The amplified beat of tribal drums and the rhythmic chants of aboriginal protesters were clearly audible in Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon’s second-floor office in Winnipeg’s provincial Legislative Buildings. The sounds underscored the sense of mounting drama as, throughout last week, Manitoba’s three political parties tried without success to push the troubled Meech Lake accord through the legislature before its June 23 deadline. For the protesters, the motive was simple: aboriginal leaders have long complained that the accord does not do enough to recognize native rights. And last week, hundreds of native representatives gathered daily in front of the Manitoba legislature to support NDP MLA Elijah Harper, a Cree Indian, in his determined bid to block its ratification (page 12). By week’s end, their efforts appeared to have been largely successful. Declared the soft-spoken Harper: “I felt if I did not stop this process, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”
Harper’s defiant resistance dealt an unexpected and potentially lethal blow to the constitutional accord’s chances of being ratified by its
THE MEECH LAKE ACCORD FACES ITS FINAL HURDLES IN THE MANITOBA AND NEWFOUNDLAND LEGISLATURES
deadline at the end of this week. Filmon, who early last week privately assured Prime Minister Brian Mulroney that Manitoba would ratify the accord on time, sounded pessimistic by week’s end. Declared Filmon: “There is a very strong possibility that we cannot complete it within the time we have available.” At the same time, Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells, who said that he would hold a free vote on the accord’s passage in the province’s house of assembly, renewed his opposition to it. While acknowledging that the accord’s failure could have “a disastrous effect on the economic and political viability of Canada,” Wells added that “it is still my view the accord should be rejected.”
What slim good news there was for the accord’s supporters last week came from the solidly Liberal New Brunswick legislature, which followed former holdout Premier Frank McKenna’s lead and unanimously approved the agreement on Friday. Assembly members then broke into an impromptu rendition of 0 Canada in French and English. But in Ottawa, the euphoria that followed the end of marathon weeklong negotiations among the 11 First Ministers on June 9 gave way to concern over the dwindling chances for the Meech accord’s successful passage.
The closed-door consultations in the capital ended with a resolution committing the three provinces withholding approval of Meech Lake to present it to their legislatures before June 23. At the same time, all the provinces and the federal government agreed to address the dissenters’ concerns about the accord after it was passed. But by the end of last week, only New Brunswick had fulfilled its commitment. By contrast, both Filmon and Wells suggested that the deadline might need to be extended if the accord was to have a chance of passing in their legislatures. But in order to move the deadline, some constitutional experts assert that each of the 10 provincial legislatures and the federal government would have to pass resolutions extending the deadline. For his part, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, who already faces strong opposition to the accord from nationalists in his province, described that likelihood as “practically impossible.” Still, Bourassa appeared to leave a slender opening for such a solution, adding, “If the situation does not correct itself, one might examine it.” With the unexpected new peril to the accord, several key federal government officials—including Senator Lowell Murray, Mulroney’s senior adviser on federal-provincial relations— held a series of meetings late in the week with national aboriginal leaders. Their aim was to
persuade the native groups to stop supporting Harper’s delay tactics. But defiant native leaders said after the initial meetings that their support would continue unless the government made new concessions. Said Georges Erasmus, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, for one: “Read my lips and look in my eyes: aboriginal people are not going to accept exclusion from the Meech Lake accord. It is going to die.”
Harper’s success in delaying passage of the accord was based on his shrewd exploitation of a procedural error. First, by being the only MLA to withhold his approval, Harper denied Filmon the unanimous consent he needed to begin public hearings on the accord immediately, without giving the 48 hours’ notice required by Manitoba law. Then two days later, he again frustrated Filmon by pointing out that the premier did not include all the necessary documents when he tabled his notice. After deliberating more than three hours, Manitoba Speaker Denis Rocan agreed with Harper’s technical point. That left Filmon with no choice under Manitoba’s rules of legislative procedure but to wait until Wednesday, June 20, before he tries again to introduce a Meech resolution.
