To its members, it is known as “the Club,” and civility behind closed doors is among its most rigid conventions. But when members of the Club—the 11 first ministers of Canada’s federal and provincial governments—met in Ottawa for lunch on Feb. 27, the discussions became unusually strained. As expected, Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon insisted that there had to be progress on Senate reform and better guarantees of
minority language rights before he could renew his support for the Meech Lake constitutional accord. But Prime Minister Brian Mulroney cut him short. Pulling out a copy of Filmon’s speech to the Manitoba legislature on Dec. 16, Mulroney quoted the premier’s own praise for the Meech accord. And Mulroney’s obvious anger with Filmon emphasized the importance of personal relations among Canada’s first ministers in the conduct of public policy. Said one former premier: “The clubby atmosphere of the gatherings puts tremendous pressures on each premier to conform.”
But, last week, despite worsening relations between Manitoba and Ottawa, Filmon refused to budge. The Manitoba premier said that he would not reconsider his decision last Dec. 19 to withdraw his minority government’s support for Meech Lake. The move, ostensibly made in response to the Quebec government’s
decision to restrict minority language rights, is popular in Manitoba. On the other hand, Mulroney took steps last week to improve his strained relations with New Brunswick and Quebec. After a two-hour private meeting with New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna on Feb. 26, Mulroney said that he supported the province’s decision to hold public hearings on Meech Lake. Those hearings ended on Feb. 16. And Mulroney repaired a breakdown in
communications between the Prime Minister’s Office and Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s office, which developed in the wake of Bourassa’s handling of Quebec’s latest language controversy. As a result, the federal government announced that it had chosen Montreal over Ottawa as the site for the highly coveted new national space agency headquarters.
For Mulroney, the first ministers’ meeting was a chance to call for an end to the premiers’ public dispute over Meech Lake. The accord, which gives Quebec undefined legal powers as a “distinct society” in return for signing the 1982 Canadian Constitution, has been ratified by eight provinces but it cannot become law without the approval of the two others. Mulroney told the premiers that he would be speaking out more in the coming months on the need to ratify Meech Lake for the sake of national unity. Failure to approve the accord,
he told them, could lead to a rekindling of separatist forces in Quebec.
The first ministers agreed to meet to discuss Meech Lake again in Charlottetown next September. And they pledged to try to rebuild the goodwill needed to find a way out of the constitutional impasse. But senior Tories said that they did not expect either Bourassa—who insists that the accord be ratified without changes—or Filmon to soften their positions, at least until after provincial elections widely expected in Manitoba and Quebec this year. And McKenna, whose Liberals hold all 58 seats in the New Brunswick legislature, said that he would not make up his own mind about Meech Lake until the fall at the earliest.
Other premiers used the meeting as a platform to play to their own provincial constituencies. Getty, who is campaigning for the March 20 provincial election, used the forum to denounce the federal government’s policy of raising interest rates to fight inflation. The policy, said Getty, was choking economic growth in Alberta. But Quebec’s Bourassa did his lobbying in private. Since his re-election in December, 1985, Bourassa had parlayed his friendship with Mulroney into an unusual political harmony between Quebec and Ottawa. But that relationship soured as a result of Bourassa’s decision last December to ban languages other than French from outdoor commercial signs in the province.
Because of that disagreement, Mulroney’s office severed communications with Bourassa’s aides. And Bourassa’s unhappiness festered when his advisers could not get the PMO to refute statements by federal Supply and Services Minister Paul Dick that Ottawa would scrap its planned space agency. But Mulroney and Bourassa resolved their differences in a private telephone conversation on the eve of the first ministers’ meeting. And the agency announcement, combined with the appointee ment last week of Marcel Côté, one of Bouras^ sa’s most trusted confidants, as Mulroney’s E director of strategic planning and communicay tions, reduces the likelihood of future rifts.
5 But ratifying Meech Lake is still Mulroney’s most daunting challenge. Senior Tories said that Ottawa’s short-term strategy is simply to drive a wedge between Filmon and McKenna. One former premier said after last week’s first ministers’ meeting that the Club “never had any respect for premiers like Filmon who were in a minority position because they could never deliver anything.” But, he added, the current premiers “like McKenna—he has joined the Club.” With membership, however, comes subtle pressure to fall into line. Over pizza the night before the meeting, Ontario’s Premier David Peterson asked McKenna, “Who would you rather deal with in constitutional negotiations: Bourassa or [Parti Québécois Leader] Jacques Parizeau?” Publicly, McKenna remained unswayed. And, for now, he may have to settle for an uneasy truce in the war of words over Meech Lake.
BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa with LISA VAN DÜSEN in Montreal
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.