BUSINESS WATCH

The man who poisoned Meech Lake

The malice of Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells has placed the future of Canada in permanent jeopardy

Peter C. Newman July 16 1990
BUSINESS WATCH

The man who poisoned Meech Lake

The malice of Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells has placed the future of Canada in permanent jeopardy

Peter C. Newman July 16 1990

The man who poisoned Meech Lake

The malice of Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells has placed the future of Canada in permanent jeopardy

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

Out of office but not out of power, Pierre Trudeau continues to hijack the national agenda. The Liberal party, which he field-marshalled to oblivion, now has as its leader Jean Chrétien, a Trudeau clone who checks speeches with his mentor, while Don Johnston, Trudeau’s law partner and ideological soul mate, is the party’s president.

At the same time, Trudeau’s most powerful proconsul, former deputy prime minister Allan MacEachen, has brought the nation’s legislative program to a halt, repeatedly using the Liberal majority of Trudeau-appointed senators to block every piece of important legislation passed by the House of Commons. But the most fervent—and most dangerous—of Trudeau’s handmaidens is, of course, Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells, his onetime constitutional law associate who killed the Meech Lake accord.

Easily the most enduring image of the entire Meech Lake psychodrama was the television shot of a smiling Trudeau at the Calgary Liberal coronation, patting his loyal disciple Wells on the back for a job well done. The future of a united Canada seems irrelevant to both men, unless it evolves precisely according to their donnish and insular concepts, which are as outdated as John Diefenbaker’s conviction that he could win over Quebec voters by distributing bilingual government cheques.

Last week’s catfight between Wells and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney came down to one essential issue: why Federal-Provincial Relations Minister Lowell Murray didn’t return Wells’s telephone call on the last day of the Newfoundland house of assembly’s crucial Meech Lake debate. Even if every one of Wells’s claims that he was snubbed by Ottawa during that final hectic manoeuvring is correct, you don’t let your country go because of a miscued phone connection. As Ontario Premier David Peterson noted at the time, “the tragedy that I watched yesterday was almost a

farce, with the missed phone call, and someone overreacting to what was said or reported. If I was as overly sensitive about some of the things said about me, I would break down and weep about every half-hour. But that’s the nature of the business. What’s at stake here is not someone’s offended sensitivities, but our country and constitutional future.”

Wells’s view of the national future, bound up as it is in Trudeau’s dreams of past glories, is totally outside the mainstream of modem political thought. Even his mode of speech is less political than that of a prosecuting lawyer delivering his final summation to a dubious jury—all righteous thunderbolts, his arguments marshalled not just to prove he’s right, but that no other version of events dares exist.

When he was in private practice, Wells seldom had law partners but only wet-eared juniors to do his bidding. This one-man approach has also characterized the conduct of his cabinet meetings. He treats most of his ministers like superannuated flunkies. According to an apocryphal story making the rounds in St. John’s these days, Wells recently invited his nondescript cabinet crew to the Hotel Newfoundland.

“And what would you like for lunch, Mr. Wells?” asked the waitress.

“Roast beef.”

“And the vegetables?”

“Oh,” replied the premier, gesturing around the table, “they’ll have roast beef, too.” Although he has made a fetish of refusing to move on Meech Lake without consulting “the people,” Wells announced unilaterally last April, the day after his party was elected with the second-smallest majority ever recorded in his province, that he had a mandate to renegotiate Meech Lake. Without consulting the voters or even holding public hearings, he rescinded his predecessor’s signature on the accord. Like Trudeau, he has never regarded the document as being vital to Canada’s future. Wells is adamantly opposed to Quebec having any—or even appearing to have any—rights not open to everyone else, an attitude encapsulated in his repeated objections to Quebec’s justified claim that it is a distinct society.

This is a particularly galling position for a Newfoundland premier to take, because if there already exists a distinct society, it’s Newfoundland. Jack Pickersgill, the Liberal veteran who helped negotiate the province’s 1949 entry into Canada, has pointed out that Newfoundland’s Terms of Union contained “several provisions conferring powers and imposing obligations quite distinct from those of any other province.”

The reason five premiers (Alberta’s Getty, Quebec’s Bourassa, Nova Scotia’s Buchanan, British Columbia’s Vander Zalm and Saskatchewan’s Devine) as well as Mulroney have accused the Newfoundland premier of killing Meech was that at their Ottawa meeting that ended on June 9, Wells himself drafted the communiqué paragraph that pledged him to use “every possible effort” on behalf of the accord, and to put it either to a referendum or to a legislative free vote.

Although he lured Mulroney, as well as New Brunswick’s McKenna, Peterson and Devine, to address the Newfoundland legislature with the clear pledge that a vote would be held on Meech, Wells went back on his word—and his signature. On the Thursday evening before the Meech deadline, at a private dinner with Mulroney, Wells was still reassuring the Prime Minister there would be a vote. An informal poll that night showed that Meech would probably pass by a margin of two votes.

There is no more telling indictment of the damage that the Trudeau-Wells axis has inflicted on this country than Bourassa’s statement, delivered when he felt certain that Meech would pass. “For many Quebecers, since 1981, when Quebec was excluded from the Canadian Constitution,” the Quebec premier said, “Canada was only a country in law. From now on, with the ratification of the Meech Lake accord, for all Quebecers, Canada will be a country in fact—a real country.”

That was said only a month ago, but it will be a very long time, if ever again, before a Quebec premier feels so optimistic about Canada. The vanity of Pierre Trudeau, the weakness of Jean Chrétien and the malice of Clyde Wells have placed the future of this country in permanent jeopardy.