For a man with outspoken convictions on a host of issues, it was a rare moment of reassessment. Throughout his first major foray east of his Alberta power base, federal Reform Party Leader Preston Manning had pronounced the Meech Lake accord all but dead. As he told an audience of Rotarians in Halifax last Tuesday, “It’s finished—and Ottawa will be the last to know.” But, within days, the sudden swirl of movement over Meech Lake led the bespectacled son of former Alberta Social Credit premier Ernest Manning to reconsider. In Fredericton, the day after New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna tabled new constitutional proposals, Manning, 47, acknowledged that the accord might after all survive. But if that happened, he said, public opposition to Meech Lake “would drive thousands into our camp.” In fact, in its home province of Alberta, the 2V2-year-old Reform Party already poses a serious challenge to both the provincial and federal Conservatives. Last year, it saw its first MP, Deborah Grey, elected in a byelection. Then, last October, the Reform Party’s Stanley Waters won Alberta’s unprecedented Senate nomination election. Since then, the party’s popularity has increased as it has demanded Senate reform and opposed Ottawa’s controversial Goods and Services Tax. Recent public opinion polls in Alberta have placed the Reform Party ahead of the three mainstream federal parties, while showing that voters would also give the party a clear preference at the provincial level if it decided to compete in that arena. And with last week’s Atlantic Canada visit, part of a 12-day tour that began in Manitoba on March 12, Manning was clearly testing the waters for a transformation of his party from a regional phenomenon into a national presence.
Sparse: But after attracting substantial audiences in Manitoba and Northern and eastern Ontario, Manning’s Atlantic Canada appearances were largely overshadowed by last week’s constitutional developments. “We’re used to this,” said Manning philosophically. “We’re not a front-page story in very many places anyway.” Still, although audiences were often sparse during nearly 20 meetings at service clubs, in Legion halls and university lecture rooms, many of those who did come out were clearly attracted to Manning’s soft-spoken blend of populism and conservatism. A few even joined his growing ranks of followers. At one Halifax meeting, about half of the 30 people in attendance lined up to pay the $10 fee for a party membership. Among them was Eileen Stubbs, a former mayor of Dartmouth, N.S. Said Stubbs: “I have never been as disgruntled with a federal
government as I have with this one.” For his part, Manning left his audiences with a clear message. Canada, he said, was doomed to “stumble into the 21st century” if it doesn’t get its house in order. Among the elements contributing to the country’s decline, according to Manning: Ottawa’s uncontrolled spending, the fact that too many MPs represented their parties’ interests and not those of their constituents—and the Meech Lake accord. Indeed, Manning suggested that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is now held in even lower regard in Western Canada than was former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. “Trudeau’s vision was very different from what we wanted,” he noted, “but the West respected him for having a position and sticking to it. With Mr. Mulroney, they don’t see any vision at all.” But Manning, who bypassed Quebec on his tour, attempted to distance his party from such virulently anti-French groupings as the Confederation of Regions Party, which has developed a strong presence in New Brunswick. Instead, Manning plainly hoped to persuade his audiences that his party had deep political roots in a long Canadian tradition of reform, stretching from the time of Nova Scotia pamphleteer Joseph Howe to the Depression-era Social Credit and CCF parties. In fact, many attending Manning’s appearances were clearly hungry for an all-out attack on official bilingualism. But although Manning did state his belief that the English-French duality of the country entrenched in the Meech Lake accord was outmoded, he added that public services should be offered in a second language “where numbers warrant”— although not necessarily in French or English. And he argued that Quebec should remain
“a culturally secure province” within Canada.
Last week’s constitutional developments and the possibility that negotiations may yet lead to passage of Meech Lake also weighed on Manning. For one thing, he argued, the accord’s stipulation that all 10 provinces must agree on constitutional changes would make his cherished goal of Senate reform all but impossible. “The West would get nowhere,” he noted. “So then what do you do?” Indeed, in spite of the prospect that ratification of Meech Lake would give his party an electoral boost, it was clearly a benefit that Preston Manning would rather do without.
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.