A BATTLE JOINED
OPPOSING VISIONS OF CANADA’S FUTURE FUEL THE DEBATE OVER THE CONSTITUTION
The soothing atmosphere created by Quebec artist Marc-Aurèle Fortin’s watercolor landscapes in an Old Montreal museum provided an attractive—if unlikely—setting for the launching of a political book. But Pierre Trudeau appeared determined to shatter the serenity. With a crush of TV cameras capturing every shrug of his shoulders and each derisive characterization of his political foes, the former Liberal prime minister used last week’s launch of Lac Meech: Trudeau Parle (Meech Lake-. Trudeau Speaks), the French edition of a collection of his essays, to renew a blistering attack on the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Declared Trudeau: “There was a very bad negotiation, which gives away more than Quebec reasonably deserved or even asked for.” Holding a microphone with one hand and gesticulating with the other, Trudeau poked fun at the “ultranationalism” of some of the Quebec media and dismissed the risk of Quebec separation, should the accord be rejected, as “a hoax.” But he saved his harshest words for the failure of politicians to stand up to Quebec’s demands for special status. “I think they are all afraid of Quebec,” Trudeau said. “I wasn’t.”
Bruise: Trudeau’s scathing indictment of Meech Lake left another major bruise amid the torrent of damaging blows that the accord has suffered in recent days. With the release last week of long-awaited reports from the Manitoba and New Brunswick legislatures, and extensive demands for changes contained in an Oct. 18 letter from Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the already unfavorable odds of ratifying the accord by its June, 1990, deadline became substantially longer. Then, on Oct. 27, delegates attending the annual convention of British Columbia’s governing Social Credit party voted almost unanimously to rescind the province’s previous support for the pact.
Most damaging were Wells’s criticisms and the allparty report from Manitoba, which attacked provisions at the accord’s soul. Both demanded changes to the clause that recognizes Quebec as a “distinct society,” and that gives the Quebec government a special role in promoting that status. In response, Quebec Premier Robert Bour-
assa quickly rejected any amendments to the document. And with that disagreement, the Meech Lake debate crystallized into another wrenching confrontation between two competing—and apparently irreconcilable—visions of Canada and Quebec’s place in it.
When Mulroney and the 10 premiers of the day signed the Meech Lake accord in June, 1987, they were proposing that Quebec’s particular need to protect its language and culture required extraordinary constitutional guarantees. That agreement overturned a vision of Canada Trudeau had fought to defend throughout his 15 years in office: a vision of a federation in which no province had any advantage over the others. But since the Meech Lake accord was signed, provincial consensus on the new perception of the nation that it contains
has evaporated. Since his government’s election last April, Wells has emerged as a staunch defender of Trudeau’s vision of the country as well as the most unyielding champion of federal power and the sharpest critic of the so-called distinct-society provision. The Newfoundland premier has pledged to withdraw his government’s support for the accord rather than allow it to grant Quebec powers that are different from those of the other nine provinces.
Draft: Similarly, Manitoba’s all-party committee, which Conservative Premier Gary Filmon’s minority government set up last March to draft a nonpartisan response to the accord, declared last week that the distinct-society clause should be made clearly subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—the centrepiece of the constitutional changes that Trudeau’s government
secured in 1982, which guarantees the same rights to all Canadians. In addition, the committee argued that the distinctness of Canada’s multicultural communities and aboriginal peoples should receive constitutional recognition on a par with that accorded to Quebec.
But Bourassa was clearly in no mood to retreat from the special status that he won for Quebec in the original accord. Indeed, that status was at the heart of the five conditions Bourassa’s government spelled out in 1986, when it entered negotiations aimed at winning Quebec’s signature on the 1982 Constitution Act. Those conditions, which Bourassa has repeatedly described as the province’s “minimal” demands are: that Quebec be explicitly recognized in the Constitution as a distinct society; that it gain increased power over immigration; that federal spending powers in areas of provincial jurisdiction be limited; that Quebec’s right of veto be recognized; and that the province be given a voice
in the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court of Canada.
In the course of the bargaining that followed, Bourassa won all five concessions. Moreover, with the exception of the distinct-society clause, the concessions to Quebec were extended in equal measure to all the provinces. The result was a document that would end Quebec’s constitutional isolation after its refusal to sign the 1982 act. But critics contend that by strengthening the powers of the provinces at Ottawa’s expense, the Meech Lake pact weakened national unity. As well, advocates of Senate reform and provincial status for the northern territories maintain that the acceptance of a provincial veto over such future constitutional changes renders their aspirations all but unattainable. In Quebec, most observers say Bourassa, having
secured additional powers at Meech Lake andhaving cast them as the least that the province can accept in a renegotiated Constitution, now has little—if any—room to compromise. Said Vincent Lemieux, a political scientist at Quebec City’s Laval University: “Among Quebecers, nationalist feelings are rising. Bourassa has no margin of manoeuvre on his original five demands.”
