COVER

RUNNING OUT OF PATIENCE

CLYDE WELLS HALTS THE DEBATE

GLEN ALLEN July 2 1990
COVER

RUNNING OUT OF PATIENCE

CLYDE WELLS HALTS THE DEBATE

GLEN ALLEN July 2 1990

RUNNING OUT OF PATIENCE

CLYDE WELLS HALTS THE DEBATE

COVER

In the austere language of lawmakers, it was simply “Motion Three,” buried in the Newfoundland house of assembly’s June 20 order paper. But its mundane name belied its importance. Under Motion Three, the province’s MHAs were to vote on reversing Newfoundland’s earlier rescindment of the Meech Lake accord. For several days, MHAs had consulted their constituents over whether they should vote for or against the accord. In the end, though, the painful soulsearching came to nothing. Late on Friday, after Senator Lowell Murray, the federal intergovernmental affairs minister, announced what turned out to be Ottawa’s final Meech Lake gambit, Premier Clyde Wells rose in the legislature. Visibly angered, he denounced

Murray’s proposal to seek an extension of the accord’s deadline in order to give Manitoba time to hold public hearings on Meech Lake— but only if Newfoundland ratified the deal first. Calling the federal pressure on his province “the final manipulation,” Wells adjourned the legislative debate without a vote on Meech Lake—ending any hope that his province would ratify the accord by the deadline.

For the 52-year-old Wells, last week’s events marked the climax to a long and increasingly bitter fight with Ottawa over the Meech Lake accord. Elected leader of the Newfoundland Liberals in June, 1987, Wells led his party to victory in the provincial election of April, 1989, that ousted the provincial Conservatives. Already a committed opponent of the

accord, he began calling for amendments, while threatening to rescind Newfoundland’s ratification of Meech Lake by former Conservative premier Brian Peckford. Last April, frustrated by what he saw as Ottawa’s failure to address his province’s concerns, Wells followed through on his threat, drawing fire from politicians in both Quebec and Ottawa. Then-Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard, who later quit the federal Tories over the possibility of amendments to Meech Lake, mused publicly that Canada could be faced with choosing between Quebec and Newfoundland. Similar bitterness surfaced again last week when Ontario Tory MP Donald Blenkam, chairman of the Commons finance committee, said of Newfoundland that “I sometimes feel we would be better off if we towed it out to sea and sank it.”

Pressure: Although Blenkam later apologized to Wells, the incident increased the acrimony—and stiffened Wells’s resistance. In the legislature, the premier noted that Ottawa had attempted to force Newfoundland to vote on the accord against its conscience, or “risk having somebody like Don Blenkam say, ‘You’re 2.2 per cent of the population, you shouldn’t be listened to, we should get rid of you.’ ” That sort of pressure, Wells said, was unacceptable. And it was also unacceptable, he added, for Murray to say,“It now all depends on Newfoundland. We can find a solution to the problem in Manitoba, but Newfoundland can scuttle the whole thing.” Declared Wells to Ottawa: “You’re prepared to give the time to Manitoba. Give Newfoundland the time as well. Give the rest of the country time.”

But, for the Meech Lake accord, time had run out. And it was clear that, in Newfoundland, the impassioned two-week, provincewide debate leading up to last Friday’s adjournment had forced ordinary Newfoundlanders to examine their relationship with the rest of Canada in a way that had not been seen since the referendum that brought Newfoundland into Confederation in 1949. Once again, families were divided and neighbors pitted against each other. Speaking in the house on Wednesday, Energy Minister Rex Gibbons, for one, likened the process to a “gut-wrenching catharsis.” Added Gibbons, his voice choked with emotion: “It has been like sitting by a bedside waiting for someone to die.”

The agonizing process had been set in motion by Wells’s insistence that Newfoundlanders have a chance to express their views on the acceptability of the accord. Wells had wanted a provincial referendum but, because there was little time before the June 23 deadline, he chose instead to call a free vote in the assembly, allowing members to follow their own consciences rather than party lines. Then, the 52-seat house recessed on June 13 to allow MHAs to consult with their constituents. After canvassing public opinion through public meetings, door-to-door interviews and hastily arranged polls, Liberal members, opposition Tories and the two Independents in the legislature reported back to the house last week, with many of them saying that there was widespread opposition to the ac-

cord among ordinary Newfoundlanders.

But the battle for the support of the MHAs was just beginning. Claiming that the economy would suffer if Meech Lake failed, Newfoundland business and labor leaders lobbied the politicians to support the accord. Then, the Prime Minister and three premiers from other provinces—Saskatchewan’s Grant Devine, New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna and David Peterson of Ontario—made unprecedented speeches in the house, pleading for the accord’s swift passage.

