CANADA

TEST IN THE WEST

FEDERAL TORIES ACCUSE FILMON OF CYNICISM, BUT HIS TACTICS MAY PAY OFF POLITICALLY

ROSS LAVER April 24 1989
CANADA

TEST IN THE WEST

FEDERAL TORIES ACCUSE FILMON OF CYNICISM, BUT HIS TACTICS MAY PAY OFF POLITICALLY

ROSS LAVER April 24 1989

TEST IN THE WEST

CANADA

FEDERAL TORIES ACCUSE FILMON OF CYNICISM, BUT HIS TACTICS MAY PAY OFF POLITICALLY

When Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon announced plans last month for provincewide hearings on the Meech Lake constitutional accord by a legislative task force, his advisers worried that the tactic might backfire. They feared that the airing, intended to forge an all-party stand on the controversial pact, would instead trigger an outpouring of anti-French bigotry—a result that could prove embarrassing for politicians such as Filmon who oppose the accord. But presentations at the hearings, which began on April 6, have not borne out those fears. Instead, Filmon’s main problem has been with fellow Conservatives in Ottawa, where Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his supporters have not concealed their impatience with the Manitoba premier.

According to the premier’s advisers, Filmon and Mulroney have barely spoken to each other since the premier decided on Dec. 19 to rescind his minority government’s support for the accord, which, among other things, gives

Quebec the status of a “distinct society” within Canada. On the one occasion since then when they met face to face—during a private first ministers’ luncheon in Ottawa in late February —Mulroney tried to embarrass Filmon by quoting from the premier’s Dec. 16 speech to the provincial legislature in praise of the accord. In Winnipeg four days later, Filmon

responded by setting up the provincial task force on Meech Lake. Said one federal cabinet minister: “Filmon gave us no notice of what he was going to do.” Privately, federal Tories are also disdainful of Filmon’s stated commitment to constitutional reform and minority language rights. They argue that his turnabout on Meech Lake, ostensibly prompted by Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s decision to outlaw the use of English on outdoor signs, was merely an attempt to improve his chances of winning a majority the next time he goes to the polls.

Despite those criticisms, federal Tories are clearly concerned about how the Manitoba hearings will affect their attempts to have the accord ratified. Mulroney himself has tried to deflect criticism from the accord by suggesting that the real threat to minority language rights is not Meech Lake but the so-called notwithstanding clause of the 1982 Constitution Act. Inserted into that document at the insistence of several western premiers, the clause gives Parliament and the provincial legislatures the

right to override most of the civil liberties guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And early this month, Mulroney stepped up his attack by telling reporters that the Constitution is “not worth the paper that it is written on” as long as Quebec is not a signatory to the document and as long as governments have the power to override basic human rights.

By drawing attention to the flaws in the 1982 Constitution, Mulroney was suggesting that Pierre Trudeau—the Liberal prime minister at the time of the 1982 constitutional agreement and now a leading critic of the Meech Lake resolution—must shoulder some of the blame for Quebec’s decision to restrict anglophone rights. Mulroney’s argument is that Quebec could not have flouted a Supreme Court of Canada ruling and banned the use of languages other than French on outdoor commercial signs, as it did last December, if there were no notwithstanding clause.

But Mulroney’s foes pounced on his remarks. Last week, Liberal Leader John Turner challenged Mulroney to ban forthwith federal use of the notwithstanding clause. Mulroney refused. And Turner noted that several of Mulroney’s Quebec MPs, including Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard, are ardent defenders of Quebec’s use of the notwithstanding clause to override the Constitution. The 1987 Meech Lake accord has been endorsed by

Parliament and eight of the 10 provincial legislatures—as well as by Turner and the NDP’s Edward Broadbent. But if Manitoba and New Brunswick—the two provincial holdouts—do not approve it by June, 1990, it will die, spelling defeat for Mulroney’s efforts to accommodate

Quebec, which did not sign the 1982 Constitution Act. “We hope that the Manitoba hearings will not make it more difficult to ratify the accord,” Senator Lowell Murray, minister for federal-provincial relations, told Maclean’s. “But ratification is obviously going to take a bit longer than we thought.”

In Manitoba, the Meech Lake hearings, continuing at various locations around the province until April 29, now appear likely to accomplish two distinct political objectives for Filmon. On one level, political analysts say that a public display of opposition to the accord could strengthen his anti-Meech position when federal-provincial talks on the Constitution resume in Charlottetown in September. At the same time, the Conservative premier may be trying to deflect criticism from his opponents that he lacks a well-defined constitutional position. Instead of putting forward his own proposals for change, he can now wait while the provincial task force—composed of three Tories, two Liberals, one New Democrat and a neutral chairman—attempts to carve out a unified Manitoba policy on Meech Lake.

Amid the renewed constitutional wrangling in Ottawa, few federal politicians paid close attention last week to the public hearings on Meech Lake in Manitoba. But the outcome of those hearings could prove significant. Above all, Mulroney’s advisers appear to be concerned that the hearings will contribute to a growing anti-Meech mood in that province. That would hurt Ottawa’s chances of being able to convince Filmon to back down in return for a promise that his concerns about such issues as language rights and Senate reform will be addressed in future constitutional negotiations. With only a few exceptions, most of the witnesses have denounced the accord as a threat to the rights of Canadians, especially natives and women. “I don’t see this as a Quebecversus-Canada issue,” said Hetty Van Der Put, one of 20 witnesses who testified last week during a daylong meeting in the largely Mennonite farming community of Winkler, 100 km southwest of Winnipeg. “It is a national issue. And I object strongly to the process, since on this important issue Canadians were not consulted.”

Filmon’s own advisers said that any attempt by the premier to soften his stand would likely deal a severe blow to his credibility in the province, where Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs, an opponent of the Meech Lake accord, holds 21 seats to 24 for Filmon’s Conservatives and 12 for the NDP. “It is hard to ignore the fact that Meech Lake would be a major issue in any Manitoba election,” an aide to the premier said last week, “and we would have to spell out our position on it clearly.”

Annoyed by Filmon’s decision to hold public hearings, federal officials have met privately to discuss how they should react. Some Tory strategists have suggested that Filmon’s cause could suffer if the opponents of Meech Lake are seen to be allied with anti-French, anti-Quebec forces. Said Murray: “I do not know if that helps us, but that is not the kind of company I would like to find myself in.” But only a handful

of the witnesses at task force hearings so far— in Winnipeg, Winkler and Garden Hill, an Indian reserve 450 km northeast of Winnipeg— have expressed anti-French sentiments. And a senior Manitoba Tory told Maclean ’s that the committee is conscious of the need to contain displays of intolerance. “The panel is working very hard to keep the anti-French feeling down,” the Tory said. “If somebody launches into an anti-French tirade, the committee will not prolong his or her appearance by asking any questions. That is not the impression we want to project.”

Privately, federal officials also note that each of the task force members—with the exception of the chairman, University of Manitoba political scientist Waldron Fox-Decent—is already on record as opposing the accord. Federal Energy Minister Jake Epp, himself a Manitoban, returned to Ottawa after his appearance before the committee two weeks ago and reported to his colleagues that it was a foregone conclusion the task force would find fault with Meech Lake. Still, Epp told MPs and senators from the province that it was essential that federal supporters of Meech Lake testify at the hearings about their reasons for backing the accord. Said Tory Senator Nathan Nurgitz of Winnipeg, who is scheduled to address the task force later this month: “If you cannot have a fair fight, you should at least make sure that you get as much on the record as you can.”

But so far, the vast majority of submissions to the panel—all but four of more than 30 by the end of last week—have urged the Manitoba government either to reject the accord or to seek amendments. Some speakers expressed concerns about the effect that the distinct society clause would have on French-language minorities outside Quebec. “I would like to see French spoken as much as possible,” said Diane Johnston, a school librarian from Carman, 75 km southwest of Winnipeg. “I do not want to see our French communities outside of Quebec disappear.” Other speakers said that the accord, by giving provinces the right to opt out of future federal spending programs, threatens to undermine the central government. Declared Gustine Wilton, a farmer from Carman: “The price is much too high. Too much power was given to the provinces.”

Meanwhile, opposition to Meech Lake remains strong in other parts of the country. New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, for one, said in a Montreal speech last week that the accord provides inadequate protection for minority groups. “The province of Quebec is increasingly looking to become unilingual French, and the other provinces unilingual English—to hell with minorities,” McKenna said. And in St. John’s, Nfld., Liberal Leader Clyde Wells said that if his party won this week’s provincial election, he would move to rescind Newfoundland’s support for the accord. Mulroney showed no sign of yielding to such pressures, but for the moment his political opponents appeared to have the momentum.

ROSS LAVER

BRUCE WALLACE

DOUG SMITH