As crowds converged on the grassy lawns of Parliament Hill July 1 to cheer the stars of the annual Canada Day birthday bash and watch the fireworks, indoors a more sober stage show was unfolding. A dizzying round of reaction was reaching Ottawa from across the country over the federal government’s newly proposed legislation to amend the constitution, including changes to the Senate and Supreme Court along with construction of a Charter of Basic Rights and Freedoms. So far the biggest fear, especially among provincial premiers, is that Ottawa will move ahead without their full blessings, despite Federal-Provincial Minister Marc Lalonde’s assurances that “everything is negotiable, everything is on the table.”
Among all the bill’s critics, first prize for showmanship went to Liberal MP and former defence minister James Richardson, the millionaire from Winnipeg who crossed the floor of the Commons late last month to sit as an independent because, in his words, “the government’s two-phase plan to amend the Canadian constitution is in fact a blueprint for permanent national division.” Breaking ranks gained him hearty Tory applause, but no invitations to join the Conservative fold, since Richardson’s belief in a united Canada excludes French as an official language.
In its wisdom, the federal government managed to rob Opposition leader Joe Clark of one accolade by siphoning off the Tory idea for an upper chamber that would include provincial representatives.
Clark was left stammering a defence for the provinces that they, “like the rest of us, don’t like being pushed around.” The criticism was hardly fair game, since Ottawa had consulted extensively with the premiers. Likewise, the government had also anticipated provincial criticism. Premiers reacted guardedly, perhaps holding their fire until they meet together at the first ministers’ constitutional summit in late September. Nevertheless, British Columbia’s Bill Bennett and Alberta’s Peter Lougheed speedily stated their opposition to the Senate reforms since they would diminish their own influence with the establishment of provincial spokesmen in the upper house. Bennett is now drafting his own constitutional paper and Lougheed is threatening court action if the feds push ahead with the idea on their own. All Ontario’s Premier Davis would say is that the reforms “give rise to questions, if not concerns.” Only Quebec’s René Lévesque has entirely shrugged off the legislation.
Meanwhile, the juices will continue simmering over the summer with the setting up of a joint committee of 20 MPS and 10 senators to study Xá me new constitutional proposals. Co-chairmen are Senator Maurice Lamontagne and Liberal MP Mark MacGuigan. both of whom steered a similar joint constitutional committee back in 1970. Expected to get under way almost
immediately, the committee will eventually head out across the country gathering more reaction to the bill. There’s no time to waste, with the government’s promise to implement the bill by next July 1. Senators, many of whom stand to lose their jobs if the bill is passed, are setting up their own independent committee. Despite the government’s eagerness to see the legislation in place before the Quebec referendum and a possible federal election, the general feeling in Ottawa is that a lot of amendments will have to be made before the bill goes through. As former Conservative leader John Diefenbaker predicts: “That bill has as much chance of passing as I have of jumping out of this fifth-floor window without hurting myself.” JULIANNE LABRECHE
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