BUSINESS WATCH

At last, a bold solution for Canada

We are so far along the road to disintegration that the status quo is a radical option. But the Group of 22 may have found a better way.

Peter C. Newman July 15 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

At last, a bold solution for Canada

We are so far along the road to disintegration that the status quo is a radical option. But the Group of 22 may have found a better way.

Peter C. Newman July 15 1991

At last, a bold solution for Canada

BUSINESS WATCH

We are so far along the road to disintegration that the status quo is a radical option. But the Group of 22 may have found a better way.

PETER C. NEWMAN

There are only two growth industries left in this country: launching wrongful-dismissal suits and writing studies on Canada’s constitutional future. Out of the welter of these “Whither Canada?” games—that recommend everything from creating 22 provinces to appointing Wayne Gretzky as king—one slim volume has emerged as a remarkably astute document that promises to be part of the solution to the current impasse.

Published last month, the 27-page report— put together by nearly two dozen business, academic and ex-political types calling themselves the Group of 22—has had an astonishing impact. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has privately praised its authors and is in the process of adopting some of its key recommendations.

Robert Blair, the retiring head of Nova Corp. who was one of the Group’s main animators, received a phone call from Robert Bourassa two weeks after the document was published. The Quebec premier told the Calgary industrialist that while the report didn’t encompass his complete menu of demands, it did represent precisely the kind of response from English Canada that might allow him the elbowroom to recommend Quebec not leave Confederation. Bourassa never said so, but the hint was there: presented with implementation of the Group’s 28 recommendations, he could postpone or cancel the provincial referendum on sovereignty-association, due by October, 1992.

Harrison McCain, the chairman of New Brunswick’s McCain Foods Ltd., who dominated the Group’s deliberations through the sheer strength of his personality, told me that he has received nothing but positive comments, especially from well-informed people in high places. The other Group members have been similarly approached, and their report has become an Ottawa best-seller.

The Group also included such political heavyweights as former premiers Bill Davis of Ontario and Allan Blakeney of Saskatchewan,

former federal cabinet ministers Jean-Luc Pepin, Maurice Sauvé, John Roberts and Céline Hervieux, as well as such other business leaders as Paul Desmarais Jr., Gerald Godsoe, Michel Vermat, along with Sylvia Ostry and André Raynauld, among the best economic brains this country has produced. Another of the authors was Hugh Segal, appointed the Prime Minister’s chief political adviser soon after the release of the Group’s report.

Their recommendations will seem revolutionary only to those diehards who remain confident that this country can siywive with no fundamental changes. They don’t realize that we’re so far along the road to disintegration that the status quo has become a radical option. The Group of 22 has an answer, not because it proposes some magical new formula, but because most of the measures it recommends can be implemented in time to prevent the Quebec referendum.

As the weeks and months drop away, the yet-to-be-revealed federal strategy is becoming clearer. The next (and hopefully final) parliamentary committee will hold its hearings from September to January, 1992. Its recommendations will be turned into resolutions to be placed before the House of Commons and the

Senate. (There’s an interesting dilemma right there, because the package is sure to include fundamental reforms of the upper house which its comfortable inhabitants are just as certain to filibuster.)

At some point, a national referendum may be required to validate the dramatic change in the social contract proposed by Ottawa. To soften public opinion, the federal government will attempt to shuffle jurisdictions between levels of government in three separate phases.

The first phase, already under way, is by simple administrative edict, only requiring the permission from those provincial governments involved. The almost complete shift of immigration powers from Ottawa to Quebec is one good example. Another possibility, as the Group of 22 notes, involves the $28 billion Ottawa currently spends annually (in cash and tax transfers) in health, welfare and education, all areas of provincial jurisdiction. Abandoning the field entirely to the provinces would also not require any recourse to the Constitution.

Many other significant changes in the distribution of powers—in fields such as culture, energy and the environment—could be accomplished through the general ammending formula that requires the assent of Parliament and seven provinces together having 50 per cent of Canada’s population. Such an arrangement would mean no more shared-cost programs, fewer split jurisdictions and—presumably— less duplication and inefficiency. But it would require Ottawa to surrender at least a third of its tax revenues to the provinces, a tough proposition since the feds would still have to pay the annual interest ($43 billion) on our national debt, while retaining responsibility for international relations, national security, equalization payments and managing the national economy.

Any final shift in fields of jurisdiction that does require unanimous consent would come at the end of the process—and that would, of course, be the toughest part. At that point, we could well be back into another Meech Lake scenario—Clyde Wells, Elijah Harper, an impossible deadline and all that. (Ottawa’s fragile optimism is based on the conviction that no politician would dare stand in the way of saving Canada when two-thirds of the process had already been completed.) Good luck.

Other Group 22 recommendations include recognition of aboriginal rights to self-government, as well as the legislated presence of native spokesmen in Parliament and at First Ministers’ conferences. The Senate would become an elected house of the federation empowered to review national appointments and federal legislation in the area of federal-provincial relations, as well as revising national standards.

There’s a pleasantly low-key mood about the Group of 22 report. Its authors are not pounding the table or proposing themselves as saviors of the country. They are concerned citizens who have thought deeply about our problems and suggested a useful road map out of the quagmire. “We have got to make Canada work better,” they conclude, “not treat it as one of history’s failed experiments.” Amen to that.