BUSINESS WATCH

Planning a referendum on a new constitution

Peter C. Newman March 25 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

Planning a referendum on a new constitution

Peter C. Newman March 25 1991

Planning a referendum on a new constitution

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

The response to the Quebec Liberal party’s endorsement last week of the Allaire report was entirely predictable.

Sheila Copps announced the end of the world. Bill Vander Zalm got his wife, Lillian, to blow in his ear. (He needed a quick refill.) Clyde Wells proclaimed that it wasn’t his fault, and that he didn’t care what Quebec wanted, as long as he could oppose it. Gary Filmon said he wasn’t sure what to think, but that if he ever found out, he’d tell Sharon Carstairs.

The one politician who didn’t react in character was Brian Mulroney. Instead of commissioning yet another study, he realized that the country’s endgame is now in motion, and began to draw up a plan of action for the greatest political fight of his life. His risk is great but victory would win for him the next election.

The timetable is not of his making, with the Quebec referendum, due in the fall of 1992, its outer deadline. That means we have roughly 20 months to reinvent the country. It will be a much tougher task than watching it dissolve— but it can be done.

Leaving aside the report of the BélangerCampeau commission, which will be nothing more than a hawkish version of the Allaire report, three dates will govern the Prime Minister’s tactics in the next six months. The first is July 1. That’s the deadline for the final report of the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future. Keith Spicer’s rocky start doesn’t mean his commission can be written off. By the time its hearings finish, he will know better than anyone else in the country what the limits to action really are: how far Ottawa can bend towards Quebec’s demands without bringing the whole house down.

Two other major studies are also due to report on Canada Day. The group of deputy ministers, which meets in the Langevin Block every Wednesday morning, is gearing up to design a system of government so decentralized that Canada might eventually resemble a sub-Arctic United Nations. Nothing is final, but

We have roughly 20 months to reinvent the country. It will be a much tougher task than watching it dissolvebut it can be done.

one suggestion would have provinces almost totally independent, with the Prime Minister acting as a sort of secretary general. That’s a radical option, but the fact that it has even been considered demonstrates how fundamental this internal review has become. The other study, also handing in its conclusions on July 1, is chaired by Senator Gérald Beaudoin, the author of a hundred articles and three books on the Constitution, and Jim Edwards, an Edmonton MP who was commissioner of the Alberta Human Rights Commission. That committee, still holding its hearings, will report on how Canada’s Constitution can be amended without running afoul of the unanimity requirement that sank Meech Lake.

The second date that counts will be Aug. 11, when the Progressive Conservative party will hold its national policy conference in Toronto. Just as Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa went before his party faithful to get an internal mandate for his continuing negotiations with Ottawa, Brian Mulroney will demand the party’s blessing for his next step in trying to keep the country together. That could be a significant hurdle, because some of his Quebec MPs may equivocate on supporting any imaginative initiative to save the country.

The substance of that position has yet to be finalized, but it could be as audacious as going to the people in a countrywide referendum on a new Canadian constitution. That will be the third and most significant date of all. If that risk were taken, and the country approved a new constitution, Ottawa will have regained the momentum now lost to Quebec. The Prime Minister could then claim a genuine mandate for negotiating a permanent arrangement with Bourassa.

The essential clue to the Prime Minister’s strategy was contained in an under-reported section of his speech to the Chamber of Commerce in Quebec City on Feb. 13. In the English version, he was reported to have advocated “proposals for a renewed Canada.” But in the French version—and what he actually said—was that he would undertake “un projet de pays qui pourrait déboucher sur un Canada reconstitué.” Literally translated, that means “a national project that will allow a rebuilt Canada to emerge.” In reality, it means a national referendum on a new constitution.

As Mulroney said in that Quebec City speech, “my responsibility as prime minister is not to treat with kid gloves those who are set on destroying or abandoning our country, but to represent those who want to preserve and improve it for their children and grandchildren. The real choice facing Quebecers is between remaining citizens of Canada and becoming citizens of another country. You can’t have a part-time country. We have not defended our values—to the point of sacrificing our sons and daughters on the battlefield—to reject those values now because of a constitutional misunderstanding.”

That’s true enough, but as Bourassa has pointed out, “history has become impatient,” and the failure of Meech Lake is about to force us into some very tough un-Canadian decisions.

If none of the suggested tactics works, the country may have to be saved with even more desperate measures. The Allaire report advocates that Quebec get out of just about every federal jurisdiction, except a common monetary policy. The plan is to have two sovereignties linked mainly by the Bank of Canada.

That could be the federalists’ ultimate secret weapon. The very idea of having John Crow running the Quebec economy could frighten off even the most die-hard FrenchCanadian sovereigntists. If that doesn’t make them back off, nothing will. Crow, after all, is the man who drove Canada into its worst recession since the Great Flood, yet last week confessed that he had made a terrible mistake, that the recession wouldn’t have happened if he had only boosted interest rates earlier. You’ll never build James Bay II with that kind of advice.

The Quebec premier’s current position may sound menacing, but any student of Canadian history can see right through it. Like every other Canadian politician since this benighted country was first licensed to hold federalprovincial gabfests, Robert Bourassa seems determined to save Canada, by forcing us to talk ourselves into the 21st century.

It may just work.