In Quebec, Premier Robert Bourassa has talked about a new “political superstructure” that could replace Confederation. In Ontario, Attorney General Ian Scott said last week that a future government in his province could strengthen its ties to Quebec, if the latter turned its back on the rest of the country. As pessimism about national unity grows, Canadians are weighing the consequences if the constitutional accord fails. Maclean’s assesses the mood in each of Canada’s diverse regions:
When voters of Kingston, in what was then called Canada West, first elected John A. Macdonald to represent them in 1844, they sent their new member not to Ottawa but to Montreal. At the time, that city was the seat of government for the Province of Canada, present-day Ontario and Quebec. The British colony had co-premiers and, in later years, alternated its capital between Quebec City and Toronto about every four years. That was one of several arrangements for joint government, which the two regions shared between 1763, when Britain and France signed the treaty that ended the Seven Years’ War, and Confederation in 1867. And now, with Quebec’s future in Confederation in doubt, some Ontarians say that their province’s destiny lies with Quebec rather than Canada. “People shouldn’t assume that there will be nine provinces left if Quebec separates,” Ontario Attorney General Ian Scott told Maclean’s. “There is a natural economic and historic bonding between the two provinces, which predates Confederation by 100 years.”
Scott emphasized that those were only his personal views and added that no negotiations have taken place between the two largest provinces on a bilateral agreement if the Meech Lake accord should fail. Instead, Scott said, his government is concentrating its energies on convincing the three provinces that now reject the accord to change their positions. But Scott said that, if Quebec secedes, Ontario could be forced to consider some kind of union with it—or face absorption into the United States. “If the issue becomes ‘How can a new non-American nation be founded in the northern half of the continent?’, inevitably, the futures of Quebec and Ontario are linked,” said Scott.
But there may be disagreement within the province about the merits of a Quebec-Ontario union. Pollster Allan Gregg, chairman of Decima Research and an adviser to the federal Conservative party, noted that Ontario contains highly diverse political cultures and that support for closer ties with French Canada is highest in southern Ontario. “It has one of the richest and best-educated populations in the world,” said Gregg. “They can afford to be generous toward Quebec.” But Gregg said there is less tolerance for French Canada in eastern and Northern Ontario. For his part, Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Joseph Fratesi said that Quebec’s separation would not constitute a crisis for the rest of Canada. “I hope they don’t separate,” said Fratesi. “But if they do, the rest of Canada will just have to say, ‘We tried our best.’ ”
Still, the two provinces are intricately intertwined economically. Thomas Courchene, director of Queen’s University’s School of Policy Studies in Kingston, called Ontario and Quebec “a connected corridor” with shared transportation and telecommunications systems that include rail lines, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Bell telephone network. “The Ontario corporate interest is to put Quebec-Ontario economic relations above any economic relationships with the rest of the country,” said Courchene. “It’s in the collective interest of Ontario, even though many individuals would be very angry about it.”
Some Ontario businessmen agreed that one course of action for their province would be to negotiate a free trade agreement with Quebec if it separated. “It would make a hell of a lot of sense,” said Mervyn Lahn, chairman of London, Ont.-based Canada Trust. But Desmond Morton, a history professor at the University of Toronto, said that any such arrangement would run aground on economic rivalry. “Ontario and Quebec are, and will remain, fierce competitors for American markets,” said Morton. “What’s the basis for an association?” Morton’s own prediction if Quebec did separate: “AU I foresee is chaos.” He added, “The minute one province left, the rest would follow because there would no longer be a nation from sea to sea.”
The Prairies are the hotbed of anti-Meech Lake sentiment. Indeed, in a February poll conducted by Winnipeg-based Angus Reid Group, a bare 12 per cent of respondents from the three provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba approved of the accord, compared with 26 per cent of Canadians overall. And many westerners clearly understand the possible consequences of their opposition to the agreement. Anti-Meech opinion is especially strong in Alberta and Manitoba, where Premier Gary Filmon remains one of the holdouts to the accord. “We used to say, ‘No way would Quebec separate,’ ” said Campbell Watkins, president of Calgary-based DataMetrics Ltd., an economic consulting company. “Today, if Meech Lake goes down, it is a realistic possibility.”
Underlying those feelings is western impatience with what is widely seen as Quebec’s continued demands for preferential treatment. Said Calgary lawyer John Webb: “One common response now to Quebec is, ‘Don’t threaten us anymore.’ ” Webb added that he was confident Canada would continue to exist as a country without Quebec—and that Alberta would remain in Confederation.
But for others, the antipathy towards Quebec also extends to Central Canada in general. Many westerners are deeply angered over Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s refusal to appoint Stanley Waters, the winner of Alberta’s unprecedented Senate nomination election last Oct. 16, to the upper house. “Can you imagine explaining our democracy to a Chinese student who faced down a tank on Tiananmen Square,” said Calgary economist Thomas Sindlinger, “and having to explain that the government refuses to appoint our elected Senate candidate?”
