec government demanded in return for signing the deal.

Critics of the accord said that the new provisions could override parts of the existing Constitution, opening up a Pandora’s box of problems. The distinctsociety clause, some witnesses said, would give Quebec a licence to legislate itself out of Confederation. Others charged that provincial appointees to the Senate and Supreme Court could undermine the powers of MPs. David Elton, president of the Canada West Foundation, a Calgary-based think-tank, used the strongest language, describing parts of the accord as “the political equivalent of the AIDS virus.” Elton said that the agreement makes in-depth reform of the Senate— something sought by many westerners—unlikely. And women’s groups said that existing sexual-equality guarantees in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are threatened. After testifying last week, they appeared to win some converts. Noted Tory MP David Daubney: “There are a lot of women voters out there.”

The challenge facing the pressure groups, however, will be to persuade Mulroney and the premiers that changes are necessary. Robertson, a veteran of constitutional wars dating back to 1950, said that he believes there is only a slight chance that the 11 leaders would reach the unanimous consent needed to change the package. That slight hope may be enough for the approximately 100 individuals and organizations who have lined up to testify.

PAUL GESSELL