CANADA

A FROSTY RECEPTION

CABINET DIVISIONS AND RECORD LOW SUPPORT IN THE POLLS HAMPER BRIAN MULRONEY’S UNITY CRUSADE

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 9 1991
CANADA

A FROSTY RECEPTION

CABINET DIVISIONS AND RECORD LOW SUPPORT IN THE POLLS HAMPER BRIAN MULRONEY’S UNITY CRUSADE

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 9 1991

A FROSTY RECEPTION

CANADA

CABINET DIVISIONS AND RECORD LOW SUPPORT IN THE POLLS HAMPER BRIAN MULRONEY’S UNITY CRUSADE

Framed by statuesque pine trees and rolling slopes, the rambling, terraced resort compound in Kelowna, B.C., offers a breathtaking reminder of

some of Canada’s most enduring charms. Not far from a three-storey conference centre called the Clubhouse, vacationers last week rowed and canoed on the lake, played tennis on one of seven courts and tested a nine-hole golf course. But as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and key members of his cabinet met in the conference centre, the setting provided little escape from political reality. During two days of meetings, they were jeered by waiting protesters, denounced for their economic policies by nine of Canada’s premiers attending their annual conference in Whistler, B.C., and jolted by a new Gallup poll that showed their approval rating—already the worst in Canadian history—hitting a new low of 12 per cent. And the meeting ended with little progress on a plan for Canada’s constitutional future. Acknowledged a grim Mulroney: “We are not there yet.” With less than a month to go before the government is scheduled to unveil its full proposal for constitutional reform, it was a potentially damaging admission. After the meeting, it was clear that cabinet members still cannot agree on how to reconcile Quebec’s insistence on recognition as a distinct society with the demands of other provinces to be treated equally. And the cabinet—as well as provincial leaders—remains divided over subjects ranging from how to revive the flagging economy to the recognition that should be afforded Cana-

da’s natives. Said Health Minister Benoît Bouchard: “We have a lot of pieces that can fit together. We do not know, however, if [that] will be possible.”

In fact, the premiers’ conference in another resort town, Whistler, also illustrated the sharp differences that divide Canadians—and their various governments. Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, who has boycotted meetings with the other provinces since the collapse of the Meech Lake constitutional accord last year, remained at home. In his absence, the premiers called on Quebec to return to the table. But they disagreed sharply on several issues, and even their decision to invite Ovide Mercredi, leader of the Assembly of First Nations, to address the conference led to some public bickering. Ontario Premier Bob Rae called the decision “a historic first.” But B.C. Premier Rita Johnston disagreed, saying that Mercredis presence did not set “a precedent.”

Still, the decision to include Mercredi at the conference was widely praised as a sign that Canada’s elected leaders had finally recognized the legitimacy of native demands. And a day after Mercredis address, Ottawa scored some increasingly rare points of its own when Mulroney announced the appointment of former First Nations leader Georges Erasmus and Quebec Appeal Court Judge René Dussault to lead a royal commission studying ways to dramatically transform Canada’s relationship with native peoples. The commission’s wideranging mandate calls for it to investigate such issues as “the recognition and affirmation” of aboriginal self-government. For his part, Mercredi praised the composition of the commission and said that its members would bring “a wealth of knowledge” to the issue.

Some native leaders expressed fears that the commission may be used to dissipate native pressure—and sweep their issues aside— while the government prepares its constitutional proposal. But later in the week, Mulroney moved to allay those concerns by announcing that natives would be guaranteed a presence at future constitutional negotiations—while withholding any assurances that they would have the same status as the provinces. In the event of such a meeting, the Prime Minister promised, he would ensure “an appro-

priate place for the native leadership in the discussions.”

Meanwhile, some broad outlines of Ottawa’s proposals are beginning to emerge. Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark now acknowledges that the government is committed to replacing Canada’s appointed Senate with an elected body. And in an interview with the Calgary Herald, he said that the government will ask the provinces to surrender some pow-

ers. Declared Clark: “There is quite a bit of consensus for some of the things we are suggesting that would in effect increase the power of the national government.”

In fact, the nine premiers last week indicated that they may be prepared to allow Ottawa to move into some provincial jurisdictions, such as education. But that is certain to meet strong

opposition in Quebec, where Bourassa is already facing heavy pressure from both his own Liberal party and the Parti Québécois to take an aggressive stance in constitutional talks. PQ constitutional affairs critic Jacques Brassard last week declared that Bourassa is “preparing Quebec for a retreat” in its constitutional demands. Bourassa declined to comment publicly. But advisers to Mulroney say that Ottawa has given the Quebec premier regular reports on “the tone” of discussions.

Still, before concentrating on Bourassa, Mulroney will have to convince his own caucus: in Kelowna, senior Quebec ministers emphasized that they will not support any proposal in which the province does not gain substantial powers. Said Treasury Board President Gilles Loiselle: “I will accompany Quebec to the end.” Loiselle, Bouchard and Defence Minister Marcel Masse said that they will increase their support for that goal at a key meeting of the government’s constitutional committee in Sherbrooke, Que., at mid-month.

Those pressures—and a short timetable—added to the problems confronting the government. The devastating new Gallup numbers stunned some party members. As well, the premiers’ unanimous denunciation of the government’s economic policies, especially Ottawa’s budgetary decision to reduce contributions to shared-cost programs, created new difficulties for the Tories. Declared Rae: “You cannot just have one partner walking away from these agreements.” Indeed, last week Mulroney let some of his testiness show. Reacting to the premiers’ criticism, he responded with the barbed sarcasm that he often uses in private. Declared the Prime Minister: “Perhaps they could tell us how they would solve their own problems. And maybe, if they had some time, they could tell us—in their spare time—how they would solve Canada’s economic problems.” Later, he softened his response, suggesting that he would agree to a meeting between Finance Minister Donald Mazankowski and his provincial counterparts. But with

the muggy days of summer drawing to a close, Mulroney’s flash of frustration was a reminder that many angry confrontations will almost certainly dominate the fall.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

with

GLEN ALLEN

in Ottawa and

HAL QUINN

in Kelowna