COVER

QUEBEC VOWED NOT TO RETURN TO THE TABLE FOR MORE NEGOTIATIONS

ROSS LAVER July 2 1990
COVER

QUEBEC VOWED NOT TO RETURN TO THE TABLE FOR MORE NEGOTIATIONS

ROSS LAVER July 2 1990

QUEBEC VOWED NOT TO RETURN TO THE TABLE FOR MORE NEGOTIATIONS

COVER

Canada in the years ahead.

By contrast, few politicians in the rest of the country appeared to have devoted much time to considering the future shape of Confederation without Meech Lake.

Mulroney himself has always insisted that his efforts were directed solely at gaining approval for the package of constitutional amendments hammered out in April, 1987, at the government’s retreat beside Meech Lake in the Gatineau Hills near Ottawa. Even privately, his officials repeatedly denied that the federal government was preparing any sort of contingency plan in case the accord fell through. Still, in his Saturday speech, Mulroney undertook to introduce new “programs to bring Canadians together

and to bridge the solitude in -

which so many Englishand French-speaking Canadians still live.” But he offered no details of what those programs might include, or how soon he planned to act.

In fact, Mulroney may find that his ability to rally the nation is constrained. Nearly six years after winning the largest number of seats in Canadian history, the federal Conservatives are deeply unpopular in every region of the country. Mulroney himself said that opposition

to the accord had been fuelled by hostility towards the full range of his government’s policies, including Canada-U.S. free trade, high interest rates, cutbacks in federal spending and the proposed seven-per-cent Goods and Services Tax. Those who are close to him say that one of Mulroney’s most cherished political goals has been to heal the wounds caused by Quebec’s failure to endorse the 1982 Constitution Act. With his plan for national reconcilia-

tion now in ruins, Mulroney faced the possibility that his store of political capital has been all but spent.

At the very least, Quebec’s decision to boycott future rounds of constitutional talks will thwart any meaningful attempt at Senate reform—a goal that was to have formed a major part of the government’s agenda during the remainder of its second term. “It is going to be far more difficult to make this country work,” said External Affairs Minister Joe Clark. Meanwhile, a senior constitutional adviser to Ontario Premier David Peterson said that the Prime Minister would have difficulty mustering political support for any new initiatives. Said the adviser, who talked on condition that his name not be used: “The Prime Minister will _ come out of this very weak| ened and, no matter what you 2 think of him, he is the only I one we have.” a Appeal: The aide added I that Peterson would do noth° ing to undermine Mulroney’s position. Indeed, in a series of comments to reporters, Peterson himself said that he planned to meet Bourassa this week in order to look for new avenues for co-operation despite the demise of the constitutional accord.

As for those who celebrated Meech Lake’s death, they may now depend on incoming Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien to find a way out of the impasse. Chrétien’s supporters argued throughout the long leadership campaign that he alone, among the five contenders for the

Liberal crown, could appeal to ordinary Quebecers over the heads of the province’s political and cultural elite in Montreal and Quebec City. Yet recent polls indicate that Chrétien’s popularity in his home province has waned because of his opposition to Meech Lake. One recent survey by CROP, a Montreal-based polling firm, showed that 50 per cent of Quebecers disapproved of Chrétien’s approach to Meech Lake, while only 20 per cent approved. Declared Michel Roy, former editor of the Montreal daily La Presse, in an interview: “I’m afraid the man has lost touch with Quebec, certainly with young Quebecers. His vision of the country is not shared in Quebec, and he has lost contact with the people who could help him.” One of those is Bourassa, but Roy described the new Liberal leader and the Quebec premier as “almost enemies.”

The problems that lie ahead for Chrétien in attempting to bridge the divisions between Canada’s two major language groups will be increased by the difficulties he appears likely to encounter in trying to unify his own caucus. Even before the ballots were counted in Calgary,

Hull-Aylmer MP Gilles Rocheleau declared that he would not continue to sit as a Liberal under Chrétien’s leadership. Referring to the party’s prospects in Quebec, Rocheleau said: “We are in shit right now. I prefer to quit the party and sit as an Independent.” And Shefford MP Jean Lapierre also said that he will leave the caucus, adding that he would find it difficult to look his constituents “in the eye” if he remained a Liberal under the party’s new leader.

