THE PREMIERS AND PRIME MINISTER SURPRISINGLY AGREE ON MANY MAJOR CHANGES
The latest instalment of Canada’s longest-running melodrama featured a familiar cast, a plot that mixed surprising twists with long stretches of tedious dialogue, and a still entirely uncertain conclusion. At times, the 17 principal characters—11 first ministers, two territorial representatives and four native leaders—seemed enthusiastic about their roles. At other times, they were disheartened or confused. And the early reaction from Canadians to their efforts ranged from mild encouragement to indifference or hostility. Despite that, the political leaders last week moved surprisingly close to the end of an often-wrenching episode in the country’s constitutional history. After a 10-hour session on Saturday, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney proclaimed: “We do not have perfection tonight, but we do have a fair and honorable compromise which will strengthen Canada.”
One by one, the other participants agreed. But they cautioned that agreements remain to be fleshed out in detail, beginning this week in Charlottetown. Over five days of negotiations in Ottawa, the leaders achieved a consensus by doing what most observers had thought was impossible: compromising in order to accommodate the vast differences in their clashing personal visions of Canada. If it holds, and then wins formal ratification, their agreement will produce a series of sweeping changes—in the country’s federal governing structure, in relations between Ottawa and the provinces, and in the daily lives of Canada’s one million native people. For millions of Canadians, the agreement also offers the hope of relief from an
acrimonious, exhausting constitutional debate.
In fact, the future of Canada will be seriously endangered if voters reject the proposal in any of the several provincial referendums that will have to be held before the agreement can take effect. The emotional and political repercussions from a “no” vote would almost certainly be far more widespread than the ill will caused by the 1990 collapse of the Meech Lake accord—when disappointed supporters of the agreement were able to pin the blame on a handful of elected officials. Rejection of the agreement in English Canada would certainly fuel the separatist cause in Quebec, a worry that led New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna to urge Canadians to “reflect on the balance of [the agreement] and the consequences of failure.” Said McKenna, referring to last week’s package: “There is no alternative that any of us have identified.”
For now, the package’s chances of survival rest on retaining the continued support of a palpably skittish group of first ministers. The most threatened are Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon, Alberta Premier Donald Getty and British Columbia Premier Michael Harcourt. Each of them faces strong criticism at home over the compromises they have made. In Quebec, nationalists suggest that Bourassa, by agreeing to a Senate with equal representation from each province, effectively renounced the province’s traditional vision of itself as home to one of Canada’s two founding linguistic groups (page 16). Filmon, Getty and Harcourt face a conflicting charge: that by agreeing to guarantee Quebec a permanent right to 25 per cent of the seats in the Commons, they have effectively granted that province special status (page 19). Declared a frustrated adviser to Mulroney: “If people in the West would read what the Quebec media are saying about this—or vice versa— they would each think they were getting the deal of a lifetime.”
In Robert Bourassa’s case, the belief that Quebec should have greater autonomy within Canada began at an early age. As a child growing up in a lower-middle-class Montreal neighborhood in the 1930s, he was struck by the
After five days of intense, closeddoor talks, Canada’s first ministers reached a general accord on constitutional reform. The tentative agreement included provisions for a reformed Senate with six members from each province, native self-government and a plan to give additional powers to the provinces. When the talks adjourned Saturday night, the negotiators announced broad agreement in principle on all major issues, but with details still to be settled in further talks. In other developments:
• Critics of the deal in Western Canada said that
the reformed Senate would have insufficient powers. Some Quebecers, meanwhile, complained that the province had failed in its bid for a massive transfer of federal powers.
• The value of the Canadian dollar rose, and Canadian bond prices registered sharp gains, after traders concluded that the country’s prolonged constitutional battle may be nearing an end.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“A camel is a strange animal, but it works—it has endurance.”
