Last week’s Edmonton Declaration by provincial premiers in favor of renewing negotiations to include Quebec in Canada’s Constitution just might provide the Mulroney government with the historic legacy that has so far eluded it.
The political operative who has been thrust into the hinge position on this vital issue is Lowell Murray, the senator recently promoted into cabinet as minister of state for federal-provincial relations. “As things stand,” he told me recently, “the exclusion of Quebec is a real impediment to constitutional development. The aspirations of Western Canada or any of the other English-speaking provinces were not satisfied by the simple patriation of the Charter of Rights. So getting Quebec aboard is not just sentiment but a very practical matter.”
“The problem,” as Murray explains it, “is that because Quebec does not now recognize the legitimacy of the Constitution, it will not take part in its amending process, so that none of the provisions that require unanimous approval can be changed. At the same time, all of the clauses that come under the general amending formula mean that we now start with 74 per cent of the population and only nine provinces. So because Quebec isn’t taking part, Ontario has an effective veto over any constitutional amendment.”
At the moment, Murray’s officials within the Privy Council secretariat are busy briefing him for his continuing visits to the provincial capitals. “But,” he told me, “we do not want to embark on any formal negotiations unless we are convinced that the chances for success are good. We must spare the country unnecessary agony.” Murray is well suited for this assignment, and Mulroney’s trust in him is reflected by the fact that as well as having been placed in charge of Ottawa’s federal-provincial policies, he has also been asked to join both the economic regional development and social development committees of cabinet.
Like most of Mulroney’s close associates, Murray has a relationship with the Prime Minister that dates back to Nova Scotia’s St. Francis Xavier University, though Lowell was already in fourth year when young Brian arrived on campus. That was 30 years ago, but neither man has forgotten that it was Murray who first recruited Mul-
roney into the Progressive Conservative party.
That is not Murray’s only qualification for his current assignment. Between the beginning of 1974 and the end of 1976 he was deputy minister to Richard Hatfield, the New Brunswick premier, and directly in charge of discussion with Ottawa on federal-provincial matters. He first became interested in the field when he was an executive assistant in the office of Da-
vie Fulton, the justice minister in the Diefenbaker government who started the whole patriation process in the early 1960s, and he was in Quebec City the night Fulton announced the first amending process that later became the Fulton-Favreau formula.
Murray, who is a Cape Breton native, learned French from a private Swiss tutor and became an important moderating influence within the Tory party when the Official Languages Act went through in 1969. He was a key
member of Canadian National’s bilingual committee and, as an opposition senator, acted as co-chairman of the House-Senate committee on official languages between 1980 and 1984. “Though I am far from a constitutional scholar,” he says, “I have a good sense of both the limits and possibilities of action on the issue.” His belief in the importance of Quebec’s participation in future constitutional amendments caused him to vote against Trudeau’s new Constitution in the Senate.
Four of Quebec’s five basic points in agreeing to renew negotiations on the Constitution do not appear to have raised much controversy at the premiers’ Edmonton meeting. Recognition of Quebec as a distinct society within Canada; the right of Quebec to appoint some Supreme Court justices; limited but distinct powers over national immigration policies; and limits on federal spending in areas of provincial jurisdiction—these are all issues that can be negotiated with no disruption to the national fabric.
But Robert Bourassa’s suggested amending formula will not be that easy to accept. Although he has attempted to disguise it as a national instrument, in the sense that it would provide a veto not only for Quebec but for Ontario and a coalition of Western provinces, the fact is that only Quebec would retain its veto if that province’s population ever fell below 25 percent of the national total. This is a policy which goes beyond the “special status” provisions originally advocated by Claude Ryan when he was publisher of Le Devoir.
Ironically, John Turner’s constitutional position at the moment is far more radical than Mulroney’s, because the Liberal leader has attempted to counter the Chrétien forces in Quebec by backing the nationalists within his caucus. And that opens up an intriguing possibility. Pierre Trudeau has confided to friends in Montreal that the only circumstance that would drive him back into active politics—at least in the sense of speaking out strongly on issues—would be if anyone tries to touch his “monument”—the patriated Canadian Constitution.
It’s too early to predict whether Trudeau will come out swinging against Turner or Mulroney, but whatever happens the constitutional issue has once again been joined, and only the country-at-large should emerge as the winner.
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