For his part, Sindlinger raised the possibility that the West would ultimately gravitate towards the United States. “There would be more independence south,” he said. “There is no reason for us to carry around Ontario.” Others say that the West could become a separate political force. Said Hilton Westmore, leader of the Alberta Independence Party: “Alberta could go it alone. But ultimately, it would be the four western provinces.” Whatever options the region may pursue, one thing is clear: with the heated debate over Quebec, many westerners are profoundly dissatisfied with their own place in Confederation.
Comprising about 40 per cent of the landmass of Canada but accounting for only 75,000 of its citizens, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories have traditionally harbored a sense of isolation from the political mainstream of the country. The negotiation of the Meech Lake accord without the participation of either territory increased that feeling. Both territories aspire to provincehood, but the accord would give all 10 premiers a veto over the creation of any new province, compared with the situation now, requiring the consent of Ottawa and two-thirds of the provinces with more than 50 per cent of the population. Still, the potential demise of Meech Lake and speculation about the possible breakup of the country disappoint most northerners. Acknowledged N.W.T. Government Leader Dennis Patterson: “Despite our chronic concerns about the insensitivity of the central government, we recognize our dependence on it.”
Indeed, both territorial governments receive more than 70 per cent of their revenues through transfer payments from Ottawa—support that Patterson fears could be eroded if Quebec separates. As well, Patterson points out that Quebec serves as the chief supply point and transportation link for the vast eastern Arctic region centred on Baffin Island. And the Inuit people of the Northwest Territories share close cultural ties with the Inuit of northern Quebec.
At the same time, there appears to be little support among northerners for economic or political union with the United States. Said Yukon NDP Government Leader Tony Penikett: “I think there would be enough of us to carry on and fight for the kind of Canada that puts more emphasis on things like peace and the environment than the Americans do.” Still, some northerners say that Quebec’s separation might provide them with new opportunities. Noted Yukon Conservative Opposition Leader Willard Phelps: “Once the concerns of Quebec are settled, there will be some time available to deal with regions like the North that have been largely ignored.”
The locked issue in a united bitter war even of words two over men the fate of Atlantic Canada’s troubled fishery. Last week, Nova Scotia Premier John Buchanan and Canso, N.S., Mayor Raymond White, who has charged Buchanan with not doing enough to save the town’s threatened fish plant, found common cause on one issue. They agreed that current tensions between Quebec and English Canada have placed the nation in peril. Rising in the legislature on Monday, an impassioned Buchanan declared: “English Canada has not yet grappled with the question of whether it wants to live without Quebec.” Declared White: “The intolerance we seem to have for each other’s language and culture troubles me. I’m worried about our country.”
Across Atlantic Canada, politicians and citizens are starting to evaluate the consequences if the Meech Lake accord is allowed to die. “What happens if Quebec passes a resolution that would alter its relationship to the rest of the country?” said P.E.I. Premier Joseph Ghiz. “What are the national, international and economic implications?” Some say that those implications could be grave for a region already separated geographically from the rest of English Canada by Quebec. Said White: “I could see our country ending up like a divided Pakistan with India in the middle. We could be swallowed up by the United States—and that would be unacceptable.” Added Elsie Wayne, mayor of Saint John, N.B.: “The United States is going to look real good to us, isn’t it?”
Other Atlantic Canadians say that, even if the east remained part of a Canada without Quebec, the altered balance of power could have major drawbacks for the region. In particular, many Atlantic Canadians fear for the so-called equalization payments by which Ottawa transfers tax money from British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario to poorer provinces in order to ensure that social services remain roughly equivalent across the country. Stephen Tomblin, a political science professor at Newfoundland’s Memorial University, argues that the secession of Quebec would give increased power to the western provinces—and that they might decline to continue participating in such payments at the current level. Noted Tomblin: “If you remove Quebec, the West has a different interest in the redistribution of wealth in the welfare state.”
For their part, officials in the government of Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells, who has threatened to rescind his province’s approval of Meech Lake unless it is changed, argue that accepting the accord in its present form, with Quebec defined as a “distinct society,” would radically alter Canada. Said Kevin Aylward, Liberal party whip in the Newfoundland legislature: “The Meech Lake proposal means Quebec will be a separate entity. One way or the other, the country is unravelling.” Still, most eastern Canadians are keenly aware of the fact that Canada has survived previous threats to its existence. Said Carmon Stone, for one, a history teacher at Halifax’s Queen Elizabeth High School: “Our history has been one of constant reaffirmation of our dream of being one country. The Quebec issue will ultimately be resolved.” In the face of the uncertainty currently gripping the country, that is a remarkable avowal of national faith.
