ANOTHER VIEW

Changing the words to change the mood

Bad luck and bad politics killed the Meech Lake accord, but next time the breaks of politics might work in our favor

CHARLES GORDON February 25 1991
ANOTHER VIEW

Changing the words to change the mood

Bad luck and bad politics killed the Meech Lake accord, but next time the breaks of politics might work in our favor

CHARLES GORDON February 25 1991

Changing the words to change the mood

Bad luck and bad politics killed the Meech Lake accord, but next time the breaks of politics might work in our favor

ANOTHER VIEW

CHARLES GORDON

Because thoughts of doom often lead to doom itself, we have convinced ourselves that we’re doomed. That is very Canadian of us, and not necessarily fatal, but worrisome anyway. As Canadians, we spend a lot of time asking ourselves how doomed we are. We are like the not very sick person who spends most every waking hour with a thermometer in his mouth and through perseverance is able to produce the evidence that he is as sick as he thinks he is.

So, how doomed are we? No, that’s the wrong question. You see what happens: Thoughts of doom lead inevitably to thoughts of doom and another taking of the constitutional temperature.

The right question is: How can we put these thoughts of doom out of our heads and get on with a rewarding life as a nation, the kind of life that will banish thoughts of doom forever from our national consciousness?

Sorry to mention doom again.

One answer to the right question is that we are probably going at it exactly the wrong way right now. The Spicer commission is running around the countryside collecting and compiling thoughts of doom. So is a committee of the Ontario legislature. Another committee of the Ontario legislature did the same thing, to not much avail, in 1988 when the Meech Lake accord was under study. A committee of the Quebec Liberal party has just reported. Bélanger and Campeau will be reporting. Other provinces have committees or have had committees in the recent past. Is it possible that there is an idea out there that has not already been expressed?

Surely not. All we are going to get are the same old grievances, more high readings on the national thermometer, more thoughts of doom.

Already, we are feeling the effects. Intelligent, tolerant and open-minded Canadians, people who fought hard to keep the country

together through the flag debate, the early bilingualism wars, the October Crisis, the Parti Québécois election victory of 1976, the Quebec referendum, the constitutional debates of the early 1980s, Meech Lake—many such Canadians are uttering what may be the mantra of the 1990s: “It’s over,” they say, too tired from carrying the weight of doom to ponder any more steps.

What weighs them down, aside from at least two decades’ worth of words, is a growing sense of inevitability. Each setback adds to the feeling that the whole thing was doomed from the start. What is easily forgotten, however, is how close we have been, on many occasions, to success. If, pardon the expression, the dice had come up a bit differently, we would not be in our current mess.

Everybody remembers the failure of Meech Lake; few remember how close the accord was to succeeding. Provincial politicians as different as Bill Vander Zalm and Robert Bourassa, federal politicians as different as Brian Mulroney and Audrey McLaughlin, could agree on it. But the luck was bad. Put a different premier in Newfoundland, give Gary Filmon a few more seats in Manitoba, one of them being the one occupied by Elijah Harper, and Meech passes.

The country grumbles, but is saved. It lives grumpily ever after. The breaks of politics, not historical inevitability, destroyed Meech Lake. The lesson to be learned from that is not that we are doomed, but that the breaks of politics might work in our favor the next time.

Even the lead-up to the failure of Meech Lake shows not the fragility of the country but the fragility of the factors that cause us difficulty. Look at two of the events that shaped the most recent manifestation of our national terror: (1) Last year, a Quebec flag was burned, or stomped upon, or something, at Brockville, Ont.—pictures of the event became a Quebec media sensation. The incident seemed to demonstrate English Canada’s contempt for Quebec, yet all it proved was that a few hottempered people had found a television camera. (2) Bill 178: The Bourassa government put forward a law saying that the English language could be used only on indoor commercial signs. Historical inevitability? No, the response of a nervous politician, desperate to hang on to nationalist votes. Yet, more than any other factor, Bill 178 created in English Canada the backlash that made the defeat of Meech Lake possible, even popular.

There is no inevitability here. Another Quebec premier might not have done the same thing. Bourassa himself, a few years earlier, after he had successfully campaigned against the Parti Québécois’s language law, would not have done the same thing.

Without Bill 178, Meech Lake might have passed. Even with Bill 178, Meech might have had support in English Canada had different political forces been at work—one such being enthusiastic leadership by the Prime Minister. With the defeat of Meech still very much in our minds, we forget how little was said in support of it by the federal cabinet in the year leading up to its demise. Again, politics, rather than history, was at work. Brian Mulroney sensed that there was nothing to be gained by going across the country preaching the virtues of Meech Lake and a chance to create a favorable climate of opinion for it was lost.

Despite all that, Meech Lake was almost there. Only bad luck and bad politics killed it. Given that, it was clearly a misreading of English-Canadian sentiment for Quebec to regard Meech’s failure as English Canada turning its back.

The situation can change, will change. Time and inertia are on our side. For Quebec, leaving Canada is much more difficult to do than staying in. Divorce takes an effort of will, and it takes considerable time, during which the political climate and the political cast of characters can change. Who knows what a new group of federal and provincial leaders will do? Political volatility is on our side. The country changes from year to year, even week to week. Look at a political snapshot of Canada in 1968, in 1970, in 1976, 1980, 1982. Look at Tory support in 1987; look at the election of 1988. Look at Robert Bourassa when he defeated René Lévesque. Look at Robert Bourassa now.

Change is all around us and there is no reason why change cannot be for the better, if we don’t give up. Even doom is not forever.

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.