CANADA

UNDER THE GUN

NEW BRUNSWICK AND MANITOBA FACE INCREASING PRESSURES TO SUPPORT THE MEECH LAKE ACCORD

RAE CORELLI February 27 1989
CANADA

UNDER THE GUN

NEW BRUNSWICK AND MANITOBA FACE INCREASING PRESSURES TO SUPPORT THE MEECH LAKE ACCORD

RAE CORELLI February 27 1989

For weeks, there had been speculation that New Brunswick’s former premier, a master of political drama, would use the occasion to repudiate the Meech Lake constitutional accord. But when private citizen Richard Hatfield appeared last week as the long-awaited final witness before a legislative committee holding hearings on the agreement, it was to defend strongly the document that he had signed—along with nine other premiers and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney—in June, 1987. In a voice made hoarse by laryngitis, Hatfield declared that Meech Lake must not be endangered because “Quebec must be part of the definition of Canada.” But for Hatfield—and Meech Lake—the winds of political fortune have shifted dramatically in the intervening 20 months since its signing. In October, 1987, Hatfield’s Conservatives were swept from office when Frank McKenna’s Liberals captured all 58 seats in the legislature. And the accord itself—with its promise to bring Quebec back into the constitutional fold from which it has been excluded since refusing to join the patriation initiative of 1982—is in danger of collapsing because new governments in Manitoba and New Brunswick are withholding ratification.

In fact, since the Free Trade Agreement with the United States went into effect on Jan. 1, the national focus has turned to the Meech Lake accord, the other major negotiating achievement of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s first term. Increasingly, federal and provincial politicians and private interest groups have become absorbed in the widening debate over the impact of the agreement, which has been ratified by the federal government and eight of the provinces. But if the two provincial holdouts do not approve it by June, 1990, it dies. McKenna has said that he will announce his decision on the accord after the committee, which concluded its hearings on Feb. 16, submits its report next fall. However, Maclean’s has learned that officials from Quebec and New Brunswick have been meeting privately to try to find a compromise that would be acceptable to all the provinces.

Both McKenna and Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon, who announced his opposition to Meech Lake in December, are under substantial pressure to throw their support behind the agreement. At the provincial level, Quebec Liberals have warned that McKenna’s refusal to sign could refuel the fires of separatism in Quebec—and possibly lead to the dissolution of Canada. And in a Feb. 10 letter to the 10 premiers—made public last week—Mulroney said that any attempts to renegotiate the accord would pose a severe danger to the country’s future. In the three-page letter, inviting the premiers to a Feb. 27 lunch, Mulroney added, “If the present round [of constitutional reform] is not concluded, there will be no second round.” And later in the week, after a 2-1/2-hour meeting with Ontario Premier David Peterson at 24 Sussex Drive, Mulroney repeated his stand at a brief news conference. Said the Prime Minister: “As far as I’m concerned, the Meech Lake accord is done.” Added Peterson: “Meech Lake has to proceed.”

However, subtle pressures were building around the issue. Officials in McKenna’s office complained last week that the Prime Minister is not returning the Liberal premier’s telephone calls. The officials said that there is a lengthy list of uncompleted bilateral business to discuss, including a provincial request for $1.5 billion in federal funds to rebuild and widen the deteriorating Trans-Canada Highway through New Brunswick and other provincial roads. And in Winnipeg, political observers predicted that an estimated $1 billion in expiring federal-provincial development agreements will not be renewed until Filmon has ratified the accord. Filmon, however, appeared unconcerned. The premier told reporters last week that he interpreted the Prime Minister’s apparent inflexibility merely as the latter’s “opening salvo” for the discussions ahead.

In Quebec, advisers to Premier Robert Bourassa said that they held out little prospect that the Quebec-New Brunswick talks would produce substantial changes to the accord. “We are talking, of course,” said Jean-Claude Rivest, a special constitutional adviser to the premier, “but we do not have a margin of manoeuvre to make deals.” He added, “How can anyone expect the premier of Quebec to go to the national assembly with an amended Meech and say, ‘Remember that deal we ratified? Well, we got a little too much. We’re going to have to give some back.’ It is politically unthinkable.”

When the month-long New Brunswick committee hearings concluded last week, McKenna said in an interview with Maclean’s that the question facing his government was whether “the public good of Canada so demands the participation of Quebec that we should be prepared to accept [Meech Lake] no matter how flawed and how imperfect it will be.” Indeed, the vast majority of submissions to the committee—102 of the total of 107—urged it to recommend that McKenna seek changes to the deal, or reject it. The only witnesses who supported the accord were Hatfield, Quebec Liberal party vice-president George Holland, federal Corporate Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, Barry Toole, secretary to New Brunswick’s former Conservative cabinet, and John Vallillee of Grand Falls, N.B., who made a personal submission.

