CANADA

APPROACHING A CROSSROAD

A NEW SENATE PROPOSAL WILL GALVANIZE DEBATE THIS WEEK-AND PERHAPS RESTORE REALITY

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 13 1992
CANADA

APPROACHING A CROSSROAD

A NEW SENATE PROPOSAL WILL GALVANIZE DEBATE THIS WEEK-AND PERHAPS RESTORE REALITY

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 13 1992

It was a welcome interlude in the saga of a people too often torn between arguing over the past and anguishing over the future. From Newfoundland to British Columbia, Canadians last week celebrated the country’s 125th anniversary with passion and enthusiasm—and with disdain for their politicians. Two days earlier, at a 24 Sussex Drive luncheon, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the premiers from all provinces except Quebec agreed only that the premiers would gather at week’s end in Toronto to again try to break the logjam over constitutional reform. The result of that meeting was a new proposal for Senate reform—and the premiers undertook to meet again for further talks this week. Meanwhile, across the country, Canadians angrily voiced their impatience with the drawn-out deliberations. Said Angela Grenier, a 36-year-old Montreal physiotherapist who attended that city’s Canada Day parade: “It makes me sick to think that we might lose it all because of a bunch of stupid politicians.”

Among the premiers, the mood was sombre. By week’s end, they were wrestling with a complex model for Senate reform, juggling intricate formulas for seating and powers. But those concerns aroused little interest among the millions of participants who took part in record-sized Canada Day celebrations. The festivities ranged from singing in the rain in St. John’s, Nfld., and sharing a 500 kg birthday cake in Montreal to a citizenship ceremony for 125 new Canadians in Vancouver. Many who attended said that they celebrated partly out of sheer love of their country—and partly to make a point to their leaders. At Ottawa’s downtown Flag Shop, where sales of Canadian flags were up more than 50 per cent over last year, owner Thomas Montgomery declared: “Customers are talking about the fact that we cannot leave the country up to a bunch of politicians.”

For their part, the premiers tried gamely to demonstrate that the country’s future was, indeed, safe in their hands. After a daylong meeting in Toronto, they emerged with a revised model for reform of the appointed upper chamber. Under the newest proposal, the elected Senate would have eight members from each province. A simple majority could defeat House of Commons legislation that fundamentally altered the taxation of natural resources or the tax system itself; 60 per cent would be required to veto legislation in eight areas including immigration; and 75 per cent could veto legislation in all remaining areas. As well, the House of Commons would expand to reflect Canada’s population: Ontario would receive 10 additional seats; Alberta and British Columbia would receive three seats each and Quebec would receive one. New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna hailed the proposal: “The logjam, temporarily at least, has been broken.” But Ontario Premier Bob Rae remarked that key elements of the package were unacceptable—especially the provision of an absolute Senate veto over Commons legislation. Said Rae: “No one, certainly not this premier, is prepared to give away the store.”

Still, the premiers agreed that there was room for compromise. They decided that their intergovernmental affairs ministers would confer with Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark in Ottawa early this week, after which the premiers themselves would meet. If the governments cannot agree, Ottawa has undertaken to produce its own package of draft proposals for July 15. Those proposals would likely be put to the nation in a referendum in early September. Warned British Columbia Premier Michael Harcourt: “If we do not come to some solutions, then the federal government may put forward something that may not be satisfactory.”

Rarely have the country’s politicians and their constituents seemed so out of step with each other. Two years ago, after the collapse of the Meech Lake constitutional accord, July 1 was marked by a massive display of angry sovereigntist support in Quebec and an air of uncertainty in much of the rest of the country. Last week, the mood among Canada’s leaders remained gloomy. Mulroney and others have warned repeatedly that unless a constitutional solution emerges soon, the future of Canada will be even more perilous than it was in 1990. And in Quebec, Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau and other nationalists have tried to use the stalled constitutional talks to renew support for sovereignty. But few people seem to be listening to either side.

