Canadian News

The latest offer Quebec can refuse

Robert Lewis February 5 1979
Canadian News

The latest offer Quebec can refuse

Robert Lewis February 5 1979

The latest offer Quebec can refuse

Canadian News

Robert Lewis

For Joe Clark, January was a bleak season to have been anywhere. After stumbling over his “stimulative deficit” proposal and bombing abroad, Clark’s first public act* on arriving home was to disavow talk of negotiating sovereignty association with René Lévesque. Next, with Pierre Trudeau radiating Cheshire-like content, Clark suffered through the installation of Ed Schreyer, the new populist GovernorGeneral who promotes a cause close to Pierre Trudeau’s heart (see box). Three days later the Task Force on Canadian Unity produced an elegant and important report, driving Clark and his economic issue still further off the national stage.

By week’s end, in buoyant government circles talk was mounting about an early-spring election, perhaps in the wake of next week’s first ministers’ meeting on the constitution. At the warm-up session in Vancouver last week provincial positions hardened on the constitution (see following story).

That, says one government strategist, could mean that if next week’s summit is televised, “Trudeau could come off as the most reasonable man at the table”—with an ideal campaign plank.

First reaction to the task force report, which was particularly lavish in Quebec, was an unexpected blessing to Trudeau. The warning that Canada is “in the midst of a crisis which requires a rapid and determined response” elevated and legitimized Trudeau’s oft-repeated fears about the future of the country. More significantly, in Quebec the report was received by opinionmakers as a kind of last-chance synthesis of the best deal federalism can offer to Quebec.

Liberal leader Claude Ryan effusively called the report’s emphasis on Quebec “without a doubt the most explicit, the least ambiguous and most courageous ever to come on this issue from a federal organism.” Even the Parti Québécois’ intergovernmental affairs minister, Claude Morin, was complimentary. When Maclean's Quebec Bureau Chief David Thomas asked Morin how he would have reacted 10 years ago when he was still deputy minister in a profederalist provincial government, Morin made his point without completing

his thought: “If what is being said now had been said 10 years ago ...” Recovering quickly, Morin noted that without the PQ election there would have been no report.

The big question, as Morin noted, is whether the report actually changes anything—especially Trudeau’s approach to a new form of federalism. The document, a painful exercise in consensus orchestrated by old political pros Jean-Luc Pepin and John Robarts, the co-chairmen, was cleverly crafted in crisp English and French to be all things to all people. For Quebec (although proposing to eliminate constitutional protection for the English minority), the report winningly affirmed the assertion of successive governments back to Premier Daniel Johnson that Quebec, indeed, is the homeland of the French-Canadian nation (the only losers would be the English minority whose linguistic guarantees under the BN A Act would be eliminated). For all the provinces, the report propounds a scheme of decentralization of power that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Even Trudeau was moved to find the over-all package “a landmark contribution” (the cost: $3.7 million or, in the astute calculation of the task force, 16.4 cents per Canadian).

Trudeau, in fact, was trying a delicate balancing act between a general embrace and approval of specifics. At a subsequent press conference last Friday, Trudeau said the recommendation that, as a start, provinces should be left with responsibility for protecting minority language rights was “dead wrong,” mainly because of the sorry record in English Canada on the protection of the French language. Instead, Trudeau wants to see the guarantees entrenched sooner in a new Canadian constitution. Privately, the PM’s advisers admitted he was also concerned about the perception that the task force advocates a kind of special status for Quebec and that it took a softer line on Quebec’s right to determine its own future in Confederation.

Most striking of all, however, was Trudeau’s admission that there isn’t anything specific in the report that can be used to advance the on-dragging negotiations toward a new constitution. There was, he said, no new proposal that he wanted to single out “and run with” at the meeting next week. Quebec’s Morin seemed to anticipate that view when he observed cynically: “We will go through a period of praise and congratulations—then everybody will forget about the report.”

The exhaustive nature of the analysis makes that unlikely, at least for the

* At a closed session of h is caucus, Clark defended his performance during the world tour and, Nixonlike, offered personal critiques of each reporter who covered the trip.

crucial months leading up to the referendum in Quebec. The eight-member panel left little doubt about the focus. “This report,” said Pepin, “is Quebecoriented because this is the essential part of the problem.” The task force asserted that the province is “distinctive and should, within a viable Canada, have the powers necessary to protect and develop its distinctive character; any political solution short of this would lead to the rupture of Canada.” Pepin-Robarts dismissed the contention “that Quebec has been or is getting more than a fair share” from Confederation. Indirectly it warned the feds about attempts to scare Quebeckers into a new union through balance sheets, “raising the spectre of the dire economic consequences of secession.” Although it was an avowedly federalist document, the report stressed—national referendum legislation or not— that “it is for the people of Quebec to declare themselves on their political and constitutional preferences, and not the country as a whole.”

Having said all that, the task force then laid out proposals it feels will keep Quebec from separating. Chief among these was a revised distribution of powers, a new second chamber to replace the Senate, an expanded Supreme Court and House of Commons and a Canada-wide referendum for constitutional amendments.

• Powers. The basic thrust was that “the provinces should be recognized as having a constitutional status equal with that of the central governments’ ” and that they should have “equal access to most revenue sources.” To avoid the special status trap, the task force proposes to give to all what it feels Quebec alone needs. Thus, it envisages exclusive

(occasionally concurrent) provincial jurisdiction over culture, education, health, social services, marriage, divorce, immigration, manpower and training, administration of justice, natural resources including fisheries, interprovincial trade, consumer and corporate affairs, urban affairs, housing, land use and the environment. Provinces should also be able to establish “some relations with foreign countries and to sign treaties in matters coming under their jurisdiction.”

Many of the listed powers currently are available to the provinces under the British North America Act, while others, such as immigration, have already in effect been revised. But the task force also suggests trimming the authority of Ottawa to act in perceived emergencies like the October Crisis and the antiinflation fight; and proposes ratification by a new second chamber of federal spending in areas of provincial concern.

• Council of the Federation is the body which the task force suggests as a replacement for the Senate. Some 60 in number, members would be appointed by the provinces in line with the popular vote, but weighted in favor of smaller provinces. The council would have varying degrees of veto power over federal legislation in provincial domains.

• Courts. The Supreme Court of Canada would be expanded to 11 members,

five of them from the civil-law province of Quebec. Appointments would be made by the cabinet, but ratified by the Council. There would be three benches: one for provincial jurisidction, with a

Quebec law section and a common-law division for the rest of the country; a second bench for federal matters; and a third for constitutional cases. The task force also suggests provincial appointment of judges to high provincial courts, which is now done from Ottawa.

• Constitution. Amendments touching both levels of government would be passed by the Commons and the Council, then ratified in a national referendum, with regional majorities required from the Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario and the West.

• Commons. The House would continue to be based on some 282, singlemember constituencies. But some 60 seats would be added and filled on the basis of the popular vote—a device that could, say, add Tory seats in Quebec or Grit voices from Alberta.

Perhaps because the members were so sharply divided themselves, the burden of the task force report was a celebration of diversity and duality—otherwise known in less genteel circles as making the best of a very bad deal. “This,” as a weary co-chairman Pepin allowed, “is a sort of declaration of faith.