CANADA

Yes in Atlantic Canada?

‘It is a battle against apathy’

JOHN DeMONT October 19 1992
CANADA

Yes in Atlantic Canada?

‘It is a battle against apathy’

JOHN DeMONT October 19 1992

Yes in Atlantic Canada?

CANADA

‘It is a battle against apathy’

The two offices are as starkly different as the organizations that occupy them. New Brunswick's Yes campaign for the

Oct. 26 constitutional referendum occupies a rambling Fredericton warehouse, in which a squad of university students, bureaucrats on leave from the provincial Liberal government and other workers develop strategy, prepare information packets and man fax machines and telephones. Across town, the provincial No forces operate from a motel room with paperthin walls. All the same, Frederick Beairsto, the Yes campaign manager, says that he takes little comfort from his opponents’ lack of resources. “There is a lot of uncertainty out there about the constitutional package,” says the local businessman and veteran Conservative party organizer. That concern is echoed by Yes campaigners throughout Atlantic Canada, where support for the Charlottetown accord—once viewed as rock-solid—is no longer taken for granted.

Clearly, voters in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland seem more supportive of the accord than many other Canadians. According to a poll conducted

and released last week by Gallup Canada Inc., 53 per cent of Atlantic Canadians support the agreement, while 30 per cent say that they will vote No and 17 per cent are undecided.

New Brunswick’s small No campaign, spearheaded by the province’s official opposition, the Confederation of Regions Party (COR), is the only organized No effort in Atlantic Canada. But analysts say that the economically depressed region is less likely than other areas of the country to swing towards a No vote— largely because voters in the four eastern provinces fear that a rejection of the Charlottetown accord would further divert attention from the area’s already depressed economy. Says Linda Dyer, president of Baseline Market Research Ltd., a Fredericton-based polling company: “The people in this area are saying, ‘Let’s finish this and get on with our lives.’ ” But some Atlantic Canadians are clearly uncertain about the accord—and confused about its ramifications. Said Gwen Barrett, 60, a computer operator who lives in Centre Rawdon, 50 km north of Halifax: “Watching the news and listening to the experts doesn’t help you make up your mind. Most of us down here are just fed up with the whole dam thing.” Others complain that the often-emotional arguments on either side of the debate have clouded the issue. Declared David McKellar, 54, an unemployed electrician who lives in Douglas Harbour, 45 km east of Fredericton: “Everybody hollers a lot, but no one gives us any facts.”

The loudest debate is in New Brunswick,

where COR won eight of the province’s 58 ridings in the last provincial election. So far, though, the COR No campaign’s attack on the accord has been limited to a few small ralbes and scattered newspaper advertisements that lash out at the deal’s concessions to Quebec. Organizers acknowledge that their campaign may be seen as an extension of COR’s platform—which is anti-French and unpopular among most residents of Canada’s only officially bilingual province. Says COR MLA Gregory Hargrove, the manager of the No campaign: “We are trying to distance ourselves from the campaign so that other people will come forward and speak out against the agreement.” To that end, No campaigners have invited highprofile opponents of the accord, including former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, to travel to New Brunswick.

But the No campaign is likely to be drowned out. New Brunswick’s well-organized Yes forces, spearheaded by popular Premier Frank McKenna, are pulling out all the stops. An extensive provincial Yes advertising campaign will soon deluge the province, supplementing the federal Yes ad campaign that began last week. And the Yes effort is just as intense in the other three Atlantic provinces, even though there is little organized local opposition to the accord.

In Nova Scotia, the battle seems especially one-sided. There, the provincial Yes committee, which includes the province’s business and labor leaders, is directing the efforts of thousands of grassroots workers from the three main political parties. Yes campaigners say that their main enemy is pubbc disinterest— not opposition to the accord. “It is a battle against apathy,” explains Ann MacLean, the mayor of New Glasgow and co-chair of the Nova Scotia Yes committee. “We have to provide the information to convince Nova Scotians to get out and vote.”

So far, Nova Scotia’s Yes forces have concentrated on promoting the agreement on its merits. But on Oct. 4, the campaign was taken aback by the decision of the Native Council of Nova Scotia to reject the Charlottetown accord if aspects of the native self-government agreement are not clarified. Analysts say that as the referendum nears, similar setbacks could lead the Yes forces to offer more emotional arguments—including emphasizing the potentially negative economic consequences of a No vote.

For their part, Nova Scotia’s proponents of the accord say that they will not use scare tactics. That promise is echoed by Yes campaigners in Prince Edward Island and in Newfoundland, where the Yes forces are relying on the persuasive abilities of Premier Clyde Webs to carry the day. “I feel a good deal of confidence that the accord will be accepted in Newfoundland,” Wells told Maclean’s last week. That may well hold true for the other Atlantic provinces as well—if the Yes forces win their war against uncertainty and an outgunned opposition.

JOHN DeMONT in Fredericton