Conservative Senator Claude Castonguay, after critics said that the proposed new Senate resembled a horse designed by a committee—a camel.
fact that his father, a federal civil servant, was forced to work almost entirely in English. In the late 1950s, he discovered that his millionaire father-in-law still had to deal in English when he negotiated contracts with the federal government or wrote memos to his employees.
But unlike many Quebecers who lived through the Quiet Revolution, Bourassa did not succumb to the allure of separatism. Instead, he became a cautious and pragmatic federalist whose political instincts were shaped by his tutor at Oxford University in the 1950s—a pipe-smoking socialist named Harold Wilson, who later became Britain’s Prime Minister. During that period, Bourassa took to heart one of Wilson ’s favorite axioms-. “In politics, a week is a long time—and a year is an eternity. ” Often characterized as emotionless,
Bourassa, according to his friends, holds his convictions
dearly. But he is less concerned with the emotional aspects of political debate than with hard-edged realities. Said François Cloutier, a psychiatrist by profession and a key member of Bourassa ’s first cabinet in the early 1970s-. “He is willing to endorse virtually any kind of political system as long as it is one that works in economic terms and is fundamentally sound democratically. “
In many ways, the response to last week’s agreement resembled the fallout from the Meech Lake accord of April, 1987. Then, as now, Quebec nationalists accused Bourassa of failing to protect the province’s interests. Others bemoaned the closeddoor nature of the talks and their apparent haste. But the s latest deal is far broader in z scope than its predecessor. $ The Meech Lake round was
1 aimed entirely at winning
2 Quebec’s support for the con-
stitution in the wake of the province’s refusal to accept the 1981 constitutional deal. Some key elements in the current agreement:
• Reforms of both the Senate and the House of Commons. The Senate would become an elected body with six representatives from each province, one from each of the territories and, possibly, several native representatives. As compensation for its loss of senators in the existing body, Quebec would be given 18 more Commons seats and guaranteed that its Commons representation would never fall below 25 per cent of the total.
• A recognition of the right of aboriginals to govern themselves—and a commitment to create a third, nationally recognized level of government for aboriginals alongside the existing federal and provincial structures.
• An offer to transfer powers to provincial governments, including jurisdiction in areas such as immigration and telecommunications.
The final package promises each province a veto over any future changes to federal institutions. The veto will not apply to future provincial status for the two northern territories, but to the degree of their participation in federal bodies. As well, each province will have the right to apply some terms of the agreement
THE PREMIERS COMPROMISED IN THE SPIRIT OF NATIONAL UNITY
differently. Quebec, for one, has already signalled its unwillingness to allow its senators to be elected by the people. Instead, they would be chosen by members of the National Assembly as that chamber’s direct representatives.
For much of last week, Mulroney appeared withdrawn and sometimes distracted. He barely took part in the discussions that led to the agreement on Senate reform—prompting speculation that he opposed the agreement, but feared the political consequences of saying so. And Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark, who engineered what he termed a “historic” deal with the English premiers on July 7, only to see it gutted last week, remained virtually on the sidelines in the actual talks. It was a sharp contrast for a man who had played such a central role in earlier discussions—so much so that he has put on more than 20 lb. in the past two months because of a steady diet of junk food and lack of exercise, according to one aide.
Last week’s breakthrough resulted in part from an unlikely mix of new alliances and improved relations among the provincial delegations. As well, the English-speaking premiers feared the threat of Quebec separation and none of the players wanted to risk being singled out as the person who triggered the breakup of the country.
Those pressures encouraged each participant to remain flexible. A comment last Thursday by Inuit leader Rosemarie Kuptana to Newfoundland’s Clyde Wells captured the mood. Wells, who had expressed reservations about the issue of self-government for natives,
seemed isolated from the other premiers as they worked to put the final touches on the aboriginal package. According to an aide, Kuptana, the leader of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, approached the Newfoundland premier and said, “We are drafting language to accommo-
date your concerns. I just wanted you to know that.” Wells, evidently touched, thanked her.
