CANADA

A FRESH START

DRAWING ON HIS DIPLOMATIC SKILLS, JOE CLARK LAUNCHES A GOODWILL MISSION TO PROMOTE UNITY

NANCY WOOD May 20 1991
CANADA

A FRESH START

DRAWING ON HIS DIPLOMATIC SKILLS, JOE CLARK LAUNCHES A GOODWILL MISSION TO PROMOTE UNITY

NANCY WOOD May 20 1991

A FRESH START

CANADA

DRAWING ON HIS DIPLOMATIC SKILLS, JOE CLARK LAUNCHES A GOODWILL MISSION TO PROMOTE UNITY

It was much like a luncheon reunion between two rusty acquaintances at which the menu quickly took a backseat to the conversation. Ties loosened and guards down, Yukon Government Leader Tony Penikett and federal Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark talked for an hour at the Klondike Inn in Whitehorse late last week as they lunched on soup, salad and fish. After 6V2 years of hopscotching the globe in his attempts to soothe international conflicts, the former external affairs minister had touched down in his new role as domestic diplomat. Clearly, Clark was eager to show that a new era has begun in relations between Ottawa and the rest of the country— and to signal that instead of dictating change to Canadians, the federal government would try to listen and respond to their demands. In the Yukon’s leader, that new approach found a receptive audience. Declared Penikett: “We felt frozen out of the old process. Mr. Clark’s visit indicates a real thaw.”

For Penikett, and indeed for many other Canadians who have felt excluded from the constitutional process, Clark’s visit to Northern Canada—he also touched down in Iqaluit and Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories—sent a “very positive message” that Ottawa is in fact serious about consultation. In keeping with that spirit, Clark, who heads a new 18-member cabinet constitutional committee, also conferred last week with Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien in Ottawa and with NDP Leader Audrey McLaughlin in the Yukon, her home riding. Clark’s mission: to convince them to put aside partisan politics for the delicate negotiations that lie ahead. Both leaders received Clark warmly. But they were cautious about supporting the Conservative government before its plans for constitutional change are clear. Said Chrétien: “We are not prepared to be co-opted into silence.”

For her part, McLaughlin also insisted that her New Democrats would retain their independent voice. And she focused her attention on a new parliamentary committee that the Mulroney government will commission to study constitutional amendments. McLaughlin said that to be truly nonpartisan, that new committee should have equal representation of the parties in Parliament and even add representatives from outside groups. Declared McLaughlin: “Nonpartisan means that you have equal weight; it does not mean that we get to be cheerleaders.”

Still, McLaughlin noted that during her meeting with Clark, she found the new constitutional affairs minister to be “quite open and receptive.” And clearly, Clark appears to have partially dispelled the perception that Ottawa has approached the country’s constitutional turmoil at a glacial pace since the collapse last June of the Meech Lake accord. By July 1, the government expects to receive the reports of both the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, which held public hearings across the country from January through April, and a joint parliamentary committee under Tory co-chairmen James Edwards, the MP from Edmonton Southwest, and Quebec Senator Gérald Beaudoin, which has been examining ways to change the constitutional amending formula. Following that, Clark has announced, he and the special cabinet committee that he heads expect to approve by early July a draft proposal for amending the Constitution. By September, a final federal proposal will be presented for study by the new parliamentary committee.

That new committee is expected to begin work in July. It would then travel the country to seek out the opinions of provincial politicians and members of the public on any new federal constitutional proposals. Meanwhile, Ottawa clearly intends to keep its options open for establishing other forums for consultation, debate and even, finally, a national referendum. Among other possibilities discussed: legislation that would enable the government to establish some form of constituent assembly to deal with constitutional matters (page 16).

Meanwhile, work behind the scenes in Ottawa has been under way since late last year. An advisory team of five top Mulroney aides and civil servants, including the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Norman Spector, and Paul Tellier, clerk of the Privy Council, meets regularly to discuss constitutional issues and plan strategy. Meanwhile, nine separate task forces headed by deputy ministers have been analysing the federal-provincial division of powers for months.

In Quebec, where demands for a transfer of federal powers have been the most sweeping, there were signs last week that Ottawa’s new constitutional initiatives could herald an era of compromise. Premier Robert Bourassa’s Liberal government is committed to holding a referendum on the province’s future and was expected to present a bill this week setting October, 1992, as the date. But last week, after Clark said that the rest of Canada might not be able to sign a deal by then, Bourassa suggested that the deadline could be extended. His advisers noted that a referendum bill could easily be amended to change the date.

Even with last week’s signals of flexibility over deadlines, the country’s constitutional nerves remained frayed. Chrétien, for one, touched off a stormy debate when he noted that it was theoretically possible for Canada to reach a constitutional deal without majority approval in Quebec. Chrétien’s speculation was rooted in reality: under the current constitutional amending formula, some changes can be made with the support of seven provinces containing at least 50 per cent of the population. Bourassa bluntly called Chrétien’s comments “political stupidity.” But Chrétien, stating that he was simply citing the terms of the Constitution, later insisted that in spite of the uproar, his caucus was “strongly behind me” (page 18).

Clark politely sidestepped the dispute between Chrétien and Bourassa. Still, with the difficult challenges that lie ahead, some critics noted that the government cannot rely solely on such gestures of goodwill. And Clark will clearly encounter fewer friendly faces when he begins the unpleasant business of defining which powers Ottawa is prepared to cede—or not—to the provinces. Said Donald Desserud, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John: “Until now, the government has been giving us glorified public relations exercises in place of real proposals. They need to show some very clear direction.” But for others, Ottawa’s new openness is, for the moment, clearly encouraging. In Whitehorse, Penikett warned Clark that under no circumstances should the government revert to the closed-door constitutional deal-making that has characterized past negotiations. Calling that approach “old elitist,” Penikett bluntly told Clark: “It would fail. The public would reject it.” Clearly, Clark is aware that while the challenge of forging a broad consensus for constitutional change may seem daunting, the possibility of trying to proceed without one could be even more harrowing.

NANCY WOOD with E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa

NANCY WOOD

E. KAYE FULTON