CANADA/COVER

AS TIME RUNS OUT

IN THE FINAL DAYS OF THE REFERENDUM CAMPAIGN, THE SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS HAS UNLEASHED A FURY OF COMPETING INTERESTS AND REGIONAL RESENTMENTS

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 20 1992
CANADA/COVER

AS TIME RUNS OUT

IN THE FINAL DAYS OF THE REFERENDUM CAMPAIGN, THE SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS HAS UNLEASHED A FURY OF COMPETING INTERESTS AND REGIONAL RESENTMENTS

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 20 1992

AS TIME RUNS OUT

CANADA/COVER

REFERENDUM FILE

“Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other”

—German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in a 1904 letter to a friend

Long before Hugh MacLennan borrowed the line to use as the title for his classic 1945 novel, Canadians implicitly recognized the fact of the country’s two solitudes: English and French Canada, divided by language and traditions, united by geography, history and, quite often, adversity. Over 125 years, Frenchand English-speaking Canadians have built a country together, but largely failed to form a common identity. When they celebrate their differences, it is usually from a distance: almost since the day that Canada was bom, the percentage of anglophones in Quebec and of francophones in other provinces has been steadily diminishing as the two language groups move away from each other.

When Quebecers and other Canadians vote in the Oct. 26 referendum, they will likely demonstrate that they have moved beyond those basic differences. Instead, the result—like the campaign leading up to it—will reflect a new reality in which differences between Frenchand English-Canadians are just one part of a larger, more fractious and untidy mix. When Prime Minister Brian Mulroney first announced plans for a nationwide vote on constitutional reform, supporters optimistically suggested that the exercise would serve as an “affirmation of Canada”—allowing Canadians to define who they are and what they stand for. As referendum day approaches, it remains unclear whether Canadians will ever agree on a vision of the country— but it is painfully apparent who and what they oppose. Those under assault have included almost all elected politicians, in particular those at the federal and provincial levels, along with people from any other region or group across the country that does not share one’s own goals. By the end of last week, an exasperated senior Yes committee organizer acknowledged that sup-

IN THE FINAL DAYS OF THE REFERENDUM CAMPAIGN, THE SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS HAS UNLEASHED A FURY OF COMPETING INTERESTS AND REGIONAL RESENTMENTS

porters of the Charlottetown accord face “a very uphill fight” in at least three provinces— Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta—and uncertain results in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Uphill may be an understatement. For Yes organizers, public opinion polls released last week offered an even gloomier view of how Canadians plan to vote. An Angus Reid Group poll, conducted between Oct. 12 and 15, showed that the Yes forces had a solid lead in just three provinces: Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. And it revealed that even Ontario, once believed to be a bastion of support for the Yes option, was becoming a highly contested battleground, with the Yes side holding a minuscule 46-percent-to-45-per-cent lead over those respondents who said that they would vote against the accord. And in Quebec, where Premier Robert Bourassa had hoped that his Oct. 12 televised debate with Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau would resuscitate his Yes campaign, the No side still held a commanding lead, by up to 20 percentage points in some polls.

The leaders of the national Yes campaign are pinning much of their hope for a late comeback on the traditionally volatile nature of referendums, both in Canada and abroad. At week’s end, Yes organizers said that their private polling indicated that between 35 per cent and 50 per cent of Canadians had not yet decided how to vote—and that fully half of all decided voters acknowledged that they might change their minds by Oct. 26. As a result, the Yes side has planned a heavy barrage of print and television advertisements that will contrast what they claim are the potentially negative consequences of a No vote with the image of international stability that Canada could offer should there be a nationwide Yes vote. As well, the Yes forces will stage a series of grassroots rallies featuring well-known local figures rather than high-profile politicians. Said Harry Near, a veteran Conservative organizer and senior director of the national Yes campaign: “There is a misconception that only politicians support this deal. We aim to make clear that our support rims across the social and political spectrum.”

