CANADA

THE MEECH DISCORD

CRITICS CLAIM THAT OTTAWA’S POWER WILL BE ERODED AT A TIME WHEN IT IS MOST URGENTLY NEEDED

December 12 1988
CANADA

THE MEECH DISCORD

CRITICS CLAIM THAT OTTAWA’S POWER WILL BE ERODED AT A TIME WHEN IT IS MOST URGENTLY NEEDED

December 12 1988

THE MEECH DISCORD

CANADA

CRITICS CLAIM THAT OTTAWA’S POWER WILL BE ERODED AT A TIME WHEN IT IS MOST URGENTLY NEEDED

The phone call from a former prime minister provided aid and comfort to one of Brian Mulroney’s most bitter—and determined—political opponents. On Nov. 25, just four days after Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives won their second majority government, Pierre Trudeau spoke with Manitoba Liberal opposition leader Sharon Carstairs and urged her to keep up her fight to prevent ratification of the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Trudeau is a leading critic of the agreement, largely, he says, because of its provision ensuring special constitutional status for Quebec—a repudiation of his lifelong goal of creating a bilingual Canada with a strong central government. Said Carstairs: “He told me he was glad that there were some voices out there willing to speak out to defend Canada. And he encouraged me to maintain the fight.” Carstairs, whose party is committed to blocking passage of the accord in

the Manitoba legislature, is one of many critics to renew their opposition to Meech Lake following the Nov. 21 general election.

In fact, a national chorus of protest has enveloped Mulroney’s coveted accord. Many

critics claim that it will weaken Ottawa’s power to shelter the poorer provinces from any ill effects of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. In Manitoba, where Premier Gary Filmen presides over a minority Conservative government, the combined Liberal-NDP opposition could force an election if a vote is held on the Constitution. And last week, provincial NDP Leader Gary Doer, who holds the balance of power, said that his party would indeed vote with Carstairs’ Liberals. At the same time, New Brunswick Liberal Premier Frank McKenna is an unwavering opponent of the accord. But without the support of all of the provinces, the agreement cannot become law, as scheduled, by mid-1990.

Both NDP Leader Edward Broadbent and Liberal Leader John Turner supported the agreement, largely as a gesture to Quebec voters, despite sometimes fierce internal dissent. But with neither man expected to lead his party into the next election, and with 63 of Quebec’s 75 seats going to the Tories, MPs from both parties—feeling no debt to the province—now are reviving their attacks on the accord. Much of their anti-Meech Lake passion is directed at Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, who has been criticized by many Liberal and NDP politicians for his open support of the Tories during the campaign.

The battle over Meech Lake is focused in Manitoba and New Brunswick—the only two provinces that have yet to ratify the accord. Said Doer last week: “Free trade orients the

country on a north-south line, and when coupled with Meech Lake, which also strips power from Ottawa, I believe this country is on the line.” McKenna, whose Liberal party holds all 58 seats in the legislature, says that he will continue his opposition to Meech Lake unless half a dozen major changes are made in the act. That opposition was echoed by a host of politicians, including Saskatchewan NDP Leader Roy Romanow, one of the architects of Trudeau’s original 1982 Constitutional Act, and several suddenly vocal members of the federal Liberal party caucus.

Members of Quebec’s minority-rights lobby group, Alliance Quebec, say that they have been encouraged by the attacks on Bourassa and the Meech Lake accord from outside the province. As a result, they add that they want the deal to be amended or scrapped—largely because of what they describe as the accord’s inadequate provisions to protect minority language rights. That led to another round of angry exchanges between representatives of Quebec’s two linguistic communities on the eve of a sensitive Supreme Court of Canada ruling—scheduled for Dec. 15—on the legality of the French-only signs provisions of Quebec’s language law, commonly known as Bill 101. Doer and some other critics of Meech Lake said that they would evaluate the accord’s minority language protection on the basis of how Bourassa responds to the court judgment and how he deals with the consequences.

For his part, Mulroney was clearly concerned that his constitutional breakthrough might founder. The deal between the Prime Minister and the 10 provincial premiers was reached at the federal government’s Meech Lake, Que., retreat in April, 1987, after months of quiet interprovincial diplomacy. Its aim was to bring Quebec—the only province that had not signed the 1982 act—into the Canadian constitutional fold. In return, the other first ministers were willing to grant special status to Quebec as a “distinct society” with the power to “preserve and promote” its unique character. Other parts of the accord, including the rights of provinces to nominate lists of potential Supreme Court justices and to opt out of future national cost-sharing programs with full financial compensation, reflected a shift in power from Ottawa to the provinces. But while Meech Lake won cautious endorsement from the federal opposition parties, many of its clauses were condemned by such special-interest groups as women and natives, who claimed that their rights are not protected.

Mulroney has said repeatedly that the accord cannot be altered because the process of winning unanimous provincial support would then have to begin again. That all-or-nothing strategy successfully steered the accord through eight of the 10 provincial legislatures. But when Mulroney took up the appeal again on the day after his decisive election victory, declaring that he had a mandate to push on with the accord, opponents quickly disagreed. Said McKenna: “Meech Lake was simply not an issue in the campaign.” Mulroney tried to defuse the debate by muting discussion of the issue by members of his party. The Tory’s chief constitutional strategist,

Senator Lowell Murray, declined interviews on the topic. And aides to the Prime Minister said privately that the Tories would allow the furore to subside rather than amplify the argument into a national debate. Said Tory Senator Michel Cogger: “Nobody wins by getting into a

shouting match with Sharon Carstairs.”

