ABANDONED BY HIS CLOSE FRIEND, BRIAN MULRONEY STRUGGLES TO SAVE A DEEPLY DIVIDED NATION
One by one, Canada’s premiers arrived at 24 Sussex Drive, their sombre expressions reflecting a crisis that was suddenly palpable. Summoned to Ottawa for individual meetings with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, their separate visits to his residence over the space of four days created the impression that what was at stake was not only a constitution, but a country. As Canadians from coast to coast began focusing more closely on the looming threat to their nation, Mulroney and the premiers worked against time and their sometimes bitter differences to attempt a compromise. For a haggard, visibly aging Mulroney, those problems were compounded by the personal agony caused by the stunning political defection of his close friend and environment minister, Lucien Bouchard. And for all the leaders, there was the underlying worry expressed by Alberta Premier Donald Getty, after his Thursday evening meeting with the Prime Minister. Declared Getty, in a voice shaking with emotion: “We are capable of blowing something as precious as our country.”
That was a reality, it seemed, that many of the country’s leaders had previously been unwilling to confront. But Mulroney’s hasty request for one-on-one sessions with the premiers—a move that he decided on in less than a day—underlined the urgency of the situation.
The alarm was also evident on the financial markets: within 48 hours of Bouchard’s resignation from the cabinet and from the Conservative caucus, the Canadian dollar had lost more than a quarter of a cent, and the following day, the Bank of Canada rate rose by a quarter point
(page 22). Mulroney said the rise was “due in part to political instability.” Financial analysts agreed.
And with the June 23 deadline for Meech Lake’s ratification less than a month away, and Manitoba and Newfoundland threatening to hold additional public hearings before ratifying the accord, the margin for further manoeuvring became painfully tight. The impending deadline also raised tensions between the premiers to a new high. Ontario Premier David Peterson, for one, publicly urged dissenters Clyde Wells of Newfoundland, Gary Filmon of Manitoba and New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna to ratify the accord. Said Peterson impatiently: “This is not a debating society.”
Bombshell: But the most dramatic demonstration of the differences that the debate has uncovered among the country’s leaders was the bombshell resignation of Bouchard on May 21. In explaining his decision, Bouchard cited a loss of faith in the government’s handling of the crisis. In particular, he could not accept additions to the accord recommended on May 17 by a committee of the House of Commons chaired by Tory MP Jean Charest. Bouchard’s resignation was a stunning blow to a friendship of 30 years’ standing (page 24). And it sharply altered the tone of the debate.
Bouchard compounded his repudiation of the government’s course by immediately embracing sovereignty-association as his preferred option for Quebec. Together, the two gestures drove a deep wedge into the coalition of traditional western Tories and francophone Quebec nationalists that Mulroney has nurtured assiduously since winning his party’s leadership in 1983. Said outspoken Manitoba MP Felix Holtmann: “What it says is, these separatists will take every opportunity they can to break up the country.” Like François Gérin, another Quebec MP who left the Tory party on May 18 over Meech Lake, Bouchard will sit in Parliament as an Independent MP. By the end of last week, only one other Quebec backbencher, Gilbert Chartrand, had followed their lead. But other Quebec MPS made it clear that they sympathized with Bouchard’s motives, and will follow him if the accord does not pass.
But Mulroney appeared to head off other immediate defections with an impassioned address to his Quebec caucus on the day after Bouchard’s resignation. As he waved a bound copy of the Meech Lake accord with one hand, the Prime Minister pleaded with his fellow MPs to stay the course. At one point, he told the caucus, “We did Meech Lake without François Gérin and Lucien Bouchard.” Later, Mulroney added apologetically, “I have known Bouchard
more than 30 years and it would not do any good to start calling him names now.”
But Mulroney was not alone in finding his options narrowed by Bouchard’s action. In his resignation speech, Bouchard urged Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa to ignore any First Ministers’ meeting that would discuss the Charest committee recommendations. Bourassa also faced heavy pressure from within his own caucus to refuse to attend any such meeting.
Powers: Still, Bourassa said that he saw no reason to boycott further talks. But he insisted that any modification of Quebec’s “very minimal” constitutional demands was “out of the question.” And he was especially unyielding about one of the clauses in the accord that has emerged as the source of some of the deepest differences among the premiers: the formal recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society.” The three dissenting premiers want clauses added that would limit the powers that Quebec might gain from that imprecise description. But Bourassa again flatly rejected any such measures.
