Patriotism and western alienation combine to produce a volatile electorate

MARY NEMETH October 20 1992


Patriotism and western alienation combine to produce a volatile electorate

MARY NEMETH October 20 1992



Patriotism and western alienation combine to produce a volatile electorate

A young ethnic Greek from Turkey followed his childhood sweetheart to Canada 79 years ago. Their life story—how Chris Kelekis married his Magdalene, how they raised nine children, how he started out selling peanuts and popcorn from a pushcart and eventually saved enough to buy a restaurant—is portrayed in a family mural inside the C. Kelekis restaurant in Winnipeg. Kelekis died in 1957. But his children still run the business, and they speak of their father with evident pride. “He had such vision,” says 67-year-old Mary Kelekis. Her feelings for the country her parents adopted are equally

strong—even outweighing ill feeling about Quebec. In Winnipeg, she says, many people still resent the federal government’s decision to award an F-18 aircraft contract to a Montreal firm instead of a local company six years ago. And many are angered by Quebec laws that ban English-language signs in the streets. “But as far as I’m concerned,” she says, “I want a united Canada. And I’ll probably vote Yes, because I love my country.”

That sentiment—the notion that it is patriotic to favor the Charlottetown accord—is a powerful factor among those westerners who say that they plan to vote Yes in the Oct. 26

referendum. On the flip side, the Yes side’s implication that voting No is unpatriotic has fuelled a long-burning resentment against government in general, and federal and Quebec politics in particular. Such indignation has always found fertile ground on the Prairies, a harsh land that nurtured a fiercely independent spirit among the early pioneers. And it lingers still: just ask a westerner about the 1980 National Energy Program that set domestic oil prices below world levels. Many westerners regard Canada as a federation of 10 equal provinces, a concept sharply at odds with Quebec’s notion of two founding nations. In fact,

many of those who plan to vote No seem motivated as much by a sense of western alienation as by opposition to any clause of the Charlottetown accord.

Still, the West is not a monolith—there are markedly different forces driving voters in each of the Prairie provinces. As have-not provinces that receive equalization payments, Manitoba and Saskatchewan have a vital stake in the federal system—Alberta less so. In a series of interviews in all three provinces, Maclean’s found that the mood is volatile.

Mary Kelekis is preparing for the morning rush when Manitoba’s New Democratic Party Leader, Gary Doer, walks into the restaurant. A regular, Doer takes a seat at the counter and orders a plate of bacon and eggs. A few weeks earlier, when copies of the Charlottetown accord were scarce, Doer brought one in—it is now available for anyone who asks. He says that the deal is good for Manitoba. With trans-

fer payments providing almost 20 per cent of the province’s budget, he says, it is important that the accord improves guarantees for equalization. But he concedes that the vote will be tight. “It is not a referendum-proof proposal,” he says. If 15 per cent of the population is angry at Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, 15 per cent does not like making concessions to Quebec and another 15 per cent object to other parts of the deal, “you got trouble,” he says.

Trouble, in Doer’s terms, is sitting just a few seats away. Alfred Bilinski, 48, says that he is planning to vote against the deal. “I think if we vote Yes, then Quebec will have more of a say than the rest of Canada,” argues Bilinski, who organizes activities in a Winnipeg nursing home. “And Quebec needs Canada more than Canada needs Quebec. I think Canada could probably do without Quebec if it had to.” Another restaurant patron, unemployed miner Barry Slade, says: “Maybe we’re giving in to the French too much.” But the 31-year-old Slade intends to vote Yes anyway. “These guys are serious about leaving,” he says. “They could split and I don’t think you want to tear the country apart.”

In the days of the oil boom, when building cranes cluttered the Calgary skyline and former mayor Ralph Klein was railing against the “creeps and bums” from “other parts of the country” clogging the city’s jails, most businessmen could afford to eat in fancy restaurants. But a decade of low oil prices and trim expense accounts have cramped Calgary’s culinary style. These days, the fast-food court in the Esso Plaza—home of the $2.95 grilled ham-and-cheese and the $3 spaghetti plate—is doing brisk business. Among the noon-hour diners are three systems engineers: William Ferguson, 43, David Lynnes, 41, and Stephen Butt, 34—a No, a Yes and an undecided voter, respectively.