Love: Last week, Trudeau was characteristically colorful in dismissing that assessment. “It’s a not very honorable blackmail by the government of Quebec,” said Trudeau. “I think the Quebec people are not separatist. I think they love Canada.” And Trudeau was plainly disappointed that the current generation of Quebec federalists has not spoken up to reflect that affection. Quebec politidans, he observed, “are terrified when they see an editorial which says, ‘You’re giving too much to the Anglos and you’re not a real Quebec-
er.’ ” His attack served to underscore the divisions within his own Liberal party over the accord (page 24).
Whatever Quebecers’ sentiments towards the rest of the country, it was clear by the end of last week that the Manitoba report and Wells’s letter had dealt a crushing blow to Ottawa’s hopes that the accord can still be ratified. Indeed, while Senator Lowell Murray, minister of federal-provincial relations, held open a chance that the original deal might be rewritten, he left no doubt that he considered that a very remote possibility. He added, “It is difficult to envision how unanimity could be reconstructed among the 11 governments if even the holdout provinces have different priorities.”
Impasse: Because the Prime Minister was at the Commonwealth conference in Malaysia last week, and later in Costa Rica at a hemispheric summit meeting, the Tory strategy was restricted to waiting until the Nov. 9 first ministers’ conference in Ottawa. There, according to close advisers, Mulroney will try to rebuild the cooperative mood of the original Meech Lake discussions in the search for a way out of the impasse. But some critics blamed Mulroney and Murray for not having acted earlier to forestall the deadlock. New Brunswick Inter-Governmental Affairs Minister Aldéa Landry told Maclean ’s: “One month after we took power, we told federal officials that they had to take our objections seriously. But their minds were closed, and so were the doors for improving the accord.”
Still, there were at least some voices raised in defence of the accord last week. In of Ontario teachers in Toronto, NDP
SOME PROVINCES DEMAND THAT QUEBEC TAKE LESS THAN ITS ' ’
Leader Edward Broadbent, for one, warned of the “likelihood of the breakup of Canada” if the impasse is not solved. Broadbent, who is stepping down as party leader and will leave the House of Commons at the end of the year, acknowledged that “a limited number of changes are desirable, either directly to the accord itself or by means of a parallel accord.”
But he added: “Overall,
Meech Lake is good for Quebec and good for Canada. We must say yes to Quebecers for their sake and ours.”
List: And, said Murray after the Manitoba committee released its report on Oct.
23: “I am happy because I have a list. We are into a process now, and it is a negotiating process.” Indeed, when the New Brunswick report was released the next day, it was crafted in conciliatory language. For one thing, it did not challenge Quebec’s crucial distinct-society clause, although it did argue that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms should be recognized at the same time as a “fundamental characteristic” of Canada. As well, the New
Brunswick report left Pre-
mier Frank McKenna the option of ratifying Meech Lake, provided that the other governments make a commitment—possibly in a parallel accord—to address the province’s objections after the accord is ratified. And, for his
part, Bourassa last week acknowledged for the first time that he would consider new commitments outside the accord. But he added that he could not compromise any of Quebec’s five conditions for signing Meech Lake.
But New Brunswick’s apparent eagerness to find a solution to the constitutional stalemate was overshadowed by the sweeping changes demanded by Manitoba and Newfoundland. The Manitoba report demanded that Quebec’s right to “preserve and promote” its distinctiveness be cut out of the Constitution. In its place, Manitoba
proposed a so-called Canada clause, which would allow all provinces to “uphold” their special characteristics. The report also insisted that the unanimous consent of all 11 governments should not be necessary in order to
reform the Senate or to create new provinces. In addition, the all-party committee recommended that the clause allowing provinces to opt out of future national spending programs—with financial compensation if they introduce provincial programs “compatible” with national goals — be dropped altogether.
Vision: In all, Manitoba’s proposed amendments reflected much of Trudeau’s vision of Canada by insisting on 10 equal provinces and a strong central government. Filmon told Maclean’s: “We are expressing a vision that
puts Canada first. We in Manitoba know the need for a strong federal presence.” And Wells, a constitutional lawyer who once argued cases for the Trudeau government before the Supreme Court of Newfoundland, has also stated that no province should have rights that
others do not enjoy.
To press his point, Wells wrote to Mulroney and the other premiers on Oct. 18, sending with his letter a detailed critique of what he considers the shortcomings of the Meech agreement. His letter declared that he was ready to withdraw Newfoundland’s approval of the accord unless the deal is amended to drop—among other acknowledgements of Quebec’s five demands— the distinct-society clause. And politicians who are close to Wells say that his opponents should not underestimate the Newfoundlander’s resolve. Said Newfoundland Liberal MP Brian Tobin: “Anyone who thinks that Clyde Wells is looking to trade Meech Lake for fish, oil, transfer payments or highways, completely misunderstands Clyde 2 Wells. Once his mind is £ made up, he cannot be £ bought, bullied or se£ duced—even for his own I partisan advantage.”
