Canada

A menu of bubbly or humble pie

David Thomas November 24 1980
Canada

A menu of bubbly or humble pie

David Thomas November 24 1980

A menu of bubbly or humble pie

Canada

As the tiled corridors of Quebec's National Assembly clicked with the scurry of adjourning députés Thursday, one confident cabinet minister wagered an opposition back-bencher a bottle of champagne that Liberal leader Claude Ryan will join Premier René Lévesque in the constitutional crunch. Much more than bubbly is at stake as Quebec’s three political parties struggle this week to devise a joint resolution to the British Parliament which, they all hope, will deflect Ottawa’s constitutional power play.

Ryan is viscerally against Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s modification of the federal constitution without consent of the provinces. He is risking the wrath of his own supporters because he fears success of the Trudeau scheme will close the door to further substantial constitutional reform before he gets a chance to take power in next year’s provincial election. Quebec Liberals have been told through diplomatic channels that a unanimous resolution voted by the National Assembly would seriously influence Westminster. Such all-party agreement in Quebec could result in a lengthy delay of debate in the U.K. House of Commons over Ottawa’s petition for British legislation—a foreign law that would impose a shift in the federal-provincial balance of powers in Canada. The resolution under debate in Quebec City “cautions the British Parliament against any intervention in Canadian affairs.” Significantly, that harsh wording is Ryan’s, part of an amendment he proposed to the government draft which itself was limited to a polite “request” that the British refrain from consenting to Trudeau’s scheme. If a unanimous resolution is achieved this week, the provincial government could send an all-party delegation to London to present Quebec’s case before the Commons select committee on foreign affairs.

Ryan did soften his fight with Trudeau by suggesting Quebec give up its opposition to simple patriation of the constitution—on the condition that Ottawa does so without first changing it. But both he and Lévesque have trouble placating their own party members with the wording of the resolution addressed to London. The Liberals insist that it recognize the result of last May’s referendum by mentioning Quebeckers’ “rejection of sovereignty-association” and their awareness of “the advantages of federalism.” The PQ replied with its own amendment, accepting to “respect the wish of most Quebec citizens to maintain Canadian federalism” and asking Ryan to sacrifice his insistence that the National Assembly praise federalism. In their determination to block Trudeau, both the PQ and the Liberals are eating humble pie. The outcome of the final vote, due late this week, will determine which side gets to wash it down with champagne.

David Thomas