DISUNITY

A NATION ON THE BRINK

The public is not eager to start rebuilding

CHRIS WOOD January 7 1991
DISUNITY

A NATION ON THE BRINK

The public is not eager to start rebuilding

CHRIS WOOD January 7 1991

A NATION ON THE BRINK

DISUNITY

The public is not eager to start rebuilding

On Cape Breton Island, Sydney electrician Stanley Gillis, 28, has a terse prescription for fixing the country’s constitutional crisis. “I would like to see Quebec separate once and for all,” he told Maclean’s. In southern Ontario, Kitchener behavioral consultant Grace Heath, 44, says that she senses “a willingness in English Canada to keep Quebec from separating.” But if that province chooses to leave, she added, there should be “a quiet divorce.” In Saskatoon, real estate agent Anthony Bula, 41, says that he would lament the breakup of the old federal order. “But,” he added, “I’m tired of the land of ‘If.’ I would rather have decisions made.” All

three respondents to the annual Maclean’s\ Decima poll confirmed in follow-up interviews that, although Quebec’s departure from Canada has coalesced into a political program only in that province, it is a possibility that Canadians across the land are considering with a new receptivity.

One of those is Jocelyne Laçasse, 40, who teaches economics at a community college in Sherbrooke, Que. It is in that province that demands for the country’s constitutional experts and political leaders to resolve the constitutional impasse once and for all are loudest and most insistent. “This problem has been dragging on for too long already, ”

said Laçasse. “We have to settle it.”

Still, the poll shows clearly that, despite the necessity of rewriting the country’s Constitution, few Canadians anywhere, even in Quebec, are enthusiastic about undertaking the task, (questions 12 to 19 in the poll text, page 32). In every region of the country, a clear majority of respondents (from 63 per cent in Quebec to 77 per cent in Ontario) said that they would prefer to defer any new examination of the federal blueprint. Most of them said that economic problems were a more pressing concern. But the timing of the debate may well be out of the complacent majority’s hands. The nation’s political calendar for 1991 is already studded with events that will confront Canadians with stark and possibly painful questions about the future of their country.

In Quebec, an elite commission will unveil its proposals for a new arrangement between Quebec and the rest of Canada some time in March. Whatever else it proposes, it will almost certainly envisage a much reduced role for the federal government. Quebec’s minister of intergovernmental affairs, Gil Rémillard, has said that the province may also hold a referendum on independence. By July 1, the federally appointed Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future must distill its cross-country meetings with the public into recommendations to Parliament. At about the same time, a 17-member special committee of the Senate and Commons is expected to unveil its proposals for a new method of amending the Constitution.

And despite wide public aversion to the subject of constitutional reform, the poll also revealed a broad-based willingness to consider some radical and unprecedented alterations to the national structure. Among the findings:

• When asked to choose among six various constitutional options, only 21 per cent of Canadians selected the status quo.

• In the same question, Quebec respondents’ most popular choice (27 per cent) was political independence within a Canadian common market somewhat like the European Community. The top choice among other Canadians (41 per cent) was a redesigned federal system that gave all 10 provinces much more power.

• Seventy-two per cent of respondents in Quebec said that they would support a new constitution that gave only their province special powers;

74 per cent of other Canadians polled rejected that position.

• The willingness of Canadians outside Quebec to resume negotiations increased dramatically if their provinces, too, would get any special powers granted to Quebec.

• If a majority of Quebecers do ultimately express a wish to separate, roughly one-half of those polled in both Quebec and elsewhere said that the rest of Canada “should just let them go.”

Canadians’ apparent distaste for re-entering the constitutional minefield may be grounded in painful recollections of the acrimony surrounding the June failure of the Meech Lake accord. But, with or without the public’s support, the Quebec and federal commissions have already set the clock ticking towards a profound reordering of the nation. In Quebec, where

briefs presented to the Bélanger-Campeau commission have been running overwhelmingly in favor of independence, pressure is mounting on the Liberal government to call a referendum on the issue as early as the spring. Parallel commissions announced by several other provinces and by the Assembly of First Nations have added to the momentum towards major constitutional reform.

In Ottawa, meanwhile, advisers to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney are already basing much of their planning for a Conservative

recovery in popularity before the next federal election on an appeal to national unity. According to the Tory scenario, widespread dislike for the process that led to the Meech Lake debacle will prompt the country’s 10 premiers to compromise over a new formula for amending the Constitution more easily. With that agreement in hand, Mulroney’s aides hope that at least the outline of a new national blueprint will emerge from the Citizens’ Forum, led by Keith Spicer, who is on leave from his chairmanship of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Whatever new formula for constitutional peace emerges, Tory strategists confide that they hope to translate it into the dominant theme of a successful election campaign, in the same way that Mulroney campaigned to victory on free trade in 1988.

Indeed, Mulroney returned repeatedly to the topic of the Constitution last month. In one lengthy address to the Commons, Mulroney envisioned a new division of federal and provincial powers that might permit the provinces to play a greater role in providing social programs—while Ottawa acquired greater economic powers. At the same time, Mulroney revealed that he is considering a national referendum as a possible tool for bringing about constitutional change. The Prime Minister also used the issue to snipe repeatedly at Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien, accusing his rival of sabotaging the Meech Lake accord and precipitating the crisis over unity.

