CANADA

FIGHTING BACK

MULRONEY SHIFTS TO THE OFFENSIVE IN ADVANCE OF A NEW SITTING OF PARLIAMENT

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 6 1991
CANADA

FIGHTING BACK

MULRONEY SHIFTS TO THE OFFENSIVE IN ADVANCE OF A NEW SITTING OF PARLIAMENT

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 6 1991

FIGHTING BACK

CANADA

For Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and British Columbia native leader Bill Wilson, it was a brief moment of shared emotion. After Mulroney addressed more than 300 native leaders in Victoria last week, announcing plans for a royal commission to study native grievances, he was initially greeted with reserved silence. But when Wilson, the chairman of the First Nations Congress of British Columbia, rose after the speech, he referred to Mulroney’s 78-year-old mother, Irene, who recently underwent multiple-bypass heart surgery. Then, pointing to where his own mother—who has also suffered heart problems—was sitting in the audience, Wilson added in a cracked voice: “I cannot imagine life without her. At times like this, we must remember the things that really matter.” Mulroney, clearly touched, nodded in appreciation. But moments later, Wilson returned to a cooler manner. In response to Mulroney’s promise of a royal commission, he bluntly asked for assurances that the inquiry would do more than simply “hide issues you are incapable of dealing with immediately.”

Such large challenges amid small comforts

MULRONEY SHIFTS TO THE OFFENSIVE IN ADVANCE OF A NEW SITTING OF PARLIAMENT

marked a new campaign by Mulroney and his government to shift to the political offensive in advance of a new sitting of Parliament. In the first week after shuffling more than half of his cabinet on April 21, the Prime Minister made a passionate pro-unity speech in Calgary before appearances in Victoria and Vancouver. The intent, said a senior adviser, was to “demonstrate our willingness to deal head-on with the things that bug people the most.” Leading those issues is the critical challenge of national

disunity. But that concern is closely followed by others, including native grievances, the perilous state of the economy, the future role of the armed forces—and the personal loathing that many ordinary Canadians express towards Mulroney himself.

And even as the Mulroney government tried to regain control of the political agenda, it faced fresh expressions of discontent on many fronts. In addition to the immediate skepticism that greeted the Prime Minister’s promised royal commission on native complaints, his choice of Quebec MP and former communications minister Marcel Masse as his new defence minister provoked criticism from military experts and political observers alike. Dissension over military matters was driven home late in the week when Vice-Admiral Charles Thomas, the vicechief of defence staff, unexpectedly resigned in protest over a proposed restructuring of the armed forces (page 16). On the same day, Mulroney’s constitutional approach also drew stiff criticism. Ontario Premier Bob Rae described as a “serious mistake” Mulroney’s dismissal, during a midweek encounter with reporters, of proposals endorsed by Rae for a

constituent assembly to discuss constitutional change.

The full extent of the government’s unpopularity was made plain when Gallup Canada Inc. reported the results of an early-April poll that showed Mulroney’s Conservatives in last place among decided respondents. Only 14 per cent of the poll respondents favored the Tories, compared with 16 per cent for the Reform Party of Canada—which still does not have any formal organization in much of the country. Both were well behind the Liberals, with 32per-cent support, and the NDP with 26. With the calling of a general election not required until late 1993, Mulroney dismissed those results as irrelevant. But he tacitly acknowledged the Reform party’s surge in appeal during his stop in Calgary, where he singled out the Albertabased party for a harsh attack. “The common ground between the Quebec separatists and the leaders of the Reform party,” declared Mulroney, “is that the road to their success

runs straight through the failure of Canada.” As the government’s counter-offensive unfolded, cabinet ministers fanned out across the country to drive home the impression that Conservatives were again taking the initiative. Joe Clark marked his first week as constitutional affairs minister with appearances in Alberta aimed at dampening anti-Quebec feeling. His successor as external affairs minister, Barbara McDougall, made her first appearance in her new role in Vancouver, where she called on representatives of the Manila-based Asian Development Bank—of which Canada is a member—to promote free-market economic reforms in countries where it lends money. For his part, new Trade Minister Michael Wilson took on critics of the government’s decision to

join Mexico and the United States in discussion of a continent-wide trade pact. Wilson told a Montreal business audience that Canada would not reopen the Free Trade Agreement with the United States in the course of those negotiations—and in particular would not agree to weaken clauses in the FTA that are designed to protect Canada’s culture.

Mulroney’s Victoria address on native discontent served to underscore the importance that he and his advisers attach to that issue. Native leaders have warned that potential flash points in several provinces could erupt into repetitions of last summer’s violent confrontation between Mohawks and federal and provincial authorities in Oka, Que. And last week, a gathering of native leaders in Toronto recounted a litany of complaints to Indian Affairs Minister Thomas Siddon—who retained his portfolio in the shuffle—before calling on the federal government to sign a nationwide treaty with Indians granting them limited sovereignty modelled on that accorded to native groups in the United States. “The only thing stopping them,” declared Georges Erasmus, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, “is political will.”

For his part, Mulroney appears to be counting on the new steps he outlined earlier last week to forestall any further native violence. The centrepiece of the measures will be the promised royal commission, which Mulroney hinted will be headed by former New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent. Mulroney also announced that he would speed up the consideration of B.C. native land claims, with the initial aim of settling all such claims by the year 2000. As well, Mulroney promised to increase federal 2spending on native programs, £ currently $4 billion a year, by I more than $1 billion over the “ next five years—and give native leaders much greater control over the way that money is spent. Declared Mulroney: “We will work to ensure that the Canada being built for the 21st century will include self-government by aboriginal peoples.”

But Mulroney’s speech also reflected another key element in the Tories’ hopes for recovery at the polls. The Prime Minister plans more forays beyond Ottawa to confront his detractors face-to-face. Said one adviser: “If he shows he is willing to take a few shots, people might decide that the devil they know is better than the one they really are not that certain of.” It was an acknowledgment that, for the basement-dwelling Tories, there really is almost nowhere left to go but up.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH