COVER

CANADA IN CRISIS

THE DISSOLUTION OF CANADA INTO SEMI-INDEPENDENT STATES STRIKES MANY AS AN APPALLING PROSPECT

ROSS LAVER March 12 1990
COVER

CANADA IN CRISIS

THE DISSOLUTION OF CANADA INTO SEMI-INDEPENDENT STATES STRIKES MANY AS AN APPALLING PROSPECT

ROSS LAVER March 12 1990

CANADA IN CRISIS

COVER

THE DISSOLUTION OF CANADA INTO SEMI-INDEPENDENT STATES STRIKES MANY AS AN APPALLING PROSPECT

For people who remember the October Crisis of 1970, the victory of the Parti Québécois in 1976 and the referendum campaign of 1980, questions about the survival of Canada may seem painfully familiar. We have been through all of this before, many English-speaking Canadians respond wearily, and each time the country has held together. Others view the

prospect of a divided Canada with studied nonchalance. If Quebec wants out, they say, let them go—and good riddance. In Ottawa, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and an elite guard of senior bureaucrats huddle in an eleventh-hour bid to rescue the government’s cherished Meech Lake constitutional accord—the death of which, they warn, would have serious and possibly irreversible consequences for the future of the country. But how many people share that sense of foreboding?

Not many, to judge by the events of the past week. With less than four months to go before the anticipated June 23 deadline for ratification of Meech Lake, Quebec’s Liberal party tried once again to raise the alarm. Meeting in Quebec City, the party’s general council for the first time openly considered the province’s options in the event—seemingly more likely by the day—that the accord fails. The result was a unanimous decision to consider “alternative scenarios” to the existing federal system—one of which, delegates to the convention made clear, was sovereignty. “Quebecers have reached the threshold of tolerance,” declared Gil Rémillard, the province’s minister of intergovernmental affairs. “We will not turn the other cheek.” (page 20) ‘Sabre-rattling’: And yet, in the rest of Canada, Premier Robert Bourassa’s vow not to practise federalism “on bended knee” prompted more shrugs of dismissal than cries of alarm. Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon, whose province has yet to ratify the constitutional accord, dismissed Bourassa’s remark as “sabre-rattling” and insisted that his province would not be stampeded into approving Meech Lake by threats of Quebec separation. Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells, who has threatened to rescind his province’s approval of the accord, was also unimpressed. “I don’t think it comes as any surprise,” Wells said of Quebec’s position. “I don’t attach any special significance to it.” There are others who say that Canada is hurtling towards a constitutional precipice. But they offer conflicting views of whether Meech Lake is the remedy to that impending crisis or its cause. “It is probable,” said journalist and historian Bruce Hutchison recently, “that 1990 will be the most crucial year in this country’s history.” The failure to adopt Meech Lake, according to Hutchison, is likely to send Canada

into the next century in fragments. Former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, in comments taken from a forthcoming book and printed in several newspapers late last week, predicted that adoption of the same accord would lead Canada to “peace and reconciliation—the kind to be found in the graveyards of the deep” (page 28).

But beyond the ranks of the political elite, many English-speaking Canadians say that their patience with the constitutional wrangling has run out: they no longer care whether Quebec stays or goes. Linguistic hostility—of the sort that has led more than 40 communities in Ontario

to declare themselves unilingually English—undoubtedly contributes to the growing mood of apathy. But many people have simply grown weary of the constant sniping between French and English Canada. “Better a divorce, I think, than a marriage in name only,” novelist Mordecai Richler told a Toronto audience last week. “Canada is supposed to be a country, not a convenience store.”

In fact, Canada has always been a marriage more of convenience than love, a partnership born of mutual expediency rather than a unifying ideology or national myth. But as the country evolves, its regions share fewer economic and political interests than they once did. Mulroney’s critics charge that the year-old Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement has helped to unravel the fabric of the nation by committing the country to a north-south trading relationship. But

changes in the global economy have eroded east-west trade as well.

