The ironies are striking. Flushed with pride at their ability to compromise, 17 political and native leaders take their accomplishment to the people. But instead of being hailed as latter-day Fathers of Confederation, they are chastised for giving too much, or acquiring too little. None of the groups that would gain from proposed constitutional changes are particularly happy: Quebecers complain that they are being denied sufficient new powers; westerners say Quebec has received too many powers and are unhappy with the proposals for Senate reform; aboriginals express doubts about the self-government provisions. And a disparate coalition of fringe political parties and special interest groups opposed to the Charlottetown constitutional accord for widely differing reasons captures a wave of public dissatisfaction.
On the surface, a rejection of the Charlottetown accord is no more than a simple No to a solitary question in an unusually large—and costly—public opinion poll. But the consequences of that rejection are likely to echo throughout Canada’s turbulent constitutional history for decades to come. Some of the possibilities:
An old joke among economists holds that if 12 of them gather to consider the future, they will produce 13 differing forecasts. True to form, economists are divided on what impact a No vote will have on the Canadian dollar and future foreign investment. Early in the referendum campaign, the Royal Bank of Canada aroused the ire of No supporters with a report predicting that the income of an average Canadian family income would fall by $10,140 by the turn of the century if Quebec separated. In the wake of that report, and other dire predictions by supporters of the Yes side, the value of the Canadian dollar briefly fell below 80 cents (U.S.).
But last week, prominent New York City investment house Salomon Brothers Inc. downplayed the ramifications of a No vote. The firm asserted that the increasing realization in Quebec of the consequences of sus-
tained political uncertainty meant “a sovereign Quebec is the least likely outcome following a No vote.” In contrast, Standard & Poor’s Corp., a New York credit-rating agency that last week downgraded a small portion of Canada’s debt from a AAA to AA-plus on Oct. 14, warned that “uncertainties about the future shape of the confederation, if they persist, could weaken investor confidence and hamper the conduct of economic policy over the medium term” (page 80).
For politicians, the operative economic word is “uncertainty”—and how best to avoid it. In Quebec, Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau, a former finance minister, has tried to soothe the international money markets by saying that a No vote is not a vote for sovereignty. Indeed, most economists say that the potential negative impact of a No vote, particularly a No vote in more than one province, has been exaggerated. Declared University of Alberta economics professor Paul Boothe, who intends to vote No: “If we come down to a referendum on sovereignty for Quebec, then we’ll have to watch financial markets. But that’s not what we—or the people in Quebec—are talking about now.”
A No vote would merely be the first of a series of shock waves to hit Ottawa. In the aftermath of the accord’s defeat, the three federal parties—united in spirited support of the Charlottetown deal—would be threatened with political paralysis. With a general election looming within the next 12 months, federal politicians also face the bleak prospect of finding themselves gravely out of step with some, if not all, of their constituents. Party divisions run deep. Differing allegiances have split traditional New Democratic Party allies, such as women’s groups, and the current leadership of the Liberal party has all but severed its ties with the Trudeau vision of one Canada that focused on the paramountcy of individual rights and a strong central government. That Liberal break with the past will
surely result in internecine party warfare should the accord be defeated.
But the governing Conservatives are most at risk. Rejection in either Quebec or Alberta and British Columbia could conceivably rupture the delicate Tory coalition of Westerners and francophone Quebec nationalists. It might also provoke a spate of resignations that could reduce the government’s 10-seat majority to a minority. That, in turn, could force the Conservatives to call an election earlier than they might wish. Most certainly, a negative vote would be another body blow to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, whose low popular standing is tied to some extent to his role as instigator of the latest constitutional roller-coaster.
