With his rapid-fire speaking style, it took New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna just six minutes to read the two resolutions into the legislative record. But his words appeared to shatter the political logjam that had gripped the national debate over the contentious Meech Lake constitutional accord for months. Surrounded by the restored Victorian elegance of the legislative chamber in Fredericton, McKenna first introduced a motion to adopt the Meech Lake accord. But he made New Brunswick’s ratification conditional upon support from other provinces for his second resolution: a so-called companion accord, which, among other things, was aimed at strengthening the original agreement's protection of linguistic minorities. Then, in a stirring and at times emotional speech, McKenna said that the new proposals would serve as a “basis for resolution of the current impasse.” Said McKenna: “What we need now are strong hands and cool minds and an unwavering determination to find an accommodation.” With that, the 42-year-old premier set out across the country in a daunting search for a solution to Canada’s escalating constitutional crisis. The early responses were not entirely encouraging.
But in proposing a way out of the Meech Lake deadlock, McKenna found many admirers— and some tangible support. In Halifax, Nova Scotia Premier John Buchanan endorsed McKenna’s resolution and introduced his own version for passage in the provincial legislature, which his Conservative party controls. And in Toronto, Ontario’s David Peterson indicated he was also prepared to introduce a similar resolution into that province’s legislature.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said that McKenna’s suggestions should be examined seriously—but stopped well short of embracing them. Still, in a rare televised address to the nation, Mulroney announced that he would introduce McKenna’s companion resolution in the House of Commons this week so that it could be aired at televised hearings across the country by an all-party committee of 15 MPS, who were given until May 18 to make their report—36 days before the agreed deadline for approval of the Meech Lake accord by all 10 provinces. The premiers of the four western provinces, meanwhile, commissioned their own task force of officials—which was to hold its first meeting this week—to examine New Brunswick’s initiative.
Vision: But by week’s end, it seemed unlikely that McKenna’s companion piece to Meech Lake would prove to be enough by itself to resolve the stalemate over the original document. As the premiers reacted to the new proposal with conflicting views, it was left to Mulroney and former prime minister Pierre Trudeau to set out two fundamentally differing visions of the nation. On a three-city tour to promote a new book, Trudeau declared, “Canadians have to make up their minds: Do they want a loose confederation of provinces which exists courtesy of the provincial governments—or do they want a real country with a real government?” (page 21). In his television address to the country, Mulroney declared: “A strong federal government working with strong provinces is in fact what makes Canada work. Meech Lake gives all provinces, big and small, an equal say in amendments to important national institutions.”
The stark differences of view that remain over the country’s constitutional future quickly became amplified as other political leaders reacted to McKenna’s proposal. The premiers of Manitoba and Newfoundland, who also oppose the accord in its current form, pointedly observed that McKenna’s resolution did not meet some of their gravest concerns. Newfoundland’s Liberal Premier Clyde Wells said that he was encouraged by Mulroney’s response to McKenna, but warned that Quebec and other provinces would have to be open-minded about changes to the accord.
Manitoba’s Conservative Premier Gary Filmon, who leads a minority government, noted in particular that the McKenna plan did not address concerns about the formula for making substantial changes in the makeup and selection of the Senate. The two Manitoba opposition leaders also agree that Senate reform, which they favor, would be much more difficult to achieve under the accord’s requirement of unanimous approval of all 10 provinces than under the current requirement—approval by seven provinces representing at least 50 per cent of the population. Said Filmon: “The Prime Minister is still asking Manitoba to pass Meech now and fix it later. That type of proposal is unacceptable.”
‘Gypped’: In Quebec, both new initiatives met stony receptions from Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa and Parti Québécois opposition leader Jacques Parizeau. For his part, Bourassa said that McKenna had opened the way for the two other dissenting provinces to demand even more changes to the accord. Restating his refusal to negotiate any further constitutional commitments until Meech Lake is ratified, Bourassa warned that any companion agreement reached without Quebec’s participation would amount to “an anti-Quebec strategy” on the part of the rest of the country. And Parizeau warned that Quebec was being “gypped again” by a gang-up of Ottawa and the other provinces—a reminder of the negotiations among the federal government and nine provinces that led to the 1982 Constitution being signed without Quebec’s participation. In Toronto at week’s end, Mulroney denied that Quebec had been isolated.
