Since 1960, they have been holding annual meetings, seeking unity on problems of common interest but often ending in dispute. Last week in Saskatoon, Canada’s 10 premiers finished three days of talks that produced a rare degree of unanimity on issues ranging from reform of the Senate to interest rates. Altogether, the premiers issued 11 communiqués, which included requests to the federal government for more financial aid to drought-stricken farmers, more help to rebuild roads and sewers, and action to hold down interest rates. The governing Bank of Canada rate rose, even as the premiers discussed it, to 9.80 per cent from 9.74 per cent the previous week. Said Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine: “Anyone who was here or in Alberta during the boom knows what high interest rates do to the economy.” The other premiers appointed Devine to carry their message personally to Bank of Canada governor John Crow in Ottawa.
Devine went to the meetings urging action, not on interest rates but on reform of the Senate, which Liberal Leader John Turner revived as a national political issue by instructing its Liberal
majority to delay passage of the U.S.Canada free trade deal until after a federal election makes a judgment on that project. Alberta Premier Donald Getty rëpeated proposals for a federal-provincial conference on giving the provinces an equal right to nominate senators. That prospect evaporated when Premier Robert Bourassa of Quebec and Ontario Premier David Peterson argued that
The premiers asked Ottawa to act on interest rates and farm aid but dodged the thorny issue of reforming the Senate
Senate reform should await ratification of the Meech Lake accord, which will bring Quebec into the Constitution, instituted in 1982. Said Bourassa: “We all agree with reforming the Senate. But we know that if we start to discuss that officially, we will jeopardize the adoption of Meech Lake.” Manitoba and New Brunswick have yet to ratify the deal. In the end, the premiers found a face-sav-
ing compromise: Getty will appoint a task force of Alberta bureaucrats who will take up the Senate issue with counterparts in the other provinces.
The apparent desire to smooth over differences in the approach to the Senate was reflected in discussions about free trade, which, given the opposition of Peterson and Prince Edward Island’s Premier Joe Ghiz, have provoked public bitterness on several occasions. The premiers simply called on Ottawa to devise a plan to assist industries that will be hardest hit if free trade becomes a reality.
While tact reigned during the three days inside the Ramada Inn conference hall, more than 200 placard-bearing protesters angrily booed pro-free-trade premiers as they arrived for Devine’s welcoming party at the historic Bessborough Hotel. Plainclothes police had to force a path through angry members of the Saskatoon-based Citizens Concerned About Free Trade when Devine tried to enter the hotel. The same crowd later cheered Peterson. “I have been against any U.S. takeover of Canada all my life,” said retired University of Saskatchewan professor Mary H. Hull, wearing a white T-shirt inscribed “Remember 1911” —a reference to Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s pitch for free trade, which cost him the election that year. Hull, a 69-yearold former professor of agriculture, sent a red rose to Peterson’s and Ghiz’s rooms each morning during the two-day meeting. Said protester Cady Williams, a 43-year-old postal worker: “Our group is nonpartisan. All of them are disillusioned. Most people in Saskatchewan oppose free trade.”
There was disillusionment elsewhere as well. Territorial government lead-
ers—the Yukon’s Tony Penikett, and Dennis Patterson of the Northwest Territories—went to the Saskatoon meetings in an attempt to have themselves included in the discussions and in subsequent talks about the Constitution. They did not get what they wanted, although both were allowed to speak briefly. Said Penikett: “Our power to negotiate our own constitutional
future was taken from us and placed in the hands of the premiers.” Added Patterson: “The Territories should be more involved in provincial decisions if only because our resources are so important. We contain 30 per cent of Canada’s fresh water.” The two men got sympathy but little else. Said Devine: “We will welcome the Territories as provinces when they are ready for that, but they are not ready right now.”
At the adjournment, three of the premiers departed quickly. Getty, in obvious distress at reports of the arrest of his son Dale on drug charges, talked to reporters briefly about Senate reform and hurried to a waiting car (page 21). British Columbia’s William Vander Zalm avoided reporters by leaving the hotel through an underground parking lot. And Nova Scotia’s John Buchanan, facing a provincial election on Sept. 6, left even before the meetings ended. New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna and Manitoba’s Gary Filmon went oif on a weekend fishing trip as Devine’s guests. There was, said the Saskatchewan leader, no significance in the fact that neither man has pushed for approval of Meech Lake.
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