After a constitutional break-through at Meech Lake,
Que., many of Canada’s 10 premiers were in a buoyant mood last week as they returned to work in their home provinces. A beaming Don Getty received a desk-pounding ovation from the government benches when he appeared in the Alberta legislature. Quebec’s Robert Bourassa got a similar reception from his Liberal colleagues when he took his seat in the national assembly.
But the premiers also faced tough questions about the unexpected deal to bring Quebec back into the constitutional fold. The most important of them: would the accord fundamentally weaken the federal government?
Said University of Ottawa constitutional law expert Ed Ratushny:
“The initial euphoria has settled down and people are waking up to the morning after.
There will be second thoughts.”
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney also faced sharp scrutiny from the opposition. Liberal Leader John Turner described the Meech Lake agreement-in-principle as a “pretty
sketchy document,” and _
demanded a closer look at the deal before it goes back to the first ministers for final approval within a month. But Mulroney mounted a strong defence of the agreement. During a three-day swing through the West, he told Conservative supporters in Lethbridge, Alta., that it “will enable Quebec to rejoin our constitutional family, enable the West to feel fairness and equity, and enable us to move on to the next round of Senate reform.”
Many critics were not satisifed. At week’s end, Liberal MP Donald Johnston took the extraordinary step of resigning from Turner’s shadow cabinet over the issue, saying that he wanted the freedom to speak out against the Meech Lake deal. Johnston said that he agreed with Turner’s criticism of the agreement but that his own objections went
further. The agreement, he said, would fundamentally alter the country for years to come. “Mulroney has set about to change the face of Confederation by giving and giving, and eroding the powers of the central government,” said Johnston, who was his party’s external affairs critic. “Canadians are very complacent about this.”
Johnston, a friend of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s, said that he was especially concerned that the section of the agreement recognizing Quebec’s distinctness could damage the effort to make Canada a truly bilingual nation—one of Trudeau’s most cherished aims. Johnston added that he had attended a lunch with Trudeau in Montreal earlier in the week during which the Constitution had been discussed.
But a senior Liberal strategist said that he did not think Johnston was acting as a mouthpiece for the former prime minister, who has kept his own views about Meech Lake to himself. Instead, the Liberal said, Johnston resigned because he feared he might have to vote differently from Turner and the rest of the Liberal caucus if the issue came to a vote during a special debate on the constitutional package this week.
Opposition criticism of the constitutional pact focused on federal spending powers. Under the accord, the provinces gained the right to opt out of any future shared-cost programs established by Ottawa in areas of provincial jurisdiction, and receive financial compensation to enable them to carry out the program themselves. That provision, some critics said, would inhibit the federal government’s ability to establish new social programs. Manitoba Premier Howard Pawley, for one, said that the first ministers would have to ensure that the final wording of the pact did not prevent Ottawa from going ahead with a national day care program.
Mulroney acted swiftly to defuse the criti-
_ cism. Asked by Turner
in the Commons whether the new system would allow for a day care program, he replied “Yes, absolutely.” He added, “The right, obligation and authority of the Parliament of Canada to conduct national affairs with respect to spending are uninhibited and unfettered.” Mulroney noted that if a province opted out of a national program, it would be obliged to establish its own program “compatible with national objectives.” If it failed to do so, it would not receive any financial compensation.
Mulroney also defended the decision to grant each province a veto over changes to federal institutions. Under the Meech Lake accord, the approval of all 10 provinces would be needed to reform the House of Commons, the Senate or the Supreme Court. Unanimous
assent would also be needed to turn territories into new provinces.
Many Northerners objected to that provision.
In the Yukon, New Democratic Party government leader Antony Penikett said it was “fundamentally absurd” that a province like Prince Edward Island (population 128,000) could prevent the northern territories from achieving provincial status. Said Penikett:
“What happened at Meech Lake was like having the door locked and barred long before we even considered knocking at it.” But Mulroney said that giving each province a veto was only natural because the creation of new provinces “changes the kind of country we have.”
The veto might also make it harder for some westerners to reach their long-term goal of Senate reform. At Meech Lake, Getty received a commitment from the other first ministers to discuss the idea at regular conferences, beginning next year. In the meantime,
Ottawa will select new senators from lists provided by the provinces. But any single province will now have the power to block reform. Said Alberta Liberal Leader Nick Taylor: “I feel Getty was duped.”
For his part, University of Toronto historian Desmond Morton said that the new system of provincial nominations to the Senate will effectively prevent any reform. He added: “Once the premiers get a taste of that kind of patronage, they’ll never want to change the Senate.”
But Getty himself said that he was confident that some sort of blueprint for Senate reform would be ready for debate by the end of 1988.
Said the Conservative premier: “It’s in the
Constitution now—and you can’t get it out.”
For other westerners,
the issue of constitutional reform seemed less than compelling. During his western trip—which took him to Lethbridge, Red Deer, Alta., North Battleford, Sask., Saskatoon, Moose Jaw and Winnipeg—most of the questions directed at the Prime Minister concerned problems in the hard-hit energy and agricultural sectors. An elected Senate, said Brian Anderson, a 37-yearold sugar beet farmer from Taber, Alta., may be a worthwhile goal, but “our problem right now is survival.”
Many Quebecers also appeared to be indifferent to the Meech Lake accord. But some nationalists criticized the clause identifying the g province as a “distinct I society.” Bourassa had z called the clause—inS eluded in the accord de-
spite serious opposition from some premiers—a major step for Quebecers. And Gil Rémillard, Bourassa’s minister for intergovernmental affairs, said that it gave the province new powers within the Constitution to protect French language and culture. He added that the provincial government could use it in court to defend provincial language laws favoring the use of French. But Quebec nationalists called the clause a vaguely worded fraud. Said former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Claude Morin: “There is no guarantee that the distinct-society clause will be taken into account by judges. Quebec needs guarantees.” For his part, PQ Leader Pierre Marc Johnson dismissed the pact as a simple “press communiqué.” But Bourassa outmanoeuvred the PQ by naming two of the opposition party’s supporters to a five-member panel on the constitution. Louis Bernard, the top pro>. vincial civil servant durg ing the PQ’s reign, and ^ Jean-K. Samson, a lead1 ing constitutional adviser to the former PQ government, will counsel Bourassa during the final stages of the negotiations.
As politicians scrutinized the agreement, federal and provincial officials hurried to transform the draft accord into a formal document. Both Manitoba and Quebec will hold legislative hearings on the deal before the premiers sign it. Later, both Parliament and all 10 provincial legislatures will have to approve the document.
In the meantime, constitutional strategist Senator Lowell Murray told fellow Tories not to engage in public discussion of the accord. Doing so, said Murray, minister of state for federalprovincial relations, might damage efforts by the premiers to sell the “fragile” agreement to constituents in their home provinces. However, that directive was unlikely to have much effect. As the outlines of the historic Meech Lake accord became clearer, the debate over its merits and defects seemed certain to grow, not diminish.
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