At the same time, editorialists of major Newfoundland newspapers, other opinion leaders and special interest groups thundered against the accord—and the extreme efforts being made to sway the Newfoundland legisla-

tors’ opinions. Said Arthur Reid, Liberal MHA for the district of Carbonear: “There’s more pressure on us now than there has been in a very long time.”

Paralyse: That pressure was partly directed at a handful of Liberals whose commitment to Wells’s anti-Meech stand appeared uncertain. But, in large measure, it was also aimed directly at the premier himself. In an open letter to Wells, Richard Cashin, the leader of the 50,000-member Fishermen, Food & Allied Workers Union, said that “the failure of Meech Lake will unleash forces which will consume the energy of our country, the economic consequences of which will be devastating for Newfoundland.” In another letter to Wells, Victor Young, chairman of Fisheries Products International, the province’s largest fish company, warned, “Newfoundland will never be forgiven

in the likely aftermath of a rejection.”

For his part, International Trade Minister John Crosbie, the province’s representative in the federal cabinet, said that the long-awaited, multibillion-dollar Hibernia offshore oil project might be further delayed if the country were in the grip of renewed constitutional debate. In a letter to the St. John’s Evening Telegram, Crosbie warned that “instability will undermine business confidence and investment in Canada.” And in his 50-minute address to the Newfoundland assembly on Thursday, Mulroney clearly pressed the MHAs as hard as he thought was prudent. He said that rejection would paralyse the constitutional process, discourage foreign investment and encourage the forces of separatism in Quebec.

The Prime Minister added that a Meech Lake failure would lead inexorably to another referendum on Quebec independence. In that event, he added: “One thought is going to go through your minds. That thought will be, as you’re looking at your kids, ‘Do you mean we could have avoided all of this for Meech Lake?’ If that night ever comes, I can tell you that the terms of Meech Lake are going to look very, very reasonable indeed.” That message was clearly aimed at Wells as much as at other Newfoundlanders.

But the premier also received a great deal of support—especially in his home riding of Bay of Islands, which lies on the province’s western coast just west of the city of Comer Brook, where he had practised law until 1981. When he returned there after the Ottawa meetings, it was to a hero’s welcome. During one session

with about 180 constituents, Wells received two standing ovations and fulsome praise from each of the 13 speakers who took the floor. Indeed, only two expressed concern about the possible breakup of Canada, while the rest firmly supported Wells’s stand against the accord. Noted one speaker, who identified himself as a former resident of Ontario: “Unless we stand up to Mulroney and his gang, I don’t think we’re going to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror.”

Support: That support was all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the erudite Wells, who once argued constitutional law for the Trudeau government, appeared slightly out of place in the largely working-class riding. Bay of Islands’ economic base consists largely of fishing and the lumber industry, and as one former employee in Wells’s law office noted, “You couldn’t get a more opposite kind of people together than the people of Bay of Islands and Clyde Wells.” But the premier’s family is well-known in the region—largely because Wells’s father, Ralph, served as a railroad foreman in the area for much of his working life. Retired carpenter Max Wheeler, 70, one of Wells’s constituents, noted that the premier “understands our problems because he grew up around here.” He added that he has respect for Wells because of the premier’s work habits. Twenty years ago, he said, he hired Wells to do some legal work for him and he was pleased with the results. Noted Wheeler: “He’s one of those fellows who will work right through. He doesn’t stop for lunch.”

Despite the outpouring of support for Wells, Newfoundlanders appeared 2 last week to have decidedly mixed % feelings about the accord. According § to a public opinion poll commissioned y by Crosbie and conducted last Thursïï day night among 406 respondents by 8 Omnifacts Research, 47 per cent said £ that their province should pass Meech ° Lake while 37 per cent said that they were against it. Liberal MHAs, on the other hand, maintained that the overwhelming majority of their constituents had urged them to reject the accord. But as debate in the legislature ground to a halt, the issue never came to a vote. And at least some Newfoundlanders said that they were worried about the possible consequences. Noted Boyce Taylor, co-owner of a fish plant in Wells’s riding: “More uncertainty for the country is a big price to pay.”

Wells himself had acknowledged those concerns. As he told his constituents, “I cannot stand before you and say there is no possibility that it will adversely affect Canada if we do not pass the accord.” But those concerns were clearly overshadowed last week by the fact that, for the premier, patience with Ottawa had finally run out.

GLEN ALLEN in St. John's

GLEN ALLEN