He sat with his back to his diningroom window—casting a silhouette that struck a familiar, animated pose in the St. John's evening last week. For almost three hours over dinner at his home on Wednesday, Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells made it clear to his visitor, Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark, that he strongly objected to key elements in the fledgling federal proposal for a renewed Canada. It was not the first occasion that a dinner guest from Ottawa with a deadline to meet faced the prospect of leaving Wells’s table unsatisfied. On June 21, 1990, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney failed to derail the unbudging criticisms of the Liberal premier that led, in large part, to the collapse of the Meech Lake accord the next day. Confronted with a similar task almost two years later, Clark fared no better. The two men, flushed from their disputes as they met reporters, conceded an impasse on four topics, including the issue of a Quebec veto over Senate reform. Said Wells: “I don’t see anything wrong with being alone. I operate on the basis that people may well have different opinions.”
Clark’s unsatisfactory dinner conversation was yet another bad omen for those Canadians who fear that the fragile web of constitutional talks are close to collapse. Still, provincial and federal officials continued private negotiations in an effort to salvage a compromise based on the 64-point draft proposal agreed to during the last round of formal negotiations earlier this month. But some of Mulroney’s senior advisers told Maclean ’s that they anticipate a continued constitutional stalemate. Ottawa’s likely response: the presentation of a unilateral, and different, constitutional package to the House of Commons by as early as July 15. Among the elements of the package Ottawa is considering are regional vetos—with Atlantic Canada, the West, Quebec and Ontario defined as separate regions—over future changes to national institutions; a Senate with equal representation by province, but with weighted votes favoring the more populous provinces; and strengthened terms of an economic union to ensure the dismantlement of interprovincial trade barriers. Also under discussion is a pared-down and more precisely defined aboriginal self-government package, even though native leaders said that Clark assured them last week that the current aboriginal agreement would stand.
Ordeal: A constitutional stalemate—and subsequent unilateral action—may very well suit the Mulroney government’s agenda. Senior officials say that the federal government is now balking at some of the agreements reached over four months of negotiations with native organizations and nine provinces. The estimated $ 100-million process of public consultation launched after the demise of Meech Lake has produced a half-completed and cumbersome shopping list that some officials now say gives too much to aboriginals and too little to Quebec. The advisers add that private polls show that public support for native self-government is falling sharply in the absence of practical details. At the same time, Tory strategists are clearly mindful of public opinion, especially the overwhelming desire to end the constitutional ordeal. Armed with polls that suggest that Canadians are increasingly optimistic about the nation’s future, those strategists now say that the country may be willing to accept a unilateral federal offer.
But echoes of past troubles continue to haunt the participants in the durent turmoil. Sources close to Wells say that Clark, when he signed the premier’s guest book, took note of a familiar signature—that of former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, a passionate critic of decentralized government who had dined with Wells three evenings earlier. Then, on the day after the Clark-Wells dinner, the constitutional affairs minister threatened Newfoundlanders in two public speeches, saying that the beleaguered province had the most to lose if the unity talks failed and Quebec separated from the rest of Canada. In particular, Clark painted bleak scenarios of the effects on the stalled Hibernia offshore oil project and the devastated East Coast fishery, evoking memories of the 1990 pro-Meech campaign when federal cabinet ministers crisscrossed Newfoundland with similar predictions.
The Tories’ aim then was to isolate Wells; the current strategy is clearly the same. As Clark told a business group in the small community of Foxtrap, 25 km west of St. John’s, “If we are suddenly a broken country, we will not be able to achieve internationally the agreements we need.” Such dire warnings will likely increase if, as expected, Wells puts his personal objections to a constitutional deal to the Newfoundland public in a provincial referendum. Declared Wells after his dinner with Clark: “If I can’t accept what the clear majority of the people of this province want, my responsibility is to resign and make way for somebody who will.”
Other governments may also take their case to the people. Ottawa and five provinces have initiated or set in place the legislative mechanisms required to hold public referendums on constitutional proposals. But the federal Conservatives, fearful of a backlash of voter dissatisfaction with their eight years in power, are wary of a national referendum. Instead, federal officials say that they prefer to split the constitutional package and pass the proposals one at a time, if necessary, despite Clark’s repeated public declarations that agreement must be reached on the entire deal.
Weary: Political reputations also hang in the balance. In an apparently halfhearted gesture of compromise, Alberta Premier Donald Getty, who has insisted that Alberta will not budge from its demand for an equal, effective and elected Senate, sought independent advice last week on a Saskatchewan proposal that would give all provinces an equal number of seats— but weight their votes in accordance with their population. That advice straddled two extreme points of view, expressed in a 90-minute meeting with Quebec businessman Claude Beauchamp, who favors an equal but weighted Senate, and the Calgary-based Canada West Foundation, which strongly supports the socalled Triple E proposal. Observers say that Getty, who faces an election as early as this fall, is under mounting pressure to emerge unscathed from the constitutional talks. Said University of Calgary historian David Bercuson: “He needs a victory very badly. If not a victory, then he needs to go down in flames with honor and glory.”
Despite reservations about some aspects of the package, federal opposition parties appear unwilling—or too weary—to fight. Constitutional critics from both the Liberals and the NDP told Maclean’s that they are prepared to support the 64 items of the draft proposal, even though they are uncertain of the legal ramifications. In addition, the two parties are unperturbed by the possibility that Ottawa may act alone. Said Liberal critic André Ouellet: “There’s no excuse for not settling this. We have no strategy. We want a deal. This thing has been going on too long.” For his part, NDP spokesman Lome Nystrom acknowledged that “there are a lot of unanswered questions.” But he added that the NDP will support the government’s proposals, even though “there are going to be some things that we will probably live to regret.”
Acrimony: Meanwhile, the hurried negotiations continue. On the weekend of June 13, Clark met secretly with Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa at the Liberal leader’s Montreal home. As well, federal constitutional officials continued to brief their Quebec counterparts by telephone. Said a senior federal adviser: “Quebec said that they would not go back to the table. But they have never stopped working with the provinces and the federal government—they have truly behaved like they were in a federation.” With the constitutional talks seemingly headed towards greater acrimony, such positive sentiments may become increasingly rare.
E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa with ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Ottawa and RUSSELL WANGERSKY in St. John’s
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