SPECIAL REPORT

STEPPING BACK FROM THE BRINK

AFTER HARSH WORDS, THE FIRST MINISTERS AGREE TO RECONSIDER THE CONSTITUTION

ROSS LAVER,BRUCE WALLACE November 20 1989
SPECIAL REPORT

STEPPING BACK FROM THE BRINK

AFTER HARSH WORDS, THE FIRST MINISTERS AGREE TO RECONSIDER THE CONSTITUTION

ROSS LAVER,BRUCE WALLACE November 20 1989

STEPPING BACK FROM THE BRINK

SPECIAL REPORT

AFTER HARSH WORDS, THE FIRST MINISTERS AGREE TO RECONSIDER THE CONSTITUTION

The objective among Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s senior strategists had been to foster what one of them called “a lovein.” But when Canada’s 11 First Ministers met in Ottawa last week, the federal government’s attempt to cool the emotion-charged debate over the Meech Lake constitutional accord promptly went awry. The tension was obvious even before Mulroney called the meeting to order. On the eve of the conference, tempers flared during a private dinner in the wood-panelled members’ lounge of the National Gallery of Canada. For 2V2 hours, Mulroney and several premiers took turns berating Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells for his unyielding opposition to the accord over the special status that he says it gives to Quebec. According to witnesses, the debate took on a nasty tone: at one point, one of the premiers glared at Wells and said, “Clyde, you’re no f—ing constitutional lawyer.”

A day later, under the blaze of television lights, the rift between Wells and his adversaries burst into the open. In an electrifying exchange that laid bare the animosity between Wells and Mulroney, Newfoundland’s Liberal premier accused the Conservative Prime Minister of offering Quebec a “special legislative status” that would erode the foundations of

Confederation. Declared Wells: “I believe that is what the vast majority of the people of this nation are rejecting.” In response, Mulroney lectured Wells about the perils of ignoring Quebec’s constitutional demands to be recognized, in the wording of the accord, as a “distinct society.” Mocking Wells’s position, Mulroney declared, “It is so easy to say, ‘I would not do that, no distinct society, no this,

no that, because that’s a favor to Quebec.’ ” By the time the conference ended the following day, the angry split had been papered over, at least for the moment, by a carefully hedged agreement among the 11 First Ministers to continue their consultations on the Constitution. To that end, Mulroney instructed Senator Lowell Murray, minister of federal-provincial relations, to tour the provincial capitals to

search for enough common ground to justify another constitutional conference in the new year (page 28). At the same time, he said, Murray will “intensify and seek to accelerate” the process of Senate reform—working towards the possibility of a First Ministers’ meeting on the subject in November, 1990.

Promise: But the compromise was more apparent than real. In order to extract a promise from Wells not to act immediately to rescind the Meech accord, which has passed the Newfoundland House of Assembly, the other First Ministers agreed that no constitutional deal would go into effect before the Newfoundland house has had another chance to “consider” it. For his part, Wells insisted that he was leaving Ottawa with his opposition to Meech Lake unshaken. Said Wells: “There is no change in the position that Newfoundland took at the beginning of this meeting.”

Even that modest outcome came as a relief

to Meech Lake’s supporters, who, for several tense minutes on the first day of the conference, feared that the constitutional dialogue might break down entirely. During one prolonged attack on the accord by Wells, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa gathered his papers and walked out of the conference hall. His aides later insisted that Bourassa had merely wanted time alone to prepare for the next session. But Maclean ’s has learned that Bourassa’s departure from the room provoked near-panic in the

federal and Ontario delegations. Recalled one provincial official: “I thought, ‘Oh my God, if his delegation goes with him, we are done for.’ ” At that moment, Ontario’s David Peterson scribbled a note and passed it to one of his senior aides. The note asked whether, if Bourassa did withdraw from the conference, Ontario’s contingent should pull out in support.

Officials in both the federal and Ontario delegations told Maclean's that what they most feared was that Wells would formally announce his intention to rescind Newfoundland’s support for the accord—a step that they feared would drive Bourassa from the table. But, in an interview with Maclean ’s, Wells denied a published report that he had been talked out of doing so by Ontario Attorney General Ian Scott. “That is utter nonsense,” said Wells. “He had no input into it. Rescission was never part of the text.”

In fact, neither side made any significant concessions. Both Mulroney and Murray had already made clear their support for the concept of a reformed, elected Senate. And even Mulroney acknowledged that last week’s meeting had left the survival of his cherished constitutional pact far from assured. “I am not suggesting there has been enormous progress,” he said after the conference. “I am just saying that we have agreed on a process.” Added Peterson: “This does not imply for a minute that Meech Lake is put to bed. Very serious objections remain.” Reform: And in their closing statements, the other two premiers who oppose the accord also held firmly to their demands for changes. Manitoba’s Gary Filmon said that Mulroney’s offer to hold formal talks on Senate reform was not enough to satisfy his province’s concerns. “All that is in there is a conference,” he said. “Why would I trade off our differences on Meech Lake

for a conference?”

