CANADA

EARS TO THE GROUND

AMID SKEPTICISM, THE COMMISSION ON CANADA’S FUTURE BEGAN ITS SEARCH FOR A NATIONAL VISION

GLEN ALLEN January 21 1991
CANADA

EARS TO THE GROUND

AMID SKEPTICISM, THE COMMISSION ON CANADA’S FUTURE BEGAN ITS SEARCH FOR A NATIONAL VISION

GLEN ALLEN January 21 1991

EARS TO THE GROUND

CANADA

AMID SKEPTICISM, THE COMMISSION ON CANADA’S FUTURE BEGAN ITS SEARCH FOR A NATIONAL VISION

Their participation in the widely heralded search for a national consensus was tentative—marked more by resignation than enthusiasm. When nurse Dorothy Dawson, for one, turned up at a discussion group organized by the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future in Saint John, N.B., last week, she called the venture “a dog-and-pony show.” Added Dawson: “We can’t expect too much from it.” Said 48-year-old Rev. Brian Sheehan, a Roman Catholic priest and a participant in another group in the Saint John suburb of Millidgeville: “My friends told me I was crazy to come. It’s all a bit flaky.”

But to Dawson, Father Sheehan and several hundred others who turned out for the opening meetings of a planned six-month, $ 10-million exploration of the national soul led by author and former editor Keith Spicer, the need to get involved was clear. Said the priest, a bilingual native of Quebec’s Gaspé region: “If we all just

keep our heads down, eventually we will fail.” For her part, the 62-year-old Dawson said that when she made a cross-country trip late last year to visit the six of her seven children who live outside New Brunswick, she found “a lot of anger and helplessness.” She added: “Every-

one thinks it is someone else’s job to do something about it. Whatever kind of show this is, it’s the only show in town.”

Indeed, along with the skepticism accompanying the forum’s kickoff in Canada’s oldest incorporated city last week, there was general agreement that the stakes were high. Declared forum co-commissioner Felix (Fil) Fraser, who is Alberta’s commissioner of human rights: “This is our last, best chance to reinvent the country from the ground up.” The immediate goal is equally ambitious: to persuade a million Canadians to abandon their inhibitions and share their private hopes and fears for the country. Commissioners plan to condense those visions into a report for presentation to Parliament by July 1.

But last week, many Canadians were clearly concerned that the Spicer commission offers too little and comes too late. Meanwhile, members of the forum have been trying to deflect

reports of internal dissension, confusion and organizational problems. A televised town hall meeting linking participants in five centres across the country with a group in Saint John on the inaugural day suffered from technical problems. And in content, it served mainly as a vivid illustration of the divisions within the country. Canadian federalists are also aware that the Spicer commission is on a collision course with the Bélanger-Campeau commission, a parallel panel of distinguished Quebecers studying the future of that province (page 16).

Clearly, the Spicer commission faces major difficulties in winning the confidence of the Canadian public. Asked Don Hoyt, a political columnist for the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, last week: “Is the Spicer commission any more than a $ 10-million soother to pacify a colicky English Canada?” In Halifax, some participants in the meetings openly accused the group of being “subversive” and “undemocratic.” Others expressed concern about the eventual destiny of the commission’s report.

“I don’t trust our government,” 44-year-old Saint John insurance broker Keith Sewell told Maclean ’s. “There is no guarantee at all our comments won’t end up in the garbage.”

At the same time, a recent Gallup poll showed that only 29 per cent of Canadians were aware of the forum’s existence.

And fully 65 per cent of those who did know about it predicted that its proceedings would be “a waste of time.” As well, two of the original 12 commissioners resigned before the public-hearing phase began and had to be replaced.

The flawlessly bilingual Spicer, who is on leave from his post as chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, acknowledged that he had fully expected anger, confusion, doubt and start-up problems. In an interview in Ottawa before the Saint John launch, Spicer said: “Nothing like this has ever been tried before. With this forum, the citizen is on the stage and we’re in the audience. And you can cut the cynicism out there with a cleaver.” Still, Spicer declared: “We’re feeling good about this. We think it’s going to work.” And later, in Saint John, the 56-year-old commissioner told a meeting of the city’s Board of Trade that the forum would be “the greatest exercise in democracy the world has ever seen.”

