When the federal government unveiled its ambitious plan for national unity in September, Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark asked potential critics to hold their fire for at least three days. Federal officials said that a swift attack on the new package could shatter it within 24 hours. In fact, only an occasional skirmish marred the ceasefire for a full three months. But this month, the truce has abruptly ended as, one by one, provincial premiers have unleashed a barrage of criticism and demands at the federal position.
For some analysts, the wide divergence of views that quickly became evident among the provincial leaders was a danger signal. That was not the case for Quebec’s minister of intergovernmental affairs. Declared Gil Rémillard: “The discourse that is under way is not all discordant. This is finally constitutional debate.”
Alberta Premier Donald Getty fired the shot that reopened the unity battle. He attacked official bilingualism with a bluntness that set the tone for a firestorm of constitutional declarations that followed. As Getty himself told his Edmonton audience on Jan. 9, “This is not an occasion for secrecy or mystery.
We need open dialogue—and the debate needs to be honest and direct.” It has been that. In the week following Getty’s speech, half a dozen premiers from across the country made their constitutional positions clear, often in terms so candid that they seemed almost belligerent. Said Newfoundland’s Clyde Wells, for one, of Ottawa’s proposal to describe Quebec in the Constitution as a distinct society: “Other Canadians are personally offended by any suggestion that they are somehow ordinary and Quebec is distinct.”
But Rémillard was not the only observer who claimed to see peace gestures concealed within the premiers’ often provocative rhetoric. In Ottawa, Clark tried to diminish the significance of the most toughly worded constitutional statements. “No one should be surprised by remarks that cause brushfires,” said Clark. “They are part of the constitutional discussion.” Indeed, he insisted that federal officials were focusing on the “quite constructive progress” being made in the debate over the future of Canada. For Clark, even Getty’s speech included “helpful suggestions, moving towards—not away from—some kind of consensus.”
Among the areas of growing consensus that federal officials claim to discern is the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society—the focus of much of the hostility towards the proposed Meech Lake accord. With the distinct elements of the province's society more specifically defined in the government’s latest set of proposals as including the French language, culture and civil legal code, even Wells, an archopponent of Meech, grudgingly acknowledged that he could “accommodate” the phrase. And Getty, despite his criticisms of official bilingualism, also remains a supporter of the distinct society clause. In his controversial speech, the premier said that Alberta could accept the idea so long as it did not mean that Quebec would have a “preferred or special” place within Confederation. Leaders of the Western-based Reform party—which outpolls the federal Conservatives in Alberta—say that it, too, would be willing to endorse some form of distinct society clause if it does not give special protection to francophone minorities outside Quebec.
As well, there has been a shift in the way some political leaders now view aboriginal rights. P.E.I. Premier Joseph Ghiz, for one, visited Ottawa last week to deliver a groundbreaking recommendation that Canada sign a national treaty of reconciliation with its native peoples, recognizing their “inherent” right to self-government. The inclusion of the critical word “inherent”—significant because it implies that native rights to self-government do not depend on the government established by later settlers—won immediate praise from Grand Chief Ovide Mercredi of the Assembly of First Nations. The proposal, declared Mercredi, exceeded “by 1,000 miles” the federal offer to confer self-government on natives within 10 years of a new constitutional deal being signed. Clark, for his part, described the P.E.I. premier’s idea as “a quite constructive contribution.”
The federal minister said that he also detected movement on the same issue from Alberta’s Getty. Getty’s speech, said Clark, “indicated— and this is new—that Alberta could accept the concept of aboriginal self-government, providing there are certain guarantees.” Getty made clear in his Jan. 9 speech that Alberta could agree to native self-government, although he insisted that the concept would need to be “well defined in the context of Canada: one nation, not separate nations within our country.”
