Senator Lowell Murray was in good spirits. As he mingled with delegates to the Conservative party’s national convention in Ottawa last August, the federal minister for federal-provincial relations expressed new hope for the troubled Meech Lake constitutional accord. Final approval of the accord has been stalled since the governments of New Bruns-
wick and Manitoba balked at ratifying the deal unless some of its provisions are revised. But on that late August afternoon, Murray sounded convinced that New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna—one of the accord’s harshest critics—was ready to relax his demands for significant changes to Meech Lake. “I am much more optimistic than I have been for a while,” Murray remarked. “McKenna seems to be sending signals that he wants a deal.”
But Murray had reason to reconsider his optimism after last week’s Quebec election. A flurry of accusations by politicians on both sides of the Meech Lake debate appeared to darken the prospects for ratifying the deal by its June, 1990, deadline. Stating that federalism is not “the only eternal option” for Quebecers, newly elected Premier Robert Bourassa pressed his assertion that Meech Lake was necessary to stave off a revival of separatist sentiment in his province. In response, Manitoba politicians accused Bourassa of trying to blackmail the recalcitrant provinces into signing the accord, which has become a symbol among many English-Canadians for what they believe is the
federal government’s coddling of Quebec. And, although Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tried to temper the rhetorical volleys, it was increasingly apparent that the federal government’s strategy to secure approval of Meech Lake was in serious trouble. Indeed, Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard, a close Mulroney ally, hinted last week that, if Meech Lake is not
passed, he may consider leaving federal politics.
A report on the constitutional accord by an all-party committee of Manitoba MLAs, expected to be released as early as this week, may deal Meech Lake another blow. Ever since Premier Gary Filmon withdrew his support for the accord last December—after Bourassa’s government passed a law restricting minority language rights in Quebec—the Manitoba government’s conditions for agreeing to Meech Lake have been uncertain. Last March, Filmon’s minority government set up the committee with a mandate to distill a common position from views expressed at public hearings across the province. Last week, senior officials in the Manitoba government said that its report will call for amendments to the accord—including alterations to a clause requiring unanimous consent of the provinces to reform the Senate or create new provinces.
Manitoba’s conditions could deadlock the process, since both Mulroney and Bourassa have insisted that the accord cannot be reopened. Earlier this month, in a private briefing
for journalists, federal officials reiterated their belief that it would be impossible to get all the provinces to agree upon changes to the accord and then to pass the amended version through their various legislatures without it encountering the same setbacks as has the present version. But Manitoba NDP Leader Gary Doer, who holds the balance of power in the Manitoba legislature, warned, “If Ottawa and Quebec say, Take it or leave it,’ the answer is going to be,
‘Leave it.’ ”
Last week’s exchanges threatened to undercut a renewed—and redirected— federal drive to convince English Canada of Meech Lake’s merits. In recent weeks, senior Tory strategists have privately admitted that they erred by trying to sell Meech Lake as a “Quebec deal” when anti-Quebec sentiment is growing in English Canada.
Said one senior Tory adviser:
“We have to remind the other provinces that Meech offers something for everybody.” In fact, the accord gives all provinces a voice in the appointment of senators and Supreme Court justices.
Mulroney, entering a recent meeting of senior ministers, told reporters that Meech Lake has “been put out as a sop to Quebec when in point of fact it is nothing of the kind.”
A similar message suffused the background briefing arranged for the media on Sept. 22— three days before Quebec’s election. At the briefing, three senior government advisers (who spoke on condition that their names not be used) spent two hours attempting to counter criticisms of the accord’s provisions. Among them: the clause that recognizes Quebec as a “distinct society” and the requirement that changes to federal institutions, such as the Senate, gain unanimous provincial approval. But, rather than easing concerns, the briefing simply triggered more controversy.
The furor arose when one official commented on Ottawa’s concern that Newfoundland might rescind its support for the deal. Any such move would be legal, the official noted, but it “would raise questions as to the validity of a series of intergovernmental agreements.” When that comment became public, Premier Clyde Wells angrily took it as a thinly veiled threat to link federal programs in the impoverished province to support for Meech Lake. The official’s remark, in fact, seemed only to harden Wells’s view. Said the Newfoundland premier: “If there are no changes to the Meech Lake agreement that will be reasonably responsive to our concerns, we will have no alternative but to introduce a resolution to rescind it.”
For his part, Bourassa proved to be equally intransigent in the days after his election victory. Saying that Meech Lake must be accepted
by the rest of the country, he warned, “There is no unlimited confidence in the federal system as a means to achieve the ends of Quebec.” Indeed, Bourassa’s room to manoeuvre on Meech Lake may be limited by the province’s postelection political alignment. While an anglophone protest vote elected four maverick Equality
party candidates to the national assembly, that did not appear to unsettle Bourassa’s senior advisers. Instead, Liberal aides described the clearly separatist Parti Québécois as the more determined long-term threat to the Liberals. And Bourassa himself told his top advisers two days after the election that Quebec’s future political battles will be fought to win the support of nationalist voters.
To that end, Bourassa vowed to press his case for an undiluted Meech Lake at the First Ministers’ Conference scheduled for Ottawa on Nov.
9 and 10. But even some of Bourassa’s advisers worry that the premier is unaware of the diminishing patience with Quebec in the rest of the country. Said one Bourassa adviser: “We must make English Canada understand what is at stake with Meech Lake. But we must be careful not to underestimate the mood of resentment in English Canada. Mr. Bourassa’s sabre-rattling has no effect.”
Whether a renewed sales pitch by either Bourassa or the federal cabinet will sway the holdout premiers appears at best uncertain. Last
week’s confrontational language perceptibly chilled an atmosphere of growing co-operation among the parties warring over the accord that had been created over the past few months by several rounds of quiet diplomacy. McKenna, for one, has canvassed the other premiers in search of a compromise that could save the original deal. Among his proposals: the creation of a separate resolution to be passed by all provincial legislatures requiring them to expand existing protections for linguistic minorities. But McKenna also told associates that he was devoting enormous energy to calming the anti-Meech Lake militancy of Wells.
As well, Mulroney and Filmon smoothed their personal rift at an hour-long meeting in Ottawa on Aug. 27. Relations between the two men have never been warm, and at one point early in the summer, the estrangement of the two fellow Conservatives over Meech Lake brought co-operation between the two governments on other issues to a virtual halt. But, in the wake of their recent reconciliation, tentative plans are being made for a meeting between federal and Manitoba officials. And federal assistance to establish a high-profile environmental centre, which had been promised to Winnipeg in September, 1988, is expected to be approved by the federal cabinet this month.
But while the thaw between Ottawa and Winnipeg lent some comfort to Meech Lake’s supporters, last week’s war of angry words clearly left the accord’s survival in doubt. Said Winnipeg businessman and Liberal party power broker Israel (Izzy) Asper, a leading critic of the accord: “Once the all-party report is out, the ball shifts to Quebec’s court. But some people believe that this latest round will put the beast out of its misery.” And even its supporters acknowledge that the increasing divergence of provincial interests may doom the deal. Said one Tory close to Filmon: “Gary is into getting re-elected. No one should look to him for the statesmanship of a Winston Churchill.” That pessimism permeated the Meech Lake debate as the fight to save the accord entered its final j | months.
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