In fact, those growing pressures within Quebec made it graphically clear that Bourassa has no remaining margin for compromise. As a result, Mulroney and the premiers spent last weekend searching for wording that might mute the objections of detractors of the accord. And, although the Charest report listed 23 possible additions to Meech Lake, Mulroney, on the advice of his chief constitutional negotiator, Senator Lowell Murray, concentrated on clarifying three issues considered to be the most controversial in the accord. They are Quebec’s “distinct society” status, the power of individual provinces to veto future Senate reform and the extent of Ottawa’s right to promote minority languages across the country.
Still, Mulroney’s decision to meet separately with each premier appears to have come only after a direct challenge from Peterson. The Ontario premier, impatient with Mulroney’s decision not to call a First Ministers’ conference, told Mulroney’s office that he was prepared to call one of his own that would not include the Prime Minister. Stung by that proposal, Mulroney’s officials then discussed holding three regional conferences with smaller groups of premiers, to which the Prime Minister would have travelled in order to avoid the impression of the provincial leaders going to 24 Sussex as supplicants. Finally, on May 23, they decided to ask the premiers to meet Mulroney individually, with the understanding that a full conference would be held if the oneon-one talks went well.
Provocative: Peterson was not the only premier who seemed impatient for compromise. Nova Scotia Premier John Buchanan took the unusual step of calling a news conference to plead publicly with his New Brunswick neighbor, McKenna, to sign the accord as written. Such a “demonstration of leadership,” Buchanan said, “could be the catalyst to move Newfoundland and Manitoba.” But an aide to McKenna said he was not ready to do so—“yet.” And Wells also
MODIFYING DEMANDS IS VUT OF THE QUESTION/BOURASSA STILL SAYS
repeated his unwillingness to sign the accord without substantial change.
For their part, Mulroney and Peterson aligned themselves closely with Bourassa. Declared Mulroney, after his Friday breakfast meeting with the Ontario leader: “Premier Peterson and I are resolved that Quebec will never again be isolated at the constitutional table.” Their statement was a clear attempt to contain the nationalist pressures on the Quebec premier in the wake of Bouchard’s resignation. But it came nearly a week after Bouchard, in his final hours as a minister, had sent a far more provocative message to Quebec.
On May 19, Bouchard sent a telegram from Paris, where he was vacationing, congratulating the Parti Québécois on the anniversary of the Quebec referendum. A former PQ member himself, Bouchard voted for sovereignty-association in the referendum. When he entered active politics on Mulroney’s team two years ago, he said that he believed in his old friend’s vision of Quebec’s place in the nation. But his unanticipated greeting to the PQ, read aloud at the party’s annual meeting, provoked wild cheering from the separatist audience—and deep embarrassment in Ottawa. After that, Bouchard’s ties to the Tories—and to Mulroney—unravelled swiftly.
When his flight from Paris landed at Montreal’s Mirabel airport the next day, Bouchard was noncommittal with reporters who asked him about his plans. But when he went to 24 Sussex Drive to meet with Mulroney—at the Prime Minister’s insistence—last week, his five-page resignation letter was already in his hand. For
an hour, he discussed his reasons for resigning with Mulroney. But despite the long-standing friendship between the Prime Minister and his former law school classmate, a friend of both men said that “no attempt was made to talk him out of leaving.” Still, as Bouchard prepared to leave, they shook hands. And as they parted, Bouchard said that Mulroney told him: “After 30 years, this friendship will not disappear, no matter what happens.”
But other Mulroney associates were incensed by what they regarded as a personal betrayal. And clearly, Bouchard’s reversal was all the more bitter for having come from a man
Mulroney’s biographer L. Ian MacDonald described as “the only person capable of seeing into Mulroney’s soul.” Said one Quebec Tory, a friend of both men: “The timing was ill-chosen and ill-advised.” Other Mulroney associates were less charitable—believing that Bouchard deliberately sabotaged the accord at a crucial time in order to further the cause of Quebec independence and set himself up as a future leader of the Parti Québécois. Declared one official in the Prime Minister’s Office of Bouchard: “He was a living car bomb, calculated to explode at the most damaging moment.” Added the official: “He knew exactly the effect of what he was doing.”
Cheap: As well, Mulroney loyalists were stung by Bouchard’s public plea to Bourassa to boycott further Meech Lake deliberations. Announcing his resignation in the Commons, Bouchard pointedly observed that if Bourassa did refuse to attend a First Ministers’ conference, he would be supported by Quebecers “from
Roberval to Baie-Comeau.” Significantly, those two communities are represented, respectively, by Industry Minister Benoît Bouchard—who rapidly became Lucien Bouchard’s successor as Mulroney’s Quebec lieutenant—and Mulroney himself. Said one Quebec Tory: “It was a completely gratuitous cheap shot.”
