CANADA

DEADLOCK OVER MEECH

VANDER ZALM’S ‘CANADA CLAUSE’ FAILS TO RELIEVE THE CONTINUING IMPASSE OVER THE CONSTITUTION

PAUL KAIHLA February 5 1990
CANADA

DEADLOCK OVER MEECH

VANDER ZALM’S ‘CANADA CLAUSE’ FAILS TO RELIEVE THE CONTINUING IMPASSE OVER THE CONSTITUTION

PAUL KAIHLA February 5 1990

DEADLOCK OVER MEECH

CANADA

VANDER ZALM’S ‘CANADA CLAUSE’ FAILS TO RELIEVE THE CONTINUING IMPASSE OVER THE CONSTITUTION

For almost a week, the anticipation built over British Columbia Premier William Vander Zalm’s Jan. 17 announcement that he had a plan to save the Meech Lake constitutional accord. First, he discussed his proposals by telephone with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Then, he sent copies to the nine other premiers and the leaders of the two territorial governments. Last week, Vander Zalm made his five-point strategy public. Among his recommendations: expanding the controversial clause recognizing Quebec as a “distinct society” to apply to each of Canada’s provinces and territories, and splitting the accord up and passing it in two parts, starting with those reforms that do not require the approval of .all provinces under the Constitution. “It provides a framework within which a win-win solution can be found,” said the premier, who signed the accord in 1987 but now calls it “unacceptable to the people of British Columbia.” But Vander Zalm’s Jan. 23 plan met widespread and immediate derision: Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon, one of the principal opponents of the accord, and Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, one of its main supporters, quickly rejected it. Federal Communications Minister Marcel Masse called it “absurd.”

The next day, just hours before Vander Zalm and his wife, Lillian, flew to Yugoslavia for a two-week trade mission, the premier said that Quebec’s rejection of his plan meant that his initiative had failed and that the Meech Lake accord itself was doomed. “If they cannot buy

this proposal,” Vander Zalm said, “it is dead.” But the accord’s backers clearly were not giving up. Ontario Premier David Peterson planned to visit Quebec to deliver a major speech next week to underline his support. And Senator Lowell Murray, the federal minister responsible for solving the Meech Lake impasse, said that Ottawa is still hoping to craft what has become known as a parallel accord— a separate document that would leave the Meech Lake agreement untouched—to accommodate some concerns of the dissenting provinces.

Still, with the June 23 deadline for ratification by all the provinces now just five months away, Manitoba and New Brunswick remain firmly opposed to passing the accord unless fundamental changes are made. Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells has also threatened to rescind his province’s approval unless the agreement is renegotiated. But Bourassa continues to insist that the accord represents the absolute minimum for which Quebec will settle. The Quebec premier has rejected outright changes proposed by New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, Filmon and Wells that, among other things, would make any laws enacted to protect Quebec’s distinct society clearly subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And Bourassa noted that a parallel accord would face the same problem as the original pact: provinces could withdraw their support during a lengthy ratification process.

Indeed, the apparent deadlock has created an atmosphere of gloom in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Said one aide: “I used to be convinced that we would get a last-minute deal. Now,

I’m very pessimistic.” The B.C. proposal clearly did little to help. When asked by a reporter whether Vander Zalm’s so-called Canada clause to give all provinces and territories distinct soci-

ety status was a good idea, Mulroney laughed along with several reporters nearby and responded, seemingly sarcastically, “I think it’s terrific.” Later, his office issued a statement saying that the Prime Minister had not laughed at Vander Zalm’s ideas, but had misunderstood the reporter’s question. That explanation apparently satisfied Vander Zalm. “I’m not angry,” he said, “because Mulroney explained he was laughing about something else.” Meanwhile, Vander Zalm’s proposals received mixed reviews from constitutional experts. Edward McWhinney, for one, a constitutional law professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, praised the idea of passing into law those parts of the accord not requiring unanimity. Under the amendment provisions of the 1982 Constitution, some fundamental changes require the approval of Ottawa and all 10 provinces. But other amendments can be made with the approval of just seven of the provinces as long as they include 50 per cent of the Canadian population. As a result, Vander Zalm proposed that the Meech Lake provisions cov-

ering areas such as the distinct society clause, immigration and the limits on federal spending powers—more than half of the accord—could be proclaimed by June 23, even without the approval of the holdout provinces.

But the rest of the accord—dealing with changes to the Supreme Court of Canada and the amending formula itself—needs unanimous approval. According to Vander Zalm’s proposal, the dissenting provinces would pass those clauses after Canada’s 11 legislatures ratified his self-styled Canada clause and a further constitutional amendment committing the country to “fundamental and comprehensive” Senate reform by June 23, 1992.

Following that, the B.C. premier proposed, the First Ministers would negotiate an additional constitutional agreement on equality for women, aboriginal, property and minority language rights. The deadline for that agreement would be June 23, 1993. Said McWhinney: “If Meech fails, the federal government, just for damage control, will have to go through very much the sort of proposals as Vander Zalm is suggesting.” But experts advising the federal and Ontario governments say that it would be constitutionally improper to pass the accord in fragmented parts.

Meanwhile, uncertainties over Meech Lake within Canada’s business community became more apparent. One group of 117 business leaders and former government officials held

an Ottawa news conference in favor of the accord. Among the supporters: former Ontario attorney general Roy McMurtry, Power Corp. chairman Paul Desmarais and Montreal Canadiens general manager Serge Savard. But when the Business Council on National Issues (BCNI), an organization of 150 leading Canadian chief executive officers, issued a news release calling on Ottawa and the provincial governments to resolve their differences, it avoided a full-blooded endorsement of Meech Lake. According to a government official involved in constitutional negotiations, organization president Thomas d’Aquino had tried to get a consensus among its member CEOs in support of the accord—but failed. “There are varying degrees of reservations,” d’Aquino told Maclean ’s. “But you tell me if there will be any Canadian who will be happy if we have constitutional deadlock coupled with a recession and a lot of bitterness.”

Peterson’s campaign to break the impasse moves to Quebec City, where he is to

make a major speech on Feb.

5. According to one Ontario official, Peterson is central to the pro-Meech strategy because Mulroney and Bourassa have lost too much credibility with Canadians to mount an effective defence of the accord. Indeed, noting that Bourassa’s political stock plummeted in English Canada after he invoked the notwithstanding clause of the 1982 Constitution in order to restrict the use of English on commercial signs in Quebec in December, 1988, the official added that Ontario has urged Quebec to offer a conciliatory gesture to the rest of the country. One such gesture that the Ontario officials suggested: that Bourassa agree to a constitutional amendment restricting the scope of the notwithstanding clause.

But Newfoundland’s Wells has also carried his message—anti-Meech—into Quebec. On Jan. 19, he gave a luncheon speech at the Canadian Club in Montreal—flanked at the head table by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, former Trudeau cabinet ministers Marc Lalonde and Donald Johnston, and MP Charles Caccia—all prominent Meech foes. But as the rhetoric in the debate intensifies, many of the officials involved in the negotiations may be tempted to reach the same glum assessment of the accord’s prospects as Vander Zalm voiced last week.

PAUL KAIHLA with JOHN PIFER in Victoria

JOHN PIFER

BRUCE WALLACE