Constitutional clouds

MICHAEL ROSE April 27 1987

Constitutional clouds

MICHAEL ROSE April 27 1987

Constitutional clouds


The speech was at once a promise and a warning. In a major address in Ottawa last week to a gathering of the country’s top lawyers, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney gave new impetus to his drive to have Quebec sign the 1981 constitutional accord—accepting explicitly for the first time Quebec’s demand for constitutional recognition as a distinct society.

But at the same time, Mulroney warned that the issueone of the major goals he has set for his government—has reached a critical stage. Said the Prime Minister: “We must find out if there is sufficient political will to bring Quebec in to justify the undertaking of formal negotiations, or whether it would be better to close the books.”

Mulroney’s remarks came amid growing signs that his attempt to have Quebec sign the Constitution is in trouble.

As Canada’s 10 premiers prepared for a crucial meeting on the subject with Mulroney on April 30 at Meech Lake,

Que., Robert Bourassa of Quebec and Alberta’s Don «

Getty appeared headed for a showdown over language z rights and special status for Quebec in Confederation. As well, Getty unexpectedly demanded that Senate reform be discussed at the first ministers’ meeting—a reversal of a formal commitment made by the premiers at a meeting in Edmonton last summer that the Quebec issue be settled first. Indeed, in his speech last week Mulroney indicated that he would hold the premiers to their so-called Edmonton Declaration, and consider other constitutional problems only after the Quebec issue is resolved.

Aides to Mulroney said that the Prime Minister’s speech was designed to send a strong signal to all parties in the constitutional talks. His speech writers carefully drafted the text to include the phrase “distinct society,” which exactly matched one of Quebec’s five conditions for signing the Consti-

tution. The text read, “Quebec, whose distinct society enriches the very nature of Canada, must rejoin the constitutional family.” One Mulroney advis-

er told Maclean’s that the line was “a message to Quebecers that on this point we are speaking the same language.” The speech was also a thinly veiled warning to the Alberta premier that he should not muddy the constitutional waters by introducing the issue of Senate reform at this time. Said another Mulroney aide: “We’re reminding Getty of his own agenda.”

Still, it was Getty who appeared most likely to scuttle Mulroney’s hopes for success. At a provincial Conservative party convention in Calgary April 3 to 5, Getty brought delegates to their feet with a vow to press for a so-called Triple E Senate—elected, equal and effective—to increase the influence of Alberta and other western provinces in Ottawa. Delegates also applauded

Getty’s rejection of special status for any province—including Quebec. Said the premier: “There is no special status, special deals or special vetoes—

just 10 equal provinces making a strong united Canada.”

Alberta was also the focus of another potentially explosive issue on the constitutional front: the right of members of the province’s legislature to speak French in the chamber. The matter came to a head on April 7 when Alberta’s only francophone MLA, Leo Piquette, rose in the legislature and attempted to ask a question in French. The third-generation Franco-Albertan was ruled out of order by Speaker David Carter, who told Piquette to speak “en anglais, s’il vous plait.” The move outraged Alberta’s 62,000-strong francophone community and touched off controversy across the country. Piquette called the restriction “an insult to all French Canadians,” and added, “The question is

whether Alberta wants to join a bilingual Canada.” At present, only the legislatures of Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan do not guarantee members the right to speak in the official language of their choice. The question has been referred to a 21member committee of the Alberta legislature, which is to report in a few weeks, but Getty has refused to state publicly where he stands.

For his part, Bourassa took the unusual step of publicly criticizing Getty on the issue. The Quebec premier said during his weekly radio message on April 12 that the Piquette affair “showed the rather ironic and surprising character” of Getty’s opposition to special status for Quebec. Bourassa said that Quebec already has a form of special status—because it allows anglophone members of its legislature to speak their native language while Alberta does not do the same for franco" phones. In an interview with Maclean's later, Bourassa added, “I say to Mr. Getty that the position of Alberta does not have absolute logic behind it.” After the premier’s verbal attack on Getty, aides to Bourassa said privately that they are convinced that next k week’s first ministers’ talks—about which they were previously optimistic—are now doomed. Said one Bourassa adviser of Getty’s actions: “Very simply, he is trying to screw us.”

The rancor between the two provincial governments made it clear that Mulroney will need all his vaunted skills as a mediator to get the troubled Quebec constitutional negotiations back on track. Spokesmen for the federal and Quebec governments said that they expected to have a clear idea after next week’s meeting about whether formal talks could begin. Bourassa has repeatedly said that a final deal would have to be struck by next fall because the federal Tories will likely be preoccupied soon after that with preparations for the next federal election. “The more this issue is delayed, the more of a problem it will become,” he told Maclean's. “The key right now is to create an optimistic attitude going into this.”

Mulroney also warned last week that there is little time left to solve the problem. “We should not,” the Prime Minister said, “pass on the obligation to resolve it to a future generation, which may be faced with the issue in more difficult and less tranquil circumstances.” But as the first ministers’ meeting approached, there was little evidence of tranquillity on the Quebec issue.