Some witnesses travelled long distances to express their opposition to the accord. Colleen Wilson, a 30-year-old Winnipeg law student, spent $700 to attend the hearings and argue that Meech Lake limits women’s rights and erodes Ottawa’s ability to establish social programs. “I couldn’t really afford this trip,” Wilson told the committee, “but as a Canadian I could not miss this opportunity to speak.” She said she believed that the “distinct society” provision weakened the Charter of Rights guarantee of sexual equality. And a member of the Yukon territorial government seized the chance to argue—as Yukon officials had done earlier before a Senate committee—that Meech Lake will prevent the territory from becoming a province. Yukon Justice Minister Roger Kimmerly criticized the accord’s requirement that all 10 premiers support a territory’s elevation to provincehood—a much more stringent provision than the one in the existing constitution that says the change can be approved by seven of the 10 premiers representing at least 50 per cent of the country’s population. Declared Kimmerly: “The accord discriminates against generations of Canadians solely because they have chosen to live north of the 60th parallel.”

But among the critics, the main concerns were Meech Lake’s concessions to Quebec—and the accord’s perceived lack of protection for minority-language rights. Saint John, N.B., school principal Keith Dow, a former Tory MLA, dismissed the accord’s “distinct society” clause as a reflection of “a parochial siege mentality” in Quebec. Diane Hachey, information and research officer of the 4,500-member La Société des Acadiens du Nouveau-Brunswick (The New Brunswick Acadian Society), said, after the group made its submission, that the rights of the two official linguistic communities should be entrenched in the accord. Outside the hearing room, she called anglophone opponents of that point of view “bigots.”

The inflammatory rhetoric underscored the volatile nature of language politics in New Brunswick—where the 70-per-cent-anglophone, 30-per-cent-francophone population is an approximate reflection of the national ratio. Indeed, during earlier language hearings around the province in 1986, fistfights erupted between groups supporting and those opposed to expanding French services in the province. And in private conversations, provincial officials attribute the relatively strong showing of the antibilingualism Confederation of Regions party in New Brunswick during the Nov. 21 federal election to anti-French sentiment among anglophones.

Those smouldering hostilities added to McKenna’s problems. One possible solution for the premier: negotiating a constitutional guarantee of equality for New Brunswick’s two linguistic communities—an amendment that would have no application outside New Brunswick. That guarantee, requiring only the approval of Parliament and the provincial legislature, would give McKenna the opportunity to claim that he had won strengthened protection for minority rights. Indeed, several francophone witnesses demanded that measure during the Fredericton hearings. But some constitutional experts said that entrenching community-language rights in the accord could further inflame French-English tensions.

But even if McKenna’s government finds a way to sign the accord, Meech Lake still faces an uncertain future because of Filmon’s position. Filmon’s opposition emerged in the wake of Bourassa’s controversial Bill 178, passed on Dec. 21, which bans the use of languages other than French on outdoor commercial signs in Quebec. Since then, Filmon has said that the accord’s protection for minority-language rights may be inadequate and—contrary to his earlier position—that he is troubled by the clause recognizing Quebec as a “distinct society.” On Dec. 16, he had praised that clause in the Manitoba legislature. “It brings Quebec back fully into the Canadian family,” he declared, adding, “It is nothing more than a restatement of reality.” Three days later, he withdrew his support— provoking a constitutional storm in the process.

But the premier’s decision may have been partly motivated by political considerations. His nine-month-old minority Conservative government holds only 24 seats in the Manitoba legislature compared with 21 for the Liberals and 12 for the New Democratic Party, and both opposition parties oppose the accord. Filmon’s reversal may have been intended to make the most of anti-Meech Lake sentiment in Manitoba and undermine the other parties’ platforms.

For his part, Hatfield, speaking in the high-ceilinged committee room of the New Brunswick legislature, added to the pressures already on both Filmon and McKenna not to delay approval of the accord any longer. “I have heard a lot of talk about the spirit of Meech Lake,” he declared. “I wish I could find some evidence of it in New Brunswick and in Manitoba.” The former premier conceded that he would have preferred to see more in the Meech Lake accord than it contains—including protection of minority-language rights and a recognition of native Canadians’ right to self-determination. But he asked the committee not to press for more than was won at Meech Lake. And he recommended that New Brunswick sign the accord. “The time to do it is now,” Hatfield said. “If we wait, I do not believe the people of Quebec will ever elect a government that will put before the people of Canada proposals that are as reasonable as these.” It was a warning that Brian Mulroney will likely echo when he meets the premiers over lunch next week.