From his offices in Vancouver's World Trade Centre, Michael Goldberg commands a magnificent view of Burrard Inlet and the snowcapped mountains of North Vancouver. In his position as executive director of the city’s International Financial Centre, Goldberg’s world view includes British Columbia’s emerging role in financial and trade relations with the Asian countries of the Pacific Rim and the United States. But it is as an immigrant to Canada that the New York City-born economist has a unique perspective on his adopted country and the divisive forces now menacing its future. Said Goldberg: “People born here take so many things for granted about Canada. If Quebec moves to some type of sovereignty-association, I cannot imagine any argument for saying that what is left is better than the previous arrangement.”
Many British Columbians clearly share that view, in spite of the fact that the province has a tradition of bristling over its 1871 inclusion in Confederation. As late as the 1940s, premier T. Dufferin Pattulo’s correspondence to the national capital was dotted with references to “going it alone.” And although that separatist sentiment has been dormant for the past 50 years, residents of the province west of the Rocky Mountains still view themselves as different from their fellow citizens. In fact, Simon Fraser University history professor Robin Fisher, a specialist in British Columbia’s past, noted that Premier William Vander Zalm’s proposal to break the Meech Lake impasse by declaring all of the provinces and not just Quebec to be distinct societies was “an expression of the historical mood of British Columbia.” Added Fisher: “That sense of regional distinctiveness has not gone away.”
British Columbia’s growing focus on trade with the Pacific Rim and the United States has contributed to that sentiment. In 1988, 38 per cent of provincial exports went to the Pacific Rim and another 43 per cent to the United States. Ten years earlier, the Pacific Rim received only 26 per cent, and the Americans 56 per cent. But some analysts attribute that success in part to Canada’s enviable global reputation as a stable trading partner. Noted Goldberg: “British Columbia is uniquely positioned to deal with the Pacific Rim; Quebec and the Atlantic provinces with Europe; Ontario and the Prairie provinces with the United States.” But there is no popular movement to set British Columbia on an independent course. Added Goldberg: “We can take advantage of that opportunity collectively—not as a collection of independent regions.”
Still, some British Columbians speculate that Canada will become exactly that if the Meech Lake accord fails and Quebec seeks sovereign status. “We will end up being little separate countries,” said Brian Calder, former president of the Vancouver Real Estate Board. “I would hate to see that happen.” At the same time, Calder noted that many people in the province have grown impatient with Quebec’s recurring threat to go it alone. “If Quebec separates, I am afraid that half of British Columbians would say, ‘Fine, to heck with them, cut them loose.’ ”
According to the federal lawyers who advise Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the Meech Lake constitutional accord will dissolve on Saturday, June 23,1990, unless all 10 provincial legislatures, as well as the federal government, have ratified it by then. But some legal experts maintain that the June limit is a fiction. Gordon Robertson, a former constitutional adviser to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, said that the deadline “is a myth.”
The uncertainty hinges on how the two amending formulas contained in the Constitution Act, 1982, apply to Meech Lake. One, the general procedure for amending, requires that proposed constitutional changes be approved by Parliament and by the legislatures of at least two-thirds of the provinces, representing more than half of Canada’s population—which in practice means at least seven provinces, including at least one of Ontario or Quebec. That formula sets a time limit of three years from the first legislative ratification vote to the last. In Meech Lake’s case, the clock started ticking when Quebec’s national assembly ratified the first ministers' agreement on June 23, 1987. The other formula—applying to particular changes affecting a handful of national institutions, including the role of the Queen—requires the approval of all 11 governments. It provides no deadline.
The present confusion stems from the fact that parts of the Meech Lake agreement appear to fall under the first of the two 1982 formulas, while others are covered by the second. Although most of the accord’s provisions are covered under the general amending provision—requiring only seven provinces with one-half the Canadian population to approve them within three years—others, including those dealing with the composition of the Supreme Court and the amending formula itself, would require unanimous consent without a time limit. As a result, federal officials have insisted from the beginning that the strictest components of both amending formulas apply: the accord must be ratified by 11 governments, and that approval must take place within a three-year time frame. That interpretation has the support of Eugene Forsey, one of the country’s leading constitutional experts, among others. But McGill University law professor Stephen Scott, another noted constitutionalist, backs Robertson’s position. Said Scott: “The June 23 thing rides on the most doubtful grounds.”
Both sides agree on one point: only the Supreme Court is qualified to settle the argument for good, and no one has sought reference from it—yet. Clearly, as long the participants accept that there is a deadline, it exists. But the uncertainty appears to leave room for future legal manoeuvring. If some of the provinces have still not ratified Meech Lake by June 23, there may be ample grounds for the pro-Meech Lake forces to argue that there is no limit on how long the required approvals may take—or even that all 11 approvals were not necessary to begin with for most parts of the accord.□