FOUR PERFORMANCES THAT SHAPED THE REFERENDUM OF 1992
It began officially on Sept. 18—five weeks of politicking that in the end left many of the participants exhausted and emotionally bruised. As in any campaign, the referendum battle had its pivotal events. Among the most important was former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s scathing denunciation, in the Sept. 28 issue of Maclean’s, of Quebec’s constitutional demands. Maclean’s examines four other key moments, in chronological order:
REFORM SAYS NO
The strategy was risky—but it yielded results. By declaring his party’s opposition to the Charlottetown accord on Sept. 10, Reform Party of Canada Leader Preston Manning staked out a position that was then clearly outside the political mainstream. The subsequent surge in support for the No side across the country allowed Manning and his officials to claim that, unlike his rivals in the Progressive Conservative, Liberal and New Democratic parties,
Reformers were listening to, and reflecting, grassroots sentiment on the Constitution. By the time 1,700 Reformers gathered in Winnipeg from Oct. 23 to 25 for the party’s annual convention, the mood among many party members was buoyant, almost cocky. “This campaign
was a chance to get our constitutional message out, to test our electoral machinery,” declared Stephen Harper, a key Reform policy strategist. “Never again will they attempt constitutional reform without input from the Reform party.”
Among Reform members, however, the decision to oppose the accord was far from unanimous. Howard MacKinnon of Dartmouth, N.S., the party’s chief organizer in Atlantic Canada, told Maclean’s last week that he and several other Atlantic directors were worried about the message that the party would send out if it attacked the accord. “We were wary of
the perception that we were the ones who continuously said ‘No,’ who complain, who can’t agree,” MacKinnon said. As a result, he and several other Atlantic Reformers urged the party to adopt a neutral stance in the referendum campaign. Last week, MacKinnon said that he was glad that Manning had rejected his advice. “The profile of the party has definitely been raised and advanced,” he says.
Another high-profile party member, James Gray, president and chief executive officer of Calgary-based Canadian Hunter Exploration Ltd., went even further by publicly advocating a Yes vote. According to Gray, the accord went
a long way towards delivering the equal, elected and effective Senate that he and Manning had long supported. He added that he is disappointed that the Reform leader appeared to play the issue for political advantage. “I think he could have supported the accord, rather than capitalizing on the anger surrounding it,” said Gray, who quit the party over the issue.
But Manning faced equally strong appeals from Reform members opposed to the accord. In early September, Dennis Young, the party’s regional co-ordinator for Saskatchewan and Manitoba, wrote a letter to Manning in which he warned that members “would leave the party in droves” if it failed to campaign on the No side. Recalled Young: “We were concerned that the party might take the easy way out and wait until the referendum results were out.”
Manning himself remained silent on the issue for a full two weeks following the Aug. 28 agreement, giving rise to feverish speculation within the party about his intentions. Indeed some senior party members suggested that the
leader was inclined to support the Yes side, something which
Manning firmly denies. But before announcing his decision, he asked for the views of
his party’s executive mem-
bers, riding association presidents and nominated candidates. The party also opened up a 10line hotline so that members could express their views. It quickly became clear that a large majority of respondents opposed the deal.
That two-week period had a side benefit—the delay in announcing a decision, said Manning later, saved the party money by cutting the length of Reform’s campaign. He added: “No bones about it, we had some internal strains over what to do. But it was about how fast, how slow we would go.”
Still, divisions within the party remain. Some Reformers have been critical of Manning’s
characterization of the accord as “the Mulroney deal.” Said Reform research director Thomas Flanagan: “Our own members are criticizing us for it.” Flanagan, who says that he advised Manning against using that terminology, added: “People joined the Reform party because they don’t like this kind of politics. I think we have to live up to a higher standard.”
Richard Anderson, a highprofile Ottawa lobbyist and former Liberal organizer who switched his allegiance to Reform last year, angered some members of Manning’s inner circle by publicly declaring that he would vote Yes.
