OPPOSITION TO MEECH LAKE HAS LED MANITOBA'S GARY FILMON INTO DANGEROUS POLITICAL WATERS
OPPOSITION TO MEECH LAKE HAS LED MANITOBA'S GARY FILMON INTO DANGEROUS POLITICAL WATERS
Last August, after successfully steering his minority government through its first three months in power, Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon told friends that the Meech Lake constitutional accord was “simply not an issue" in his province’s politics. But passions over minoritylanguage rights and often-stormy relations with Ottawa are woven throughout Manitoba’s history—and they are easily aroused. Just six months later, one day after Quebec’s Dec. 18 decision to restrict English-language rights in that province, Filmon rocketed Meech Lake to the top of Manitoba’s political agenda with a dramatic decision to rescind his government’s support for the deal. In doing so, his political fate is now tied to his ability to negotiate his way successfully through Canada’s latest constitutional dispute. Manitobans initially greeted the move as a clever stroke: handling an issue in a way that could help him win a majority government in an early election. At the same time, Filmon also has dealt a severe blow to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s carefully nurtured constitutional deal, which is now sinking in a quagmire of language hostilities and provincial political imperatives.
The latest threat to national unity broke with unexpected suddenness. Filmon’s decision to withdraw the Meech Lake resolution from the Manitoba assembly resulted from Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s new law, announced on Dec. 18, which bans the use of languages other than French from outdoor commercial signs in that province. But the Supreme Court of Canada, in a ruling on Quebec’s previous language law three days earlier, had declared such a restriction to be unconstitutional. As a result,
Bourassa had to invoke the so-called notwithstanding clause of the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms to exempt the Quebec legislation from the charter’s provisions for five years. That decision, aimed at appeasing Quebec nationalists, provoked anger and frustration among most English-speaking Canadians.
The backlash against Bourassa was particularly fierce in Manitoba, which has endured its own social and political convulsions over minority-language rights. In 1979, the Supreme Court ruled that the province was obliged to provide services in French to its francophone minority. Four years later, Howard Pawley, then the NDP premier of Manitoba, abided by the court’s ruling, ordering the provision of bilingual services in government departments and Crown corporations. As a result, many Manitobans reacted angrily to what they say is a cavalier decision by Bourassa to flout a Supreme Court decision and restrict the use of English.
Manitoba’s attitude toward Meech Lake is crucial ;|L because only that province and New Brunswick have not yet ratified the accord, which needs the support of all 10 provinces and the federal government to go into effect as scheduled in June, 1990. In m withdrawing his support, Fil* PPI mon said that he was concerned that the accord offered inadequate protection for linguistic minorities. But in striking back at Bourassa, Filmon not only harnessed Manitobans’ anger against Quebec, he also disarmed opposition Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs of her major issue: her attacks against Filmon’s support for Meech Lake (page 14).
In Manitoba, the Conservatives now hold only 24 of the seats in the 57-seat legislature, compared with 21 for the Liberals and 12 for Gary Doer’s New Democrats. Both opposition parties oppose Meech Lake. And many observers say that they see Filmon’s decision to drop his support for Meech Lake as merely a cynical short-term political tactic aimed at winning a majority in a future election—not one rooted in philosophical or legal objections to the pact. “Constitutional questions were never at the top of our agenda as a
government,” acknowledged Filmon, an engineer and businessman by training.
Now, Filmon has risked incurring the wrath of the Prime Minister and of the three other western premiers—who have already passed the accord despite popular opposition to some of its measures. Mulroney and the 10 premiers of the day drafted the amendments to the 1982 Constitution Act in April, 1987, at the government’s retreat on Meech Lake in the Gatineau Hills. The principal aim was to bring Quebec, which did not sign the 1982 agreement, into the Constitution, and, among other things, the accord would give Quebec status as a “distinct society.” It would also increase some provincial powers, including their influence in the appointment of senators and Supreme Court justices.
Last week, the Manitoba premier appeared to entrench his position even further by broadening his opposition to Meech Lake. In an interview with Maclean’s, Filmon said that he also withdrew his support for the accord because of new doubts about the legal implications of making Quebec a distinct society. That clause has come under renewed scrutiny ever since Bourassa declared that if Meech Lake had been in effect, the distinct society provision would have allowed him to pass his new language law without resorting to the notwithstanding provision of the charter. Said Filmon: “ ‘Distinct society’ is being given a different interpretation in Quebec than it is in the rest of Canada.”
