CANADA

Grassroots fervor

A Calgary citizens’ group says Yes

JOHN HOWSE October 19 1992
CANADA

Grassroots fervor

A Calgary citizens’ group says Yes

JOHN HOWSE October 19 1992

Grassroots fervor

CANADA

A Calgary citizens’ group says Yes

The city is home to the Reform Party of Canada, one of the leading advocates on the No side in the Oct. 26 referendum. But last week, Calgary also became a focal point for Alberta’s struggling Yes forces, as a group of concerned citizens with a dramatically different view of Canadian federalism stepped up its efforts to sell the Charlottetown constitutional accord. Taking its message directly to downtown shoppers and office workers, The Together for Canada Committee, founded last December to foster better relations between Calgarians and Quebecers, opened a temporary, flag-draped store in the city’s Toronto-Dominion Square. Among the available items: $10 maple-leaf T-shirts, $1 “Vote Yes” buttons and free summaries of the Charlottetown accord. “We want to get information out to the people,” said volunteer store manager Patrick Valentine as people lined up to pay $10 for committee memberships and the right to add their name to an “I am Voting Yes” newspaper advertisement. Added Valentine, a 27-year-old political-science student: “There are a lot of misconceptions about this accord. But you spend time with people and they reconsider their doubts.”

For members of the Together for Canada Committee, which claims the support of more than 200 Calgary community and social-service associations, the referendum campaign presents a unique opportunity to promote their

vision of a united Canada. Still, committee members acknowledge that they are waging an uphill battle. According to an Angus Reid Group poll released on Sept. 26, 50 per cent of Albertans oppose the Charlottetown accord, 34 per cent are in favor and 16 per cent are undecided.

The committee’s earlier projects included travel exchanges between Quebec and Calgary families, the delivery of thousands of postcards from Calgarians congratulating Montrealers on their city’s 350th anniversary and an exchange of educational videos between Calgary and Quebec students. “It is directed at the rank and file of Quebec,” said Arthur Smith, the chairman of a Calgary engineering firm. “It leapt over the prejudices of the Quebec media. They finally conceded we had a case.”

And as it takes its case to the public—the committee is launching similar sales efforts at other Calgary shopping centres and sponsoring speakers’ forums on the Charlottetown accord—the grassroots movement appears to have tapped an undercurrent of patriotism among Calgarians. “We are giving people a chance to express their passion for this country,” said committee co-chairman Brian Felesky, a Calgary lawyer. “We have awakened emotions here that we thought were pretty passive before.”

By last weekend, the Together for Canada committee had spent $450,000 raised from

private and corporate donations, part of it on a series of French pro-unity advertisements in Quebec newspapers. “Calgary extends to Quebec best wishes for 1992,” read one ad, which also listed the committee’s supporting groups. “A United Canada is Dear to Our Hearts,” it continued. Aided by the NHL Calgary Flames, it then sponsored a PeeWee Hockey Tournament exchange beween Calgary and Quebec City teams. In July, committee members hosted 56 Quebec families during the Calgary Stampede, after which 35 Calgary families visited Quebec homes in Montreal, Quebec City and outlying communities. “Most of the Quebecers had never been West,” said committee member Phyllis Robb. “They came with the idea that all the West hated Quebec. They were awed with the warmth of welcome.”

The committee’s 350th-anniversary postcards also struck an emotional chord among the Quebec recipients, many of whom were moved to respond. “We are French-Canadians and proud of it,” wrote the family of Jacques and Murielle Tessier of Montreal to a Calgary family. “We greatly appreciate the interest you have shown and we hope for a rapprochement between us all in the future.” An 18-year-old Montrealer wrote a Calgary student: “Thanks for your wishes. Come and see Montreal from a different angle. I could be your guide.”

Those grassroots contacts are supported by a committee-sponsored exchange between Alberta and Quebec schools of videos illustrating one community to the other. Last week, Quebec students and teachers from French-language schools in Sherbrooke and Hull attended a Calgary showing of video highlights. “Our kids don’t see why there can be such differences between French and English,” said Robert Mercier, curriculum administrator at Calgary’s bilingual Kingsland Elementary School. “We now have 13 different ethnic groups and nine religions who get along in the Grade 4 class. Our students argue that it is the adults who make the problem.”

More recently, the committee has taken its campaign to the University of Calgary campus. “In one day, we had more than 1,000 students and faculty drop by for copies of the accord and its highlights,” said Will Osier, 26, a secondyear law student. “It shocked me that so many people came.” His group now plans a mail drop to about 900 students in campus residences. “I am voting Yes because I think it is a good deal. It gives something to everyone,” said Osier. “Frankly, I fear the consequences of the No vote. I am not saying it would break up the country, but I am not willing to take that chance.”

The committee also has a high-profile booster in Calgary Mayor AÍ Duerr, who says that he is likely to vote Yes in the Oct. 26 referendum. “I am proud of it [the committee] coming from Calgary,” said Duerr. “It is time we stood up for what we believe in.” The support pouring in for the Together for Canada Committee suggests that some Calgarians, at least, are ready to heed his advice.

JOHN HOWSE in Calgary