Meanwhile, more than 1,500 people—many of them representing aboriginal groups— quickly registered their intention to speak at the public hearings. With little time remaining for the hearings, an increasing number of observers predicted that the accord was doomed. Said Manitoba NDP Leader Gary Doer:
As the agreement appeared to unravel, Mulroney came under heavy criticism that intensified after he made an extraordinary admission in an interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail. In the interview, Mulroney said that he had deliberately delayed calling the First Ministers together in order to heighten the pressure on the holdouts. That statement contradicted Mulroney’s earlier assertions that he delayed the talks simply in order to find more common ground between the premiers.
“The chances of succeeding now—how should I say it— are slim.”
Mulroney swiftly responded that the newspaper’s version of his remarks did not accurately reflect his statement. But his opponents pounced on the apparent contradiction. John Turner, who has seldom spoken in the Commons since handing over the Opposition leadership to Herb Gray in February, rose to accuse Mulroney of having “gambled with the future of our country” by allowing the delay. In Winnipeg, Filmon
said that the Prime Minister’s remarks had infuriated many Manitobans, contributing to the risks facing the accord. He told Maclean's: “It wasn't my decision to leave it until the last minute to have these final negotiations. The Prime Minister chose to leave it as long as he could to put greater pressure on the process.” The renewed strains were also evident within the Conservative caucus. During their regular weekly meeting on Wednesday, Mulroney ordered Tory MPs not to discuss the accord publicly until after June 23. But the following day, Patrick Nowlan, a 25year veteran MP from Nova Scotia, said he was quitting the caucus in protest over the way the accord was negotiated. Declared Nowlan: “Bluster, bluff and blackmail do not make good constitutional soup.” Meanwhile, one senior party organizer said that as many as a dozen Quebec MPs have renewed their threats to quit the party if the accord is not passed by June 23.
Similar divisions were also evident among Liberals. MPs Sheila Copps and Paul Martin, both candidates for the party’s leadership, harshly criticized their front-running rival Jean Chrétien for his refusal to take a public stand for or against the latest attempt to salvage the accord (page 13).
Still, the latest obstacles to Meech could be beyond the ability of either Mulroney or Chrétien to remove. Even if Filmon managed to resolve the procedural disputes holding up the accord’s progress
in the Manitoba assembly, public sentiment in the province was plainly running strongly against Meech Lake. One public opinion poll, conducted by Winnipeg-based Angus Reid Group, showed that only 31 per cent of Manitobans polled expressed support for the agreement. Opponents of the accord, meanwhile, took out paid ads in several provincial newspapers last week to urge its rejection. And business groups, whose support Filmon has sought, largely remained silent.
Opposition to the agreement appeared equally strong in Newfoundland. Wells, who made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the Ottawa compromise on the accord, was greeted as a hero when he returned home to announce that Newfoundland’s final decision would be left to a free vote among the 52 members of the provincial House of Assembly. With that, Wells unleashed an intense debate as critics and supporters of the accord vied for the attention of individual MHAs. With all 21 opposition MHAs—19 Conservatives and two Independents—expected to vote in favor of the accord, at least five of Wells’s Liberals also had to support it to assure passage. Still, many observers predicted that when the accord came to a vote late this week, it would pass by a narrow margin despite Wells’s opposition. Declared Christopher Dunn, a professor of political science at Newfoundland’s Memorial University: “Anti-Meech opinion has softened in the last 10 days, but the antagonism is stül there.”
For his part, Harper remained calm—and apparently convinced that his actions were correct. As he met with other native leaders in a Winnipeg ballroom, Harper said that aboriginal people have “shared our land and resources with other Canadians so we could live side by side.” But the Meech Lake agree-
ment, he added, “is not what we bargained for.” With time running out for the accord, any last-minute bargaining to ensure its survival had to include new participants—and, it seemed likely, a much stiff er price.
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