BUSINESS WATCH

My Way-the Clyde Wells version

The Newfoundland premier is as determined now as at Meech Lake to stand on principles —his principles

Peter C. Newman April 13 1992
BUSINESS WATCH

My Way-the Clyde Wells version

The Newfoundland premier is as determined now as at Meech Lake to stand on principles —his principles

Peter C. Newman April 13 1992

My Way-the Clyde Wells version

BUSINESS WATCH

The Newfoundland premier is as determined now as at Meech Lake to stand on principles —his principles

PETER C. NEWMAN

When he was asked how he felt after listening to a Wagner opera, Mark Twain thought for a minute and allowed that, well, it wasn't quite as bad as it sounded. But Canada’s constitutional wrangle is just as bad as it sounds, and despite some tiny softening in the Quebec position, it ain’t over yet.

One of the chief players in the nation-threatening drama that will unfold over the next six months will be Clyde Wells, 54, premier of Canada’s poorest province. No citizens stand to lose more if Canada disintegrates than Newfoundlanders. A study by the independent C. D. Howe Institute last month claims that the island province would lose half its population if cut adrift from federal transfer payments by the breakup of the country, since nearly half of its revenues come from Ottawa.

Unemployment in Wells’s province now runs at 19 per cent, nearly twice the national average, with more than 5,000 jobs lost recently through fishery cutbacks and many more payrolls endangered if, as it now appears, development of the Hibernia oilfield will be postponed.

None of this has altered the premier’s stem view of the constitutional process. He is as determined as he was at the time of Meech Lake to stand on principles—his principles— and because that conviction has found a significant echo in English Canada, his presence and his ideas will dominate the negotiations as the constitutional talks move towards the inevitable cmnch sessions. “It’s not a matter of giving in on either side as though you’re trying to sell something to somebody,” he told me during a recent interview. “You build a constitution based on principles, the fundamental principles of democracy where all constituents are treated equally. I don’t believe you can write a country’s constitution on the basis of getting people to sit around a table and say, ‘If you agree that we can have clause 3-A, I’ll agree you can have clause 7-B.’ You just can’t barter constitutional principles that way.”

Our conversation kept returning to his insis-

tence that no province or individual can have special or even different privileges. “When one province or special-interest group asks for some special protection, it’s part of human nature that other groups will also demand special arrangements,” he points out. “British Columbia or Saskatchewan are no less a province than Ontario or Quebec—and no more,” he says.

Wells does allow—and he certainly sounds more accommodating than he did at the time of Meech Lake—two variations in the application of this immutable principle. They are for the aboriginal peoples and for Quebec. “The white men who originally populated this country decided it would have certain characteristics and a certain constitution that left out any way of dealing with the Indians,” he says. “It was incredibly presumptuous, unfair and inconsiderate. So we’ve got some serious correcting to do. We must provide for the aboriginals’ selfgovernment within agreed-upon lands, all within Canadian sovereignty, of course.”

In terms of Quebec, Wells recognizes its distinct language and legal system as well as that province’s different cultural background, and readily concedes that those distinctions were part of the original act of Confederation in

1867. “I believe we’re bound to honor that commitment,” he acknowledges. “It’s a kind of third equality of Canada. We have equal citizens and equal provinces, but there’s also that deal between the two founding linguistic, legal and cultural groups.”

“The problem,” he continues, “is that Quebec has periodically suggested that for these reasons it should enjoy special status or a constitutional veto and that we should recognize there are two nations in Canada, and ultimately acknowledge the existence of a distinct society with its own set of powers.”

He advocates a limited form of veto exercised by representatives from Quebec in such specific areas as language and the civil code, as well as cultural jurisdictions. But he insists that the entire Constitution be construed in a way that would not assign to Quebec the role and responsibility for preserving and promoting itself as a distinct society, because that would create the kind of special status that he is against.

Wells objects to the fact that Quebec has placed the rest of the country in a difficult position with its attitude of “Make us an offer, and then we’ll consider it,” instead of plainly stating its demands and remaining within the negotiating process. “People, especially in Western Canada, are resentful of this attitude and the fact it seems there’s never any give in the Bourassa position,” he notes.

Still, he is convinced that Quebec is not bluffing. “They’re dead serious,” he says. “But that doesn’t alter the principle of where to set the limits. Quebec says, ‘The only thing we’ll accept is if every province is subordinate to our views.’ Must we accept that? The answer is clearly no. You’ve got to draw a line somewhere. But Quebec is a very hard bargainer.”

Unlike most constitutional purists, Wells acknowledges that even though there is nothing in the Constitution to allow separation, Quebec could not be kept within Confederation if its citizens voted to leave. But Wells says that there is a serious question of the appropriate borders for an independent Quebec. And he does not believe that it will be possible in the coming negotiations to convince people outside Quebec that the province should be granted a special deal not available to everyone else, and that this is the issue on which the country might finally fall apart.

“I wasn’t bom a Canadian,” he remarked near the end of our interview, “because Newfoundland was not part of Canada then. But I became a Canadian [Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949] and I’m proud to be one. I can’t imagine being anything else.”

Wells sounds valiant in defence of his principles and deeply apprehensive about the forthcoming negotiations. But when it comes to the crunch, when the premiers have to choose what will provide fair and balanced treatment of Canadians, Wells says there must be no special privilege for any group. “You can’t ask for abandonment of principles,” he says. “You can only ask for moderation of those principles to the extent that circumstances may justify. But you just cannot ask me to abandon them.”

And that’s as good as it’s going to get.