In fact, the lines of communication that the forum is attempting to establish among Canadians may be unprecedented in their variety. As one of their first tasks after Prime Minister Brian Mulroney created the forum on Nov. 1, the commissioners prepared a discussion guide based on 14 open-ended questions dealing with

Canada’s current dilemmas. Among them: “What do you think the effect of an independent Quebec would be on you, on your province or territory and on Canada as a whole?” Another: “What are your views about Canada’s cultural and ethnic diversities?” Citizens can join in the discussion by calling toll-free telephone numbers (1-800-66-FORUM in English, 1-80056-FORUM in French) or taking part in local meetings. The forum is training volunteer moderators to conduct sessions in homes, clubs, churches and workplaces, apart from the forum’s planned televised dialogues on cable TV. Plans are even under way to elicit the opinions of street children. Responding to expressed suspicions that the government will not treat his report seriously, Spicer declared: “I don’t think any government could ignore a report behind which is a million Canadians.”

And there were signs that many Canadians were developing an appetite for the debate. As the commissioners split up to lead discussions among small groups of citizens in Saint John— including one encounter between a group of local stevedores and co-commissioner Richard Cashin, a Newfoundland union leader—there was no shortage of eagerly expressed opinions. In Saint Andrews, N.B., on one of the coldest nights of the winter, more than 30 people— double the number anticipated—turned up for a meeting. And in Halifax, forum organizers had to make room and find moderators for six discussion groups instead of the single one planned. During the 90-minute telecast from Saint John, Spicer said, 2,200 people called forum operators—almost as many as had phoned in the eight previous weeks. However, those calls exposed an internal disagreement. Commissioner and Saint John Mayor Elsie Wayne expressed sympathy for English-speaking callers complaining about having to talk to someone with a French accent on the hotline. But Spicer dismissed such complaints.

The forum’s provocative questions generated more heat than light during its first crossCanada TV hookup on Wednesday. Vancouver broadcaster and commission consultant Lauri-

er LaPierre hosted the program linking a dozen citizens in Saint John with two or three people in each of Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Yellowknife, N.W.T. and Vancouver. It frequently evoked raw responses from participants. Semiretired Calgary businessman Stan Bucar, for one, declared that English should be the country’s official language. Said Bucar: “We all

speak English out here and we think it’s great.” Annie Samson, a graduate student at the Université de Montréal, declared: “Quebec is not ready to be trampled anymore.” And Inuit Anne Enge, speaking from Yellowknife, asked: “What are they talking about? We are the first people of Canada. We were here first.” Still, Spicer said that the airing of views, however frank, was both timely and welcome. He added: “It’s not a matter of love and roses. It’s a matter of saying what you think—and in the

first stage at least, people have got to say what they think.”

While citizens discussed issues that ranged from free trade, the recession and Maritime union to pollution and the Persian Gulf, the topic that yielded the most discussion—and emotion—was the possibility of Quebec’s separating. At one meeting in Halifax on Thursday,

25-year-old Dalhousie University history student Paul Webster said: “If Canada did break up, I would see my country destroyed. I would feel like a refugee in my own country.” The previous day in Saint John, insurance agent Sewell expressed his fear that a divided Canada would join the United States. Added a tearful Sewell: “I don’t want to become an American. I never did.” Said University of New Brunswick history professor Thomas Condon: “I would feel a personal sense of loss.” At a French-

language meeting in Saint John, Father Sheehan said: “A Canada without Quebec is not Canada. It will no longer be our country.”

Similar concerns arose over the place of natives in Confederation. Said one participant at the French-language meeting: “Indians have been like francophones. As long as they didn’t ask for anything or make any fuss, they were great.” For his part', Sewell noted: “We took the land from these people.” He added: “Maybe they should take it back and sort out this mess for us.”

The forum will next move to Quebec, likely early in February. There, Spicer said, its objective will be to complement—but not compete with—Quebec’s more formal Bélanger-Campeau commission. Later next month, it will visit British Columbia and the Yukon. In March, the commissioners’ destination is Ontario and Newfoundland and, in April, the other western provinces. The final stop is the Northwest Territories. Findings from those meetings will be blended with telephoned comments and statements made at smaller forum-sponsored meetings across Canada.

One report that will likely join the others in what Spicer refers to as his Ottawa “war room” will come from Saint John nurse Dawson. Said Dawson, following her attendance at one of last week’s public meetings: “This was a good discussion. I think I’m going to gather up my son, his wife and their kids, we’ll have a meeting of our own and send in our comments.” Clearly, Spicer and his co-commissioners hope that a million other Canadians will also cast aside their traditional reserve to speak from the heart about their country’s future. From that vast outpouring of comments, the commissioners will have to extract a vision both fresh and compelling enough to breathe new life into the nation’s faltering body politic.

GLEN ALLEN