CANADA

A CRITICAL SUMMIT

WHEN NINE PREMIERS MEET IN WHISTLER, B.C., NEXT WEEK, THE OUTCOME MAY BE STORMY

GLEN ALLEN August 26 1991
CANADA

A CRITICAL SUMMIT

WHEN NINE PREMIERS MEET IN WHISTLER, B.C., NEXT WEEK, THE OUTCOME MAY BE STORMY

GLEN ALLEN August 26 1991

A CRITICAL SUMMIT

CANADA

WHEN NINE PREMIERS MEET IN WHISTLER, B.C., NEXT WEEK, THE OUTCOME MAY BE STORMY

The setting—a high-gabled alpine retreat at the foot of Blackcomb Mountain near the village of Whistler, B.C.—is as splendid as it is thoroughly modem. By contrast, the task of the nine premiers who will meet at the twoyear-old, 343-room Chateau Whistler Resort 100 km northeast of Vancouver for two days next week has a timeworn air. Indeed, on the two previous occasions when British Columbia hosted the annual premiers’ conferences, in 1971 and 1981, the Constitution was near the top of the agenda—as it will be again next week. And, as it has since the series of meetings started in 1960, the Aug. 26 to 27 conference is also expected to focus on such long-

standing issues as interprovincial trade, the economy and grievances against the central government.

Still, this year’s edition of the venerable institution takes place at a critical moment in the nation’s affairs—a significance that the list of those attending underscores. For the second year in a row, that list does not include Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, who has boycotted ah gatherings of the premiers since the failure of the Meech Lake accord in June, 1990. In addition, the Whistler meeting is being held at the end of a year in which most provinces have launched their own studies of the Constitution—and just a month before Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark plans to unveil new proposals for a radically decentralized Canadian federation. The Whistler meeting will afford the nine other premiers a critical opportunity to shape a common response to Quebec’s demands and Ottawa’s anticipated proposals. At the same time, with aboriginal rights enjoying a new prominence in constitutional debates, the premiers have invited four native leaders to attend their discussions for the first time.

For three premiers, including the host, Rita Johnston, the meeting will be important for another reason: imminent provincial elections. In Johnston’s case, observed University of British Columbia political scientist Paul Tennant, a successful meeting “is desperately important.” He added: “She must be seen to conduct the external relations of the province in a way that shows she understands the Canadian political system.” The gathering also provides a national platform for New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, who is likely to call an election soon, and Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine, who has to call one by Nov. 12.

Johnston, for her part, acted last week to buttress her grasp of national issues, undertaking a whirlwind tom: of Central Canada, meeting separately with Bourassa, Clark and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The encounter with Bourassa, in particular, proved to be an eyeopener for the new premier. During her successful bid for the Social Credit party leadership last month, she said that constitutional talks would prove fruitless unless Quebec pledged in advance to remain in Canada. In a policy paper, Johnston declared: “We should stop kidding ourselves about reaching consensus when they won’t join with us in finding solutions.” But following a 90-minute luncheon meeting with Bourassa, a newly conciliatory Johnston indicated that she had undergone a change of heart. Said the premier: “Sometimes, reality is different than perception, and the perception among some of the people in my province is, I believe, less than accurate and less than fair.”

The following day in Ottawa, Johnston essentially endorsed Clark’s still-confidential constitutional program. After the federal minister briefed her on his proposals, Johnston said that she felt confident that the government was on the right track. Noting that “the people of the country wanted to have more say in these decisions,” she added: “Mr. Clark has made provision for public input, as well as input from elected officials.” Declared Johnston: “The

While that process will not be made public until some time in September, the premiers gathered at Whistler will discuss its outlines. But unlike First Ministers’ conferences— which include the prime minister—premiers’ meetings are not decision-making gatherings. And Bourassa’s absence will further impede the leaders’ ability to reach any firm conclusions in their two days of talks—most of them in closed sessions. As a result, noted UBC’s Tennant, “The interesting thing will be the dynamic that goes on without him.”

process, in my view, is one that will work.”

That dynamic may prove critical during the year ahead. Indeed, University of Regina political scientist Howard Leeson, a former Saskatchewan deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs, suggested that the premiers may well meet more frequently as constitutional talks progress. Argues Leeson: “We’re in the position where the federal government is leading the process. But there ought to be another process leading the discussion on fundamental change. The partners in Confederation ought to be sitting down and saying what Canada should be like.”

Other analysts, however, expressed doubt about the premiers’ ability to agree on common positions. Noted University of Saskatchewan political scientist David Smith: “[Ontario] Premier [Bob] Rae doesn’t need to ally himself with [Nova Scotia Premier Donald] Cameron to make Ontario’s case.” But McGill University professor of constitutional law Jeremy Webber, for one, shrugs off that concern. Said Webber: “The premiers have more commitment to Canada as a country than they’re often given credit for.”

As well as constitutional matters, the participants will cover more familiar political ground. The leaders routinely deal with domestic trade, fiscal policy, health, education and other matters. The premiers are also likely to debate a response to last week’s Supreme Court of Canada ruling confirming Ottawa’s right to limit its contribution to provincial welfare costs. That ruling freed Ottawa to invoke a two-year-old restraint program under which it will limit the increase in Canada Assistance Plan transfers to the three richest provinces— Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta—to five per cent annually for the next five years. As a result, the affected provinces must now repay Ottawa hundreds of millions of dollars in payments above the limit that were made while the case was before the courts. Noting that the ruling brings an end to 24 years in which the provinces have relied on Ottawa to pay 50 per cent of welfare costs, Ontario’s Rae declared last week: “The message from the federal government seems to be, ‘Well, sorry, we’re getting out and we’re walking away from these responsibilities.’ ” But as Canadians struggle to redefine their nation, the eight men and one woman attending next week’s meeting must plainly be aware that their deliberations carry an unprecedented importance for the future of a strong and united country.

GLEN ALLEN in Ottawa