Conscience and the Gang of 24

IAN ANDERSON December 14 1981

Conscience and the Gang of 24

IAN ANDERSON December 14 1981

Conscience and the Gang of 24

When he voted against his own party’s constitution last week, Louis Duclos warned that Quebeckers “have lost this war through attrition.” Then, he declared that “Quebeckers are so bored with all these talks about the constitution that they are ready to let us do whatever we feel like doing.” Whether Quebeckers have won or lost, Duelos was clearly right about one thing. After a year of wrangling, no MP wanted the constitution debate to drag on. As the final speeches were made on the night before the historic Dec. 2 vote, fewer than 40 members could be counted dozing through the lacklustre rhetoric. To the very end, the Commons was little more than a sideshow of skirmishes in the bitter federal-provincial war. And to the end, rights were bartered to serve political goals.

If anyone was stung by harsh compromises it was former Liberal minister Warren Allmand.

Amid the joy on the Liberal benches as the votes were counted, Allmand sat grim and erect. Then he voted against a constitution that he said “betrayed” Quebec anglophones. Minority language education rights in Quebec come into effect only with the assent of the Quebec assembly, while minority rights outside the province take effect immediately.

“This type of discriminatory clause comes about at a time when the signs of the people of my province are being taken down,” Allmand told the House, “when their social, educational and business institutions are under attack, when they are being squeezed.”

Other Quebec Liberals were sympathetic, but they voted for the package out of political considerations not normally associated with a charter of rights and freedoms. Finding safety in numbers, 11 Montreal-area Liberals (including Energy Minister Marc Lalonde) worried openly that Allmand’s proposals would provide “unnecessary ammunition to the separatist movement at this time.”

The historic vote was a joy for some, a misery for others. An ashen-faced Maurice Bossy entered the Commons clutching a bag of dry ice to his chest. Discharged temporarily from hospital after open-heart surgery, the southern Ontario Liberal badly wanted to vote, but he had to move carefully to prevent his stitches from tearing.

On the Tory side of the chamber, Fred McCain’s seat was empty. “I had other things to attend to and I attended to them,” said the New Brunswick member, declining to elaborate. McCain says he would probably have voted against the resolution. He and other potential dissident Tories had their ears bent and their arms twisted by Joe Clark and other senior Conservatives in the days leading up to the vote. If you can’t vote for it, don’t vote at all, Clark told a meeting of the Tory caucus. It is one measure of Clark’s troubled tenure as leader that 17 of his MPs chose to ignore him and add their

grim “No” votes to those of five Liberals and two New Democrats.

Of the 17 Tory dissenters, nine chose to wait in the back corridors of the Commons instead of voting for one of Clark’s own amendments to the patriation package. That proposal — which would have allowed a province financial compensation if it chose to opt out of any future amendment that added to federal authority—was doomed anyway by Pierre Trudeau’s unbending opposition. But that and similar efforts by Clark to respond to Lévesque’s criticisms and entice Quebec back into the federal fold were viewed as unnecessary appeasement by denizens of the Tory right wing. In that, they were probably as close as they will ever be to the views of the Liberal leadership. For his part, Clark merely sought an

opening from Lévesque—and got none. “We wanted him to be obliged to address the issues of substance rather than just shout slogans,” explained Rick Clippingdale, Clark’s constitutional adviser.

Dissent in all three parties to the resolution itself focused more on items such as property rights and the rights of the fetus. “I believe the unborn are part of the human family and they are omitted from the charter of rights,” agonized Garnet Bloomfield, who, with fellow Liberal 5 Stan Hudecki, broke

^party ranks because the 5 charter did not ban aborstions. Bob Ogle, a Roman Catholic priest, abstained “as a silent protest” over the same issue. “Someone has to speak for the voiceless,” Ogle argued—somewhat incongruously. Doug Roche of Edmonton, one of the most thoughtful Tories, also voted the right-to-life line.

Among those voting “Yes,” the most visibly joyous was the obscure Alberta Tory who started it all. An outcast in his party, Bill Yurko stood up to vote for the resolution—and the Liberal and NDP benches broke into applause. His Tory caucus stayed silent. It was Yurko’s motion 18 months ago to patriate the constitution “with or without” the consent of all 10 provinces that so surprised the three parties they gave it the rare unanimous approval required to make it an order to the government. The loose wording later came back to haunt Clark as the Liberals tried to shove their package through with the support of only two provinces. An emotional and unpredictable man, Yurko is not a party favorite. He tried to speak during the final debate but was denied that right when he refused to support Clark’s proposed amendment on fiscal compensation.

The Tories will probably try to get rid of Yurko before the next election. But last week, with applause ringing from his opponents’ benches only, he clasped his hands over his head and grinned from ear to ear. He had won the constitution he wanted. Time would tell whether it was the one the country needed.

IAN ANDERSON