Harper, for one, says that as late as Sept. 10, Anderson indicated in private conversations that he favored the No side. But Anderson disputes that. “I was trying to sort out in my own mind the pluses and minuses of the accord,” he told Maclean’s. “I don’t think I switched my position so much as I was trying to come to my position.” Ander-
son says that he still hopes to
play a role in the party, add-
ing, “I realize that Stephen is unhappy with my position. I hope he won’t stay unhappy.”
THE WILHELMY AFFAIR
André Tremblay was exhausted and dispirited when he checked into Quebec City’s Hilton Hotel last Aug. 28. The constitutional lawyer
and professor at the University of Montreal had just returned from Charlottetown, where he had been one of Premier Robert Bourassa’s advisers during the constitutional negotiations. At 10:24 p.m., he telephoned Diane Wilhelmy, Quebec’s ailing deputy minister for intergovernmental affairs, at her home in the provincial capital. But instead of using a hotel telephone, Tremblay chose to use his own cellular phone. It was a costly mistake—one that dealt a critical blow to Bourassa’s efforts to sell the Charlottetown accord.
During the 27-minute conversation,
Wilhelmy and Tremblay discussed how, in Tremblay’s words, Bourassa had “caved in” during the negotiations.
Unknown to them, the call was surreptitiously taped by an unidentified eavesdropper, who subsequently gave a copy of the tape to local radio station CJRP.
On Sept. 14, Wilhelmy obtained a court injunction to stop the station from airing the tape—but that did not prevent media organizations outside Quebec from publishing the transcript. By the
time a Superior Court judge lifted the injunction on Oct.l, Bourassa’s credibility had been seriously damaged.
Although police are investigating the incident, the identity of the person who taped the Tremblay-Wilhelmy conversation remains unknown. But the fact that the conversation had
been taped apparently came as little surprise to some Quebec government officials. They say that several freelance technicians in the city, usually operating from vans equipped with sophisticated but readily available scanning devices, routinely monitor private cellular telephone conversations in and around the legisla-
ture and nearby government offices. In fact, the electronic eavesdropping has evidently grown so widespread that Quebec provincial police regularly brief members of the National Assembly on the potential dangers of using cellular phones. Said Liberal member of national assembly JeanGuy St-Roch: “They come in once or twice a year to warn us about the possibilities.” Since the Wilhelmy affair, Quebec-based journalists have learned of other surreptitious tape recordings of private telephone conversations. One such discussion involved Quebec Cultural Affairs Minister Liza Frulla-Hébert and Liberal backbencher Jean-Guy Lemieux. During the cellular phone call, FrullaHébert acknowledged that the Charlottetown agreement fell far short of Quebec’s demands, but urged Le-
mieux to support it just the same because it was the best deal for Quebec under the circumstances. That conversation has not been reported in the Quebec media. Said Benoît Aubin, managing editor of Le Devoir. “We decided not to run the story because we felt that there was nothing in the content of that conversation that was particularly newsworthy.”
Other tapes have been made of personal phone calls by Bourassa’s chief of staff, John Parisella, to his family in Montreal. And a federal cabinet minister from Quebec told Maclean’s that journalists in his riding had warned him that tapes of his private phone conservations were being offered for sale to local media outlets.
Last week, Wilhelmy’s lawyer, Gérald Tremblay, said that his client’s only motivation for seeking the injunction was to protect her privacy. But a senior Yes campaign official suggested that organizers were aware that other tapes existed, were uncertain of their contents and wanted to discourage people from releasing them during the campaign.
MULRONEY’S BOLD GESTURE
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was a man with a mission when he arrived in Sherbrooke, Que., on Sept. 28. Polls at the time showed that support for the Yes campaign was sliding, confirming what his strategists already knew: the Wilhelmy affair had severely damaged Bourassa’s credibility. Like a street fighter unwilling to watch from the sidelines, the Prime Minister decided to abandon the low-key approach that had characterized his campaign appearances up to that point. That day, speaking at a luncheon, he itemized some of the 31 gains that he said Quebec had achieved with the Charlottetown accord. Suddenly, departing from his formal text, Mulroney picked up a sheet from the top of his speaking notes, ripped the paper in two and held the pieces aloft in his clenched fists. “If we vote No, we rip up those historic gains,” he declared. Later an adviser said: “It was a spontaneous act, even though the idea of dramatizing the losses had been discussed.”