In fact, most Tory advisers said that they expected Mulroney and Murray to ignore the precarious Manitoba situation in the short term. One reason: friends said that Mulroney is angry at Health Minister Jake Epp for his lack

of enthusiasm in selling the accord in his home province. That job had been delegated to backbench St-Boniface MP Léo Duguay, who lost his seat on Nov. 21 to a Meech Lake critic, Liberal Ronald Duhamel. Now, with a recent internal party poll showing Filmon’s approval rating at a substantial 68 per cent, Mulroney may delay pressing Meech Lake until after another provincial election—and a potential majority government for Filmon. Instead, the Tories are expected to train their fire on McKenna and try to win him over with private reassurances. But McKenna, who has listed among his six fundamental objections more protection for minority rights, appears to be determined to maintain his opposition. And James Appleton, the provincial Tory intergovernmental affairs critic, claimed that McKenna is holding up the accord only to win favors from Ottawa. Appleton said that the premier is particularly anxious to obtain federal funding to widen New Brunswick’s existing two-lane Trans-Canada Highway to four lanes. According to the provincial government, which supports the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the highway o must be expanded to handle the antici° pated increase in commercial traffic when the FTA is implemented. In fact, provincial highway expansion was a

major issue in the federal campaign, and Transport Minister Benoit Bouchard said that he will seriously consider a request for federal funding. Some Mulroney advisers say that the highway improvements may be an irresistible enticement. Said Garry Allen, a University of New Brunswick political scientist: “There is a perception that he may trade Meech Lake for the highway.”

But McKenna may be encouraged to maintain his opposition by the fact that some members of the federal opposition parties are now anxious to support him. Said Liberal Dennis Mills, the newly elected MP from the Torontoarea riding of Broadview-Greenwood and an opponent of the accord: “The only thing we can do is give moral support to McKenna, Car stairs and Doer—that is where the action is.” At the same time, Mills and other Liberal MPs who oppose the party’s stand may use that as a weapon if they decide to try to replace Turner as leader. Their task would be simplified by the defeat of Turner’s Quebec lieutenant, Raymond Garneau, in the Montreal-area riding of Ahuntsic. Garneau had been the party’s most spirited defender of Meech Lake and its closest link to Bourassa.

Challenging the traditional party view, Garneau convinced Turner to support the accord, ~ and, as a result, he earned the enmity of many f Liberals. Now, with the Quebec Liberal caucus * made up of anglophones and Trudeau-era fed5 eralists such as André Ouellet, there is little resistance in the caucus to attacking the Meech Lake accord. Said Winnipeg South Centre MP Lloyd Axworthy: “Our caucus is now weighted in favor of the Atlantic, eastern Ontario and Manitoba, all areas where support for Meech Lake is weakest.”

Debate over the accord will likely be a key

element in any battle for the Liberal leadership. Should Turner falter or resign, Jean Chrétien, who has openly opposed the accord, may use his Meech Lake position to attack the leader’s hold on the party and to distinguish himself from other potential leadership candi-

dates, most notably Montreal MP Paul Martin. Martin, one of the few federal Liberals to receive help from Bourassa’s provincial machine, won a tough battle in the Montreal working-class district of LaSalle-Emard against the Tory contender. But he will now have to reconcile his debt to the Quebec premier with the Liberal party’s growing opposition to Meech Lake.

The federal NDP, which failed to win a single seat in Quebec, is also re-evaluating its position on Meech Lake. Previously, most dissident party members had stifled their criticism in deference to Broadbent’s efforts to make an electoral breakthrough in Quebec. Now, with a federal caucus heavily weighted with western members—and no members east of Broadbent’s own Oshawa seat—the NDP is already signalling a reversal on Meech Lake. Said NDP House leader Nelson Riis: “The letdown in Quebec may be a minor factor in why our enthusiasm for Meech Lake has waned. Our change of heart reflects our disappointment with Bourassa for his strident support of Mulroney and free trade.”

The debate may heat up after the Supreme Court rules on Bill 101. If the court upholds earlier rulings that the contested clauses are unconstitutional, Bourassa will be in a delicate position. He will have to balance the rights of Quebec’s English-language minority against powerful nationalists who claim that the French language and culture need legal protection. But by appeasing Quebec nationalists, Bourassa may also provoke a backlash in the rest of Canada. Said Doer: “We will judge

Quebec by what it does.” But, he added, the closest scrutiny would be directed at the Meech Lake accord and the Prime Minister.

Still, even the accord’s harshest critics say that, with amendments, it can become acceptable. Said Doer: “Meech Lake is not dead. The changes we are asking for do not require the

input of 150 constitutional lawyers.” In fact, Quebec and New Brunswick government officials are negotiating quietly for ways to appease McKenna’s concerns—without having to reopen the whole agreement. Said John Parisella, a senior adviser to Bourassa: “People

are forgetting that the purpose of Meech Lake was to get Quebec in the constitution; it was not a shopping list of constitutional reform.” He added: “It would be a tragedy for the country if it was decided that it was not important to get Quebec in. And all constitutional reform might be stalled for the next 25 years.”

For Mulroney, Meech Lake reflects both his desire to build a lasting Tory base in Quebec and his co-operative approach to federal-provincial relations. And he will likely use all his government’s powers of persuasion to obtain full provincial approval. Said Claude Charron, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister in the government of René Lévesque: “Ottawa is capable of exercising tremendous pressure to get its way. Simply by appealing to national unity, it can preso sure the seven per cent of the popula£ tion which is still holding out to bend to 3 the will of the rest of the country.” Declared Cogger: “Some fools in the Tory party hanged Louis Riel, and it took 100 years for the party to recover. If they vote against Meech Lake, the Liberals and New Democrats may

be buying themselves another Louis Riel.”

BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa with GLEN ALLEN in Halifax, LISA VAN DUSEN in Montreal, HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa and JOHN HOWSE in CALGARY