Chrétien’s dilemma is one that Mulroney has already faced. In recent weeks, three of his Quebec MPs have left the Tory caucus to sit as Independents. They accused the Prime Minister of abandoning Quebec by endorsing a companion resolution to Meech Lake in an effort to win the support of Newfoundland and Manitoba. The best-known defector, former environment minister Lucien Bouchard, has since emerged as a leading advocate of sovereigntyassociation. After Meech Lake’s demise, there were indications that other Quebec Tory MPs were also set to resign from the party. One prominent nationalist, Industry Minister Benoît Bouchard, said he would not make any hasty decision about his future in the cabinet. “It is kind of like losing a relative or child in a car accident,” said Bouchard of the death of the accord. “You want to spend time with the people close to you.”

Stalemate: For Mulroney, the death of Meech Lake marked a painful end to a week dominated by high-stakes brinkmanship, backroom negotiations, sharply personal invective and open political warfare. At the outset, attention focused mainly on Manitoba, where the province’s lone native MLA, Elijah

Harper, had succeeded in stalling debate on the accord for 10 days. Murray tried to break the logjam on Monday by flying to Winnipeg with a six-point offer to address native grievances—including a promise to invite native leaders to all future federal-provincial conferences on matters affecting aboriginal people.

But the province’s chiefs quickly turned down Murray’s offer. And native leaders brushed aside any suggestion that their efforts to kill Meech Lake would result in a prolonged constitutional stalemate. “The rivers will flow and the sun will shine after June 23,” said Ovide Mercredi, Manitoba’s vice-chief at the Ottawa-based national Assembly of First Nations. “And six months or so down the line, we might have a new Prime Minister.”

With time running out and no chance of a vote on the accord in the Manitoba legislature by the June 23 deadline, federal officials made a last-ditch attempt on Friday to extend the deadline for ratification. It was a step that, publicly at least, Mulroney and his aides had always said was impossible. In fact, however, the eleventh-hour strategy had been under consideration by the Prime Minister’s advisers for months. It involved asking the Supreme Court of Canada to rule on the legality of what became known as a “rolling deadline” for making changes to the Constitution. Under that proposal, the Meech Lake amendments could take effect after passage by Parliament and all 10 provincial legislatures within any three-year period—rather than within 36 months after the first legisla-

tive approval, by Quebec on June 23, 1987.

But Murray said that Ottawa would refer that issue to the court only if Newfoundland’s legislature voted to ratify the accord. If it did— and if the court agreed with Ottawa’s interpretation—the accord would then need only Manitoba’s approval, and Quebec’s reaffirmation, in order to become law.

In fact, even some of the Tories’ own advisers said that they doubted that the court would have upheld Ottawa’s plan. “There are so many ‘ifs,’ ” said Conservative Senator Gérald Beaudoin, a former dean of law at the University of Ottawa. But, from a political standpoint, Murray’s plan succeeded in turning the Meech Lake spotlight away from Manitoba and onto Wells—the man whom Mulroney’s advisers had for weeks wanted to be able to hold accountable for the accord’s death.

Treachery: In the end, Wells chose to adjourn the debate. Making little attempt to mask his anger, he accused Mulroney—with whom he had dined the night before, after the Prime Minister had appeared in the assembly to personàlly urge passage of the accord—of trying to force his province into a position in which its actions alone would determine Meech’s fate. Declared Wells: “I reject any effort to put Newfoundland in that position, to try and pressure us to make a decision against our best interests.”

His decision provoked a swift response in Ottawa. Murray, emerging from a cabinet meeting, said that Ottawa had decided to abandon its attempts to keep the accord alive. For her part, Monique Vezina, the junior minister for employment and immigration, denounced Wells for failing to honor his commitment to let the province’s legislators pass judgment on the accord. Waving a copy of the Meech Lake companion agreement, which the 11 First Ministers signed after a weeklong negotiating session in early June, she pointed to Wells’s signature and said: “What do you call this? We call it treachery.”

In the future, historians may decide that the accord, based on a fragile consensus cobbled together by the leaders of 11 governments during two long bargaining sessions, was fatally flawed from the beginning. Or they may conclude that its death resulted from a sorry combination of tactical errors and clashing political egos. What was clear last week was that a constitutional draft that was meant to bring harmony to relations between French and English Canada had instead left a legacy of distrust, anger and despair. For Canada’s political leaders, their credibility eroded and their personal energies sapped by the inconclusive Meech Lake debate, the task now is to articulate a new vision of Canada that is capable of surviving into the 21st century. It is a challenge that will require an abundance of goodwill and imagination—qualities that were in scant evidence last week.

ROSS LAVER with JOHN HOWSE in Winnipeg, E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa, BARRY CAME in Montreal, GLEN ALLEN in St. John ’s and correspondents’ reports

ROSS LAVER

JOHN HOWSE

KAYE FULTON

BARRY CAME

GLEN ALLEN