CLYDE WELLS’S STEADFAST VIEWS ON NATIONAL UNITY PROVOKE BOTH ANGER AND ADMIRATION
OTTAWA’S BAD BOY
CLYDE WELLS’S STEADFAST VIEWS ON NATIONAL UNITY PROVOKE BOTH ANGER AND ADMIRATION
Clyde Wells seemed calm and resolute as he sipped tea in his tasteful St. John’s office last week. Dressed conservatively in a blue pinstripe suit, crisp white shirt and red paisley tie, the cherub-faced Liberal Newfoundland premier showed few signs of the energy-draining bout of flu that had dogged him in recent days—or of the immense pressure being exerted on him to abandon his objections to the unfinished national unity agreement. But in spite of his composure, Wells was clearly feeling the strain as he prepared to travel to Ottawa for an informal first ministers’ meeting early this week. The former constitutional lawyer told Maclean’s that he is troubled by the possibility that he will be seen as the main obstacle to a resolution of Canada’s constitutional crisis—a perception that the federal Conservative government is attempting to foster. “You can’t help but ask yourself, ‘Am I fair in taking this or that position—or just being obstinate or stubborn?’ ” he said. Wells provided his own answer: “My objective has only been to ensure that we put in place a constitutional structure that provides for a balanced treatment for all.”
To many Canadians, that commitment to principle has made Wells a national folk hero— a man of integrity unwilling to bow to daunting political challenges. Since his steadfast opposition to the Meech Lake accord, which in large part helped to kill the constitutional deal in June, 1990, thousands of letters and faxes of support have poured into his office. If anything, the flow of mail has increased during the current constitutional negotiations, as Ottawa has increased its attempts to convince the 54year-old premier to abandon some of his positions, especially his insistence on the need for an elected, equal and effective Senate and his unbending opposition to Quebec’s demand for a veto over future constitutional change. But convincing Wells to compromise will not be easy. Noted Brian Peckford, a former Newfoundland premier who now works as an oilindustry consultant in St. John’s: “He is an extremely strong-willed person who will never change his mind if he believes in a position.” Wells’s unshakable position on the Constitution was forged during his history and political science studies at Memorial University in St.
John’s and later at Dalhousie University law school in Halifax. It hardened during his years as a highly paid lawyer in Newfoundland. Indeed, he says that his stand throughout the constitutional debate has been grounded in the belief that all Canadians are equal—and that there should be no special powers for any constituent parts of the federation.
That view largely explains why Wells remains one of the strongest proponents of the so-called Triple E Senate. In fact, he remains firmly opposed to any other proposal for reforming the upper chamber, including one now under consideration that would give weighted votes to the more populous provinces. Declares Wells: “To suggest that a member from
one province have two or three times the voting power as a member from another province is just horrendous.”
Even more troublesome from Ottawa’s point of view is Wells’s unbending opposition to a Quebec veto—a basic condition of Premier Robert Bourassa. Most of the constitutional changes now under consideration—including Senate reform—require the approval of Ottawa and seven provinces containing 50 per cent of the population, and could be effected without Wells’s support. (But a provincial veto requires unanimity among the provinces and Ottawa.) In fact, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney says that
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney intervened in the national unity debate by declaring his intention to recall Parliament on July 15 to consider a new constitutional package. Mulroney said that the package, preferably, will be based on a consensus reached at a meeting this week with the premiers, but added that he will act alone if they are unable to reach agreement. In other developments:
•Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark said that Alberta Premier Donald Getty was putting national unity at risk with his insistence on a
Triple E (elected, effective and equal) Senate. Getty responded angrily, stating that Clark and other Alberta Conservative MPS had abandoned the interests of their home province.
•Ottawa has purchased $2.2 million worth of advertising space on outdoor billboards and bus shelters across Canada. The eight-week ad campaign is set to run in September and October, the most likely time for a national unity referendum.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK “In the end, the Parliament of Canada must speak for all Canadians.”
—Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, on why Ottawa is prepared to proceed with its own constitutional reform package
he is prepared to introduce a constitutional package in Parliament on July 15 if the current round of first ministers’ discussions fail.