“I think the deal gives too much power to Quebec,” says Ferguson, citing the province’s guaranteed 25 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons. “I object to any province having special powers.” Lynnes says that he has reservations about those aspects of the deal. “But some of the gains made by the

aboriginals are good,” says Lynnes. “And as far as Senate reform, I think Alberta comes out good in the deal. Under the new Constitution, it would be a lot more difficult for someone to come along with a National Energy Program.” Butt says that if the legal text represents “what they led us to believe,” he will probably vote Yes. But he has reservations of his own. “From what I’ve heard, they’re making some pretty far-reaching social guarantees,” he says. “If it's part of the Constitution that it’s basically a welfare state, well, I’m always a little concerned when you tell people they get things for free.”

The consequences of the vote are as contentious as the accord itself. Says Lynnes: “We have a fringe force out there, the Quebec separatists, who will use a No vote to start a snowball effect. I think it’s a heck of a gamble to take, and I don’t see enough wrong in this document to take those chances.” But Ferguson is adamant. “I don’t think the Quebec people are that naïve or stupid,” he maintains. “And I’m not prepared to be blackmailed no matter what the risk. Let’s put this in the drawer for 10 years.” Butt finds something redeeming in the whole debate. “The one thing I really like about this thing,” he says, “is that it’s a national vote. It’s the democratic way. I just hope people read the deal.”

Shelley McCurdy is paying close attention, taking notes and following along in her own copy of the Charlottetown accord. The 20year-old political studies student is among more than 300 people crowding into a lecture hall at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon to listen to academics explain the deal, and to politicians debate its merits. But an hour into the exercise, McCurdy still seems confused. And she says that she will likely vote No. “I’m uncomfortable that there are so many things that can be changed after the vote,” she says. “It’s not that I see any problem. I just feel like I’m being rushed into it.” Earl Shields, a 55-year-old math instructor sitting in the next seat, agrees. “What’s the big hurry? God didn’t say Thou shalt vote by Oct. 26,’ Bourassa did.” Still, he tells McCurdy, “I’m inclined to say Yes for the same reason you’re inclined to say No.” Although the full implications of the accord remain unclear, he explains, “at least a Yes would be a little bit of a vote of confidence that we’re on the right track.”

It was supposed to be a banner year, plenty of rain and a bumper crop. But then temperatures plummeted and frost damaged the grain fields of southern Manitoba, just as heavy fall rains kept the farmers from harvesting their crops. By early October, less than half the crop was in—a month behind schedule. Inside the towering white United Grain Growers elevators in Gladstone, 130 km northwest of Winnipeg, the effects of the foul weather are keenly felt. Elevator manager Jim Carruthers scoops some canola onto a specially designed plastic ruler, applies the grains to a strip of tape and squashes them flat with a roller. Most of the seeds are an acceptable yellow inside, but

Carruthers counts five that are green. That, he tells the farmer, means that it is only Grade 2, worth $3.61 a bushel instead of $5.54 for topgrade seed. Buffeted by the recession and depressed grain prices, the low-quality yield has not improved the disposition of prairie farmers any. And the late harvest means that they have even less time than others to mull over the Charlottetown accord.

“I haven’t made up my mind,” says 37-yearold farmer Robert Adamson, as he takes a seat behind the elevator manager’s desk. “I don’t know all the facts and the majority of people don’t know what we’re getting out of the deal.”

But he is convinced Quebec is getting more than it should. “The Senate is a step,” says Adamson. “But they’ve added the House of Commons seats to Quebec. Again, it’s a matter of, we’re getting something, but they’re also getting more than they already had.”

Resentment of Quebec runs deep.

“People think they’re getting more than their fair deal out of Confederation,” explains Adamson. “How many federal jobs do they get, how many contracts—and the illegality of English signs in Quebec sticks in people’s craws.” It goes back to the Second World War, Adamson says, when Quebecers voted overwhelmingly against conscription. “That alienated the rest of the country right there.” Adamson says that he has no objections to Francophones celebrating their own culture. “They’re different folks,” he concedes. “But so are the Pakistanis and Chinese, and they don’t want to immigrate and change the whole system.”

But what of the concept of two founding nations? Should not the French-Canadians have more rights than other ethnic groups?

Manager Carruthers, who has just walked into his office, shakes his head.

“The French were beat,” he says.

