Cloistered inside the gold towers of the Royal Bank Plaza, 40 floors above Toronto’s financial district, ministers of justice and intergovernmental affairs from Ottawa and the provinces spent three days last week trying once again to reach agreement on a new constitution. The meeting, which took place in the bank’s huge, oak-panelled board-
room, was closed to the press. But underneath the cloak of official secrecy, there were surprising signs of real progress in the constitutional debate, Canada’s version of the Mid-East peace talks. Commented federal Justice Minister Marc Lalonde afterward: “There are areas where, quite clearly, there is a large consensus.”
The Toronto talks flowed out of the fall constitutional conference, at which Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the premiers failed to reach any agreement and threw the subject to their ministers to resolve. For the first day and a half in Toronto, the ministers and their entourages fared little better. But the ministers then adjourned for a three-hour lunch without their aides and put the talks back on course. Among disputed areas where some consensus is forming are:
Resources: Ottawa has agreed to clarify the present constitutional language so that it is plain the provinces own all natural resources, while the federal government retains control over interprovincial trade so that no one province may hold the others up for ransom. Most provinces are willing to accept Ottawa’s proposal but oil-rich Alberta is balking.
Senate: British Columbia’s proposal for a provincially appointed Senate has attracted Ottawa’s support. Most of the other provinces are indifferent, except Alberta, which fears a reformed Senate would diminish the role of provincial governments, and New Brunswick, which appears to have a sentimental attachment to the existing Senate.
Equalization grants: The “have-not” provinces, which receive the grants, want to see the principle of equalization entrenched in the constitution. An equalization commission would also be established to advise governments how much should be paid and to whom. Ottawa is willing to go along with this concept, but B.C. wants the grants replaced with some form of guaranteed annual income.
Amending formula: Before the constitution can be patriated, a formula for future amendments must be found. Many provinces are seeking a veto in any amending formula, but if everyone gets a veto the constitution may prove impossible to change. A compromise is being worked out that would create different categories within the constitution. Some would require unanimous consent to change; others would need just a clear majority.
Human rights: A sine qua non for Trudeau in any new constitution is a bill of rights giving Canadians the same sort of protection Americans already enjoy. Several provinces oppose this concept, viewing it as a U.S.-inspired violation of parliamentary government, but their position is softening. Manitoba remains a holdout.
Considerable work remains before the ministers can report success to Trudeau and the premiers at the next constitutional conference in early February. The ministers meet again next month in Vancouver, and the emerging consensus may dissolve in the West Coast’s January drizzle. Quebec, which has maintained a low profile in the meetings so far, is an unpredictable wild card. But the fact there has been any progress at all is impressive and, after a decade of futile debate over the constitution, Ottawa and the provinces may be too embarrassed to fail this time. Says Ontario Attorney-General Roy McMurtry: “It is a sign of political immaturity not to make progress.”
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