The constitution

A TV ritual signifying little

JOHN HAY April 27 1981
The constitution

A TV ritual signifying little

JOHN HAY April 27 1981

A TV ritual signifying little

The constitution

JOHN HAY

The eight premiers did not really need any meeting with Pierre Trudeau last week: by the time they finished their own hotel-suite meeting at two in the morning they had what they came for. The eight, after all, had not labored for months over their constitution scheme primarily to make a deal with the prime minister in Ottawa. Their main aim was always just to reach a compromise with each other. In a staged television ritual next day they were able, for the first time, to present a unified alternative to Trudeau’s constitutional plan despite his taunts that they were divided and indecisive. The agreement, said Saskatchewan’s Allan Blakeney, was “important because it was said to be impossible.” But there was never much chance that Trudeau would suddenly forsake his projectafter all these months—to adopt the premiers’ offering.

Indeed, they weren’t offering much. Styled a touch pretentiously as an “accord,” the formula the premiers proposed for future amendments to the constitution varied only marginally from the one they advanced at the federal-provincial conference last September: any seven provinces with half the country’s population could, with Parliament, amend the constitution. But its central feature is the provision allowing up to three provincial legislatures to vote themselves out of any change that would reduce provincial powers. Ottawa has argued that opting out frees the provinces from the strictures of a charter of rights, leaving citizens with rights assured in some provinces but not in others. More to the point, it might be very hard to get the minimum seven provinces to bind themselves to a charter in the first place. The premiers like this system because it protects them from losing provincial powers. René Lévesque said it “perfectly” protects Quebec’s right of self-determination. There was, finally, no charter included in the premiers’ accord and only the loosest mention in their joint press conference that one might be negotiable were their plan adopted.

The proposal was quickly dismissed last week by Trudeau (along with provincial allies Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick and William Davis of Ontario). Trudeau, it is true, had been drawn to the formula at the September conference—but only in return for simultaneous acceptance of his charter of rights. That bargain was never made, and this time he wasn’t even being offered the quid for his quo. Without a charter, said Trudeau, the premiers “know darn well . . . they wouldn’t have an agreement” with him. Before the eight ended their press conference, Justice Minister Jean Chrétien had called one of his own to denounce opting out as “a kind of sovereignty-association by instalment.” Trudeau scorned what he considers the premiers’ ideal of decentralization: “Some of them see Canada as a Confederation of shopping centres. I don’t.”

Short of compromise with Trudeau, the premiers might have hoped to stop him in his tracks with a popular alternative; but they may have missed the train. The feds were encouraged by a 4to-1 opinion from the Quebec Court of Appeal backing their right to ask Britain to change the constitution without provincial consent, even though it found the change would infringe on provincial powers. Said Chief Justice Marcel Crête for the majority: “The constitutional undertaking of the federal government-even if it is unilateral—is legal.” With a similar ruling from the Manitoba court of appeal and a contrary opinion from Newfoundland, the legal issue will go to the Supreme Court of Canada on April 28. In the Commons, meanwhile, MPs were drafting amendments to the government resolution for debate and votes this week. The House and Senate are to vote on the whole resolution right after the Supreme Court rules on its legality.In the end, the dispute over amending formulas might be settled by an innovation the premiers most abhor—a referendum.