CANADA

Hey gang, let’s play charades!

John Hay October 26 1981
CANADA

Hey gang, let’s play charades!

John Hay October 26 1981

Hey gang, let’s play charades!

CANADA

NATIONAL

John Hay

Brave words of compromise notwithstanding, Premier Bill Benclearly had his doubts about striking a constitutional deal with Pierre Trudeau. Even before meeting the prime minister in Ottawa last week, Bennett had dispatched Mel Smith—his deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs—to London and Blackpool with instructions to lobby British Conservatives gathered at their annual convention. With the other seven premiers opposing the Trudeau resolution, B.C.’s Bennett was already preparing for a failure in a final attempt at federal-provincial reconciliation. As the 10 premiers prepared to meet this week in Montreal, it seemed all but certain that the constitution will soon be put to Parliament for a last debate and then sent to Westminster for passage.

Both Bennett and Trudeau chose to put the best face to the outcome of their talks in Ottawa last week. Said Trudeau: “I feel that I’ve compromised substantially.” In a Telex the next day, Bennett professed that his fellow premiers were “hopeful that an agreement can be reached,” and proclaimed their “strong desire to dispose of the constitutional issue promptly.” To that, Trudeau replied with just a soupçon of sarcasm: “I assume that you are serious.” In fact, however, never in their three hours together did either man offer any compromise whatsoever. Trudeau, armed with the Supreme Court decision that his resolution is legal, simply told Bennett that he would listen to the premiers’ proposals. In advance of the premiers’ own meeting this week, Bennett had no proposals to offer.

Trudeau’s two provincial allies, Ontario’s Bill Davis and New Brunswick’s Richard Hatfield, got the same message in their separate visits with Trudeau. “There are no compromises at this point on the table,” said Davis. “That is correct,” vouched Hatfield. “There is no table.” Hatfield’s point was well taken: the 10 premiers were waiting to meet among themselves before even replying to Trudeau’s invitation to a final first ministers’ face-off next week. And Ottawa officials were adamant that this truly was Trudeau’s last offer: if the premiers can’t pull together a compromise proposal by month’s end, Ottawa will press ahead. Officials from some of the eight opposing provinces claimed to be unimpressed—they have watched federal deadlines fall before.

Enjoying the unaccustomed role of provincial statesman, Bennett had every personal interest in making the bargaining with the prime minister look like something more than a charade. But there has not been any bargaining, and there is almost nothing to bargain about. The prime minister will not give up sections of the charter of rights to which the premiers object. Only on the small arithmetic of the amending formula might Ottawa relent—the numbers of provinces needed to effect future constitutional changes. (The formula in the present resolution: approval by Ontario and Quebec, at least two Atlantic provinces, and at least two western provinces containing at least half the region’s population.) Several premiers especially resent the federal proposal permitting amendments by referendum. But on such details as new formulas, the premiers don’t seem ready to agree this week.

If the country found all that dispiriting, there was no comfort to be found in the hubbub on Parliament Hill last week, when the Commons and Senate returned after a three-month recess. Avoiding the constitution as a subject that voters would like to hear less about, Opposition MPs hammered at the obvious—and disquieting—economic issues. By way of an answer, Finance Minister Allan MacEachen announced he will bring down his budget on Nov. 3, and for interest-rate relief he tried to turn the heat on the banks. MacEachen dismissed a mortgage plan recently advanced by two banks based on government tax concessions. “I would like the banks to strive more diligently to find schemes which would cause them to bleed a bit,” he said. New Democrat leader Ed Broadbent raised a stir by demanding to see a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) study that he claimed shows that 85,000 families “will lose their homes by Christmas.”

In fact, said officials, such a figure could only apply to the whole of 1982— and even at that, it is far too high as an estimate of foreclosures. CMHC estimates that 635,000 mortgages will come up for renewal next year, and that more than 90 per cent will avoid foreclosure. Another leaked CMHC report last week did warn, however, that Canada’s cities face a black market apartment system as vacancy rates stay low. It also said, though,that if interest rates stay high as many as 100,000 foreclosures could occur in the next two years. Whatever the numbers, the Liberals sense that mortgage anxiety is a debilitating political contagion. That is seen as one more reason for fast action on the constitution, clearing the parliamentary calendar for whatever economic good news the government can concoct.

With files from Malcolm Gray.

Malcolm Gray