Outside Quebec City’s national assembly last week, on the sundrenched Grande Allée, tourists and local residents vied for places at the outdoor cafés. Inside the assembly, after 35 hours of debate, the province’s MNAs were endorsing the constitutional resolution drafted by the 11 first ministers on June 3. For Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, that approval, by a vote of 95 to 18, was sweet triumph, one that came 16 years to the day after he scuttled another constitutional accord—the Victoria Charter. The timing of the vote was also a pointed signal to Ottawa and the other nine provinces that Quebec would not tolerate any amendments to the controversial resolution. As Bourassa told the assembly: “Quebecers are very satisfied. For the first time, we are winners in a constitutional debate.”
But Quebec’s quick endorsement angered opponents of the accord—and increased the pressures on Ottawa and the remaining provincial governments. Last week’s vote started a constitutional clock: Ottawa and the other provinces now have three years to pass the socalled Meech Lake resolution before it expires. Because all governments must endorse the same version, Quebec’s endorsement ensures that it will be difficult for upcoming constitutional committees in Ottawa and three provinces-
Ontario, New Brunswick and Manitoba—to propose amendments. Opponents of the resolution, including a coalition of women’s groups, vowed to press for amendments anyway. In contrast, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney voiced support for the resolution, which recognizes Quebec as a “distinct society” and offers the provinces a strong voice in appointments to the Supreme Court and the Senate.
Meanwhile, Liberal Leader John Turner fended off an incipient challenge to his leadership over his support for the accord last week. In a fiery speech to Ontario Liberals at a policy conference in Port Hope,
Turner praised the resolution as being on the “right side of history”—and pledged to support it without amendments. His performance silenced complaints about his leadership, but it did not stop internal arguments over the accord’s concessions to the provinces. As a senior Ontario Liberal told Maclean’s: “Turner has weathered this storm. But some Liberals feel strongly about a strong, central government—and they will
debate this for years to come.”
Bourassa dismissed those doubts, pointing out that the first ministers had endorsed the resolution twice—in late April and early June. He proclaimed, “For us, it is settled.” Mulroney also expressed support—but stopped short of a refusal to accept possible amendments from Commons-Senate hearings scheduled to begin this week. Said Mulroney: “The accord is an impressive document, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to the rest of the country as it was negotiated.”
That stand appeared to strengthen the resolve of the accord’s opponents. The nonpartisan Canadian Coalition on the Constitution, which includes academics and professionals, created 12 provincial and territorial committees to press for public hearings in every legislature—and to campaign for amendments. And two national women’s groups—the National Association of Women and the Law and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund— launched an effort to add to the resolution a reference to protect the rights of women and minorities.
The debate will also continue among Liberals. The Meech Lake Reform Committee is holding workshops on the accord—and plans to hold a public forum in September. A key member, Toronto lawyer Howard Levitt, said that the group of 60 Liberals will present amendments to Turner and two Liberal premiers, Ontario’s David Peterson and Prince Edward Island’s Joe Ghiz.
Levitt and other opponents stressed last week that they are challenging the resolution—not Turner’s leadership. But Turner still faces some lingering problems. Abe Schwartz, a high-powered Toronto businessman, resigned two weeks ago from the federal election readiness committee for Ontario. Senior liberals told Maclean’s that Schwartz disagreed with Turner’s approach to the accord. That resignation means that Turner has lost almost 25 per cent of the Ontario group’s approximately 20 members since the Meech Lake Accord. In Victoria, consultant and former Liberal candidate Gerry
Kristianson said: “There is no evidence whatsoever of a dump-Turner move-
ment. But local Liberal opinion does seem overwhelmingly opposed to Meech Lake.” That sentiment means that although Turner’s troubles have subsided, they will not go away.
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