CANADA

NEW THREAT TO MEECH LAKE

PREMIER CLYDE WELLS PREPARES TO WITHDRAW NEWFOUNDLAND'S SUPPORT FOR THE AGREEMENT

GREG W. TAYLOR March 19 1990
CANADA

NEW THREAT TO MEECH LAKE

PREMIER CLYDE WELLS PREPARES TO WITHDRAW NEWFOUNDLAND'S SUPPORT FOR THE AGREEMENT

GREG W. TAYLOR March 19 1990

NEW THREAT TO MEECH LAKE

CANADA

PREMIER CLYDE WELLS PREPARES TO WITHDRAW NEWFOUNDLAND'S SUPPORT FOR THE AGREEMENT

The political time bomb that Clyde Wells placed under the Meech Lake constitutional accord had been ticking for four months. Last November, during a tense First Ministers’ conference in Ottawa, the Newfoundland premier said that he was ready to repudiate the accord rather than accept the special status that its “distinct society” clause would grant to Quebec. At that time, Wells agreed to delay such a move, on an assurance from the nine other premiers and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney that the accord would not go into effect without Newfoundland’s agreement—and that discussions aimed at resolving his concerns about its contents would continue. But since then, the federal government and Quebec, and several other provinces, have continued to insist that the accord be adopted unchanged. Finally, last week, Wells made it plain that his patience was nearing an end. In a throne speech setting out the provincial Liberal government's legislative agenda, Newfoundland Lt.-Gov. James McGrath told the house of assembly that it would be asked “to pass a resolution to rescind the approval of the Meech Lake accord.” Later, Wells placed the blame for his action squarely on those who are pressing for adoption of the contentious constitutional agreement. “The Prime Minister and premier of Quebec are saying we can’t change one word of Meech Lake,” said Wells, who also objects to terms in the accord that, he insists, could limit Ottawa’s ability to remedy regional economic inequalities. He added: “Okay, I can’t force them to change. I can only confirm what I have said before: this is unacceptable to Newfoundland.” With that, Wells dealt the troubled accord what many observers described as a deathblow. “This is final; this is it,” said a plainly shaken Richard Hatfield, the former premier of New Brunswick and a signatory to the draft accord. And in Ottawa, some Conservative MPs speculated openly that the accord would fail.

But, for his part, Mulroney remained stubbornly optimistic that Meech Lake would eventually pass. “There is no guarantee,” he said, “but don’t write it off until it’s time.” Of Wells’s action, he added, “I do not view it as any particular setback.” But a colleague, Environ-

ment Minister Lucien Bouchard, hinted at what may prove to be a significant change in Ottawa’s position on the accord. Until now, the federal government has insisted that all 10 provinces must ratify the accord by June 23 in order for it to take effect. But Bouchard mused last week that the agreement could be adopted even over Wells’s objection. “It might be a choice,” Bouchard said, “between Newfoundland and Quebec.”

Among Quebecers, the reaction to the latest crisis ranged from fury to stony silence. Tory MP François Gérin raged that Wells’s action proved that “other provinces do not want Quebec in this country.” For his part, Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau said that the Newfoundlander had brought Quebec one step closer to independence, adding that his party is already planning the details of Quebec’s separation. But, for his part, Premier Robert Bourassa made no comment on Wells’s actions, possibly in an effort to avoid worsening the constitutional deadlock.

In other provincial capitals, some leaders blamed Mulroney for the accord’s troubles while others tried to advance their own constitutional initiatives. Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon, who has withheld his province’s ratification of the accord, said that Mulroney’s government had failed to acknowledge the accord’s weaknesses. Said Filmon: “They are not prepared to take responsibility for trying to resolve the differences that exist.” In British Columbia, meanwhile, Premier William Vander Zalm avoided naming Mulroney as the author of the accord’s problems, instead calling on his fellow First Ministers to reconsider his own suggestion of Jan. 17 that the constitutional impasse be solved by breaking the accord into several parts—some of which might be passed immediately, while others were revised before being submitted again for provincial ratification.

At the same time, New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, who has also withheld approval of Meech Lake, renewed his call for a second, “parallel” accord to address concerns about the original document. Despite that, McKenna said there was still time to save Meech Lake, noting that Wells’s action “will have no weight if people do not overreact to it.”

But some federal Conservatives from Quebec clearly disagreed—to the point that several said they were considering leaving national politics altogether. Tory backbencher Suzanne Duplessis, for one, put the blame squarely on the Newfoundland premier. “Mr. Wells is thinking of himself and only himself,” she said. Industry Minister Benoît Bouchard observed that, “so far,” Quebec’s Tories “have been very disciplined.” But he wondered aloud whether they would maintain their patience with federalism much longer. Indeed, this week, about 60 Tory MPs from Quebec planned to meet—ironically, at the government’s Meech Lake retreat—to discuss their options if the accord dies. One member of the party’s Quebec caucus who did not plan to attend, however, was Charlevoix MP Brian Mulroney.

Even as fear mounted for the future of the country if Meech fails, one respected business analyst advised investors against reacting with alarm to the prospect of Quebec independence. Merrill Lynch and Co., one of the largest investment firms in the United States, said that separation would not have a disastrous effect on Quebec’s economy, which it described as strong, balanced and diversified. The report noted that an independent Quebec would likely generate a gross domestic product of about $140 billion, larger than that of Denmark or Austria.

Meanwhile, the gathering mood of crisis over Meech Lake also created a rift between two of the leading candidates for the federal Liberal leadership. For his part, Montreal MP Paul Martin, who supports the Meech accord, accused his principal rival, former Liberal cabinet minister Jean Chrétien, of being “irresponsible” in his persistent attacks on the constitutional agreement, whose fate will be decided before any candidate takes over the Liberal helm during a convention in June. In reply, Chrétien told an audience of business leaders in Toronto that the leadership aspirants must make their positions on Meech Lake clear. “We have to know what someone thinks of Canada,” he said.

As the week ended, hopes for resurrecting the Meech Lake accord appeared slim. For his part, Wells held open the possibility that he might not act immediately on his intention to renounce the existing accord. But in Ottawa, Federal-Provincial Relations Minister Senator Lowell Murray, who has spent the past four months shuttling between provincial capitals searching for a way to reconcile the opposing views on the accord, observed pessimistically that the premiers “are not ready to be brought together.” With just over three months remaining until the generally accepted June 23 deadline for ratification of the constitutional accord, the time bomb was still ticking.

GREG W. TAYLOR with JOHN PIFER in Victoria, LISA VAN DUSEN in Ottawa and RUSSELL WANGERSKY in St. John’s, Nfld.

JOHN PIFER

LISA VAN DUSEN

RUSSELL WANGERSKY