Canada

Canada faces the ‘non’ challenge

Robert Lewis May 26 1980
Canada

Canada faces the ‘non’ challenge

Robert Lewis May 26 1980

Canada faces the ‘non’ challenge

Robert Lewis

Pierre Trudeau’s first thought after acknowledging the dramatic victory of the “non" forces in the referendum was for the intimate Quebec family—“the broken friendships, the strained family relationships, the hurt pride.” Perhaps he was thinking of his health minister, Monique Bégin. She had abandoned her eldest-daughter role as convener of the family’s annual Easter gathering to avoid deepening rifts with the other siblings who were “oui” supporters. For one thoughtful Montreal francophone on Jean Chrétien’s federalist flying squad, there was the mellowing thought that the more effec-

tive his work, the more he contributed to divisiveness in his native province. Both sides, as Trudeau noted, paid a special price. The majority made a commitment to Canadian federalism, the likes of which has not been made in English Canada for more than 40 years.

The country will not be the same again—Trudeau and his 73 Quebec MPs will see to that. A week before the vote Trudeau bluntly warned English Can-

ada: “We will not agree to you interpreting a ‘no’ vote as an indication that everything is fine and can remain as it was before. We want change and we are willing to lay our seats in the House on the line to have change.”

In the wake of the vote, English-Canadian leaders committed themselves to accepting the challenge. Ontario Premier William Davis called for an immediate constitutional conference as “the beginning of a solution.” New Brunswick’s Richard Hatfield suggested two meetings per year and opined that the job could be done “in five years, maybe four.”

No sooner had Claude Ryan warned of a long road ahead than other leaders reinforced the point. Newfoundland’s Brian Peckford saw “a golden opportunity now to rewrite a brand new constitution,” but then he downgraded Ottawa to headwaiter status—“an agency of the provinces and not the other way around.” In Alberta, Peter Lougheed evinced a toughness befitting René Lévesque or Ryan when he dismissed Trudeau’s last proposed reforms in 1979 as the “status quo.” Back then, Trudeau proposed to: confirm provincial jurisdiction over resources, transfer some authority over cable television to the provinces, revamp the Senate with provincially appointed members and restrict other federal powers.

But there was no agreement on two points close to Trudeau’s heart. Quebec

and Saskatchewan objected to patriation of the constitution from Westminster without a new definition of powers, and five provinces—Nova Scotia, Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia—would not agree that education in English or French is a constitutional right.

Such division on essentials is precisely why Trudeau is leery about a fullblown conference before agreement can be worked out in private talks this summer. Lévesque, as Trudeau says repeatedly, has a vested interest in demonstrating that federalism doesn’t work, especially now that he faces an election in the next 18 months. Trudeau might just adopt a suggestion floating around federal councils that, instead of a quick-and-dirty, the first ministers be locked up, in the manner of labor negotiators, until they hammer out a compromise.

Failing agreement, Trudeau may dust off a proposal he made in the 1979 election campaign to stage a national referendum on constitutional change as a way of breaking the existing rule that all provinces must agree. “It is imperative,” says one federal official, “that we have something concrete in six to eight months.”

Trudeau once observed that “there’s nothing magical in the constitutional structure of a country.” From all indications, his own bag of central tricks could be discarded early in the play. The 10 premiers not only demand more power, but their electors seem persuaded by the rhetoric. In fact, the proposals to decentralize made by Ryan and the Pepin-Robarts commission, the demands from Quebec and Alberta for clout, are such that Trudeau may not even have the stomach to see the constitutional process through to the end.

If Trudeau does retire before the game is over, at least he can claim the leading role in one of the decisive votes in Canadian history. His weekly excursions into the debate were masterful displays of logic and passion for his cause. At the beginning, when Ryan’s forces seemed on the ropes, it was Trudeau who energized the Ottawa team for hardball.

Ironically, Trudeau almost didn’t vote at all. Such was the disorganization of the post-election scene in Ottawa, he was not registered days before the deadline. When the prime minister showed up to get his name on the list, a “oui” worker challenged his right to vote, since he is an Ottawa resident. Michel Robert, the Montreal lawyer for the feds, argued successfully that Trudeau’s “domicile” is Quebec. And so the PM voted, using his constituency office on Laird Boulevard in the leafy Town of Mount Royal as the address. All of which goes to prove that when some MPs are 50 yards from Parliament Hill, they are somebodies.