But the premier made no secret of the fact that he was dissatisfied with last week’s agreements. Said Wells: “I haven’t been happy about anything that has been achieved. I would sooner see a Triple-E Senate. I would sooner see a more specific list on aboriginal powers. But it ended up that we all have to agree to try and get an overall resolution.”
Compromise—the word has not often been associated with Clyde Wells. His willingness to stand apart and his unwavering determination to stick to his principles—his critics call it inflexibility—have been the hallmarks of his legal and political careers. “To him politics isn’t just the art of the possible, ” says political scientist Mose Morgan, Wells’s former teacher and mentor at Memorial University in St. John ’s. “He has certain principles and he sticks to them.” That tenaciousness has marked Wells’s life. Born in the tiny Newfoundland railway town of Buchans Junction in 1937, he began his education in a one-room schoolhouse—and later rose to become one of Newfoundland’s best-known lawyers. But those who know him best say that Wells is not as unbending as his critics claim. “It isn’t a case of his being too rigid—he is convincible, ” noted Morgan. “He does his homework, takes his position and is willing to be convinced otherwise. ’’Morgan, for one, was not surprised by Wells’role in last week ’s negotiations. “As I knew all along, he didn’t have a bottom line, ” he said. “Wells is always ready to listen to intellectual arguments. Obviously, in this case, they were compelling. ”
In previous weeks, as the talks appeared stalemated, frictions among the first ministers intensified—often prompted more by the uncertain atmosphere than by any specific differ-
enees over issues. For one thing, many premiers believed that Mulroney was eager to see the talks fail—leaving him free to present his own proposals to the House of Commons. Aides to Ontario’s Bob Rae, meanwhile, privately poked fun at their counterparts in the Alberta delegation, describing their behavior as alternately “dumb” and “naive.” Similarly, members of the Alberta delegation poured scorn on the Manitoba group. Nova Scotia’s Donald Cameron also raised eyebrows within the group by distancing himself from the July 7 deal. At a meeting on Aug. 3, Cameron told his colleagues that they should bear in mind that he had “not shaken hands on anything and not signed anything.” Recalled one Alberta official: “No one could believe this guy. We just sat there and shook our heads.”
The most difficult problem facing the first ministers when they sat down last Tuesday in
Ottawa’s Lester B. Pearson building was the opening item on their agenda: the powers and the composition of a reformed Senate. The July 7 deal had called for an elected Senate that had effective powers. While a simple majority could defeat bills on natural resource taxation, most other legislation would die only if opposed by 70 per cent of the senators. That proposal delighted the premiers of Newfoundland, Manitoba and Alberta because it met their long-standing demands for a Triple-E Senate—elected, effective and equal. But Bourassa voiced strong opposition because Quebec’s share of Senate seats—each province would be entitled to eight—would plummet to less than 10 per cent from 23 per cent. He declared that the reforms suggested by his English Canadian counterparts ignored the
country’s fundamental partnership between Englishand French-speaking Canadians. Those two positions appeared impossible to reconcile: how could the Senate recognize the equality of the provinces without slighting one of the founding partners of Confederation?
For more than six weeks, politicians and bureaucrats wrestled with that dilemma, juggling complicated and often arcane formulas. In late July, New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna recommended that Quebec be given extra seats in the House of Commons to compensate for its loss of Senate seats. Then, Saskatchewan Justice Minister Robert Mitchell added an innovative modification: he proposed that the rest of Canada guarantee Quebec’s percentage of Commons seats in recognition of the province’s role as a founding nation. That proposal, which the first ministers referred to as the “Modified McKenna,” quiet-
ly aroused the interest of several key constitutional players. Mitchell told Maclean’s last week that he first explained the scheme to Alberta Intergovernmental Affairs Minister James Horsman. Horsman, the Saskatchewan politician said, raised no objections. Then, on Aug. 3, as the first ministers met privately for lunch at Mulroney’s summer retreat at Harrington Lake, north of Ottawa, Mitchell outlined his proposal to Jean-Claude Rivest, special adviser to Bourassa. “He was positive— but guarded,” recounted Mitchell.
