Since leading his Liberals to power almost six months ago, Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells has spoken out frequently against the Meech Lake constitutional accord. He says that unless Newfoundland’s concerns about the accord are addressed, the province might rescind its ratification of the accord—given while Wells’s predecessor, Conservative Brian Peckford, was premier. Last week, in a speech at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Wells said that Newfoundland’s reversal on Meech Lake could come as early as next month. Maclean’s Halifax Bureau Chief Glen Allen interviewed the premier, whose opposition to the accord seriously lessens its chances of being ratified by its deadline next June.
Maclean’s: Have you, in effect, issued an ultimatum that Meech Lake must be changed at the First Ministers conference next month in Ottawa—or else you will rescind Newfoundland’s approval?
Wells: No. You can’t just say no to Meech Lake. You’ve got to address the real concerns, and I am interested in doing that. I talked [in Toronto] about discussing alternatives, finding a way to accommodate the legitimate interest of Quebec. But a newsman afterward asked when would I take action. So I said, for example, if at the coming First Ministers conference there is a clear and definite indication that we are not going to negotiate any change, then we might as well act. But there is no deadline. Maclean’s: Federal cabinet minister John Crosbie, another Newfoundlander, said that the people of Newfoundland wouldn’t support you on Meech and that you aren’t acting in their interests or the interest of Canada. What is your reply?
Wells: Mr. Crosbie is wrong. Mr. Crosbie hasn’t stopped to think about what is in the best interests of Newfoundland. In terms of securing Newfoundland’s position as a full participating province of this country and protecting its interests in the future, Meech Lake is detrimental to Newfoundland’s interests. Every group that I’ve talked to supports that position. Maclean’s: How would the accord adversely affect Newfoundland?
Wells: Section 106 requires the federal government to pay compensation to any province that chooses to opt out of any cost-shared program. Just stop and think for a moment how many cost-shared programs there are to correct regional disparity or provide a reasonably comfortable level of public services throughout the country. How many of those programs will occur if, say, Ontario and Quebec opt out and Ottawa has to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation? The answer is, there won’t be any. Meech Lake will
keep us forever in this beggared position. Maclean’s: You have also said that, as a province, you want less power, not greater power, as Meech Lake’s critics say the accord provides. What do you mean by that?
Wells: That is not quite accurate. What I did say is that more power is no good to small provinces. What are we going to do with more power? We don’t have the financial resources to maintain our schools—and we have got exclusive jurisdiction in education. We are closing down hospital beds for want of financial
resources—and we have got exclusive jurisdiction in health. It is not more power that we need—it is more say in the exercise of federal legislative power.
Maclean’s: What is your position on the clause recognizing a “distinct society” in Quebec?
Wells: I readily agree that Quebec is a distinct society. What concerns me is that the government of Quebec is to have a responsibility to preserve and promote that distinct society. So the legislature of Quebec is to have the right to pass laws saying that you cannot use English for this purpose, you must have only French signs, you can’t work in certain industries unless you are French-speaking. It wrecks the basis on which the country is operated. Worse still, the more Quebec entrenches itself, the more the rest of the country says: ‘The hell with Quebec. We’re not having any French here.’ You get a kind of division that will
ultimately tear this country apart. It would be much better to have a Canada that is bilingual than a French enclave in Quebec.
Maclean’s: What about the amending formula, or Senate reform?
Wells: This is another concern—the rigidity of the accord’s formula for amending the Constitution. Newfoundland and all smaller provinces will forever remain in the position they are in now so long as we don’t have a proper Senate. Until such time as we get a Triple E [elected, equal, effective] Senate, then everything that is done at the national level will have to be done in such a way that it meets with the approval of the majority of the House of Commons. We now have seven members—two per cent of the House of Commons. We have no real impact.
Maclean’s: Some people in Ottawa have been saying that if a province can rescind an agreement such as its ratification of Meech Lake, a
whole array of federal-provincial agreements can be called into question.
Wells: That is patent nonsense. The thing that upsets me most is that neither the Prime Minister nor any other member of the federal government has for one moment stopped to give any credence to Newfoundland’s position. It appears that they haven’t cared a whit about whether Newfoundland has any legitimate concern. They try to put this kind of pressure on: ‘You’re going to be destroying Canada.’ At no time have they dealt with the issue. Why? Because, to me, they have no confidence in their position. Let’s sit down and discuss the issue on its merits. And if Newfoundland has no legitimate concerns, then explain to the Canadian people why Newfoundland has no legitimate concerns. Don’t berate its premier and government for exercising their constitutional rights to express their opinions on these matters that they believe are of great concern. □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.