BUSINESS WATCH

Rushing Canada to the edge of the precipice

We like to move slowly. What other country took 98 years to decide on its flag and a century to sanction its national anthem?

Peter C. Newman February 24 1992
BUSINESS WATCH

Rushing Canada to the edge of the precipice

We like to move slowly. What other country took 98 years to decide on its flag and a century to sanction its national anthem?

Peter C. Newman February 24 1992

Rushing Canada to the edge of the precipice

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

We like to move slowly. What other country took 98 years to decide on its flag and a century to sanction its national anthem?

Trying to reinvent Canada in the time the politicians have made available to us is like trying to scale Mount Everest on a dinner date.

It can’t be done.

In the escalating constitutional debate, process has become as important as substance. The Meech Lake fiasco proved that the pressure of self-imposed deadlines can be dangerously counterproductive. As pollster Angus Reid put it: “The millions of average Canadians who initially watched the Meech Lake story with the disinterest of window-shoppers were transformed into an ugly mob ready to torch the store.”

The politicians are repeating the mistake of setting a deadline that can’t realistically be met—and this time they’re betting the farm.

The entire exercise is of course being driven by Quebec’s timetable, encapsulated in Bill 150, which calls for a referendum on sovereignty to be held between Oct. 12 and 26. Pierre Côté, the province’s director general of elections, has outlined the referendum itinerary, as set out by provincial law. A 21-day period is required to debate the referendum question in the province’s National Assembly, to be followed by a compulsory waiting period of 20 days before the referendum decree can be issued. Then, the actual referendum campaign, which requires between 47 and 53 days, can begin. That’s a total of roughly three months, which would require Premier Robert Bourassa to recall the Quebec legislature no later than Aug. 4.

It gets worse. The final federal offer will have to be approved both by a Quebec assembly committee (where Parti Québécois members will have all kinds of opportunities to filibuster) and a Liberal party convention (still pledged to uphold the all-encompassing Allaire Report)—plus Bourassa’s own caucus (where there exists a serious split between nationalists and federalists).

These are all time-consuming procedures, but even that tight timetable leaves out what

could be the toughest hurdle of all. Bourassa has indicated that given an acceptable federal set of proposals, he would prefer to hold the referendum on Ottawa’s offer rather than on the issue of sovereignty itself. That would certainly require approval from his party and caucus and, most time-consuming of all, an amendment to Bill 150. That, in turn, would mean starting the whole cumbersome procedure by mid-May in order to meet the deadline for debate on the referendum legislation itself.

At the Ottawa end of the process, the Beaudoin-Dobbie Parliamentary Committee is due to report on amendments to the federal government’s 28-point proposal by Feb. 28. If the committee’s recommendations are accepted by the Mulroney cabinet and the Tory caucus, the package will then have to be approved by the House of Commons and the Senate. While there is no set timetable for that complicated process, also subject to filibusters, the best guess is that it will probably not be completed until the end of April. That would leave just two weeks to finalize the negotiations with Quebec.

At the same time, a tricky round of federalprovincial bargaining will have to be going on. That will include Brian Mulroney meeting with the nine premiers, probably excluding Bourassa,

hoping to win their support for the new package—or at least approval of seven provinces containing half of Canada’s population, enough to pass those constitutional amendments.

If Ottawa can stickhandle the new Constitution through that minefield, the premiers will then have to take the proposals back to be passed by their own legislatures. No one knows how many Elijah Harpers will unexpectedly emerge during that process, anxious, for good reason or not, to become footnotes in Canadian history by holding up their province’s approval. At least three jurisdictions (British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Ontario) already have said that they may hold provincewide referendums on the issue. And in the case of Manitoba, there will have to be public hearings as well.

Since no Canadian citizen will want to abandon the right to express an opinion on the issue, there will almost certainly be a referendum in every province, as well as in the territories. Already, June 18 is being mentioned as a possible polling date. (If Quebec’s approval has been secured ahead of time, it would take only she other provinces with 26 per cent of the population to seal the deal.)

Despite the apparently impossible schedule, Peter Lougheed, the former Alberta premier who is emerging as one of the few heroes of the constitutional debate, still believes that the timetable is feasible. “One way to short-circuit the process,” he told me during a Vancouver interview recently, “would be to take the Beaudoin-Dobbie Committee report, if it’s unanimous, directly to the premiers, meeting in closed session with Bourassa as an observer. Then, if there is general agreement by Ontario and six other provinces to the proposals—and if it also finds favor with Quebec—referendums would be held simultaneously in each province. The federal Parliament would endorse the referendums, but they would be held under provincial auspices. Bourassa and the nationalists in Quebec would have be to satisfied that there is enough coming from the rest of Canada that they feel safe putting in place a deferral plan for their own referendum.”

Lougheed added: “What this means is that the package can’t be smaller than was offered by Meech Lake. It can be different from Meech Lake, but it can’t be any less or Bourassa will not be able to accept it.”

I hope Lougheed is right. But what Canada’s politicians have ignored or forgotten is that we Canadians are a strange people. Nearly every time freedom has been threatened anywhere on the globe, we’ve mobilized our best and brightest, dispatching them to defend or keep peace on some foreign shore. Yet, when the continued existence of our own country is threatened—as it now surely is—we stand back, yawn, scratch ourselves and wonder, “What else is new?”

We don’t like to be rushed. What other country took 98 years to decide on its flag and a full century to formally sanction the words of its national anthem? We like to move as slowly as the seasons, and wait for things to happen, rather than rushing to judgment.

Yet that’s precisely what we’re being asked to do. It doesn’t compute.