Still, when the first ministers met last week, the rifts remained wide. In their opening statements, most of the premiers, including Ontario’s Rae, emphasized that they had no intention of abandoning the principle of an equal Senate. Getty, for his part, was categorical: unless the
premiers stuck to the equal Senate model, the entire conference was a waste of time.
Although a Quebecer by birth, Donald Getty, 58, has based his political career on his determination to strengthen the voice of the resourcerich West. Born in Montreal’s Westmount, then a wealthy anglophone enclave, and raised in Ontario, Getty moved to Edmonton in 1955 as an Imperial Oil junior executive—and the star quarterback of the Edmonton Eskimos football team. Twelve years later, inspired to enter politics by John F. Kennedy—he once told an interviewer that JFK “seemed to give a new lift to politics”—he won a seat in the provincial legislature. By 1971, he was a high-profile minister in the new Conservative government of Peter Lougheed, preparing to confront new foes. Those were turbulent times, as Ottawa and the West quarrelled bitterly over oil-pricing policies and their share of resource revenues. To Getty’s horror, Alberta lost: Ottawa maintained low oil prices to assist consumers and manufacturers in Central Canada—and the West lost billions of dollars in resource revenue. In retrospect, friends believe that the frustration and bitterness ofthat loss led Getty to an uncompromising position-, all provinces should have the same number of senators to reflect their equality.
Struggling to bridge the gap between Getty and Bourassa, individual premiers presented at least six variations of the equal Senate proposal. When it was Saskatchewan’s tum, Roy Romanow outlined the so-called Modica fied McKenna. Throughout si their recitals, Bourassa re? mained coolly silent. Then, to ¡5 his fellow premiers’ aston= ished relief, he began to deal. ° First, Bourassa asked for a constitutional guarantee of 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament—that is, 25 per cent of the total number of seats in the Senate and House of Commons. The other premiers stood their ground, refusing to go beyond the Modified McKenna. But they reduced the number of senators from each province to six from eight, adding 18 new Quebec MPs to compensate for the loss of 18 senators. And in another major concession, they dropped the proposal to allow the Senate to veto most legislation. Instead, they decided that the opposition of a simple majority of senators would trigger a joint parliamentary session which would decide the fate of legislation. Finally, they agreed to be guided by the principle of representation by population: that is, each province’s Commons seats should roughly reflect its share of the population.
Those three decisions created a mathemati-
cal nightmare which almost shattered the fragile deal: if Quebec received 18 new seats and a guaranteed 25 per cent, how many additional seats should other provinces receive? The premiers and their officials pulled out their calculators and their population charts. Quipped Mitchell outside the negotiating room: “I feel like I’ve landed in a convention of chartered accountants.” Finally, the majority agreed: they allotted 18 seats to Ontario, four to British Columbia and two to Alberta.
The momentum created by the Aug. 19 Senate breakthrough carried over to Thursday as the negotiators approached the second constitutional hurdle: the aboriginal package. As he had done a day earlier, Mulroney opened the session by emphasizing that the goal was a unanimous agreement. It was an ambitious target. The July 7 package had offered natives the right to govern themselves, but it did not define the limits of that commitment. The governments of Newfoundland and Quebec charged that the open-ended agreement would effectively allow judges to define those rights, and perhaps transfer ownership of land to native groups. Meanwhile, other provincial delegations were expressing unease about the first ministers’ failure to define or limit aboriginal powers.
