COVER

ON THE ROCK

THE EPIC BATTLE OVER MEECH LAKE LEAVES A NATION WEARIED BY ITS OWN DIVISIONS

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH,BRUCE WALLACE June 18 1990
COVER

ON THE ROCK

THE EPIC BATTLE OVER MEECH LAKE LEAVES A NATION WEARIED BY ITS OWN DIVISIONS

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH,BRUCE WALLACE June 18 1990

ON THE ROCK

COVER

THE EPIC BATTLE OVER MEECH LAKE LEAVES A NATION WEARIED BY ITS OWN DIVISIONS

It was a week when political emotions reached highs and lows rarely seen in Canada in peacetime. And as 10 provincial leaders and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney emerged from seven gruelling days of secret negotiations to break the deadlock over the Meech Lake constitutional accord late Saturday night, the ravages were evident in their faces and expressions. In the end, they fell just short of the objective of unanimous support. Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells was the holdout: he signed the closing communiqué that endorsed the accord, but only with reservations. At Wells’s insistence, it was left to the Newfoundland legislature to make the

final decision whether or not to ratify the accord before the deadline of June 23. Now, for two weeks, the spotlight will fall on the 52-year-old premier and the 52 legislators of Canada’s youngest province as they determine the fate of an agreement designed primarily to make Quebec a party to the Constitution and to recognize that province as a “distinct society” within Canada. Said Mulroney, as the First Ministers gathered Saturday night for their only public session of the week to sign the document: “This is a happy day for Canada.” Looking forward to the process in Newfoundland, he added, “We should soon be able to turn the page on this chapter of constitutional reform.”

Wells’s conditional agreement guaranteed that the days leading up to the deadline for all provinces to pass the accord will be uncertain ones. For his part, the Newfoundland premier said that he would neither oppose the accord’s ratification—nor encourage it. But he made it clear that he did not share his fellow First Ministers’ confidence in the outcome. “I don’t know what the basis for their optimism is,” an exhausted Wells said late on Saturday. “It is going to be up to the people or the legislature of Newfoundland,” he added, holding open the possibility that the accord may yet be put to a referendum in the province. As well, two other provinces—New Brunswick and Manitoba— must also submit the agreement to their legislatures before the deadline.

Still, passage there seemed to be assured by commitments from both Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon and New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna. And if all three legislatures ratify the Meech Lake accord on time, Mulroney and the premiers will have brought an end to one of Canada’s most debilitating and rancorous national debates. The accord would become part of the Constitution of Canada. And Quebec, which did not sign the constitutional patriation agreement of 1981, would again become a fully committed member of the federation. Beyond that, the province would have won constitutional recognition of its “distinct society” within Canada—a goal that various Quebec governments have pursued in different forms for 25 years. Declared Bourassa after the agreement was reached: “English Canada has recognized and accepted us for what we are.”

The settlement emerged from the longest gathering of First Ministers ever held. And the participants made it clear, during those seven

roller-coaster days, that progress had turned into failure, and setbacks into hopeful breakthroughs, with breathtaking regularity. Insiders said that tempers frequently ran high behind the closed doors of the meeting room on the fifth floor of the Conference Centre; fourletter epithets burned the air and, in the final day, a wave of exhaustion swept over the leaders. Still, none was ready to give up the search for a compromise. “After all,” said Alberta Premier Donald Getty at the end, “we were talking about the future of the nation.”

Angry: Still, the talks came perilously close to unravelling late Friday night. Wells, angry and frustrated by six days and more than 50 hours of constitutional bargaining, had told his colleagues: “I have had enough. I am going home.” His departure appeared certain to doom the talks and plunge the country into constitutional limbo. But he was interrupted by the raised voice of Prince Edward Island Premier Joseph Ghiz, joined by Ontario’s David Peterson and Robert Bourassa of Quebec—all shouting at the Newfoundlander to stay at the table. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, his face ashen, made the same plea more quietly. Then, Getty, 56, a former professional football quarterback, leapt to his feet and told Wells, “If you try to leave this room, I’ll tackle you.” In the stunned silence that followed, Peterson reached into his pocket, pulled out a scrap of paper with hand-scrawled notes on it and said, “Gentlemen, I have an offer to make.”

Peterson’s suggestion was startling: Ontario was prepared to give up a quarter of its 24 seats in the Senate for redistribution to other provinces, if a commitment to reform the appointed upper chamber of Parliament failed to bear fruit. The gesture helped to address

THE TALKS WENT FROM CALMNESS TO THREATS, FROM PROFANITY TO HUGS

Wells’s fear that his province stood to lose from the passage of the Meech Lake accord. And it marked the beginning of a slow and fragile reconciliation among the feuding premiers that, after yet another day of emotional debate, led eventually to compromise.