But Wells told Maclean’s that he can go some way towards meeting Quebec’s concerns. He is willing, he says, to give that province extra voting powers in a reformed Senate on constitutional changes involving culture, language or civil law. Still, he adds that he can never agree to an outright veto for Quebec alone, or even a veto for all of the provinces. Declared Wells: “Once one part of the country or one group seeks privileged position, then everyone else seeks to use the same standard and says, how much can I get for me instead of what is best for the nation and the people.” The determined premier has other concerns, as well. Although he says that he advocates aboriginal self-government, he is critical of the tentative and largely undefined agreement reached during recent negotiations to enshrine the right to self-government in the Constitution. Said Wells: “You can’t have an ethereal right that is wandering around with aboriginal persons wherever they happen to be in the country at any point in time. It has to be limited to some land base.”
Other politicians and officials across the country are also expressing private reservations about some aspects of the national unity package hammered out by Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark, the provinces and
aboriginal groups. Noted former Ontario premier David Peterson, who was a proponent of the Meech Lake accord and is now practising law in Toronto: “There are lots of thoughtful people looking at various parts of the proposals—and not liking various parts.” But old grudges die hard, and Peterson, for one, says that the current constitutional stalemate could have been avoided if the Meech accord had been approved. As for its demise, he lays the blame squarely on Wells’s shoulders. “My complaint with Wells is that he caused this whole God damned mess,” Peterson says. “I do not expect Clyde will ever change his mind or ever admit that he was wrong, but everyone else in the room understood the consequences of the failure of Meech.”
Wells’s critics now maintain that his unwillingness to compromise may ultimately doom a new agreement. And there is no disputing that Wells’s refusal to bend has marked his legal and political career. In 1968, he resigned from Newfoundland Premier Joseph Smallwood’s cabinet because he disagreed with aspects of Smallwood’s plan to industrialize the province. A decade later, Wells again showed his independent streak when, as a member of the Canadian Bar Association’s constitutional committee, he dissented from its proposal that the Senate be replaced with a body appointed by the provinces.
For his part, the premier denies that he has
ever put his principles ahead of the good of the country. During the critical Meech Lake meetings two years ago, he says, “Newfoundland compromised and compromised and compromised—and there was not a single iota of compromise by Quebec.” And he acknowledges that he has not relished being portrayed as inflexible—and as a barrier to national unity. “I feel badly that I am perceived in this light,” he says. “But in the end, I take a great deal of comfort from the fact that every assessment of the judgment of the Canadian people is that at least two-thirds of them would support the view that I have been taking.”
In his home province, the premier certainly continues to enjoy the general support of many people. According to a poll conducted in the first week of May by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates Inc., 60 per cent of Newfoundlanders say that they are satisfied with the Wells government. Some analysts say that the strong approval rating is largely a result of the uninspired performance of Newfoundland’s opposition parties (Wells’s Liberals hold 34 of the legislature’s 52 seats, compared with 17 for the Conservatives and one for the NDP). And there are Newfoundlanders who complain that Wells spends too much time focusing on the Constitution. Declared Roy Anderson, 49, a fisherman in Chance Cove, 100 km northwest of St. John’s: “I can’t find any fish to catch. What do I care how many senators there are up in Ottawa?”
For the most part, though, Newfoundlanders appear supportive of Wells’s constitutional hard line—and angered by Ottawa’s campaign to isolate the premier. In recent weeks, both Clark and federal Fisheries Minister John Crosbie have visited Newfoundland to paint grim pictures of what Quebec’s separation would mean to the Newfoundland economy. But analysts say that Wells, like other Newfoundland politicians before him, is likely to score political points by continuing to stand up to Ottawa. Indeed, after Wells’s tough anti-Meech Lake stand in the summer of 1990, his government’s approval rating soared to 82 per cent from 50 per cent a year earlier.
The premier has repeatedly said that he would campaign across Canada against a constitutional deal that he believed was against the country’s best interests. Even before Ottawa introduced legislation authorizing a national referendum, Wells said that he might ask Newfoundlanders to vote on a proposed national unity deal—and he has pledged to abide by the results. But most analysts say that Newfoundlanders will almost certainly follow their strong-willed premier’s lead—and especially if they perceive Wells to be singled out by Ottawa as a constitutional bogeyman. Declared former premier Peckford: “I suspect that Newfoundlanders would support Mr. Wells’s position.” Armed with that popular backing and letters from across the country applauding his constitutional stand, Wells will clearly remain in the constitutional spotlight for some time to come.
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