By his own account, Bouchard’s frustration sprang largely from a feeling that he had been shut out of the government’s Meech Lake strategy. In the months leading up to the last First Ministers’ conference, in Ottawa last November, Mulroney—urged on by Bouchard—had refused to negotiate anything in the constitutional package. But after that conference, during which Newfoundland’s Wells angrily denounced the government’s inflexibility, the Tories changed course. Their new direction followed the advice of Mulroney’s chief of staff, Stanley Hartt, who
argued for a more conciliatory approach.
Initially, Bouchard appeared to regard the new stance as little more than a benign public relations exercise that would not change the government’s fundamental position. Indeed, he encouraged Charest to accept the appointment as chairman of the constitutional committee. But Bouchard’s early approval quickly soured when the Charest report began to be shaped by the views of Meech Lake’s critics. Bouchard was especially furious over the apparent influence of Liberal leadership candidate Jean Chrétien, whom he blamed as the central architect of the 1982 patriation. Many of the backroom authors of the all-party report had been part of Chrétien’s patriation team. Among them: constitutional expert Roger Tassé, senior Chrétien adviser Eddie Goldenberg and Peterson’s principal secretary Daniel Gagnier. In his resignation letter, Bouchard declared that Charest’s report seems to have been written by “the opponents of the Meech Lake
accord—starting with Jean Chrétien.”
Still, even some people who shared Bouchard’s reservations about the Charest report were critical of the means of protest he chose. Two of Quebec’s most influential newspapers, Montreal’s La Presse and Le Devoir, said in editorials that he would have served the province better by remaining in cabinet at least until June 23 to fight for his beliefs. Lysiane Gagnon, an influential columnist with La Presse who had bitterly denounced the three dissenting provinces the previous week, instead turned her anger on Bouchard. Declared Gagnon: “The able politician Mr. Bourassa has no need of advice from a neophyte overcome by badly controlled emotions.”
That annoyance was shared by some Quebec members of the Tory caucus.
Said Fernand Jourdenais, a strongly federalist MP for La Prairie riding: “I hope Meech Lake goes through so this backfires in his face.”
Fiery: But some of that anger plainly sprang from recognition of the enormous impact of Bouchard’s actions in his home province. When he appeared at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth hotel midweek to make a previously scheduled speech to the city’s Chamber of Commerce, Bouchard was greeted by a tumultuous three-minute standing ovation. He received two more long ovations during the course of a fiery speech in which he called on Quebecers to unite to avoid being “screwed again” by English Canada.
In fact, with the June 23 deadline for ratification of the accord approaching, it is clear that many Quebecers have already made up their minds. Even many previously staunch federalists have begun to express deep sentiments of anger and frustration towards the rest of the country. One of the most striking figures in that transformation has been Quebec International Affairs Minister John Ciaccia. Ciaccia, a longtime friend of Jean Chrétien’s, was a member of the executive committee of the
“No” side in the 1980 referendum. But now, he told Maclean ’s, “I find myself thinking that, if there were a referendum tomorrow, they would have difficulty finding a leader for the ‘No’ side.” Added Ciaccia: “This is nothing like 1980, when it was Quebecer against Quebecer. There is no dissension here: we are united in thinking that English Canada has turned on
But the same anguish and frustration was
palpable on both sides of the debate. Sharon Carstairs, the Manitoba Liberal leader who has been a key opponent of the accord, confided that she has been tormented in recent months by accusations from her detractors that she is acting as a “mother of de-confederation.” Said Carstairs: “I began to see myself as the enemy, because politicians and journalists had been saying I was public enemy number 1 for so long.” She added, “I wondered if it was be-
cause of my persona and if it would be better if I resigned.” But Carstairs said she had concluded, “I am representing sound principles.”
But while the premiers trooped singly to Mulroney’s home through the weekend, the gathering pessimism on both sides had already scuttled at least one upcoming event. In the wake of the 1987 signing of Meech Lake, Bourassa had planned to invite his fellow First Ministers to Quebec on June 24, 1990, to
celebrate the accord’s ratification on the province’s official national holiday. But last month, with the accord’s chances for success plainly fading, Bourassa cancelled those plans. As a gloomy and fractious nation haggled over its future, there was neither the time nor the taste for celebration.