But the fact that Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats are working together on the national Yes committee has also proven to have some surprising disadvantages. One is caused by Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission regulations which require that both sides have access to equal amounts of free radio and television time. That effectively means that the Reform Party of Canada, as one of the only groups on the No side with enough money to produce campaign ads, has been getting as much free air time as the three main Yes parties combined. And, although representatives of each of the three parties at Yes headquarters—including Near, Gordon Ashworth of the Liberals and Les Campbell of the NDP—have worked together well, relations have not always been smooth at the riding level. There, long-standing rivalries and different campaign styles have led to argu-

Trudeau’s

critique

reinforced

the doubts of the confused and skeptical

Muironey has been restrained throughout most of the campaign

ments over how to market the Yes message. Acknowledged Near: “All is fine now, but it took a lot of doing to get some volunteers from the different parties used to working together.”

In that respect, the campaign exhibits some of the same tensions that surround the accord. From the start, supporters of the Charlottetown accord hailed it as the reflection of a “typically Canadian” spirit of compromise, in which the participants—most notably Quebec, the western provinces and native groups— obtained some, but not all, of their demands (page 24). But it is far from clear whether Canadians really are prepared to compromise in the name of national unity. The truculent mood that now prevails has fostered such oddities as the often-stated conviction in both Quebec and the West that too much was given away in return for too little at the bargaining table.

Dissatisfaction with the agreement extends even to those who were among the biggest winners: in one of last week’s most surprising developments, Ovide Mercredi, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, faced a rebellion from some native leaders who said that the accord’s proposals for self-government fell short of their expectations. After three days of meetings, the chiefs failed to endorse the deal when not enough of them remained to form the necessary quorum for a vote. After that setback, Mercredi said that he will consider resigning as head of the Assembly.

But the anger of those who insist that they failed to gain enough pales against the rage of those who claim that their interests were altogether ignored in the constitutional talks. Hell, apparently, has no fury like an interest group not specifically cited in the preamble to the Constitution: those with hurt feelings include the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) as well as organizations representing the elderly, mentally and physically disabled and visible minorities—most have joined the No side. At the same time, many other critics of the accord complain that the proposed text is already too complicated, lengthy and legalistic in tone.

In fact, the debate over unmet demands and alleged omissions has obscured a far more pressing issue: the implications of the changes contained within the proposal. Pressed to define the accord’s potential impact, Yes supporters have, at times, been vague or non-committal. Confusion surrounds everything from the scope of native self-rule to the much broader role that the Supreme Court of Canada would inevitably play in interpreting laws passed by legislatures (page 18). Doubts over the consequences of such changes led Eric Kierans, for one, a highly respected constitutional expert and former federal minister, to reverse himself and vote No last week in an advance poll.

Even such routine matters as the cost of accommodating changes to the federal House of Commons and Senate are undefined. In fact, Robert Fleming, the former chief administrator of the Ontario legislature and an acknowledged expert on government operations, estimates

that a new, expanded Commons would cost an additional $15 million on top of the current $230-million price tag. As well, Fleming estimates that the start-up costs for a new Senate would be about $10 million—and that the first Senate election would cost taxpayers as much as $200 million, although the overall cost of running the Senate is not expected to rise. Declared Fleming, who has been highly critical of the deal: “When all is said and done, we have to ask if the system will be better, or the public better served.”

But many of the arguments that the Yes and No camps have put forward are based more on emotion and hyperbole than on reason. At the same time, proponents of the Yes side have evidently failed to convince most voters of one of their key selling points: the possibility that the constitutional package might bring stability and relief from a debate that seems to exasperate most Canadians most of the time. Instead, members of the No forces, by claiming that the accord still has many rough edges and leaves many issues unresolved, have made convincing arguments that a vote against the accord would be less disruptive than a vote in favor.

Despite that, critics of the Charlottetown package have not been able to agree on what would happen in the event of a No vote (page 20).