In fact, the dominant feature of both the St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations in Quebec on June 24 and the Canada Day festivities a week later was a pronounced lack of interest in political messages of any kind. At Montreal’s Fête nationale parade, traditionally a barometer of sovereigntist support, only 125,000 people marched, compared with 350,000 in 1990. And a majority of commentators in the francophone media savaged the parade, calling it heavy-handed and overly nationalistic. Benoît Aubin, a columnist for The Gazette and Maclean’s sister publication, L’actualité, said that the event “was an example of what you get when militant ideologues plan your fun: public entertainment, Soviet-style.” Added Aubin: “Kids wanted helium-filled balloons; they were offered placards demanding an early referendum on sovereignty.” As well, only 13,000 people showed up for a separate post-parade march called to demonstrate direct support for sovereignty.

Similarly, many people who took part in Canada Day celebrations appeared dismissive of the tone and content of the current constitutional debate. In Ottawa, where Queen Elizabeth II took part in the festivities, the crowds on Parliament Hill were largest for events that had little to do with politics or politicians. And although Mulroney and the Queen both won applause when they spoke in favor of national unity, the warmest ovation was reserved for the Queen’s praise of Canada’s peacekeeping forces now serving in the former Yugoslavia.

The 70,000 people on Parliament Hill who cheered an evening program of fireworks and some of the country’s top entertainers constituted the biggest celebration, but other centres also drew large crowds. In Montreal, a Canada Day parade organized privately by a local surgeon, Dr. Roopnarine Singh, drew its largest turnout in 14 years. Singh himself drew one of the loudest ovations when he declared that the country’s political leaders appeared to be “constitutionally constipated.”

In Calgary, about 10,000 people braved cool, overcast weather to attend a celebration in the city’s downtown Prince’s Island Park. Despite Alberta Premier Donald Getty’s insistence that a Triple E Senate—equal, elected and effective—must be part of any new constitutional accord, many people said that the country should not be held hostage by that demand.Declared Patrick Bartsch, a 30-year-old oil company systems analyst: “I see no need for Getty to jeopardize the country on the Senate issue.” He added: “Politicians get it all wrong. I cannot see how they claim we are in such a critical mess as a country.”

In sharp contrast with past years, when most major Quebec entertainers shunned July 1 events, many of the top names at Canada Day festivities were young francophone entertainers with large followings in that province. Participants in nationally televised Canada Day celebrations included pop singers Julie Masse, Roch Voisine, Céline Dion, Mitsou and Kathleen—both of whom go by their first names only. Quebec actress Dorothée Berryman anchored the celebrations on Parliament Hill.

Dion, who is developing an international reputation for her English songs, entered the national unity debate last week when she declared that Quebec’s separation from Canada would be “appalling.” Other Quebecers have been sharply criticized in their home province for participating in federally sponsored television advertisements promoting travel to other parts of Canada. Among them is Montreal filmmaker Denys Arcand, who accepted an unspecified but minimal fee for appearing in a TV commercial praising the Rocky Mountains and skiing at Whistler, B.C.

That evoked a petulant response from entertainment critic Nathalie Petrowski of the tiny arch-nationalist daily Le Devoir, who said that she “could understand that one would sell himself at high price to promote a car, or brand of beer—but selling Canada without being paid for it is beyond me.”

Last week, those travel ads led to further controversy. Acadian singer Edith Butler—a self-described Quebec sovereigntist—claimed that she had been “tricked” into appearing to promote national unity with her appearance in a federally sponsored television commercial to promote tourism in Canada. Still, the generally conciliatory tone of the week was enough to give hope to even such an acerbic observer as author Mordecai Richler. Richler, whose latest book, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, forecast an uncertain future for the country, wrote in a Wall Street Journal essay recently that he is now more optimistic.

One reason, he said, is the combined frustration of anglophones and francophones who would “happily load [all politicians] into an open boat in Hudson Bay with a box of biscuits and a week’s supply of fresh water.” Even as their political leaders remain divided, that is a sentiment that appears to unite an increasing number of Canadians.