In fact, Peterson’s offer may have little effect on how most Canadians live their lives in the future. But it dramatically revived the flagging momentum of the talks. Even after Ontario’s impassebreaking gesture, it took another day for the 11 men— and their teams of lawyers— to arrive at an agreement.

But, by 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, a haggard but visibly jubilant Mulroney appeared on national television to declare:

“No one loses in the agreement before us. It had one simple objective: it was about a united Canada. And Canada won.”

The highlights of the agreement:

• The Meech Lake accord, without change, is to be submitted to the legislatures in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Manitoba for approval by June 23.

• A commission will be established with equal representation for each province, as well as territorial and federal representatives, to study Senate reform. Its goal will be a Senate that is elected, more effective and more equitably representative of the regions. The commission will issue a report before a First Ministers’ conference on the upper chamber, which will be held by the end of 1990 in British Columbia.

• If no deal is reached on Senate reform by July 1,1995, Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick would give up a total of 10 Senate seats, to be divided among British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Newfoundland.

• The Yukon and Northwest Territories will have a role in nominating senators and justices of the Supreme Court.

• Protection for the legal equality of the sexes will be strengthened.

In addition, the First Ministers “took note” of concerns expressed about the possible legal impact of the Meech Lake accord’s “distinct society” clause. The leaders asked a group of constitutional experts to offer their views on the subject. As the closing communiqué dryly observed, “The Prime Minister received from the above-noted constitutional authorities a legal opinion which is appended.” But neither

Mulroney nor any of the premiers signed the document, and its legal weight remained far from clear.

Indeed, none of the companion agreements will take effect until after the Meech Lake accord itself is ratified. And while that prospect

remained most uncertain in Newfoundland, the accord may also face lingering opposition in Manitoba. Under that province’s law, Filmon, who leads a minority government, must submit the agreement to public hearings before it can be passed by the provincial legislature. But in the upbeat mood that greeted the weekend settlement, Manitoba Liberal opposition leader Sharon Carstairs, for one, offered her support for that goal. “It is not an ideal agreement,” she said, “but we will tell the public that we got the best deal possible.”

If most of the leaders were prepared to endorse the Saturday night solution to the Meech Lake impasse, however, none was ready to approve the closed-door manner in which it was reached. Wells, who chafed visibly at the imposed secrecy of the marathon talks, voiced the most bitter complaints about the process. Noting that he had been prevented from explaining his position publicly during the negotiations, Wells called the closed-door sessions “grossly unfair to the 26 million people of this country.” To one degree or another, it was an assessment that all the First Ministers appeared to share. Even Mulroney, whose background as a labor negotiator clearly influenced the form of the talks, reflected when

they were over that “none of us wants to put the country through this wrenching process again.” And in their final communiqué, the leaders committed themselves to review the entire process of amending the Constitution.

But the deepest divisions remaining among the premiers clearly centred on the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society. Indeed, that critical issue temporarily derailed the carefully structured compromise that emerged on Friday night from Peterson’s offer to cede Senate seats. When Wells and Filmon left the Conference Centre after midnight, they accused fed-

eral officials of dropping a key phrase from the text of the agreement in principle. The missing phrase would have required a review after 10 years to determine whether the distinct society clause had overridden the protections provided by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The next morning, the two premiers demanded that the missing wording be restored, a proposal that Quebec officials had said they could not accept.

Empty: While Mulroney and seven of the remaining premiers sought a solution to that last-minute dispute, however, Bourassa’s chair at the table remained eloquently empty. Two days earlier, the Quebec premier, facing accusations from opponents and opinion-makers within Quebec that his defence of Meech Lake was weakening, had announced that he would no longer discuss the contentious distinct society clause. Indeed, on several occasions on Friday, Bourassa had withdrawn from the room when conversation turned to the sensitive topic. Then, on Saturday, the Quebec premier waited across the street in his hotel room as the remaining First Ministers continued to discuss the issue for another five hours before agreeing to “receive”—but not endorse—a vague legal opinion by experts de-

daring that the distinct society clause did not “infringe or deny” rights granted under the charter.

Still, the incident was a telling indication of the passions at play inside the closed meeting room. Indeed, last week’s talks began amid an atmosphere of mounting crisis. Mulroney had waited until close to the last moment before inviting the premiers on May 31 to join him in Ottawa. Even then, he said, the talks would begin informally, with a private dinner on Sunday evening, June 3, at the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Que., across the Ottawa River from the Parliament Buildings. Expecting a swift resolution, Prince Edward Island’s Ghiz brought only two shirts. Fresh laundry and patience were both in short supply during the heated negotiating sessions that followed over the next six days in Ottawa’s Conference Centre. It was not until Mulroney was certain that he had coaxed an agreement from the premiers that he allowed the sessions to go public at 10:30 p.m. on June 9.

