It was an unusual setting for a discussion on Canada’s constitutional crisis. The 92-foot sailing schooner Scademia, on a post-refit trial run one evening last week, was heading away from St. John’s harbor towards Cape Spear, the easternmost point of Newfoundland—and Canada—closer to Ireland than it is to Vancouver. Standing at the vessel’s stern was Stanley Cook, a St. John’s high-school history teacher and a guest of the boat’s owner for the brief shakedown cruise. As conversation turned to the much-publicized role that Newfoundland’s premier was playing in the deadlock over the Meech Lake accord, the 45-year-old father of three said: “Up until now, we haven’t had the power to work within Confederation. We have been spinning our wheels. I back Clyde Wells 100 per cent.” But at the ship’s bow, her back to the brisk wind, stood a more skeptical observer, Cook’s daughter, Cori-Jane, 17. The Grade 12 student said that prior to a trip to Montreal in early May for a volleyball tournament, she had also been a firm supporter of Wells. But in Montreal, she
said, “I heard things I hadn’t thought of before. People in Quebec may well lose their language and culture. I think Mr. Wells should slack off a bit—though I think Quebec should, too.” At sea and on land, from rural outports to the provincial capital of St. John’s, Newfoundlanders last week were grappling with the full implications of their premier’s hard-nosed stand on the Meech Lake accord.
Said Patricia Harrigan, manager of Harrigan’s Grocery in Witless Bay, 22 km south of St. John’s: “A lot of my customers are talking about it.” And, as two recent opinion polls have attested, most Newfoundlanders appear solidly behind their premier’s rejection of the accord. Indeed, one of those polls, released on May 31 by Fredericton-based Baseline Market Research Ltd., found that 63 per cent of 350 respondents were ready to support any amended accord that Wells eventually supported— even before knowing what exactly would be in that document.
But despite such widespread support, some Newfoundlanders still expressed nagging
doubts last week about the fate of their province. Among them was Siobhan Duff, 23, a third-year medical student at Memorial University in St. John’s. Relaxing after rowing practice on the city’s Quidi Vidi Lake, Duff said that, like Wells, she had strong reservations about the section in the Meech Lake accord that recognizes Quebec as a “distinct society.” But she added, “It would be an incredible tragedy if Quebec separates.” Duff also bristled at the way the Newfoundland premier had been dealing with the constitutional deadlock. Said Duff: “I think Wells gets fixated. And he keeps saying, ‘Newfoundland wants this and Newfoundland wants that.’ I find that quite presumptuous.”
Trust: William Oates, a cod-farm worker in Bay Bulls, 40 km south of St. John’s, voiced similar concerns. “I think Mr. Wells is out to prove a point, and it will be at our expense,” said Oates. “This is scaring the hell out of us. We could lose our benefits if Canada breaks up—not just unemployment
insurance buf medical care, too.”
Still, such critics are clearly in the minority. Two separate polls conducted in the last month by Baseline Research and Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates found that between 64 and 66 per cent of respondents shared Wells’s opposition to the accord. As well, the Corporate Research poll suggested that 25 per cent of those who backed the premier’s stand did not have any specific reason for doing so. Explained John Cooper, 73, editor of The Senior Voice, a St. John’s-based newspaper for senior citizens: “It has really been a matter of trusting the man rather than knowing the details. Mr. Wells is one of the most statesmanlike leaders we have ever had.”
Support for the premier is strong, even among some businessmen who are banking heavily on federal funding for a long-awaited $8.5-billion program that will exploit the offshore Hibernia oilfield. Gary Eavis, president of East Coast Marine and Industrial Ltd., acknowledged that the prospect of Quebec separation could lead to economic instability, but added: “The majority of Newfoundlanders are behind Wells. And I am, too.”
For his part, St. John’s teacher and businessman Cook said he is convinced that Wells, who is a constitutional lawyer, knows enough to act on his behalf. “This is a tremendous man,” said Cook, who supported the opposition Conservative party until Wells pressed Newfoundland’s case on the Meech Lake accord. “We don’t want make-work projects anymore, and he is simply trying to give us enough power to start building our future.” Clearly, whatever stiff winds of criticism come from the mainland over the fate of the accord, Newfoundlanders’ trust in their cool and charismatic leader is unlikely to evaporate in the crucial weeks ahead.
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