In its drive to contain the deficit, meanwhile, the Conservative government has pledged to sell the publicly owned oil company, PetroCanada, and cut back its spending on what many Canadians regard as symbols of national sovereignty—among them Via Rail, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and the armed forces. Countless other spending reductions—including the withdrawal of federal funds for the OSLO oil-

sands project in northern Alberta and the cancellation of plans to construct the Polar 8 icebreaker in British Columbia, both contained in the Feb. 20 budget—have aggravated regional tensions. Indeed, two of the country’s wealthiest provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, said last week that they were ready to take Ottawa to court in an attempt to prevent it from acting on its plan, announced in the budget, to limit the growth in transfer payments to the provinces. “In the 1960s and 1970s, governments had it easy,” said Tory MP Donald Blenkarn, chairman of the House of Commons finance committee. “If people in one region were squawking, the feds just opened the money tap. I wish we could afford to do the same thing, but we can’t.”

Insistent: In the long run, the clash of regional interests may prove even more destructive than the constant battles over language. In the Atlantic region, as well as in the West and the North, the long-standing complaints that the country’s affairs are unfairly dominated by Quebec’s constitutional demands and Ontario’s economy are becoming more insistent. “I am deeply troubled by what is happening today, and it goes far beyond language,” said Donald Savoie, a University of Moncton professor and the author of several highly acclaimed books on public spending. “Canadians in the Atlantic provinces and the West have never been more convinced that they are losing out and that national policies are devised solely for southern Ontario.”

But if there is an increasing sense of ambivalence about national identity, there is also a growing confidence that the regions—particularly Quebec, Ontario and the West—could survive economically on their own. “Quebec’s business class is far less dependent on the banks in Toronto than it was 15 or 20 years ago,” said Richard Simeon, a political scientist at Queen’s University. Added Bernard Roy, a former principal secretary to Mulroney and now a prominent Montreal lawyer: “People here no longer believe that independence would mean collective economic suicide. If you speak to the guy in the street, he has an enormous amount of pride in what Quebec has achieved. The feeling is, ‘We have the tools to go it alone.’ ” In Ontario, Attorney General Ian Scott even mused that if Confederation did dissolve, his province might contemplate entering into a new, two-province union with Quebec that could exclude the rest of present-day Canada (page 24).

‘Catastrophe’: Similarly, fewer English-Canadian businesses appear frightened by the prospect of a divided nation. “I just wonder how much would really change if the country split up,” said Adam Zimmerman, chairman and chief executive officer of Toronto-based Noranda Forest Inc., the country’s largest forest-products conglomerate. “I suppose it would be a catastrophe for the Atlantic provinces, but in the rest of the country I doubt that it would make much of a difference.” Most firms, he added, would probably learn to adapt to the change in circumstances.

Perhaps Canadians are not so much complacent about the prospects of a looser federation as they are resigned to its seeming inevitability. “Even if the Meech Lake debate is resolved, the question of making our federal structures accommodate the realities of a new Quebec will not disappear,” said Peter Desbarats, dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario and a former reporter who covered the nationalist struggles in Quebec during the 1960s. “The bonds between Quebec and the rest of the country are weakening. If I look ahead 20 or 25 years, I see a very different kind of Confederation—one that is much more of a pact between Quebec and English Canada.”

Rush: If Desbarats is right, all of the political rhetoric about deadlines and ultimatums misses the point. Bourassa himself has raised the possibility of a new “superstructure” to replace Confederation (page 22). It may have been no coincidence that he did so during a recent visit to Western Europe, where the rush towards a single market in 1992 is predicated on the belief that economic union is not incompatible with political sovereignty. “Bourassa spent a couple of years in Brussels in the mid-1970s, and I think he was intrigued by what he saw there,” Roy said. The dissolution of Canada into semi-independent states strikes many Canadians as an appalling prospect. But Bourassa at least is talking—and thinking—about what will happen next if Meech Lake goes down the drain. And that is something that many other Canadians, weary of language wars and the seemingly endless constitutional debate, have yet to do.

ROSS LAVER