But political opponents charge that Filmon, who became premier in May, 1988, has no choice but to broaden his objections beyond the minority-language issue because of what they call his lack of credibility on that subject. NDP Leader Doer, for one, said that the Tories’ own record on minority rights would have left them open to charges of political opportunism if they had concentrated solely on the language issue. The reason: when Pawley abided by the Supreme Court decision and provided French services in Manitoba, the opposition Conservatives vigorously opposed those measures. Said Doer: “It is NDP blood that is all over the floor for our support of Frenchlanguage rights.”
Now, with Filmon apparently steering away from the language issue, he may also be taking the Meech Lake debate onto more palatable political grounds—notably by promoting Western Canada’s desire for Senate reform. All four western premiers endorse the idea of an elected Senate, with increased power in the legislative process and equal representation for all provinces, because it would increase western influence in Ottawa. Still, Filmon said that he remains unsure whether Meech Lake’s amending formula—which would require the support of all 10 provinces to reform the Senate rather than the current requirement of seven provinces comprising 50 per cent of Canada’s population—makes Senate reform more possible or less possible.
Filmon’s indecision over the amending formula underscores what friends and advisers
describe as his inexperience on constitutional issues. “Gary has a lot of learning to do on the historical context of the issue,” said one friend. “He is not used to looking at the global picture—there is almost an unworldliness about him.” Indeed, Filmon is reluctant to articulate his own constitutional views, saying only that “by giving more power to the provinces, Meech Lake is a step in the right direction.” And although he condemned Bourassa for “disobeying a Supreme Court ruling,” he refused to criticize the governments of Saskatchewan and Alberta, which in 1988 passed new laws to replace others that, according to a Supreme Court ruling, would have required them to translate their laws into French.
The premier may also be handicapped by the absence of trusted advisers schooled in the often-arcane world of Canadian constitutional politics. “There is not a set of advisers who are experienced in federal-provincial affairs, nor is Gary surrounded with a brain trust of any great consequence,” said one Manitoba Tory. And Filmon’s strongest links with federal Tories are to party organizers—such as Hugh Segal—rather than policy advisers.
Some Manitoba Tories add that the premier’s poor personal relationship with National Health Minister Jake Epp, the senior Manitoba minister in the Mulroney cabinet, may also contribute to his distance from the federal party. Filmon, who became the provincial Tory leader in 1983, spent much of his time in opposition fighting off internal challenges to his leadership and, according to some of his friends, is still angry over
speculation a year ago that Epp wanted his job.
For his part, Filmon dismisses suggestions that in balking on Meech Lake and angering Mulroney he risks financial retribution from the federal government, the source of discre-
tionary economic development funds that are essential to the province’s financial health. Said Filmon: “The Prime Minister has an obligation to treat one million Manitobans fairly. I am not worried.” In fact, some Filmon advisers said that it might be to Filmon’s political advantage
to be perceived as challenging Mulroney. The reason: lingering anti-Ottawa resentment in Manitoba over such issues as the awarding in October, 1986, of the CF-18 fighter-plane maintenance contract to a Montreal firm rather than Winnipeg’s Bristol Aerospace Ltd. (Of Manitoba’s 14 federal ridings, five elected Liberals in the November election.) Said Winnipeg-based pollster Angus Reid: “The strong stand on Meech Lake should help Filmon defuse the cry that he is a wimp.” Clearly, Filmon’s sudden toughness on Meech Lake has left Manitoba Tories more bullish about their prospects for a majority. Said Julian Benson, a Winnipeg accountant and one of Filmon’s advisers: “Gary has taken away 80 per cent of Carstairs’ agenda. Now, we will see what she has left.” But Filmon’s dilemma in carving out an anti-Meech Lake position is that he may have to demonstrate to Manitobans that he has wrung concessions from Mulroney before he can support the accord again in the future. Said political scientist William Neville of the University of Manitoba: “In the long nm, Filmon’s Meech Lake position may be an unexploded grenade. Without a well-defined constitutional § position of his own, he is going to have g to get amendments to the deal or I some concession from Mulroney. And ° that will not be easy.” When Filmon meets with the other first ministers at an informal session in Ottawa, expected to be called within the next few months, he will get a firsthand taste of just how difficult that will be.
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