CANADA

OTTAWA JOINS THE DEBATE

THE PRESSURE IS INCREASING ON BRIAN MULRONEY TO SEEK A NEW ACCORD ON THE CONSTITUTION

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 5 1990
CANADA

OTTAWA JOINS THE DEBATE

THE PRESSURE IS INCREASING ON BRIAN MULRONEY TO SEEK A NEW ACCORD ON THE CONSTITUTION

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 5 1990

OTTAWA JOINS THE DEBATE

THE PRESSURE IS INCREASING ON BRIAN MULRONEY TO SEEK A NEW ACCORD ON THE CONSTITUTION

CANADA

After the collapse of the Meech Lake constitutional accord last June, the pledge seemed almost foolhardy. Less than a week after the accord expired, a grim and visibly exhausted Prime Minister Brian Mulroney declared, “In the fall and over the next year, we will start all over again.” At the time, many senior Tories and provincial politicians privately urged Mulroney to drop the issue, allowing the tensions and animosity that erupted during the negotiations to dissipate. And Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa stood by his earlier declaration that his province would no longer participate in federal-provincial constitutional discussions. But last week, in a meeting with high-school

students in Vancouver, Mulroney publicly restated his earlier commitment. The Prime Minister declared that within “the next couple of weeks,” he will announce plans for a process that will “help us redefine the nation.” In fact, despite the difficulties and potential political risks of restarting the constitutional debate, the pressure on Mulroney to do just that is mounting. For one thing, several provinces have already launched their own initiatives, which threaten Ottawa’s control over the constitutional agenda. Both the opposition Liberals and New Democrats are also preparing to offer their own competing constitutional proposals. In Quebec and the West, meanwhile, new political groups are pressing for more =¡j radical solutions to the constiti tutional deadlock. In re% sponse, Mulroney’s staff and “ caucus have for several weeks been debating both the direction the government should take in its next step—and its timing.

One consideration, however, is not in doubt: whatever new initiative the government undertakes, it will be designed to open the process of constitution-building to Canadians at large. One senior adviser to Mulroney told Maclean ’s that the plan currently favored by officials in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is for an appointed panel that would conduct a series of small citizens’ forums across the country and then report its findings to Ottawa. Describing the proposal as “designed to be quite informal and loosely structured,” Mulroney’s adviser said that “the main aim would be to sit back and listen to what kind of Canada Canadians want.” At the end of the process, the panel would submit its findings to the federal cabinet, which would then decide what further action to take.

According to his advisers, Mulroney himself has not yet made up his mind about what steps would follow next. But some Tories suggest that the party could use the panel’s report to form the centrepiece of its campaign platform in the next general election, which must be called before November, 1993. If the election returned the Conservatives to power, the government would open a new round of federalprovincial constitutional bargaining.

The panel’s members, according to sources inside the PMO, would be drawn from several different areas of society—but probably would not include serving elected politicians. One person mentioned as a likely choice to lead the group: former Alberta premier Peter Lough-

eed. Others include former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney and former Ontario premiers William Davis and David Peterson.

At the same time, it is clear that Mulroney increasingly risks losing the initiative to the provinces. Quebec’s Bélanger-Campeau commission, for one, will begin holding public hearings into that province’s constitutional future on Nov 6. Led by Michel Bélanger, the former chairman of the National Bank of Canada, and Jean Campeau, who was head of the influential Caisse de dépôt et placement before being hired to take over on Nov. 1 as chairman of Montreal-based Domtar Inc., the commission will report to the national assembly by next March. Alberta also began public hearings last Friday, and several other provinces, including Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia, have assigned senior civil servants to prepare their own constitutional strategies.

As well, the Tories face other constitutional challenges from the two main opposition parties—both of which led the governing party in a national public opinion poll released last week. The Gallup Canada poll showed the NDP in first place for the first time in more than three years, with the support of 38 per cent of decided voters. At the same time, the Liberals had 31 per cent and the Tories languished at the record low of 15 per cent, where they have been for much of the past year.

For her part, NDP Leader Audrey McLaughlin has launched a review of her party’s constitutional position. Meanwhile, Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien was scheduled to deliver his own constitutional goals in a speech to Liberal fund raisers in Montreal on the weekend. Rejecting both outright sovereignty for Quebec and the

existing constitutional arrangement, Chrétien planned to call for reforms to Canada’s central institutions in order to accommodate the aspirations of the country’s four regions—the West, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic region. Declared Chrétien: “The Liberal party rejects the sovereignty of Quebec. I do not take that to mean that the status quo will suit Canada of the year 2000.”