Bitter: Until then, he and the premiers met in private in

a windowless boardroom for -

up to 12 hours at a time. The tone of their conversation ranged from calm discussion of legal issues to bitter exchanges of insults, and finally—once a tentative agreement was reached—to hugs and handshakes.

The most critical period began on Thursday morning, as the 11 leaders turned to the contentious distinct society clause for the first

time. Before last week’s meetings, Wells and Filmon had repeatedly insisted that any agreement on the Meech Lake accord would have to ensure that nothing in it took precedence over the charter—part of the 1981 amendment enacted without Quebec’s consent. Bourassa, for his part, insisted that he would not agree to

any such assurance being written into the Constitution. Said Bourassa: “We have signed an agreement on this, and it is crucial to us.” As Thursday’s negotiations continued, Mulroney and the premiers discussed a new proposal to prepare what they referred to as a “side letter.” The letter—in fact a jointly drafted legal opinion by six of the country’s

leading constitutional lawyers—would provide an expert assessment of the concerns that Filmon and Wells had raised.

Initially, federal officials were optimistic that both premiers would agree to the proposal. But before Filmon could give his assent, the matter had to be settled with the two Manitoba opposition leaders, whose parties hold a total of 33 seats in the provincial legislature—compared with 24 held by Filmon’s Tories. When Filmon and Wells agreed at about 3 p.m. to discuss the proposal with Liberal opposition leader Carstairs and with Gary Doer, the leader of Manitoba’s New Democratic Party, several premiers clearly believed they were on the verge of a final agreement. Declared one Ontario government official who was in regular contact with Peterson: “Wells and Filmon are joining in. They will settle for a side letter.”

Premature: But that optimism proved premature. In fact, Filmon had “little enthusiasm” for the proposal, said Greg Lyle, his principal secretary. And Wells, according to the NDP’s Doer, “did not

try at all to tell us we should

sign.” Indeed, Doer and Carstairs both later insisted that neither was aware that the document they were reading was part of a possible final settlement. Said Doer: “We did not know it was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. We thought it was open for discussion.”

In fact, the two-hour meeting of the two premiers and the two opposition leaders pro-

duced a variety of unexpected emotions. At one point, according to federal officials, discussions appeared to be going so well that federal lawyer Roger Tassé apparently believed an agreement was near. As a result, he walked back to the fifth-floor room where the other premiers were waiting and returned with Bourassa in order to discuss Quebec’s position and solicit Newfoundland’s and Manitoba’s support. But when Bourassa departed minutes later,

Wells, Filmon, Carstairs and Doer returned to their discussion of whether Newfoundland and Manitoba had won enough in the proposal.

After consulting with their own constitutional lawyers, the four then drafted a new proposal. In it, they demanded that the so-called side letter be signed by all the First Ministers as a “political declaration”—rather than be allowed to stand alone as a separate document. When the meeting ended, Doer said, “I felt optimistic, and I did not think we had done anything earth-shattering.”

But when Wells reported

the new demands to the other -

leaders, the response was explosive. Several premiers who had expected Wells to support the original wording of the proposal were incensed by his decision to ally himself with Filmon in presenting new demands. Two of the most vocal were Ghiz and Ontario’s Peter-

son—who both felt the new demands would doom the accord in the face of Quebec’s opposition. Snapped Peterson at Wells, according to one participant at the table: “If that is what you want, then you have just said goodbye to Canada.”

But the most outraged response came from

Bourassa. Flushed with anger at Wells’s position, the normally placid Bourassa erupted in profanity. “If you want to be like that,” he snapped, “fuck you.” Responded Wells: “Well, fuck you too, then.” For his part, Bourassa appeared to let the matter drop. But two hours

later, an official in Bourassa’s office released a four-line statement. It said that, effective immediately, Bourassa would abstain from “any discussion related directly or indirectly to the clause in the Meech Lake accord recognizing Quebec as a distinct society.”

That Thursday night statement, which was given to reporters just before the late-evening news was broadcast, appeared in part to be aimed at convincing Quebecers that Bourassa was taking a tough stand on behalf of his province. But Bourassa’s decision to make his position public also increased the pressure on the dissenting provinces—and left other leaders stunned. Said Filmon aide Greg Lyle: “I do not think the premier expected Mr. Bourassa to go public.”

