CANADA

A CRITICAL SHOWDOWN

BRITISH COLUMBIA EMERGES AS A KEY BATTLEGROUND FOR HIGH-PROFILE WARRIORS IN THE UNITY CAMPAIGN

HAL QUINN October 5 1992
CANADA

A CRITICAL SHOWDOWN

BRITISH COLUMBIA EMERGES AS A KEY BATTLEGROUND FOR HIGH-PROFILE WARRIORS IN THE UNITY CAMPAIGN

HAL QUINN October 5 1992

A CRITICAL SHOWDOWN

CANADA

BRITISH COLUMBIA EMERGES AS A KEY BATTLEGROUND FOR HIGH-PROFILE WARRIORS IN THE UNITY CAMPAIGN

The fourth-floor boardroom’s oval table was barely large enough for the midday spread of corned beef sandwiches and salads. But the 13 members of the B.C. chapter of Friends of Canada who gathered in the offices of a downtown Vancouver law firm last week were more concerned with upholding the Yes side in the Oct. 26 constitutional referendum than with enjoying a leisurely lunch. In the past few weeks, opposition to the Aug. 28 Charlottetown accord has increased rapidly in British Columbia, fuelled mainly by resentment over the perceived under-representation of the province in an enlarged House of Commons. As a result, the luncheon participants—including card-carrying members of the federal Conservative, Liberal and New Democratic parties and representatives of British Columbia’s francophone and Chinese communities—had a clear sense of mission. Said B.C. Friends chair-

man Arthur Grant, 35, a Vancouver lawyer: “This is not a time for any Canadian to be complacent. This referendum is the most important democratic decision we will ever make.”

In fact, both supporters and opponents of the

accord say that British Columbia—where residents in the past have evinced relatively little interest in the often-arcane debate over constitutional reform—has become a critical battleground in the referendum campaign. Entering the latest round of negotiations last spring, senior members of the province’s New Democratic Party government said that they hoped to quell potential outbreaks of anti-Quebec sentiment in British Columbia by demonstrating that the two provinces had a shared interest in wresting more power from Ottawa. In the final agreement, however, British Columbia emerged with a slight reduction in its share of Commons seats—36, or 10.7 per cent, in an expanded 337-member chamber, compared with 32 seats, or 10.8 per cent, in the existing 295-seat Commons. Quebec, by contrast, gained a guarantee that its House of Commons representation will never drop below 25 per cent, regardless of future demographic trends.

Media commentators and some B.C. opposition politicians have attacked those elements of the Charlottetown package, claiming that the accord is an affront to British Columbians and a denial of their status as residents of Canada’s fastest-growing province in population. They drew support from former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s Maclean ’s essay last week, in which he urged Canadians not to succumb to “blackmail” by Quebec nationalists.

Trudeau’s widely publicized intervention led Vancouver talk-show radio host and former Social Credit cabinet minister Rafe Mair, the most outspoken local advocate of the No position, to comment on air: “I never thought I’d live to see the day that I agreed with him, but welcome aboard Mr. Trudeau.”

The succession of prominent campaigners for the Yes and No sides who visited the province last week only underscored British Columbia’s importance in the referendum battle. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney kicked off his Yes campaign by attending a citizenship court in Vancouver and then taking part in a native land-claims ceremony at the nearby Squamish Indian reserve (page 18). On the same day, Reform Party of Canada Leader Preston Manning was the featured guest on Mair’s program and he launched his party’s B.C. referendum campaign at a Vancouver hotel. Later in the week, federal NDP Leader Audrey McLaughlin defended the accord before an audience of university students, while former prime minister John Turner, the Liberal member of Parliament for the riding of Vancouver Quadra, held a joint

news conference for the Yes campaign with NDP MP David Barrett, a former premier of British Columbia.

Despite those high-profile appearances, representatives from both sides say that the outcome of the referendum in British Columbia will likely depend on a closely fought doorto-door campaign. Said Grant, whose 18month-old group was formed to promote national unity: “First of all we are sending out a mailing to our 700 members across the province to encourage them to counteract the wave of negative press by writing letters to the editors, calling phone-in radio shows and talking to their friends. We have to get the Yes message out.” The group also plans to send speakers to local meetings of business and social groups and publish a newsletter to keep its members informed about the campaign. “We are trying to do this with very little in the way of funds,” added Grant. “So far, people have not been very receptive to fund-raising. We’re doing it with our blood, sweat and tears.”

Indeed, in many areas the campaign has been slow to get off the ground. Said Turner in an interview: “The [formal Yes] committees are running a little behind here—in fact, they are running behind everywhere. We might have a committee of all three parties—we’re talking about that now—or it may just be a Vancouver committee. We haven’t got the word yet.” Added John Kenny, 34, a commercial photographer who is president of the Vancouver Quadra Liberal riding association: “I’d have to say we are still in the planning stage. I imagine there will be ‘get out the vote’ activity similar to an election. But right now everyone is waiting to see what the other associations and parties are doing.”

