CANADA

A BREAKTHROUGH ?

QUIET DIPLOMACY BY THE WESTERN PREMIERS SPARKS RENEWED HOPE FOR A MEECH LAKE RESOLVE

GREG W. TAYLOR May 21 1990
CANADA

A BREAKTHROUGH ?

QUIET DIPLOMACY BY THE WESTERN PREMIERS SPARKS RENEWED HOPE FOR A MEECH LAKE RESOLVE

GREG W. TAYLOR May 21 1990

A BREAKTHROUGH ?

CANADA

QUIET DIPLOMACY BY THE WESTERN PREMIERS SPARKS RENEWED HOPE FOR A MEECH LAKE RESOLVE

For Canada’s four western premiers, it was a time for quiet diplomacy. Emerging from their annual meeting last week in Portage la Prairie, Man., the premiers said that they had agreed on a strategy to clear one of the main hurdles standing in the way of a constitutional amendment—disagreement over the Meech Lake accord’s unanimous-consent requirement for Senate reform. Revealing only that their plan involved using a so-called sunset clause to retire that provision if it proves to be unworkable, the premiers refused to make any further details public. Instead, they said that they would speak privately with the six other provincial leaders and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Still, by week’s end, it was clear that the premiers’ low-key initiative had at least got the other leaders talking about the possibility of a constitutional compromise. In Mulroney’s cautious phrasing after hearing of the new approach, “additional signs of flexibility were evident.”

Even so, it was equally clear that several other critical disagreements had to be settled if the troubled constitutional accord is to be passed before its June 23 deadline. In Manitoba, which along with New Brunswick has not yet ratified the proposed amendments, Premier Gary Filmon said that the sunset clause he helped formulate still left several of his province’s major concerns unanswered. And Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells, who has rescinded his province’s earlier support for Meech Lake, continued to demand more fundamental changes to the deal.

But it also seemed likely that the shifts in positions that began in Manitoba would continue at least through this week, when the special Commons committee that has been examining the additions to Meech Lake, proposed by New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna on March

21, presents its report to Parliament. In Quebec, where Premier Robert Bourassa has not retreated from his insistence that Meech Lake is unalterable, some officials said last week that certain additions to the accord might be acceptable. Said one adviser to Bourassa: “We are ready to take some risks.”

The western premiers’ initiative would leave intact the Meech requirement that all 10 provinces must approve any reforms to the Senate— but only for a limited time.

If negotiators were unable to agree on Senate reform in that period—likely three years—the requirement for approving changes to the upper house would revert to the pre-Meech formula of seven provinces containing one-half of Canada’s population.

Within hours, Ontario Premier David Peter son indicated that he, for one, might accept a sunset clause. Peterson, a finn Meech support er, also told an audience of U.S. investors in New York City that he believed the accord

would be ratified by the dead line. "I remain an optimist," he said. And McKenna, one ol the holdout premiers, also ex pressed hope, noting, "The exciting and optimistic thing is that people are actively try ing to find creative solu tions." Even Wells grudging ly conceded that the clause merited consideration. Said the Newfoundland premier: "if that's the only way to find a solution acceptable to the whole country, then certainly we would have to consider it seriously." In Manitoba, where Fil mon’s minority Conservative government depends for its survival on the support of at least one of the two opposition parties, politicians were clearly cautious. Emerging from a meeting with Filmon, Manitoba Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs and NDP Leader Gary Doer, both opponents of the existing Meech proposals, said that a sunset clause would not settle all of their objections to the accord. Declared Carstairs: “The clause is a building block in a very large building, and the other blocks have not yet been put in place.”

Still, Carstairs described the development as “exciting,” and indicated for the first time that a combination of the sunset clause and the McKenna proposals—which, among other things, would increase constitutional protection for minority language rights—might enable her to support a revised constitutional amendment.

The McKenna proposals were also discussed by members of the special parliamentary committee that held public hearings into the New Brunswick premier’s proposals. Chaired by Sherbrooke, Que., MP Jean Charest, the committee’s nine Tories, three Liberals and two New Democrats spent much of last week putting the final touches on their report. And although it is not due to be released until this week, several of its elements were apparent. Among them: support for the Meech Lake accord as written, including its June 23 dead-

line, with the recommendation that several of McKenna’s proposed additions be adopted in what some participants in the constitutional debate quickly nicknamed a “Meech Lake Plus” package.

With less than six weeks remaining before the unratified accord expires, the pressure on all parties to compromise will intensify. And in Quebec, where both federal and provincial politicians have insisted that they would discuss neither changes nor additions to Meech Lake before it is ratified, there were at least some indications of a new perception. Federal Industry Minister Benoît Bouchard, an ardent Quebec nationalist, said that Quebec must be willing to accept “compromises or additions.”

At the same time, some advisers to Bourassa said that there was room to negotiate a compromise—within limits. For one thing, senior Bourassa aides told Maclean ’s that the province was willing to discuss Senate reform, but would not agree to forgo Quebec’s veto over changes to federal institutions. As well, they noted, McKenna’s proposal to give Ottawa the right to promote the rights of linguistic minorities “is unacceptable as it is.”

Quebec officials also said they are studying the possibility of an “annex clause” to state clearly that nothing in the accord reduces the rights Canadians have under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That, they say, should satisfy concern that the accord’s recognition of Quebec’s “distinct society” could infringe on the minority rights in Quebec.

Still, Quebec officials also suggested that an increasingly nationalistic mood in the province has restricted their ability to compromise. For one thing, a recent public opinion poll placed the opposition Parti Québécois ahead of the Liberals for the first time since the early 1980s. And Bourassa’s officials expressed the fear that the other provinces would reach an agreement on Meech Lake Plus that the Quebec premier, faced with nationalist pressure, could never accept.

Still, despite the caution, it was clear that last week marked a watershed when the mood of many participants in the negotiations began to shift. After a winter of frigid impasse, there were indications, for the first time, of a possible constitutional thaw.

GREG W. TAYLOR

JOHN HOWSE

BRUCE WALLACE