Outlines: Later that evening, comments made to reporters by several senior fedz eral government officials £ further enraged the Manito| ba and Newfoundland delegacy tions. The officials, speaking o on condition that they not be identified, said that the 11 First Ministers had initially agreed on the broad outlines of a constitutional settlement. Among the elements of the package would have been a socalled Canada clause reaffirming the fundamental characteristics of the country. The officials said that the leaders had agreed to postpone ratification of the clause until the

next round of negotiations. But, the federal officials said, Filmon and Wells had reneged on that commitment after meeting with Doer and Carstairs. Said one federal official of Wells: “[He] effectively withdrew a proposal that he participated in the writing of. We do not know why he changed his mind.”

That allegation infuriated the principals. Doer, for one, called the federal officials’ version of events “typical of the malicious bullshit they’ve been putting out through this whole process.” A visibly angry Wells denounced the federal account as “totally false.” In fact, the Newfoundland premier grew increasingly impatient during the week at the pressure being directed at the dissenters in private.

“My mistake this week,” he said heatedly on Saturday morning, “was getting sucked into this process. You cannot make sensible judgments in this situation.”

Hostility: His remark was a measure of the frustration and hostility that were in greater evidence the longer negotiations continued. In fact, by late Friday afternoon, officials from delegations on both sides of the debate were glumly predicting an imminent collapse of the talks.

When the First Ministers took a brief recess at about 4 p.m., aides to Wells advised reporters that he might walk out of the meeting that night and give a public statement outlining his reasons for doing so. Said a senior Ontario official: “There was absolutely no movement.”

At that point, Peterson,

who had remained at the Conference Centre, called a meeting of the Ontario delegation. When they arrived, he told them, “We need something wild and different to break this up.” Then, James MacPherson, the dean of York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School and an adviser to the Ontario premier, told him, “I

have a bizarre idea.” MacPherson’s plan called for a five-year deadline for the provinces and Ottawa to agree on Senate reform—and to ratify the changes according to the unanimousconsent provision of the Meech Lake accord. If no agreement was reached at the end of five years, Ontario would automatically give up six

_ of its 24 senators, and Nova

Scotia and New Brunswick would cede two each from their respective allotments of 10. That total of 10 Senate seats would be redistributed to the four western provinces and Newfoundland, increasing their Senate representation to eight seats each from she. Quebec’s and Prince Edward Island’s representation would remain unchanged. The final result, as Filmon noted later, would “give the west the largest block of any region in the Senate.” Peterson’s aides warned him that he could face criticism from voters in his province for the offer to relinquish Senate representation. But Peterson argued that Ontario io’s strength in the House of ; Commons (where the prov5 ince holds 99 of 295 seats) I outweighed any loss of influ| ence in the Senate. And after z a private telephone conversait tion with his wife, Shelley, he

returned and told aides, “Let’s do it.”

The gesture won praise for Peterson from his fellow First Ministers. Declared Ghiz: “Without Premier Peterson, I question whether this impasse could have been broken.” But other premiers also gave ground: neither New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna nor Nova Scotia’s John Buchanan, to name two, are in a position to argue that their province’s weight in the Commons will compensate for their surrender of Senate seats. And both Filmon and Wells made it clear as they left Ottawa that the final settlement had met only a fraction of their concerns. “I am not approving of this particular accord,” said Wells. And Filmon acknowledged that “the issues were not totally resolved.”

Vigil: But, for many other Canadians, the prospect of a g settlement was a welcome g conclusion to what had come I to seem an endlessly pros' tracted national vigil. Despite I the closed sessions, and the 1 often arcane terminology of “ constitutional debate, the meetings daily attracted a

crowd of between 300 and

500 people who maintained a constant watch outside the main entrance to the Conference Centre. As Mulroney and the premiers entered or emerged, they were greeted by a barrage of boos or applause—and often both. Many bystanders said that they had come because of their concern for Canada’s future and their unease over the premiers’ ability to reach a compromise. Ottawa resident Garry Williams, 24, stood outside the centre for 12 hours every day, waving a hand-painted banner that read, “Canada: from sea to shining sea.” Declared Williams: “We should be expected to stand on guard, because that is what this country is all about.”

At the negotiating table, the 11 leaders reflected the same desire for a deal. With the country’s fragile unity sorely strained from the extended constitutional debate, each was clearly eager to find an accommodation that all could live with. The final agreement, McKenna told Maclean ’s moments after leaving the conference boardroom for the last time, “was a typically Canadian product. It was awkward; it was not pretty. But I think it will work.” A relieved Mulroney maintained a more lofty view. “The idea of Canada has been vindicated,” he told the premiers. But, as Mulroney himself admitted, the emotions spent in the exercise had left the country deeply wounded. And with Newfoundland’s assent to the accord still far from assured, Canada’s long night of uncertainty was not yet over.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

BRUCE WALLACE

PAUL KAIHLA

DAN BURKE