In an interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail last week, Mulroney said that his Sherbrooke gesture was intended to shift the focus in Quebec away from Bourassa’s skills as a negotiator. “We had to get in there and move this debate to the economic terrain,” he added. The gesture clearly worked: on foreign exchange markets the following morning, the Canadian dollar dropped below the benchmark 80-cent (U.S.) level to 79.23 cents (U.S.), its lowest value in four years.
But some of Mulroney’s advisers came to regret the incident. For one thing, many newspapers and broadcast outlets linked Mulroney’s ripping act with another part of his speech in which he had warned that a No vote would be the “beginning of the process of dismantling Canada.” As a result, the incident reinforced an image that federal officials had done their best to dispel: that of Mulroney as a bullying, threatening prime minister. “There were people on the Yes side who thought it was too extreme,” said a senior Yes strategist. “They didn’t have
a problem with what he said. But the visual was too hot.”
The image of Mulroney in Sherbrooke reinforced the belief in the Yes camp that it was risky for high-profile politicians to warn publicly about the consequences of defeating the accord. “We learned two important lessons,” an organizer said. “One, that you shouldn’t be too graphic. And second, that politicians weren’t as credible as third parties.”
MOE SIHOTA STUMBLES
It seemed like nothing more than a nice human interest story: a group of Quesnel, B.C., residents had organized a Maybe committee for the referendum. In Vancouver, Gérard Malo, a radio reporter for Société Radio-Canada, had a special reason to make the 400 km trip north to the town of 9,000 people: as a joke, he and several friends had also organized a Maybe committee during the 1980 Quebec sovereignty referendum. The Quesnel committee was no joke, Malo found, its organizers wanted Yes and No spokesmen to travel to the town to explain their positions. Malo completed some interviews on Oct. 6, and, on a whim, decided to drop in at the Correlieu Secondary School, where B.C. Constitutional Affairs Minister Moe Sihota was addressing a crowd of 150 people. Malo arrived halfway through Sihota’s speech and turned on his tape recorder.
As Malo listened, Sihota fielded questions from audience members annoyed by the accord’s concessions to Quebec—in particular, the guarantee that the province would forever have 25 per cent of the seats in an expanded House of Commons. Sihota responded that Bourassa had, in fact, “lost” during the negotiations. “Nine governments looked him in the eye and said ‘No.’ Bourassa came to that table and ran into a brick wall,” the minister said.
Sihota clearly had no idea that his remarks would soon ignite a furor in Quebec and across the country. Recalls Malo, who introduced himself to Sihota after the speech: “He was really pissed off when he realized who I was and that this might get out.” With good reason: Malo’s story began being broadcast in Quebec at 6 a.m. the next day, and was quickly picked up by other media. “The provinces said no to Bourassa,” declared the headline in the journal de Montréal. Before long, Sihota found himself in the middle of a political fire storm.
An embarrassed B.C. Premier Michael Harcourt quickly called Bourassa in an attempt to “clarify” Sihota’s statements, saying that his minister had merely been trying to demonstrate that all provinces had compromised during the negotiations. But the damage had been done. Quebec’s No forces seized on Sihota’s comments, claiming that they offered clear evidence that Quebec had lost out at Charlottetown. And it was not the only time Sihota had made such remarks. Earlier on Oct. 6, during a Yes campaign breakfast meeting in
Wilhams Lake, 100 km south of Quesnel,
Sihota had said much the same thing. He repeated his assertions that afternoon in a cable TV interview. Harcourt clearly appeared
miffed by his minister’s comments. According to an aide in the premier’s office, he told his staff, “There aren’t many cabinet ministers who can wound two premiers in one day.” It was an accurate assessment of Sihota’s gaffe—one of the many highlights of a rollercoaster campaign.
E. KAYE FULTON