Among some constitutional strategists in the federal Conservative party, it was referred to as the political equivalent of a nuclear weapon: an instrument of last resort with the potential to devastate the country if it was ever used. Still, until recently, the federal government seemed determined to add the capacity to call a national referendum on the Constitution to its legal arsenal. But the proposal has encountered fierce opposition from Quebec MPS, who claim that a national referendum could allow the rest of Canada to impose a settlement on Quebec. And last week, Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark relented, retreating from a pledge to introduce a referendum bill— possibly before the end of the year. His decision shocked even some Conservatives. Said Tog ronto Tory MP Patrick Boyer: “I now have to 2 assume that the people who pledged to consult Canadians on the Constitution were not sincere.”

In fact, Clark insisted that Canadians will still be consulted on whatever proposals for constitutional renewal emerge from the present round of talks—even if not in a referendum. But the on-again, off-again referendum proposal was another setback in a week of political turmoil for Clark and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Even before Clark’s shift, the government was caught unprepared when respected Quebec Senator Claude Castonguay resigned abruptly as co-leader of a parliamentary committee examining the government’s constitutional proposals. The senator cited reasons of health for his decision, but that did little

to blunt its political impact. Mulroney had counted heavily on Castonguay’s participation to bring credibility to the committee in Quebec.

Instead, Castonguay’s sudden resignation reinforced a public impression of widening disarray throughout the government. That impression was underscored when Clark was unable to reach agreement with a number of independent groups by week’s end on the timetable for a series of planned conferences on the Constitution (page 16). Of the Mulroney government’s performance, NDP constitutional affairs critic Lome Nystrom declared: “They

are just reeling from crisis to crisis.”

But as the full extent of the difficulties affecting the Tories’ unity strategy became clearer last week, a more unsettling trend emerged as well. Increasingly, debate over Quebec’s place in the country appears to be paralysing the party’s ability to govern effectively in any field—including the economy. That became evident when federal officials announced a $ 160-million aid package for Quebec’s struggling manufacturing economy. In Montreal, where unemployment in some neighborhoods has reached 20 per cent, the aid was welcomed. But its announcement on Nov. 28 unleashed bitter attacks from spokesmen for other regions of the country, who claimed that the government was again showing favoritism to Quebec. Those complaints in turn

inspired charges by some Tories—and some Quebec journalists—that the national opposition parties were inciting anti-French feelings in order to score political points.

But clearly, it was the outcry over the proposed referendum that held the most potential for damaging the government. Numerous opinion surveys have determined that a majority of Canadians favor holding a countrywide referendum on constitutional change. In response, the Tories had undertaken in last May’s throne speech to introduce a law that would allow for “greater participation of Cana-

dian men and women in constitutional change.” From the beginning, however, Quebec members of the Conservative caucus have viewed that commitment with alarm. Its critics have predicted that a national referendum on the Constitution might easily produce a result that pitted Quebecers against the rest of Canada— either dividing the country even further, or justifying the imposition on Quebec of a settlement that its residents have rejected. Acknowledged one senior Tory last week: “We simply hate the idea of holding a referendum, and it would clearly be a last resort, but Canadians have indicated that they want a say.”

At first, Tory strategists appeared to be dodging the dilemma by drafting legislation that would set up the legal framework for a referendum, without committing the govern-

ment to holding the vote. Observed Health Minister Benoît Bouchard, Mulroney’s Quebec lieutenant: “It never came into my mind that it could be a problem as long as there was nothing concrete with a time frame.” But that approach ran into trouble last month after opposition Liberal MPs staged a boycott of the parliamentary committee examining Clark’s entire set of constitutional proposals. Scrambling to bring the Liberals back to the committee, Clark assured Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien that the government would soon introduce legislation providing for a referendum. Said one senior

Tory: “Rightly or wrongly, both the PM and Joe believe it is essential to take a nonpartisan approach to the Constitution. So they gave Chrétien the referendum as a rope to climb back onto the unity committee.”

Clark’s offer brought the Liberals back to the committee—but it also enraged many Quebec MPs. Lucien Bouchard, the leader of the separatist Bloc Québécois, for one, immediately and loudly condemned Clark’s proposed referendum as a tactic for the other nine provinces to impose their vision of the country on Quebec.

Chrétien’s claim also inflamed emotions in the Quebec Tory caucus—many of whose members hold a visceral dislike for the Liberal leader. That animosity appears to be widely shared in Quebec, where a survey of 205 prominent Quebecers conducted last month by

Montreal’s CROP polling agency found only eight per cent who approved of Chrétien’s performance. With that much hostility directed against the Liberal leader, the Quebec Tories openly rebelled at appearing to share his support for a referendum. Asked Beauce MP Gilles Bernier, one of the most vocal critics of the referendum bill: “Why should we play the game of Jean Chrétien?”

At a midweek caucus meeting last week, the Quebec MPs convinced Clark to reverse direction. Emerging from the gathering in Parliament Hill’s Centre Block, Clark said that he

was at least temporarily shelving plans for a referendum bill. “The word referendum is a loaded word in Quebec,” he explained, adding: “The commitment in the throne speech was to ensure a process of public participation. What form that will take is something we have to decide.” Clark’s reversal elated the Tories from Quebec. Shawinigan MP Denis Pronovost, a vocal critic of any Canadawide referendum, exchanged a high-five handshake with Terrebonne MP Jean-Marc Robitaille as the two men emerged from the caucus chamber.

But some Tories blamed Bouchard for failing to keep his Quebec troops in line. And in fact, one Quebec Tory MP acknowledged that “Many of our guys just laugh when Benoît wrings his hands, looks skyward and intones how he will have to sell this or that in Quebec. He hasn’t sold anything.”

And Clark’s retreat left other colleagues far from satisfied. “Joe is just shovelling fog,” said a disappointed Boyer. Other Conservatives from outside Quebec expressed concern that their constituents may be denied the same opportunity to vote on any future constitutional deal that Quebecers have been promised by their provincial government. Said Edmonton MP Scott Thorkelson:

“My constituents will be disappointed, because they want some idea that they will be

consulted.” Added a senior non-Quebec cabinet minister: “There seems to be no awareness on the part of many Quebecers that MPs in the rest of the country are under tremendous pressure at home just for agreeing to deal with the Constitution.”

Until now, Mulroney has been able to smooth over the differences between the Que-

bee wing of his caucus and its other members. But last week’s loss of Castonguay dealt a personal blow to the Prime Minister. A former Quebec cabinet minister and business leader who has the ear of Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, Castonguay and his dignified presence had given a measure of badly needed credibility to the parliamentary committee on the Constitution that he cochaired with Manitoba MP Dorothy Dobbie. To replace him, Mulroney appointed another Quebec senator, Gérald Beaudoin—a noted constitutional expert. But Quebec observers said that Beaudoin is unlikely to match Castonguay’s ability to influence opinion leaders in that province.

Meanwhile, each misstep on the road to constitutional reform is plainly adding to the difficulties facing the government. Last week, Mulroney attempted to dispel the air of confusion and disarray hovering over his unity minister with a series of appearances in Toronto, where the Prime Minister spoke ringingly of the “magnificent achievements” of Canada and Canadians. But as Clark vacillated on the issue of allowing Canadians a direct say in their constitutional future, Mulroney’s optimism seemed to

be stretched to the limit.