The Conservative plan may be unrealistic for a party with a level of popular support that is mired below 15 per cent in opinion surveys. Still, the Maclean’s/Decima poll uncovered some cause for optimism among the Prime Minister’s advisers. One encouraging sign is the apparent approval for a process involving wide public consultation, like that which the Spicer commission has undertaken. In fact, the responses indicated that about half of those polled may look favorably on the latest constitutional round.

But the prospects for constitutional agreement remain unclear. For their part, Quebec officials insist on the right of veto over any changes to the Constitution. Most other Canadians, however, appear to be unwilling to grant Quebec any powers that other provinces do not share equally. Three-quarters of Canadians polled outside Quebec said that they oppose granting that province alone special powers (such as a right, unshared by other provinces, to veto constitutional change). Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells, a tenacious critic of the specialstatus provision for Quebec in the failed Meech Lake accord, shares that opposition. Wells told Maclean ’s that he would like to eliminate the current unanimity provision—which effectively gives all provinces a veto over constitutional change. Still, he added, he would use that existing veto to block any new amending formula that would allow Quebec, but not the other provinces, to preserve its veto. “Absolutely,” declared Wells. “If you create a special status for any province, it is only a matter of time until you destroy the federation.”

For his part, Saskatchewan’s Bula is a reluctant exception to the majority view among

respondents in English Canada. “I believe in one rule for all,” said the married father of two teenagers. “But I believe, in all fairness, that if Quebec wants to have certain rights, if that’s what those people want, we should do it. Let it have them.” Despite the widespread opposition, a substantial majority of respondents (68 per cent) said that they would support new powers for Quebec if their own provinces received them, too. That result may point the way to one potential compromise solution— although at a cost of significantly weakening the powers of the central government.

Still, when Canadians were asked to choose which of several possible constitutional reforms they preferred, deep divisions remained between Quebec and the rest of the country. In Quebec, the prospect of linking 10 independent provinces in an EC-like market drew the most support. One respondent who chose that course, Jean Poirier, 24, a Montreal media student, told Maclean’s: “Quebec can only go so far on its own. It needs some ties to the rest of the country.” A close second choice among

Quebecers (22 per cent) was a federal system in which the province had special powers. Another 18 per cent chose a federal system that gave all 10 provinces more power.

That third-place choice among Quebecers also attracted the support of more than 40 per cent of Canadians elsewhere, making it the preferred constitutional arrangement in the rest of the country by a large margin. Only about half as many (24 per cent) expressed a preference for the next most popular option: the current system unchanged.

The possibility of reaching a compromise in giving new powers to all provinces is clearly under active consideration. Chrétien, for one, seemed to endorse that route in an appearance

before Quebec’s Bélanger-Campeau commission last month. The Liberal leader called for a “renewed” federalism that would redistribute federal and provincial powers and “ensure sovereignty for every government in its respective jurisdiction.” For his part, John McCallum, chairman of the economics department at Montreal’s McGill University, said that outcome might provide Canada’s one remaining “ray of hope.” Added McCallum: “I think there might be a decent chance that Quebec’s demands for more power will prove attractive to other provinces, particularly in Western Canada.”

Indeed, British Columbia Finance Minister Melville Couvelier has repeatedly urged Ottawa to hand over most of its responsibilities in such areas as health, education and worker training. “I don’t believe what Quebec is talking about is any different from what we’re talking about,” Couvelier said in an interview. And in New Brunswick, Liberal Premier Frank McKenna told Maclean’s, “Quebec’s demands for sovereignty really revolve around redistri-

bution of powers.” McKenna also predicted that governments at both levels could achieve substantial savings from an end to what he said is an “enormous waste of resources” when federal and provincial governments share responsibilities.

Still, Kitchener poll respondent Heath said that any constitutional settlement that greatly expands the powers of the provinces could fatally undermine the federal government. “You get into a situation where you don’t have a country,” Heath told Maclean’s. “You have 10 provinces and two territories. I think there is a very real risk of that.”

That is an outcome that many Canadians outside Quebec clearly want to avoid. In Alber-

ta, historian David Bercuson, the University of Calgary’s dean of graduate studies, said that enlarging provincial powers would lead to a “Meech Lake II.” Added Bercuson: “Quebec, in league with the Prime Minister, is going to try to remake the rest of Canada in their image.” His own preference: let Quebec establish itself as a separate country if it wishes— and leave federalism intact in the rest of Canada. “I am a centralist in a Canada that probably would not have Quebec in it,” he said. For his part, Preston Manning, leader of the Reform Party of Canada, the fastest-growing political party west of Ontario, declared, “The rest of the country has to present its own vision of Canada—with or without Quebec.”

However distasteful an internal confrontation is for many Canadians, the year ahead appears certain to bring them face-to-face with their deepest divisions. It may also force them to examine, perhaps as never before, what lies at the very soul of their nation.

CHRIS WOOD

BARRY CAME

Montreal