THE TORIES CALL ON JEAN CHRETIEN FOR LAST-MINUTE HELP IN RESCUING THE MEECH LAKE ACCORD
AN UNLIKELY MEECH ALLY
THE TORIES CALL ON JEAN CHRETIEN FOR LAST-MINUTE HELP IN RESCUING THE MEECH LAKE ACCORD
There were no guarantees of success and much work still remained to be done. But by the end of last week, the optimists at least among Canada’s politicians could sense the beginnings of compromise on the package of constitutional changes that has often divided the country as much as united it. In Ottawa, the Prime Minister and all three federal parties endorsed the report of a committee of the House of Commons that identified 23 areas where the Meech Lake accord could be amplified in a separate document in order to address concerns about its effects—but which also urged the country to ratify the accord before its June 23 deadline. And outside the capital, the report was greeted with unusual encouragement from the three dissident premiers in Manitoba, Newfoundland and New Brunswick who have so far blocked a constitutional settlement. Said Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells, until last week an implacable critic of the deal: “I am confident [that] if the first ministers sit down together, we can probably work something out.”
Still, the steps back from the precipice of constitutional
failure were at best tentative. In Quebec, Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa made it clear that one central element of the emerging compromise might be too much for his province to accept. A constitutional clause recommended by the committee, stating clearly that Meech Lake’s recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society” would not imperil individual rights, he said, amounted to an “unacceptable demand.” With that, Bourassa ensured that any settlement would be forced to address a conflict between individual and minority rights that, in different forms, has bedevilled Canada from its earliest days. Meanwhile, Maclean’s learned that the Conservative government’s search for support for a constitutional settlement had extended to an unlikely ally—Jean Chrétien, the leading but as-yet unelected candidate for the federal Liberal leadership.
Plainly, a resolution to the crippling constitutional debate would require artful manouevring and flexibility from all sides. For its part, the 15-member parliamentary committee, chaired by Sherbrooke, Que., Tory MP Jean Charest, endorsed the concept of a so-called “compan-
ion resolution” to Meech Lake, first proposed last March by New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna. The committee urged that a companion resolution include a time limit on the accord’s requirement of unanimous provincial consent for Senate reform, after which a more “moderate” formula would be adopted. In addition, it asked for recognition of aboriginal peoples and urged that the accord’s terms for conferring provincial status on the northern territories be relaxed.
But the committee stopped short of framing its recommendations in detailed constitutional language. That was Ë left to federal and provincial I officials, who had already bes gun the delicate task of draftî ing wording that might allow
Meech Lake’s detractors to embrace the agreement. For his part, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney dispatched Senator Lowell Murray on a weekend tour of the provincial capitals to assess the prospects for a settlement. Mulroney indicated that a positive report would lead to a First Ministers meeting, probably in Ottawa and possibly as early as this week, to approve the final text of a constitutional resolution that would include the eleventh-hour ratification of Meech Lake.
It was Chrétien’s hitherto secret role in the negotiations that, as much as anything, illustrated the lengths to which the federal government appeared willing to go to secure a settlement. Chrétien has been a leading critic of the accord since it was signed in June, 1987. But with his lead over rival candidates for the Liberal leadership now all but unassailable, Chrétien’s advisers admitted privately that they would like to have the Meech Lake debate settled before the June 23 leadership convention. Said one senior Chrétien adviser: “Taking into account the long-term relationship he has to have with Quebec, obviously it would be better for
Chrétien to have Meech Lake put behind him.”
As a result, Chrétien’s team has been working willingly alongside the Tories for at least a month to help resolve the Meech Lake impasse. Using intermediaries, Stanley Hartt, Mulroney’s chief of staff, sought Chrétien’s views regularly on wording for a companion resolution that the former Liberal cabinet minister could support. Said one senior Ottawa Tory: “Our guys are not making a move without talking to Chrétien.” In return, Hartt has counted on Chrétien to sway two of the accord’s most outspoken and pivotal holdouts: Newfoundland’s Wells and Manitoba Liberal Opposition Leader Sharon Carstairs, whose party holds the balance of power in the legislature.
Publicly, Chrétien avoided detailed comment on the committee’s report. Speaking in Vancouver, he said only that he was happy to see the House of Commons acknowledge that Meech Lake had to be modified. But much of the report echoes changes that Chrétien himself called for in a policy speech on the constitution last January. Among other things, Chrétien called then for a constitutional assertion that Meech Lake’s distinct society clause does not override the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. With the Charest committee’s endorsement of that proposal—and Bourassa’s prompt rejection of it—the issue immediately became the one most likely to scuttle any emerging compromise.
