Canada

Dangerous territory

The premiers prepare to tackle national unity

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 28 1997
Canada

Dangerous territory

The premiers prepare to tackle national unity

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 28 1997

Dangerous territory

The premiers prepare to tackle national unity

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

When it comes to their annual summer conferences, Canada’s premiers and territorial leaders have demonstrated a predilection for two things in recent years. The first is for scenic locations—and the second is for subjects provoking torrid debate. Two years ago, in foggybut-usually-friendly St. John’s, Nfld., Jacques Parizeau battled with his counterparts over whether or not a sovereign Quebec would continue to benefit from interprovincial trade agreements. After several rancorous exchanges, Parizeau left the meeting early—with both sides claiming their point of view had prevailed. Last year, in Jasper, Alta., the topic was the future of social policy. Again, the issue went unresolved. This year, the venue for the Aug. 6 to 8 meeting is the seaside town of St. Andrew’s, N.B.—and again, there is no shortage of divisive subjects, ranging from national unity and trade to who should control— and pay for—social programs.

The list begins, not surprisingly, with Quebec and the question of national unity. Said host premier Frank McKenna in an interview with Maclean’s: “It would be fair to say that there are two groups on this issue—those premiers who want to work on Quebec concerns, and those who are more indifferent.” At issue is a step by Alberta Premier Ralph Klein that could lead to reopening unity discussions. Klein’s enduring popularity is partly based on his usual shoot-from-the-hip candor, but he has tiptoed in his approach to the potentially explosive unity file. In several speeches and appearances, he has said he is prepared to support the constitutional recognition of Quebec as a “distinct” society”—provided such recognition confers no special powers on the province. After a meeting early in July with representatives of the powerful Ottawa-based Business Council on National Issues, Klein came away convinced that the premiers must do more to promote national unity before another Quebec referendum.

The BCNI, in fact, wants the premiers to join forces to formally recognize Quebec’s distinctiveness. Klein stops short of formal support of that. Instead, he said he will act as a “messenger” for the BCNI proposal. But, insisted an official in Klein’s office, “That does not mean we are endorsing anything.” Small wonder: any suggestion of a different form of status for Quebec remains unpopular among English Canadians in general, and Westerners in particular. It was almost certainly because of that sentiment that Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard—who in the past has refused to discuss constitutional questions at similar meetings—called Klein’s suggestion a “waste of time.” But, he added: “If someone wants to take five minutes to say that there are people who would like him to speak about distinct society, I will let him speak.”

In fact, if the discussion lasts any longer than that, it is likely to delight Bouchard by exposing the deep divisions among the premiers. Klein, McKenna, Saskatchewan’s Roy Romanow and, to a lesser degree, Manitoba’s Gary Filmon, have all recently suggested they are willing to consider specific proposals related to Quebec’s traditional demands. “Of course it is desirable to resolve things with Quebec,” said Filmon. “But that is just part of a whole rebalancing that has to take place.” On the other side, the most hardline of those opposed to any such gesture is B.C. Premier Glen Clark. And Ontario’s Mike Harris—who at various times in the past spoke in favor of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords— now shows little or no interest in any such discussion.

There are two other potential surprises among the premiers. One is Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin, who, despite his close ties to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and past sympathies towards Quebec, now appears, in the face of declining personal popularity, to be taking a harder line on the issue. The other is the newly minted premier of Nova Scotia, Russell MacLellan, a bilingual, longtime federal Liberal MP But he opposed the Meech Lake accord and is considered to be against distinct society status. Prince Edward Island’s Tory premier, Pat Binns, has not made his views on the subject known.

On the surface, none of that bodes well for any progress. But there are several compelling reasons for trying.

One is the conviction of many political strategists that it is important to make a tangible gesture towards Quebec before another referendum—in the hope of avoiding one altogether. Another is the belief—long held by Chrétien and his advisers—that they could place Bouchard in an extraordinary dilemma by formally proposing a type of specific recognition for Quebec. If the Quebec premier consented to that, it would be a major boost for federalism; if he refused to do so, he would then face the difficult task of explaining to voters why he did not accept something offered to the province at no cost.

Meanwhile, there is the certainty of another Ottawa-Quebec showdown. This fall, the Supreme Court of Canada is scheduled to hold hearings on the federal government’s challenge to Quebec’s self-declared right to unilaterally declare itself sovereign. Bouchard’s Parti Québécois government has refused to appoint a lawyer to represent its position because, it says, the terms of the federal challenge unfairly handicap Quebec, while the province’s moral right to separate in the event of a Yes vote should be self-evident. But last week, the PQ suffered a setback when prominent pro-sovereignty lawyer André Joli-Coeur agreed to argue Quebec’s case as a courtappointed “friend of the court.” That, Péquistes concede, will give the case an added moral legitimacy within the province.

In federalist circles, there is also a strong feeling that if anyone can break the present unity logjam, it is Klein. “There is,” said McKenna, “a particularly crucial role for Premier Klein to play—and it would be wonderful if he chooses to.” Klein, along with other premiers such as Filmon, suggests that the provinces join together in pushing for a “rebalancing” of powers that would equally benefit all provinces—including Quebec. That, in turn, might make it easier to sell the then-largely symbolic notion of recognition of Quebec as distinct in all parts of the country.

Klein, blessed with arguably the shrewdest political instincts of any of the country’s first ministers, has repeatedly demonstrated a strong personal interest in Quebec issues. He was the first premier to visit Quebec after the October, 1995, referendum, and the first to visit Bouchard after he became premier. On the other hand, his success in slashing his province’s spending and balancing Alberta’s budget has made him a favorite of political right-wingers across the country—despite his cool personal relations with another darling of the right, Reform Leader Preston Manning. (Manning, for his part, has asked to meet individually with the premiers before the meeting to discuss unity issues.) Within Chrétien’s ever-pragmatic circle of advisers, Klein merits the highest praise. ‘We think,” says one, “Ralph is someone you can almost always do business with.”

But the federal government will be watching other items on the premiers’ agenda with what another Chrétien adviser terms “a most extremely attentive eye.” One highly controversial issue concerns the control and financing of the country’s social programs. That question caused an uproar among the premiers even before last summer’s premiers’ conference began when a leaked Ontario government document proposed the federal government withdraw completely from social programs. This year, there are signs the debate will surface again—and further emphasize differences in regional attitudes. The strongest support for decentralization is in the rich Western provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, followed by Ontario and Quebec; the strongest opposition is in the four Atlantic provinces, where reliance on the federal government has traditionally been highest.

Most premiers, however, concede the biggest potential minefield lies, as always, in national unity—even as they agree it is time for the provinces to play a bigger role. “After the [1995] referendum,” said McKenna, “there was a very clear sense that people wanted us to stay away from the issue, and deal with finances. Now, those are in relatively good shape—so it is a better time for us to look at our collective future.” Still, he concedes, there is one word that virtually everyone is eager to avoid. “The best way to start,” he said, “might be to fence in the word ‘constitution’ and forbid anyone from using it. There are many ways to effect change that would avoid aggravation.” Divided though they are on other issues, the premiers remain united in understanding how best to avoid controversy. □