Still, the one issue on which the premiers seem to disagree most vehemently is the reform of the Senate. Currently, the appointed upper house of Parliament is widely dismissed as ineffective. Many provinces also criticize the distribution of seats in the Senate, where Ontario and Quebec have 24 each while the four Atlantic provinces share 30 seats and the four Western provinces share 24. The federal government's proposals would transform the chamber into an elected, effective body in which the provinces would be more “equitably” represented than is now the case.
But that proposal has failed to satisfy many critics of the existing Senate. Some Albertans, in particular, insist that the Senate should be a “Triple-E” chamber, not only elected and effective, but giving equal representation to all provinces. That would reflect the U.S. model, where each state, regardless of population, has two senators. Declared Getty: “There can be discussions and consultations, but they may as well know my view. No constitutional package should be acceptable without a Triple-E Senate.” And Wells told a visiting parliamentary committee examining the federal proposals that he would not vote for any constitutional package that did not include a Triple-E Senate.
Whatever consensus exists between Edmonton and St. John’s, however, it did not extend last week to Toronto or Quebec City. For his part, Ontario Premier Bob Rae categorically rejected any changes to the upper chamber that would lessen the influence of his province, the country’s most populous. Said Rae: “A Triple-E Senate, stated baldly, is not acceptable to Ontario.” Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa has also reaffirmed his opposition to any proposal that might weaken Quebec’s position in the Senate. But in Nova Scotia, Premier Donald Cameron criticized their firmness. “I have become a little amazed when I hear provinces taking these hard and fast positions,” he said. “I am wondering how we serve our country by saying, ‘It’s either my way—or else.’ ”
Eventually, Quebec’s opposition, coupled with an obscure provision in the existing Constitution, may prevent the establishment of a Triple-E Senate. In a background briefing for reporters in Ottawa last week, federal officials confirmed that Quebec holds a constitutional veto over any change to its number of Senate seats. As long as Quebec is not willing to give up any of its 24 senators, the only constitutionally permissible way to achieve an equal distribution of seats in the upper chamber would be to create an unwieldy body of at least 240 seats—24 for each province.
As for Clark, he maintained his soothing interpretation of the differences between the two central provinces, on the one hand, and Wells and Getty on the other. “Those differences have become more public,” he said, “but they have not necessarily become more intense.” But some Quebec separatists noted that last week’s disputes played directly into their hands. Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau said that the vociferous arguments across the country would inevitably hasten Quebec’s independence. Declared Parizeau: “I think that the way it has started is such that now the conclusion is inevitable.” But Parizeau denied that the difficulties were a cause for glee: “I regret simply that a country to which I belonged for so long is now in such a mess.”
At the same time, even the areas of emerging agreement among the provinces may prove problematic for Clark. While Getty and Bourassa have both expressed support for the federal goal of a stronger Canadian economic union, they have also rejected the wording of the current proposals, which would give more economic powers to Ottawa. Similarly, New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna and British Columbia’s constitutional affairs minister, Moe Sihota, have expressed support for Rae’s call for a constitutional social charter—a concept that the federal government opposes.
Indeed, among the points of agreement for some provincial premiers is their dissatisfaction with the federal government’s handling of the entire unity debate. Rae, for one, complained that Ottawa has frozen his office out of the process. Added the Ontario premier: “Until we start having some serious negotiations and discussions, it is very difficult.” And in Saskatchewan, Premier Roy Romanow echoed Rae’s concern that Ottawa might be conducting secret negotiations with Quebec. Said Romanow: “The only contact I have had at the ministers’ level was the day Joe Clark was here in late November. Since then, there has been no contact by anyone else and I’m advised by my officials that they have had no contact either.”
But other premiers were less pessimistic about the state of the unity debate. In Fredericton, McKenna told the parliamentary committee on the Constitution: “As politicians, we must respond to the need for Canadians to reach an accommodation. We must provide leadership to make Canada work better.” In the months ahead, that leadership will increasingly entail ignoring the inflammatory winds of rhetoric—and seeking out the fragile seeds of compromise.
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