The divisiveness of the campaign is underscored by the difficulties even established groups have faced in creating a common front. After B.C. Federation of Labour president Ken Georgetti declared his support for the Yes side, in step with the Canadian Labour Congress, one of the vice-presidents of the federation, Christine Micklewright, announced that she intended to vote No. Micklewright said she changed her mind after attending a forum on

CANADA WATCH

The referendum’s Yes campaign received a publicity boost from the launch of the national Yes committee, headed by seven high-profile co-leaders, as well as various provincial Yes committees. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney also entered the fray with a crosscountry election-style tour, during which he reiterated earlier statements by Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark that a majority of voters in each province must ratify the deal.

• Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau said —Reform party leader Preston Manning on the

that all Quebecers—not just francophones— accord’s provisions for a reformed Senate

must vote either Yes or No in order to have a firm result in that province.

• The Federal Court of Canada adjourned for at least two weeks its hearings into a suit brought by the Native Women’s Association of Canada to stop the referendum.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“The difference between a Triple E Senate and a Senate [as] advocated in this deal is the difference between a bull and a steer—some vital parts are missing.”

women and the Constitution in Vancouver this week.

Another prominent No supporter is Liberal party leader Gordon Wilson. But not everyone in Wilson’s caucus shares his dislike of the accord. Wilson removed Liberal MLA Art Cowie, a vocal supporter of the deal, from his post as caucus chairman last week, while the future of another Yes supporter, Liberal house leader David Mitchell, is uncertain. Said Wilson: “The caucus has taken a united position not to approve the package. I do not expect any member of our caucus will be campaigning, in any formal sense, in the Yes campaign.” At the same time, the Liberal leader said that neither he nor any other MLA in his 16-member caucus would “join into any orchestrated provincial or national No campaigns because the agendas of some of the members are agendas that I don’t agree with.”

At week’s end, the shape of the province’s Yes campaign became clearer with the announcement of a tri-party committee led by Jerry Lampert, a prominent local Conservative and former Social Credit official, the NDP’s Hans Brown, a long-time local organizer, and Liberal David McPhee, a member of that party’s national executive. For his part, Turner said that his own Quadra riding association will devote its Oct. 5 biannual town-hall meeting to the referendum. He added: “It’s going to be a big, big deal, open to everyone in the riding. That will be our main event on this one.”

For now, the race appears to be too close to call. Although the most recent survey, conducted by the Angus Reid Group between Sept. 22 and 24, indicated that 50 per cent of British Columbians were opposed to the accord, with only 34 per cent in favor, the polling firm cautioned that unusually large numbers of voters were wavering on the question of their final decision. Indeed, Yes organizers are expressing concern and saying that one of their principal tasks will be to rally their supporters. Said

federal Justice Minister Kim Campbell, MP for Vancouver Centre: “That’s the unknown quantity. The concern is that maybe people are more likely to vote if they are on the No side, because the strength of feeling among them appears to be stronger.”

For his part, the Reform party’s candidate in Quadra, Dr. William McArthur, 58, said that he

plans to hold a meeting at a local high school this week to assess how many of the party’s 1,000 paid-up riding members support the No side. Earlier, Manning told supporters that the referendum campaign will give the party an opportunity to test its organization in the riding in advance of next year’s anticipated federal general election.

McArthur, a former Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot who was British Columbia’s first chief coroner, freely acknowledges that his party’s strength in Quadra is uncertain. “To get out the vote, you have to identify who is going to support you,” he said. “We have to know when push comes to shove, how many of the 1,000 members are really going to be knocking on the doors, doing the phoning. We do know that our people are politically inexperienced. Many of them do not even understand the concept of getting out the vote.”

The Yes forces face an equally daunting challenge: the need to co-ordinate the activities of disparate groups and political organizers, who have spent years working at cross-purposes, towards a common goal. To succeed, they will have to put aside partisan interests— as well as any personal misgivings they may have about the Charlottetown accord. Grant, of Friends of Canada, said that as a lawyer he is “not perfectly pleased with the accord—I don’t think anyone is.” But he said that he supports the agreement as an “honorable compromise,” adding that he expects the campaign in British Columbia to be divisive. “I think we are going to feel here and in the rest of English Canada what Quebecers felt in the 1980 provincial referendum [on sovereignty-association],” Grant said. “I think there is going to be a real tearing at the heart as the campaign unfolds.” Those strains will likely be as intense in British Columbia as anywhere in the country outside of Quebec.

HAL QUINN