Still, McKenna’s move gave the accord’s proponents at least some cause for optimism last week. The resolution was written by New Brunswick officials, who put the finishing touches to the final draft only three days before McKenna’s speech to the legislature. But the document was the product of weeks of discussion between New Brunswick officials and their counterparts in Ottawa and Ontario. McKenna insisted that his resolution did not alter the original Meech Lake accord, leaving intact such contentious clauses as the one that recognizes Quebec as a “distinct society.” Instead, he insisted, his companion document merely added to the original agreement in order to clarify some of its ambiguities—reaffirming, for instance, the constitutional equality of the sexes. But the New Brunswick premier artfully addressed another criticism of the original accord by proposing that Meech Lake’s requirement that all the existing provinces approve the creation of any new ones be waived in the case of the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
Judge: And federal officials privately rejoiced that McKenna did not demand that all the other provinces endorse his additions before New Brunswick ratifies Meech Lake. In fact, McKenna had originally favored a full-blown “parallel accord,” which every other provincial legislature would have been forced to pass before the original Meech Lake agreement could take effect. But in canvassing the other premiers, McKenna found that his colleagues opposed reopening the explosive Meech Lake debate in their legislatures. In response, McKenna offered to ratify Meech Lake once he received the “necessary” endorsements for his amendments—while declining to say just how many provincial approvals that meant. Said McKenna: “I will be the judge of what is a necessary level of support.” But in conversations with other leaders, including Ontario’s Peterson, who met McKenna over breakfast in Toronto on Friday morning, McKenna suggested that the support of six other provinces might meet his criteria.
McKenna’s most contentious suggestion, however, was a clause that would empower Ottawa to promote the linguistic duality of Canada. According to the New Brunswick premier, that provision was designed to address fears that Meech Lake offered inadequate protection for Canada’s minority language groups—including his own province’s 225,000 French-speaking Acadians. But McKenna’s proposal was immediately denounced in Quebec by Parizeau as a measure that would allow Ottawa to promote English in the province. Indeed, successive Quebec governments have opposed unlimited federal support for the province’s English-speaking minority, arguing that the province should have an unimpeded ability to regulate language and culture. And even Bourassa’s top advisers worried that the step might be perceived by francophone Quebecers as a retreat on the ever-sensitive language issue.
For his part, Mulroney refused to comment directly on the substance of the New Brunswick initiative. Although federal officials had helped sculpt the document, the Tories appeared determined to identify the Meech Lake rescue attempt with New Brunswick. “I have not endorsed Mr. McKenna’s proposals,” Mulroney told reporters in Toronto. But the Prime Minister did try to add momentum to the shifting of positions on Meech by delivering a 12-minute speech on national television—only his third such address since coming to office. Seated in his seldom-used office in Ottawa’s Langevin Building and framed by family portraits, Mulroney delivered an address that was long on evocations of national unity but offered no specific new solutions to the Meech Lake impasse. “This is not a constitutional problem, nor is it a debate among politicians,” he told viewers. “This is above all a question of will: the national will to be true to the legacy of tolerance and generosity of spirit on which this country was built.”
But Mulroney added that it was too soon to convene a constitutional conference with the other premiers. And he indicated that McKenna’s companion resolution—perhaps expanded by additions from other provinces—did not have to be passed before June 23, the accepted deadline for Meech Lake to be ratified or die. That suggestion alarmed many of the accord’s detractors. Said Manitoba NDP Leader Gary Doer: “The Prime Minister has not moved one inch. It is still take it or leave it before June 23.”