Adds Adamson: “You can’t go back and change history.” Where Adamson wants to see change is in other issues—unemployment and rural depopulation—and the constitutional deal has diverted the nation’s attention. “We’re fiddling while Rome bums,” he says.

Adamson does not accept doomsday scenarios about a No vote, either. “They’re trying to scare us into it,” he says. “Mulroney dropped the dollar just by blabbing.” He compares those gloomy projections to rumors that push down commodity prices. “It’s like the grain trade,” he says. “You buy on rumor, sell on fact, because the fact is usually nowhere near as bad as the perception of it. I don’t believe Quebec will separate.”

The Tuesday night league at the Yorkton Bowl Arena is in full swing, but Dale Cross is not playing up to par. A 26-year-old laborer who packages butter at the local dairy produc-

ers’ co-operative, 170 km northeast of Regina, Cross has been bowling for 14 years. But on his last turn he only knocked over three of five pins for 10 points. Cross’s teammates say that a reporter, asking questions about the Constitution, has broken his concentration. But Cross does not object—he has strong feelings about the Charlottetown accord. “I’ve pretty much decided No,” he says. “I’ve got nothing personal against the French. But I think Quebecers

want the other nine provinces to want them so bad that they’re going to get most of what they want.” No matter which way the vote goes, he adds, “my own view is that they’ll end up splitting up from Canada. I hope they don’t, but if they do go out on their own, hopefully it doesn’t work out for them and they’ll want to come back.”

While many westerners are willing to accept concessions to Quebec in exchange for a Triple E Senate, Cross has his reservations about a

system that allocates equal seats to each province. “I still think it should go by population,” he says. “Let’s face it, Ontario and Quebec are where most of the people are.” Cross picks up a ball and knocks down all five pins. His teammates do not seem to resent the reporter’s presence so much anymore.

Returning to his seat, Cross concedes that he might be convinced to change his mind— “maybe, if I were to visit Quebec and really understand where they’re coming from, see it through their eyes.” He adds: “I’d like to see what the average bowling-league Joe in Quebec thinks about it.” Cross picks up a ball and bowls another strike. As he walks past his teammates, there are highfives all around.

Lillian Knupp is an 81year-old dynamo. A onetime staff sergeant in the armed forces, a mother of three foster children and two adopted children and the author of five books on local history, Knupp is the matriarch of High River, a farming community of 5,000 people in southern Alberta, the town where Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark grew up. Knupp, a staunch Conservative who used to sit on the party’s national executive committee, knew Clark from the days when she worked as editor of the High River Times, a weekly newspaper then owned by Clark’s family. But when news of the referendum hit town, and fellow residents began peppering her with questions, Knupp felt handi_ capped by her Conservative I ties. “I knew they wouldn’t 9 believe me because I was par| tisan,” she says. “And I startS ed thinking, I believe in this, I what should Lillian do?”

° Canadians who complain about the electorate’s apathy could find solace in Lillian Knupp. She decided to invite some of her political friends, a Reform party supporter, a prominent Calgary Liberal, Conservative MP Kenneth Hughes and government House leader Harvie Andre, to explain why they are all voting for the deal. (She also asked a New Democrat, but he was busy.) Then, she bought an ad in the Times inviting the public to a meeting in the common room of Spitzee House, the apartment building for seniors where Knupp lives. She says that she did not use the 60-cup coffee pot, “because that would look silly if only 10 people came.” But 50 people showed up, and she had to fill the 30and 40cup pots three times over. Says Knupp: “I think seniors are beginning to realize they’ve been

given a lot of misleading information from the other side.”

Her own politics are rooted in a Prairie upbringing. My father brought me up to take an interest in politics,” Knupp says. “He was a firm westerner. At the time, all our grain was being shipped to Ontario to be milled and the flour shipped back.” Later, one of the foster children she took in was a status Indian. The Charlottetown accord, she says, “is the first time in 125 years that we have shown any progress on the Indian issue—for that alone I’d vote Yes.” But she also approves of Senate reforms, and the transfer of powers to provinces. She was brought up, she says, at a time when westerners regarded themselves as victims of Central Canada, g “Even if that were true,” £ Knupp adds, “at least now we §. are working together as a § country. I don’t see this as an * ideal package, but I see it as a breakthrough.”

A steady wind blows across southern Manitoba. The land is so flat one can almost imagine the curvature of the earth toward the distant horizon, a panorama interrupted only by power lines and the occasional grain elevator. There on the prairie, 70 km south of Winnipeg, is St. Jean Baptiste. A sign on the outskirts of town declares its claim to fame: “Soup Pea Capital of Canada,” a recognition of its role as one of the first centres of yellow-pea production in the West. But more than that, St. Jean is a francophone community of 950 people, complete with its Caisse Populaire credit union and a grocery store where shoppers conduct transactions in French. Marcel Marion, a local plumber and president of Manitoba’s francophone cultural committees, lists towns where French is losing ground: lie des Chênes, St. Adolphe, Ste. Agathe. Keeping the language alive in St. Jean Baptiste, he says, is a constant struggle. And even a Yes vote will not make it any easier. “We’ll still have to fight,” he says. “It’s a never-ending battle. But to me, the economy is more important right now than the Constitution.”

In fact, the Société Franco-Manitobaine (SFM), which represents Manitoba’s 55,000 francophones, has come out in favor of the Charlottetown accord. “We want a strong united Canada,” says SFM president Georges Druwé, who lives in St. Boniface, a francophone suburb of Winnipeg. “It’s certainly an important step in that direction.” He adds: “Francophones outside Quebec favor a strong central government, because many times the

provinces have diluted our rights. Quebec is looking for a very decentralized system. So we are on different wavelengths.”

Although Marion says that he wants to read more about the accord before committing himself, he adds that he is leaning toward a Yes vote—and is concerned about the consequences if the deal fails. “It’s a catch,” he says.

“Are Quebecers going to support us if they separate? We don’t know.” Eating dinner at his home outside St. Jean Baptiste with his wife Paulette, 41, and their children,

Natalie, 9, and Gabriel, 13,

Marion says that he does not fault Quebec politicians for not representing other francophones at the constitutional table. But he would like to see Quebecers show greater interest. “Maybe they could teach their children that we exist, our history maybe,” he offers. “They come out here and they still think it’s buffalo on the plains.”

Marcel and Paulette talk with considerable pride about their history. After 1916, when the province abolished teaching in all languages other than English, they say, teachers in St. Jean and other francophone communities defied the law to teach in French. Marcel says that school inspectors used to make surprise visits, and that he and other students had to hide their French texts

when they came. “Being young,” he says, “we thought that if we got caught there’d be real problems, that they’d cut our tongues off or something.” Those restrictions eased gradually. But it was not until 1970 that the province passed a law permitting the establishment of French-language schools. Now, Natalie and Gabriel study in French. But the community faces other obstacles—English TV and music have taken their toll. Mixed marriages have, as well. “The kids are English,” says Marcel. Paulette agrees. “You see it already in the school here,” she says, “where one parent is English and one French.”

Near the edge of Beardy’s Indian Reserve north of Saskatoon, a simple stone cairn marks the sight of the first battle of the 1885 Northwest Rebellion, when Métis and Indian fighters under Gabriel Dumont took up arms against government forces. Now, the £ rolling countryside near the z cairn is dotted with simple I aluminum-sided bungalows. 5 Colorful rows of laundry flap = in the warm autumn breeze. But as peaceful as the area seems, resentment of the government still lingers. “Canada only came into being in 1867, and Saskatchewan became a province in 1905,” says David Seesequasis, 44, a band council member for 14 years. “But we had land, territory, laws, culture, languages. We know that we have always had rights to self-determination.” The Charlotte-

town accord, says Seesequasis, finally recognizes those rights. “For once,” he adds, “the Indian people are part of the process.”

Many Indian chiefs in the West have come out against the accord. They argue that the deal could jeopardize such treaty rights as free education and exemptions from taxes that they negotiated with the Crown more than a century ago—and that it unfairly puts the Métis on the same footing as status Indians. But at Beardy’s, which, like other reserves, is struggling with a host of social and economic problems (including 80 per cent unemployment), the accord seems popular. “A lot of things don’t work for us on the reserve—the law, the health-care system,” says 27-year-old Todd Sutherland, who cooks at a restaurant and gas station owned by the band. “With self-government, we’ll be able to decide what kind of businesses we can put on the reserve.” He says that the band should establish a rehabilitation centre for minor offenders. “It’s better if they stay close to home,” he says.

“You see criminals go to jail and come back and do the same thing over. Maybe we can train them, give them a better chance.”

Waitress Láveme Gamble,

25, also supports the deal.

But she has concerns. “With self-government,” she says,

“it’s kind of scary. In some ways it would be good, but in some ways I’m not sure.

Would it take our treaty rights away? In years to come, would I have to pay for everything?”

Seesequasis argues that the Charlottetown accord only recognizes Indians’ rights to selfgovernment—that the details will have to be worked out between the federal government and each Indian nation. At Beardy’s, he says, they will maintain an elected band council, along with an advisory senate made up of band elders, most of them former chiefs. “But the bottom line,” he says, “is that every individual band has their individual view of self-determination. What is good for Beardy’s is not necessarily good for the Micmac in Eastern Canada or the Tlingit in the West.”

But Seesequasis is not sure that the deal will pass at all. “If the Yes is defeated,” he says, “we’re going to have to start all over again. But we are one of the most patient people around. My great-grandfather was around here in 1876 when the treaty was signed. My grandfather and father lived under the thumb of the Indian Act. Hopefully, my children and grandchildren will be able to determine their own future.”

North of Edmonton, the brownish patchwork quilt of farm fields ends abruptly where the northern forest begins, a dense wilderness of trees and raging rivers. Further still, at a

bend of the mighty Athabasca north of the 56th parallel, lies Fort McMurray, as much a frontier post as any southern prairie settlement was a century ago. A fur-trading town of no more than 1,000 people before Suncor opened its first tar-sand plant in 1967, Fort McMurray has burgeoned to a city of 34,700. Suncor and Syncrude—which began open-pit mining in 1973—produce about 215,000 barrels of oil a day and employ 60 per cent of Fort McMurray’s workforce. It is a young city; according to a recent census, 89 per cent of the population is under 45 years of age. And at a public debate for city council elections, the candidates all list among their accomplishments their length of residency—most of

them 10 to 15 years. “That’s important here because Fort McMurray is somewhat transient,” explains Carolyn Baikie, the 47-yearold manager of the chamber of commerce, who moved to the city from Edmonton eight months ago. “People used to just make their fortunes and leave. Now it’s changing.”

It may be changing, but slowly. Many of the tar-sand workers still commute the 435 km to Edmonton on weekends. And an independent spirit—as well as a vague sense that Alberta has been getting short shrift in Confederation—appears in no danger of fading away. After the municipal election debate, some of the candidates and their supporters retire to Minglers sports bar to talk politics and watch the Blue Jays play the Oakland Athletics in the American League championship series. Among them is Diane Slater, 42, who is running for council for the first time. “I will vote Yes,” says Slater. “We must, under all

circumstances, keep our country together. We’ve got to give it a try.”

That comment unleashes a barrage of contradictory views from around the table. “We’re Preston Manning supporters, we’re No votes,” explains Sidney Ott, the 41-yearold manager of a firm that caters meals for Syncrude. John Morrison, a 46-year-old mechanical designer, adds, “If Quebec likes it, there’s something wrong with it.” Both Morrison and 45-year-old dentist Lloyd Lines say that the Charlottetown accord concedes too much to Quebec, and that Alberta did not get enough in return—that the reformed Senate would be ineffective.

Slater intervenes: if Quebec was getting so

much out of the Charlottetown accord, she asks, why are polls suggesting that the province will vote against it? “Quebec and Ontario have been ripping us off for so many years,” replies Lines. With their concessions on the Senate, he adds: “It’s like somebody cut off one of their fingers so they can only take so much from us. They don’t like it. But all I see is fingers.”

Slater tries another tack. “Maybe it’s time we stopped saying ‘us’ and ‘them’ and start thinking of the whole country,” he says. “Jesus Christ, if this thing goes No, I can see the dollar going ‘poof.’ ” That argument does not appear to sway anyone, either. “Nobody wants to split up the country,” says Lines. “But I’ve got four kids and I don’t want them to grow up sending their money east all the time.” He says that he knows it is difficult to forge a constitutional compromise. “If there’s a No, there will be another long, long, long haul” to strike another deal, he adds. “But it’s better than settling for second-best. I’d rather wait 100 years for perfect than settle for something half-baked.”