Nor do they agree on its flaws. Some opponents, such as constitutional lawyer Deborah Coyne, argue that it would create different classes of Canadians. Others, such as NAC President Judy Rebick, have complained that the document does not include specific references to particular groups. The doubts of many confused and skeptical Canadians are reinforced by criticisms from a number of respected prominent figures—including former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau and, within Quebec, several dissident provincial Liberals led by former party executive member Jean Allaire.

The angry tone of the campaign has diminished the stature of many of the most prominent representatives on each side. Among those who have suffered most are Bourassa and British Columbia Premier Michael Harcourt—both have been dogged by accusations in their home provinces that they caved in at the bargaining table, and both faced fresh problems last week. In British Columbia, popular former Social Credit cabinet minister Grace

McCarthy announced that she would campaign actively for the No side. Meanwhile, in Quebec, Bourassa’s Yes campaign ran into new trouble with an old problem when the Quebec newsmagazine L’actualité (like Maclean’s, owned by Toronto-based Maclean Hunter Ltd.) published a series of documents prepared by some of the province’s constitutional advisers. The texts outline, in stark detail, the advisers’ claim that the Charlottetown agreement con-

tained few significant gains for Quebec.

But the most obvious victim is Mulroney. With the exception of one incident, when he publicly tore up a summary of the accord to demonstrate the losses Quebec risked in the event of a No vote, the Prime Minister has been unusually restrained throughout most of the campaign because of his deep unpopularity

in such key provinces as Alberta and British Columbia. In fact, the Prime Minister has recently had to deny repeated claims that he would serve the cause of the Yes side best by promising to resign if the agreement passes. * The argument ignores the fact that Alberta Premier Donald Getty, another unpopular supporter of the accord, has announced his resignation—with no measurable improvement for the Yes side. Instead, Getty has seen his role in the provincial campaign diminished by his lame-duck status and the developing race to»« succeed him.

Long before he called the referendum, close friends of Mulroney said that it was increasingly likely that in the event of a constitutional deal, he would leave before the next election. If the agreement fails, it is unclear whether Mulroney will face a direct leadership chalI lenge. But, conceded one friend, “If he said he was planning to resign, there would not exactly be a long lineup to dissuade him.”

But the campaign has also taken some of the lustre off those who oppose the accord—in particular, Manning. Despite his assertion that he is conducting a campaign that sidesteps emotional attacks and relies on the “politics of x reason,” his party’s commercials have tended to ignore the content of the deal in favor of sharp personal attacks. Among other things, the Reform ads repeatedly refer to the accord—which was agreed upon by 11 first ministers, the leaders of both northern territories and four aboriginal leaders—as “the Mulroney deal.” Although that strategy may win the No side votes on referendum day, it contradicts Manning’s frequent claim that his party is above traditional political tactics.

Still, perhaps the defining characteristic of the campaign is the willingness of both sides to emphasize strictly parochial concerns in making their case to Canadians. In the process, they have tried to increase support for the accord by diminishing or ignoring the gains made by others. Within Quebec, Bourassa has focused his campaign on the assertion that the province will acquire significant new powers— and that changes affecting other regions, such as Senate reform, are largely cosmetic. At the same time, politicians in other regions have* sought to minimize Quebec’s gains. British Columbia’s Intergovernmental Affairs Minis| ter Moe Sihota, in remarks widely publicized in Quebec, said recently that Bourassa had made “absolutely no gains” in the talks.

But Sihota’s remarks also demonstrated a fear shared by the current generation of politicians: that amid the new solitudes developing alongside old divisions, there is little to be gained by arguing for a better understanding of the needs of others. Regardless of the result of the referendum, Canadians face a country in which the traditional two solitudes have been supplanted by the many. Then, from coast to coast, they will have to confront a fundamental issue: is the current mood of divisiveness caused only by politicians—or by the Canadian people themselves?

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Ottawa