The most likely political winners on the federal scene include the separatist Bloc Québécois under Lucien Bouchard and the Calgarybased Reform Party of Canada led by Preston Manning, both of which would be poised for major gains among disgruntled voters. Declared University of Prince Edward Island political scientist David Milne, who intends to vote Yes: “The survival of mainstream federal parties is on the line after a No vote. If the Liberals and the NDP and the Tories are
going to have any chance, they are going to have to change leaders pretty damn quickly. Even if they do, we might end up with a future Parliament that’s positively weird in terms of party representation.”
The taint of constitutional failure would extend far beyond Ottawa. “It isn’t a referendum on the Charlottetown package,” says Agar Adamson, a political scientist at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., who says that he is undecided. “It has become a referendum on the politicians.” A second refusal to recognize Quebec as a distinct society would paint Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa into an uncomfortable comer. Bourassa, criticized by his own aides in Quebec for caving in to pressure for a deal, has campaigned vigorously for the accord. The worst possible scenario for Bourassa is a Yes vote in Quebec and No votes in several other provinces—a rejection that would almost certainly force a provincial vote on sovereignty.
Likewise, a vote of approval from all provinces but Quebec is a recipe for instability. With
the rest of Canada unlikely to concede further concessions to Quebec, the Parti Québécois, with its promise to hold a referendum on sovereignty, would gain a huge advantage in a provincial election, expected by 1994.
Some contrarians, however, argue that majority No votes in several key provinces, such as Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia, could actually bring stability to the process. In such a scenario, they say, neither side could legitimately claim rejection—a factor that could initiate a constitutional moratorium until at least after the next federal election. Explains University of Toronto sociologist Raymond Breton, who says that he is an undecided voter: “It is difficult to establish blame when the reasons for the No votes are so ambiguous and blurred.”
The death of the Charlottetown deal would preserve the constitutional, if not political, status quo. Prominent Quebecers would argue that the province remains frozen outside the
constitutional family; the Métis and off-reserve natives would continue in non-status limbo; and Parliamentary reform, including an elected Senate, might drop from the agenda.
Assembly of First Nations leader Ovide Mercredi suggested earlier this month in Quebec that “we can perhaps do even better” if the 17 negotiating parties reconvened quickly after a defeat. But most experts agree that the likelihood of a second wholesale attempt to rewrite the Constitution is a pipe dream. At best, and depending on what provinces vote Yes on Oct. 26, first ministers could implement those elements of the accord which require the support of only seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population, including Senate reform and the guarantee that Quebec will always hold 25 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons.
Alternatively, governments could bypass constitutional channels and proceed through a series of political accords to implement many of the proposed reforms. Said the University of Prince Edward Island’s Milne: “Most federalists will want to retrieve what they can out of defeat. If they sit on their hands and freeze the status quo, it plays into the hands of people who want Canada to fall apart or to restructure itself.”
For his part, Thomas Courchene, director of policy studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., argues that aboriginal self-government is already a reality in the North, with federal equalization payments a key component of the December, 1991, Yukon agreement, which gave natives control over such areas as social services, education and justice. Says Courchene, a Yes supporter: “Much of the aboriginal self-government package can be achieved through the courts.”
Even if the accord is rejected, the constitutional issue is unlikely to disappear from the national agenda. Constitutional experts argue that the political system cannot ignore the demands of special interest groups, such as women and natives. Added Breton: “It is unrealistic to expect all those groups who clamored for constitutional advantages to sit down, do nothing and let it go.”
Still, some constitutional experts maintain that Ottawa has crafted a workable—but perilously limited—range of options. The loosely worded referendum question asks Canadians if they agree with renewed federalism “on the basis of’ the August 28 Charlottetown accord. Senior federal officials say privately that the deliberate ambiguity of the question allows Ottawa and the provinces to tinker with some elements of the deal—although only on marginal issues. Such a manoeuvre, however, appears farfetched, because any revisions would require dismantling a pyramid of interdependent agreements. Instead of picking and choosing from a lengthy constitutional smorgasbord, Canadians will likely have to decide whether to skip dinner—or opt for a fullcourse meal.
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