§ Tough: But the Manitoba E and Newfoundland deg mands are clearly unaccept° able to the Bourassa government. Said Quebec Inter-Governmental Affairs
Minister Gil Rémillard: “Compromise is possible between now and June: the compromise is to accept Meech Lake as it stands now.” And in a telephone conversation after the Manitoba report was tabled, Bourassa told Filmon that he was “open to discussion, not negotiation.” That attitude clearly rankled Filmon. Said the Manitoba premier: “Nine months ago, Quebec was saying, ‘How do we deal with this when we do not know Manitoba’s position?’ So we put reasonable and modest proposals on the table, and now they are saying, ‘Tough luck.’ ”
And there were other signs of a worsening climate for finding enough common ground between the two camps to salvage the accord. In several provinces, there was evidence that support for official bilingualism and other concessions to francophone rights was waning (page 26). In a dramatic reflection of the increasingly sour tone of relations between Quebec and Manitoba in particular, the Montreal daily Le Devoir on Oct. 26 ran an editorial cartoon depicting the authors of the Manitoba report as members of the racist Ku Klux Klan, holding aloft a flaming fleur-de-lys. The follow-
ing day, the same cartoon appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, provoking a storm of outrage among Manitobans. For his part, Filmon called the cartoon “an insult to the people of Manitoba.” And Sharon Carstairs, leader of the opposition provincial Liberals and a signatory of the Manitoba Meech report, who was in Quebec to discuss the report with Bourassa, stormed out of a meeting with Le Devoi/s editors when, she said, the editors refused to apologize for what she called the “offensive” tone of the cartoon.
Meanwhile, many Quebecers expressed passionate disagreement with Trudeau’s assertion that “it is a con job to pretend that English Canada is rejecting Quebec because it’s rejecting the Meech Lake accord.” Said Laval’s Lemieux, for one: “There is a common front of public opinion in Quebec. I know people who are not ultranationalists who have said in recent weeks, ‘If there is another referendum, I will vote “yes” this time for independence.’ ”
Wrath: Little in recent months has signalled that hardening of nationalist sentiment in Quebec more than remarks made on Oct. 14 by Rev. Georges-Henri Lévesque. A spiritual father of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, his support of Canadian federalism in the 1960s and 1970s earned him the wrath of many supporters of independence. Now 86, Lévesque concluded, on the eve of the publication of a volume of his memoirs, that English Canada’s diminishing tolerance for Quebec’s demands had led him to believe that independence was inevitable. He told Montreal daily La Presse. “The anglophones have themselves opened the door for Quebec to quit the Canadian federation.” His turnaround surprised many Quebecers. Said Roland Parenteau, a key Quebec civil servant during the 1960s: “The equilibrium of forces in Quebec has changed. Meech Lake will be the great test of whether Canada will accept Quebec with all its peculiarities.”
As the accord appears to founder, cracks are also showing in Conservative ranks. At last week’s federal Tory caucus meeting, some Quebec MPs, including François Gérin, MP for Mégantic-Compton-Stanstead, expressed criticism of their western colleagues’ failure to rally
support for Meech Lake. Later, Gérin told Maclean ’s.“It is not up to Quebec MPs to go to Manitoba to sell Meech Lake. The English MPs from other provinces are not doing their job.” But most Tories evidently continue to rely on Mulroney’s ability to create a co-operative
spirit among the premiers when he gets them behind closed doors in Ottawa next month. Federal advisers are hoping that Ontario Premier David Peterson will defend the deal, allowing Mulroney not to appear to be the sole defender of Quebec.
But Wells has already denounced that closed-door approach to constitutional dealmaking. And Manitoba’s objections clearly worry the federal government. Even if Mulroney managed to convince Filmon to support the accord, the Manitoba premier’s conversion would not be enough to win its passage through the Manitoba legislature—where Filmon’s Conservatives hold only a minority 24 of 57 seats. With Liberal Leader Carstairs and NDP Leader Gary Doer also opposed to the deal, it will be difficult to find a formula that will appease all three parties—which are expected to fight a provincial election campaign next spring. Doer told Maclean ’s that the negotiators may be unable to roll back the accord’s clause empowering Quebec to “preserve and promote” its distinct society. But he predicted that the breaking point in negotiations will be another provision: one that hamstrings Ottawa’s ability to promote national programs evenly in all regions.
Poker: In the view of one federal official, who asked not to be identified, the debate over Meech Lake had plainly reached a new stage. He added, “We are into a poker game now.” But, as Trudeau’s return to the constitutional stage last week underscored, it was a game in which sharply different visions of the country were at stake. And for Mulroney, who promised in 1984 to get Quebec to sign Canada’s Constitution with “honor and enthusiasm,” the final negotiations to save the Meech Lake accord have plainly become a historic test of his political nerve.
BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa