Even after two solid months of talk, translation and transcription, the task of negotiating a new marriage contract between Ottawa and the 10 provinces seemed as Herculean last week as unravelling the Gordian knot. So as baggy-eyed teams of provincial bureaucrats straggled home from Ottawa, there was less faith given to the Canadian spirit of compromise than fear of the Trudeau sword impatiently slicing through the tangle—with little
consensus, and on live television at that.
It will be up to Trudeau and the 10 premiers when they meet in Ottawa next week to build upon the random blocks of agreement that came out of the summer-long talks among their surrogates. If they can’t, “We have to expect unilateral action, and we may even deserve it,” said Tom Wells, Ontario’s minister of intergovernmental affairs. It is a view tainted for Wells’s peers by Ontario’s surprising eagerness to back Trudeau. To its critics—and they include almost every other province—Ontario has abandoned the role of honest broker to win political points that Premier William Davis can carry into a possible fall election. Canada’s largest and wealthiest province is Ottawa’s only ally in the fight to establish clear federal paramountcy in the fields of natural resource control and powers over the economy, the two toughest fights Trudeau faces.
Ontario has even managed to sidestep the most controversial item in the statement of principles that will preface the constitution. A clause referring to the provinces as “freely united,” mollified Quebec’s desire for recognition of its right to self-determination. But Wells says he interprets the phrase to mean Canada came together without force—and that it implies nothing about separation. Other delegations found it difficult to understand how a province that joins freely cannot leave freely.
At this stage the talks are closer to a poker game than a debate. Each player has seen one or two cards from the other 10 in the game, but no one has revealed his full hand. By the time the
first ministers meet next week, positions may change even on those issues now nearly resolved—equalization payments, family law, the principles of an amending formula. There is nothing to prevent Trudeau from reneging on the deal to give the provinces control of inshore fisheries, which was negotiated by the federal representative, Justice Minister Jean Chrétien. And there’s no question Trudeau may have much to gain from the munificent, on-camera gesture of turning over control of telephone companies and cable television operators to the provinces—a move Chrétien fought last week.
In return, though, Trudeau will be seeking movement on such issues as resource control and powers over trade and commerce. It is those two complex issues that, once resolved, will break the logjam and allow the premiers to decide how new formats for the Senate and the Supreme Court would least threaten their interests. Ian Anderson
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