E. KAYE FULTON December 9 1991


E. KAYE FULTON December 9 1991


As chaos seemed to grip Ottawa's constitutional reform process last week, federal officials negotiated feverishly to put the finishing touches on a plan to rescue the crumbling unity strategy. This week, Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark announces the results of those efforts: a timetable for a series of conferences based on the government’s proposals for constitutional renewal. To be hosted by independent think-tanks, the meetings are to be held early next year, beginning in Halifax from Jan. 17 to 19. There, according to the plan, members and guests of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council will discuss Canada’s division of powers. That would be followed by a Canada West Foundation conference in Calgary on Senate reform; a conference in Montreal on economic union

hosted by the C. D. Howe Institute and the

Institute for Research on Public Policy; and a

Niagara Institute conference in Toronto on

distinct society status for Quebec, and the

Canada clause. The process would then wrap

up with a summit conference in Ottawa from

Feb. 14 to 16, based on the general themes of

Ottawa’s constitutional package.

But making the conferences a reality has

proven to be a difficult task. On Nov. 13, as the parliamentary national unity committee foun-

dered, a beleaguered Clark unveiled his plan for the conferences—without formal agree-

ment from any of the hosting organizations. In

fact, many members of the various think-tanks

were clearly wary of participating and drove a

hard bargain, insisting that Ottawa remain at

arm’s length from the proceedings. Said C. D.

Howe president Thomas Kierans, for one: “It is crucial that the government’s proposals are

presented in a totally balanced fashion. I’m

renting my own reputation as well as that of the


The conferences are intended to provide

Ottawa with information it badly needs to

fashion a constitutional proposal to present

to Quebec. The Tories hope to table that

document by May—a month before the

earliest possible date for a Quebec referen-

dum on the province's future. A substantive

federal proposal, officials say, may give

Premier Robert Bourassa a reason to post-

pone a referendum into the fall—while

allowing Ottawa to mount an effective federalist campaign in Quebec,

But gearing the conferences—and in effeet the whole constitutional timetable—to

Quebec’s own deadline for its referendum

has raised concerns that Ottawa may seem

to be ignoring the rest of the country,

Conference organizers are clearly anxious

to avoid such problems. But, added Kierans,

“It is very difficult these days to get involved with anything the government is

attempting without coming away somewhat

chagrined and sorry you were there.”