Meanwhile, Mulroney’s own MPs have already launched an intense internal debate on the subject. Since Aug. 25, when the Prime Minister met his Quebec caucus in the Gaspé region, the Quebec Tory MPs have conducted weekly meetings dealing exclusively with constitutional issues. And many MPs acknowledge that their emotions are divided as they study their constitutional options. In fact, most are regarded as strong nationalists who will likely seek sharp increases in the province’s powers and an expanded jurisdiction for Quebec. Treasury Board President Gilles Loiselle said that he has heard similar demands from his Quebec Cityarea constituents. Added the minister: “Most of them favor the direction of more sovereignty and a new arrangement with Canada.”

At the same time, Mulroney’s senior advisers say that they are acutely aware that their new proposals for constitutional reform cannot be limited to Quebec. With the party’s current low standing in the polls, senior Tories say that they anticipate a suspicious reaction to any new constitutional program that does not respond to the priorities of other regions as well. Said one adviser to Mulroney: “Any proposal that did not _ offer something to Alberta as $ well as Quebec would be g blown out of the water.” Mulroney himself appeared to bow to such regional sensitivities last week, when he reversed a stand he took shortly after the Meech collapse. Then, he undertook to negotiate federal-provincial agreements in areas that would have been affected by the Meech Lake accord in direct talks with provincial governments. Indeed, Mulroney hinted that one early result would be an agreement with Quebec on immigration. But even as Immigration Minister Barbara McDougall announced a sweeping revision of Canada’s national immigration policy last week, the Prime Minister ruled out any separate arrangements for Quebec until after Ottawa reveals its constitutional agenda.

Meanwhile, many analysts insist that Mulroney should delay a new round of constitutional talks as long as possible, to let the wounds from the Meech debate heal. Said Peter Russell, a political scientist at the University of

Toronto: “It will serve no purpose to have a national committee wandering around the country, stirring up resentment and anxiety. Quebec is bruised, and the West is saying, ‘Screw Quebec.’ ”

But others say that the Meech Lake legacy of acrimony and distrust has already abated. And indeed, personal relations between federal officials and their provincial counterparts appear to have improved since June. Although associates say Mulroney still flushes and becomes visibly annoyed at even a casual mention of Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells’s name, relations between the PMO and Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon, Mulroney’s other key opponent over the accord, have improved. In Quebec, meanwhile, provincial Justice Minister Gil Rémillard, regarded as one of the more nationalist members of Bourassa’s cabinet, hosted a private dinner in Montreal last month for Norman Spector, Mulroney’s new chief of staff.

At the same time, many Tories claim that there are several reasons to renew constitutional talks well before the next election. One central factor is the surge in support for the western-based Reform Party and for the Bloc Québécois, leading to predictions that the next general election could easily produce a minority government unable to secure national support for constitutional reform.

That possibility received reinforcement with the release last week of a poll by Quebec’s Centre de recherche d’opinion publique (CROP). After surveying 1,019 people in the province, CROP concluded that the Bloc—formed in July

by Mulroney’s former environment minister Lucien Bouchard—led all other parties in support among Quebecers. Senior officials in the PMO said that they considered CROP’S findings more accurate than a contradictory report from Gallup, which placed Quebec support for the Bloc behind the Liberals and the Tories and just ahead of the NDP. The Gallup survey, meanwhile, showed that the Reform Party, under its leader, Preston Manning, has emerged as a strong force in the West, with the support of 25 per cent of respondents in the

Prairies and 18 per cent in British Columbia.

In the end, however, it may be the pace set by Quebec that ultimately forces Mulroney to set his own constitutional process in motion. The rest of Canada will be under pressure to deliver a swift and united response when Quebec’s commission delivers its findings. For his part, Loiselle suggested that if the rest of the country fails to prepare its answer to Quebec, the result could be even deeper national division. “If Quebec proposes a major new arrangement and English Canada is not ready to respond to it,” said Loiselle, “the temptation will be for Quebec to say, ‘The hell with it, let’s go it on our own.’ ” Added Loiselle: “The indifference of English Canada could lead Quebec to pure independence.”

But Mulroney faces the dilemma of trying to speak for all parts of Canada at a time when illfeeling and doubts over the country’s future extend into English Canada as well as Quebec. Said Stanley Hartt, Mulroney’s former chief of staff, who now practises law in Montreal: “People have to understand that there are other people out there trying to take their country away from them. That is a very serious thing.” It is also a reminder that Canada’s constitutional trials, painfully interrupted in June, may soon become even more searing.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH with E. KAYE FULTON and NANCY WOOD in Ottawa, HAL QUINN in Vancouver,

JOHN HOWSE in Calgary, PAUL KAIHLA in Toronto and correspondents’ reports

NANCY WOOD

E. KAYE FULTON

HAL QUINN

JOHN HOWSE

PAUL KAIHLA