Native leaders were alarmed. Although they viewed Clark as an ally, they were less sure of Mulroney’s sympathies. Indeed, despite the fact that Assembly of First Nations National Chief Ovide Mercredi, arriving an hour late for the morning session, had confidently flashed an upturned thumb, native leaders acknowledged that few of the premiers seemed strongly committed to their rights. In consequence, the entire package was in jeopardy. Said Mercredi before the talks: “The only premiers we can really count on are Rae and Romanow.”
As the meeting continued, various participants outlined their concerns. To reach a solution, the leaders—accompanied by their lawyers—broke off into a series of separate meetings. It was a striking departure from Mulroney’s traditional negotiating tactic of confining the principal players to the same room. But the talks deteriorated quickly into a confusing, and ultimately fruitless, effort. The sessions were abandoned by mid-afternoon.
Mulroney then turned to Rae—who for months has championed the native cause. The premiers broke into separate clusters, with Rae moving among them. At the main negotiating table, premiers who had no problems with the July 7 package—including McKenna and Prince Edward Island’s Joe Ghiz—patiently read other documents. Meanwhile, Rae, Mulroney and Clark met with Wells, Bourassa and the four aboriginal leaders in an adjoining room. Sometimes those participants conferred together, sometimes they huddled in smaller groups. Rae then borrowed a laptop computer from the Native Council of Canada and began to draft
compromise proposals as Mulroney and Mercredi leaned over his shoulder. But there were too many participants—and too many suggestions. In the end, Kuptana ushered everyone out of the room, leaving Rae to his solitary chore.
Throughout his 14-year political career, Bob Rae has exhibited a strong sense of obligation towards the less powerful and the less privileged. Born in 1948, Rae is the son of retired diplomat Saul Rae, the former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations. Friends say that Rae’s childhood, spent in his father’s succession of cultivated and luxurious diplomatic posts—complete with servants—later embarrassed him during his time as a Vietnam-era student activist. It also indelibly marked his legal and political career, including his approach to Canada’s constitutional woes. Be-
cause he shares a skilled diplomat’s dislike of fixed positions, he is a pragmatist who distrusts ideologies and who is willing to consider compromises—such as an equal Senate. And because of his strong sense of civic duty, and his conviction that the fortunate must help the less fortunate, Rae has always reached out to groups such as the aboriginals. Says his childhood friend, writer Michael Ignatieff: “Part of the sense of privilege that came with growing up around servants was also a sense that it was unearned. Some of Bob ’s choice to become active in politics has to do with that. ”
Thirty minutes later, the Ontario premier emerged with what subsequently proved to be the elements of a compromise. To reassure Wells, there were limits on the power of the courts to define self-government agreements. In cases where talks between native groups and provincial representatives had broken down, judges would be empowered to order the two sides to resume negotiations. But they
could not impose agreements unless it could be shown that the two parties had negotiated in bad faith. As well, courts could only devise selfgovernment agreements that respected the need to maintain “peace, order and good government.” Finally, the agreement stipulated that the right to self-government did not confer the right to additional land.
The earlier sour mood evaporated as soon as the negotiators reached an agreement. Although Mercredi had dismissed Bourassa as an “Indian fighter” in early August, he retracted his slight last week, saying, “I have a very high regard for him and always have.” In return, Bourassa vehemently defended his decision to endorse self-government in the face of hostile questions from several Quebec journalists.
But even with the premiers agreeing on such complex, controversial areas as Senate reform
and aboriginal rights, numerous hurdles remain. One overriding concern is the widespread cynicism towards politicians in general and the constitutional issue in particular. Frustrated voters may simply turn thumbs down on any proposal presented by their elected leaders.
The challenge for those leaders now lies in convincing their constituents to accept the same compromises. Last week’s settlement was the result of hundreds of hours of meetings by politicians who had come to accept the need for flexibility and delicate trade-offs to preserve the country. Until now, their inability to reach a deal made them convenient scapegoats for the ongoing unity crisis. Soon, Canadians may have to choose between accepting their leaders’ vision of a redrawn Canada—or finding someone else to blame.
E. KAYE FULTON