Only New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna appeared to leave Ottawa with a clear sense that progress had been made. McKenna told Maclean ’s that he was gratified that Mulroney at last appeared to have accepted the need to deal with the concerns of those who oppose Meech Lake. McKenna added: “It is not a lot, and the whole process may lead to nothing. But at least we are further ahead than we were two weeks ago.”

But Meech Lake’s defenders were no more conciliatory than its critics. Bourassa, who has described the accord as representing his province’s minimum price for signing the 1982 Constitution—which took effect without Quebec’s agreement—said that the conference had produced a “change in climate” among the First Ministers. But Bourassa reaffirmed his refusal to consider any modification of the 1987 agreement. And he made it plain that Quebec was not prepared to consider changes to the upper chamber of Parliament until the holdouts approve Meech Lake. Declared Bourassa: “Until Meech Lake is ratified, I do not intend to discuss with my cabinet colleagues the substance of Senate reform.”

Score: As it was, even some of Mulroney’s allies privately expressed concern that his public slanging match with Wells may have made the prospect of an eventual agreement all the more remote. Said an aide to Peterson: “If the object was to make Wells appear intemperate, it failed. If the object was to score a quick knockout, it failed. It just made Wells entrench his position more firmly.”

For their part, Mulroney’s advisers insisted that the Newfoundland premier had provoked the confrontation deliberately. “Wells went out looking for a scrap because he wanted national attention,” one close adviser to the Prime Minister claimed. “I think he did it with malice aforethought. He knew that there was no way our guy could let those comments pass.”

For Mulroney, the clash with Wells marked the latest in a series of setbacks in the accord’s 30-month history. Drawn up during a rare period of harmony between Ottawa and the provinces, the accord will not become law unless it receives the approval of Parliament and all 10 provincial legislatures by June, 1990. But Wells, McKenna and Filmon were not in power when the deal was signed by their predecessors, and each has refused to endorse the agreement without significant alterations. McKenna has proposed a separate agreement to ensure the protection of linguistic minorities in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Filmon goes further, seeking amendments to the accord itself that would dilute the impact of the “distinct society” clause (page 24).

Askew: Until last spring, Ottawa appeared to be trying to strike a deal with McKenna in order to isolate Filmon. If that happened, federal officials reckoned, the Manitoba premier would be forced to give ground so that he could avoid being seen as the architect of Meech Lake’s failure. But that strategy went askew last April, when Wells’s Liberals fought and won a provincial election in that province, toppling the incumbent pro-Meech Conservative government. Wells has since become the accord’s most outspoken critic among the provincial premiers —to the extent that even McKenna has acknowledged telephoning his Newfoundland counterpart recently to implore him not to adopt too rigid a position against the deal.

But any hopes that Wells was ready to relax his opposition were dashed almost as soon as he arrived in Ottawa last week. Proclaiming that the accord, as written, “is now not acceptable

to Newfoundland,” Wells told reporters who met him at the city’s airport that he was ready to carry out his earlier threats to rescind his province’s ratification of the accord. That declaration provoked anger from other premiers. Peterson, who has emerged in recent weeks as one of Meech Lake’s most passionate defenders, declared, “It would be a very destructive act that would poison relations.”

But Wells’s critics saved their harshest words for the privacy of the preconference dinner at the National Gallery. After that dinner, a federal official told Maclean ’s that the conversation was “vigorous and profane, the sort of talk you hear in a locker room.” In search of allies, Wells pointed out that a recent report by Manitoba’s all-party task force on Meech Lake had expressed many of the same objections to the accord that Newfoundland

had put forward. That prompted Peterson to turn on Filmon. “Everyone knows that you would have passed Meech Lake a year ago if you had a majority,” he told the Manitoba premier. Filmon retorted that the Meech Lake resolution would have been defeated in the Manitoba legislature if he had not withdrawn the motion last December. Said Filmon: “I am keeping Meech Lake alive.”

Upbeat: The atmosphere at the end of the two-day conference was noticeably less antagonistic—but there was little evidence that any of the participants were willing to compromise in the negotiations that lie ahead. Mulroney, trying to strike an upbeat note, said that he was “encouraged” that the First Ministers had at least agreed to keep talking. “Progress usually is incremental,” he added. “It does not happen in big bites too often.” In fact, federal

officials have long speculated privately that the best chance for salvaging Meech Lake lies in keeping negotiations going right up until the June, 1990, deadline. Their hope is that the accord’s opponents will grow weary of the brinkmanship before its defenders do.

That strategy is far from certain of success. And last week, observers outside Ottawa offered the gloomy assessment that there is little in the national mood to foster conciliation. But as the Conference Centre in the national capital finally fell silent late last week, it was clear that almost any strategy held out more promise than a repeat of the charged and tension-filled performance of the previous two days.

ROSS LAVER

BRUCE WALLACE

E. KAYE FULTON

MARC CLARK