BUSINESS WATCH

Inventing a new Canada on Oct. 26

The constitutional referendum results will shatter this country along deep, dangerous and unpredictable fault lines

Peter C. Newman October 19 1992
BUSINESS WATCH

Inventing a new Canada on Oct. 26

The constitutional referendum results will shatter this country along deep, dangerous and unpredictable fault lines

Peter C. Newman October 19 1992

Inventing a new Canada on Oct. 26

BUSINESS WATCH

The constitutional referendum results will shatter this country along deep, dangerous and unpredictable fault lines

BY PETER C. NEWMAN

With less than two weeks to go, it’s becoming clear that the Oct. 26 referendum results will only marginally be concerned with a verdict on the Charlottetown accord. The vote has gotten away from both the Yes and No camps.

Every Canadian government since the Pearson administration of the early 1960s has been promising Canadians “participatory democracy.” Suddenly we’ve got it, and the results are shattering this country along deep, dangerous and unpredictable fault lines.

No prime minister in recent times has asked Canadians directly what they thought about a great issue. To do so, as Brian Mulroney has done, particularly in times as volatile as these, has proven to be unexpectedly disruptive. None of the party strategists could have predicted how explosive a mix of fear and resentment would be triggered by the Oct. 26 plebiscite. When the referendum was called, during the euphoria that followed the P.E.I. agreement, polls indicated up to a 70-per-cent approval rating. Canada’s ruling classes loved the deal; getting the people’s consent seemed like an easy ploy.

A month later, families, clubs, pubs and bowling leagues are split on the issue. No one seems to be able to leave it alone or keep their thoughts private. And what they’re mostly arguing about is not the substance of the accord, but its authors. What Canadians are saying is not that one political party could govern any better than the next, but that meaningful decision-making powers can only be entrusted directly to the people. They’re insisting that from now on, governing at any level and in every region must take on a deeper meaning than the exchange of favors among successive platoons of influence brokers who keep the established system flowing, mostly in their direction. The idea of a political party acting as an organized appetite for power is dead. Canadians will no longer accept George Bernard Shaw’s sour dictum that, “If people cannot have what they believe

in, they must believe in what they have.”

Individually and collectively, we have lost the momentum that comes from people feeling common cause with their institutions. That feeling is focused on, but extends way beyond, politics. We have been cast adrift from the anchors of the past. Our religious institutions have been tainted by the revelations of clerical child abuse; the chartered banks, which once acted as our financial father confessors, turn out to have thoughtlessly shovelled billions of dollars into the coffers of a company too arrogant to show them any balance sheets—and then kept loaning the Reichmann brothers money, even after some of their best buildings were burdened with third mortgages.

Nothing and no one is sacred anymore. What has hurt the Yes side most is not so much the wobbly contents of the constitutional accord, but that so much of it has to be taken on faith—taken on faith, when there is no longer any sustaining faith to be drawn on to make that leap of goodwill plausible.

Two developments last week emphasized the tentative nature of the accord. The first was Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells’s ability to have the legal wording altered to ensure that the powers of the Senate and

Commons be made parallel; the second was that native women were able to change another element that threatened their sense of equality. Such tinkering strengthened the conviction of the No campaigners that it was not a final agreement and is still open to renegotiation, which is one of their main reasons for opposing the deal. Up to now, federal negotiators have insisted that nothing could be changed.

Most damaging of all, was the startling declaration of Ovide Mercredi, one of the accord’s architects, that if the current deal is rejected, a better one could quickly be renegotiated. That silly sally ignored the fact that what happened in Charlottetown was a onetime event, the culmination of several decades of useless bargaining. It was one of those rare historical moments that will not come again.

An equally devastating blow was dealt to the accord by formerly one of its most articulate defenders, B.C. Constitutional Minister Moe Sihota. Interviewed by a Radio-Canada reporter in Quesnel last week, Sihota said that Robert Bourassa “came to the table and ran into a brick wall. He lost. Nine guys looked him in the eyes and said no.” That forced the Quebec premier to defend himself one more time against the false accusations that he hadn’t stood his ground. Of course, he didn’t get everything he wanted, but neither did British Columbia. With friends like Sihota, the Yes camp doesn’t need new enemies.

Regardless of the accord’s eventual fate, if the No side wins on Oct. 26, as the polls now indicate, people’s anger and frustration will not be diffused on Oct. 27. The country will have been split into warring camps that will have nothing to do with the old party lines. The fact that most Canadians will almost certainly ignore the advice of the leaders of the political parties to which they belong—or for which they have traditionally voted—is a startling departure from the ties that used to bind us. (If Canadians were to follow the advice of their national party leaders, 85 per cent of them would approve the accord.)

Once the referendum battle is over, we won’t be able to go back to the traditional ways of running this country. Even if the Yes side were to win, the deeply antagonistic sentiments of the No side would have to be taken into account. The political and institutional realignments required will be horrendous.

The No vote reflects a deep-seated populist anger with the dismal state of the economy and all those factories that have been shuttered, their production lines gone south to the United States or Mexico. (We dimly remember a time when the Canadian dollar was still a serious currency.) The system by which this country has operated in the past doesn’t work anymore. Political power as exercised for the past 125 years doesn’t seem capable of dealing with the real issues. Social contracts no longer shape our lives; we prefer to plot our own journeys to self-fulfilment.

The referendum will be the first act in the reinvention of this country. Canada may not disappear, but Canada as we know it is dead and about to be buried.