Dead: In fact, Doer was not the only Manitoba politician who dashed predictions of a breakthrough on Meech Lake last week. All three party leaders in the province blamed Ottawa for a flurry of speculation that Filmon and Doer were preparing to break with Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs to support a modified version of McKenna’s companion agreement. “My position is the three-party position,” said Filmon, whose minority Tory government is running neck and neck with the Liberals in the polls. For her part, Carstairs said that she doubted that Filmon would take the political risk of supporting an unamended Meech Lake in a province where the agreement is unpopular. “I am still the leader best identified with the fight against Meech,” she told Maclean’s. “Even Tories will tell you that Filmon is dead meat if he backs off on Meech Lake.” Added Doer: “Ottawa’s tactics are sleazy and counterproductive to getting Manitoba onside.” The NDP leader noted that any one of the Manitoba parties could now easily filibuster any ratification debate in the Manitoba legislature past the June 23 deadline.
As well, any deal that excludes Carstairs would almost certainly not be acceptable to Newfoundland’s Wells. Graduates of the same law class at Dalhousie University, Wells and Carstairs are intellectual soul mates on constitutional questions. And Wells acted dramatically last week to underscore his opposition to Meech—and his dissatisfaction with the New Brunswick initiative. One day after McKenna tabled his proposals and just hours before Mulroney’s televised address, Wells tabled his own resolution in the Newfoundland House of Assembly. If passed, it would rescind his province’s 1988 ratification of Meech Lake. And Wells warned that, if Newfoundland eventually became the last holdout against the accord, he would approve the agreement anew only if a majority of Newfoundlanders or a majority of Canadians endorsed Meech Lake in a referendum. And Wells’s objections to Meech—notably his insistence on moving the distinct society clause out of the body of the constitution and into the preamble to diminish its legal impact —are certain to be extremely difficult to meet in a companion agreement. Said Wells: “I am prepared to look at any kind of reasonable proposal that has a chance of success. But what I have seen so far is not at all practical.”
In Quebec, Bourassa’s hard-line opposition to attaching new conditions to Meech Lake is driven by internal party polls, which show that compromise would leave the Quebec Liberal party with deep political damage. Indeed, Quebec politicians of all stripes noted a poll conducted by the Institut québécois d’opinion publique on March 7, which showed that if Quebecers were asked again today, as they were in the 1980 referendum, whether they would give their government a mandate to negotiate “sovereignty-association” with Canada, 67.5 per cent would now vote in favor (compared with just 40.4 per cent in favor 10 years ago).
The persistent gulf dividing Meech Lake’s critics and its supporters left some observers cynical about the impending parliamentary hearings. As well, Mulroney faced the increasingly difficult task of calming his Quebec caucus, many of whom were furious with the Prime Minister’s decision to introduce McKenna’s resolution in the House.
Trust: But supporters of Meech Lake took some consolation from the fact that new discussions have begun on how to save an accord that, until last week, appeared to be dying of neglect. Said one Tory: “It is really a debate among the nine provinces other than Quebec about whether they can buy into a new deal that does not tear up the first one. If they can agree, then they will have to trust Bourassa to join them once Meech Lake is passed.”
That remains a dizzying challenge. But even if the positions on all sides remained as firmly entrenched as ever, some federal officials were heartened by the truce in verbal hostilities between Ottawa and Wells. At last November’s First Ministers’ conference in Ottawa, Wells bitterly denounced Ottawa for failing even to talk to him about his concerns. Said one federal official at the time: “We simply did not want to give him the impression that we were prepared to negotiate.”
By contrast, Ottawa’s two top Meech negotiators, Interprovincial Relations Minister Senator Lowell Murray and cabinet secretary for federal-provincial relations Norman Spector, visited Wells at his home in St. John’s last week. In the company of Wells’s wife, Eleanor, and Deborah Coyne, the province’s constitutional adviser, the group dined on salmon and talked about the impasse. “It was the first time I felt good about the concerns of Newfoundland being discussed,” Wells told Maclean ’s. And by the end of the meal, Wells had agreed to consider Ottawa’s request that the premier make a presentation on the accord to the Commons’ committee.
The warmer mood of a social evening may be a slim basis for optimism in a deeply divisive political battle. But, in view of the Meech Lake accord’s tenuous prospects for survival, it was a rare and welcome departure.