Indeed, the looming crunch over the distinct society clause laid bare a conflict between competing political values that has deep roots in Canada’s history. The Quebec politicians who helped frame the country’s original constitution, the 1867 British North America Act, sought and won special provisions designed to protect their province’s language, culture and distinct French legal system. Since then, the notion that the rights of communities may sometimes outweigh those of individuals has been invoked repeatedly by politicians across Canada to defend traditions of public enterprise and protection for linguistic minorities that have sharply distinguished Canada from other countries, particularly the United States. The constitutional balance between community and individual rights underwent a profound change, however, with the adoption in 1982 of the Charter of Rights—with Quebec as the only dissenting province—which raised individual rights to pre-eminence.
While that trend plainly has strong support in English Canada, it is one that Quebec’s negotiators are determined to resist in any constitutional statement addressing the relative standing of the Charter and the distinct society clause. Observed Bourassa last week: “When an amendment is proposed which says that the distinct society [clause] gives absolutely no new power, it will be very difficult to reach an agreement.” Added one senior Bourassa aide: “Our belief is that if distinct society ends up being watered down, then it is better to have no Meech Lake.”
It quickly became clear that Bourassa and Mulroney have little room to manoeuvre if they
wish to retain their support among Quebecers. For his part, Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau, whose party leads Bourassa’s Liberals in provincial opinion polls, was scathing in his condemnation of the proposed terms of a Meech compromise. “Quebec is not being asked to practise federalism on its knees,” said Parizeau. “It is being asked to practise it on all fours and accept anything and everything.”
And on the federal stage, Quebec Tory backbencher François Gérin resigned from the party caucus to sit in Ottawa as an Independent, underscoring the depth of opposition towards any concessions among Mulroney’s Quebec caucus. Declared Gérin: “We expected Canada to offer an unconditional ‘Yes’ to Quebec. Now, the Prime Minister has to choose between the interests of the other provinces of Canada and the interests of Quebec. I choose Quebec.”
But Quebec did not close the door to all compromises. In fact, Jean-Claude Rivest, Bourassa’s leading constitutional adviser, continued throughout last week to discuss compromise wording to redefine the relationship between the distinct society clause and the charter. And other provincial officials indicated that they were willing, with some conditions, to accept changes to Meech Lake’s amending formula that might make Senate reform easier to achieve.
Several dissenters, including Newfoundland and Manitoba, have demanded such a change in return for their support of the accord. They have complained that Meech Lake would effectively prevent movement towards reform of the upper house by giving every province a veto over any changes. Responding to those concerns, Charest’s committee recommended that, if Senate reform is not achieved within a set time—it proposed three years—the Meech requirement for unanimous provincial
approval should be dropped in favor of a less restrictive formula, which it did not define. At the same time, in order to allay apprehension on Quebec’s part that it would lose the right to reject reforms that it considered unacceptable, the committee recommended that any new amending formula include some form of regional veto. British Columbia Premier William Vander Zalm, for
one, called that proposal “encouraging.”
Still, most of those who endorsed the Charest report did so with reservations. Wells, for one, called some of its conclusions “clearly unacceptable to Newfoundland.” And in Winnipeg, Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon noted that any agreement would need to ensure that none of the provincial leaders was perceived as having backed down from his position. “The
main difficulty now is saving face for some premiers,” Filmon told Maclean’s.
And there remained other hurdles on the road to a constitutional settlement. Filmon, for one, said that a First Ministers’ meeting would have to be held promptly if his provincial legislature is to have enough time to pass the accord and a companion resolution by June 23. In Manitoba, the process has to include at least 10 days of public hearings. And Newfoundland’s Wells remained committed to taking any agreement arrived at by the first ministers to public hearings in his province as well. Indeed, many participants expressed undiminished concern that Wells’s entrenched opposition remained the greatest obstacle to a deal. “Most elements for a deal are there,” said McKenna. “But the premier of Newfoundland has to decide if he is prepared to make some concessions to Quebec.”
But there were indications as well that politicians and ordinary Canadians alike
2 were increasingly impatient I to find a solution to the deadly lock. According to a national 3 poll conducted by Angus Reid § Inc. between May 4 and 13, ' support for the Meech Lake accord would rise from 35
per cent to 57 per cent if it
included a companion resolution similar to McKenna’s. And fear for the consequence of a constitutional failure also appeared to be on the rise. Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed observed that such an outcome would carry an enormous cost in lost foreign investment. Added Lougheed, now a Calgary-based lawyer: “It will be a big economic price, and I am not very confident about Western Canada’s ability to - survive without a very dimin-
ished standard of living.” Despite that, pessimistic scenarios were far from the minds of those working towards a deal last week. One premier found a hopeful omen for the prospects of a settlement in Bourassa’s willingness to allow Chrétien, a political foe of long standing, to play an active role in the negotiations. And Charest observed, as he presented his committee’s report, that “there is a way out of this. There is some consensus.” If „ so, the deal remained elusive.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.