CANADA

OPENING JITTERS

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 28 1992
CANADA

OPENING JITTERS

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 28 1992

OPENING JITTERS

CANADA

THE ‘YES’ SIDE FIGHTS BACK AFTER A SHAKY START TO THE REFERENDUM CAMPAIGN

As he rose to begin his eighth speech of the day, Health Minister Benoît Bouchard was visibly exhausted, his voice strained and hoarse. In earlier appearances before college students and other young Quebecers along Montreal’s south shore, Bouchard’s calls for a “yes” vote in the Oct. 26 referendum on constitutional reform had been met with skepticism and, on occasion, hostility. But the 250 people who gathered in the strongly nationalist Montreal suburb of Boucherville last week were middle-aged, middle-class and more receptive. In a hotel room lined with Conservative posters and photographs of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his wife, Mila, they applauded sporadically while Bouchard, Labor Minister Marcel Danis and junior employment minister Monique Vézina praised the new proposals. Declared Bouchard, who supported sovereignty-association in the 1980 Quebec referendum: “If the ‘yes’ carries the day, I will not feel any less a Quebecer by feeling more Canadian.”

That public appearance marked the unofficial launch of the federal government’s Quebec campaign to sell the Charlottetown accord. It also sent a strong signal that the “yes” side was preparing a full-scale effort to counter growing resistance to the proposal in Quebec and pockets of the rest of the country. This week, Mulroney will make quick election-campaign-

style visits to British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec to promote specific aspects of the proposed reforms. Meanwhile, Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark continues to crisscross the country, and External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall will stress the need for Canada to ratify the accord during a scheduled appearance this week before the UN General Assembly in New York City. And Maclean’s has learned that this week the federal “yes” committee will announce the appointment of a group of prominent Canadians, including former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, former UN ambassador Yves Fortier, and former Supreme Court of Canada justice Bertha Wilson, as advisory members.

For most of last week, however, the stillnascent “yes” campaign appeared to be sputtering. Acknowledged one Mulroney associate: “There is no question that the ‘no’ people have made a lot more noise than us so far.” That pattern continued with Reform Party of Canada Leader Preston Manning, for one, challenging Mulroney to a TV debate on the accord. Organizers for the “yes” campaign blamed their slow start on a combination of complex logistics and the delicate sensibilities involved in building a coalition involving different political parties, as well as business and labor groups that are usually sharply at odds with one another. Said one “yes” committee organizer: “It is not always easy making arrangements that satisfy everyone from (Liberal MP) Sheila Copps to (Fisheries Minister) John Crosbie.”

In Quebec, where the referendum will be run under provincial rules, the “yes” committee’s efforts are handicapped by the organizational weakness of all three major federal parties. Of the province’s 75 federal ridings, 56 are now held by the Conservatives. But much of the Tories’ organizational support during general election campaigns comes from members of the Parti Québécois—who will be working against them in the referendum campaign. The federal New Democratic Party is almost nonexistent in the province—indeed, the provincial NDP broke with the national party last year and supports the “no” side—and the oncepowerful federal Liberals have only skeleton organizations in many ridings.

Premier Robert Bourassa’s provincial Liber-

CANADA WATCH

Quebec occupied centre stage in the first formal week of the Oct. 26 referendum debate as Premier Robert Bourassa attempted to fend off charges that his officials are profoundly dissatisfied with last month’s Charlottetown constitutional accord—and with his performance at the negotiating table. The uproar stemmed from published reports of a telephone conversation between two senior Quebec civil servants, apparently taped without the knowledge of either one.

• Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark said

that although he is willing to entertain demands by the disabled that they be recognized in the Canada clause, no changes will be made to the clause until after the Oct. 26 referendum.

• Elections Canada enumeration for the referendum will take place from Oct. 2 to Oct. 7.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK “It was as if someone broke into my office, cracked the safe and made the contents public. A robbery of my mind has been committed.”

Diane Wilhelmy, Quebec’s outgoing deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs, commenting on the fact that her telephone conversation had been taped and publicized.

als are responsible for co-ordinating the “yes” campaign, but they also face internal problems. Several prominent Liberals have already announced their intention to work for the “no” side. Although Liberal organizers say that there have been relatively few such defections, there is widespread disappointment among party members over the constitutional deal.

By contrast, Mulroney’s nationalist Quebec caucus—which has been notably silent on unity issues in the past—appears to be strongly supportive of the package. Said one Tory cabinet minister: “It is very encouraging—and frankly a bit surprising—to see how well that support is holding.” Even Defence Minister Marcel Masse, who is disliked outside his home province because of his nationalist sentiments, is expected to deliver several high-profile speeches on behalf of the agreement.

The Tories also hope to blunt the impact of Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard by having popular Environment Minister Jean Charest follow him on speaking engagements. Charest, a favorite of Mulroney, is said to detest Bouchard because he feels betrayed by the former Tory cabinet minister’s

conduct during the unsuccessful campaign to revive the Meech Lake accord in 1990. At the time, Charest chaired a parliamentary committee that was trying to save the accord, and relied heavily on Bouchard for advice. But in spite of their close working relationship, Charest later told friends, Bouchard gave him no advance notice when he suddenly quit the Tories and bitterly denounced the Charest committee’s work. As Charest once told an acquaintance: “The bastard never had the guts to say anything to my face.”

Outside Quebec, the principal challenge facing the “yes” forces is the widespread public cynicism towards politicians. Mulroney’s advisers acknowledge the danger that if he takes too active a role in the campaign, Canadians could see the referendum as a vote on his leadership— with potentially disastrous consequences. But there is also little enthusiasm in much of the country for other federal or provincial leaders. Said New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna in an inter| view: “Most of us are a lot more popular outside our u home provinces than we are o in them.” As a result, much of g the “yes” committee’s ef§. forts will be aimed at winning

support from local political leaders, and service groups that are usually apolitical.

In Quebec, Bourassa’s own credibility was severely tested last week by successive leaks to the media that suggested that two of his most senior advisers were privately disappointed by the accord. In a conversation apparently taped without the knowledge of either participant, Diane Wilhelmy, Quebec’s deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs, and a second, unidentified adviser, agreed that Bourassa should have walked out of the negotiations rather than accept the package. An unidentified source gave the tape to Quebec City radio station CJRP, which was banned from airing it after Wilhelmy obtained a Quebec Superior Court injunction preventing its broadcast or publication. But The Globe and Mail subsequently published excerpts from the transcript in its editions outside Quebec, and within a day, photocopies of the article were selling on Montreal streets for $5 a copy.

Later, a series of Quebec media outlets simultaneously obtained a leaked report of remarks made by André Tremblay, one of Bourassa’s principal constitutional advisers, in a private meeting with officials of the Quebec Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 14. In his appearance, Tremblay said that Bourassa was so exhausted during the final stages of the negotiations that he was unable to understand and speak English clearly. Late last week, Tremblay insisted that his remarks had been taken out of context, and he defended the accord. He also declined to confirm or deny

whether he was the unidentified person in the taped conversation with Wilhelmy. Quivering with emotion, he bitterly criticized the media for making his private remarks public, declaring: “I feel that I have been raped.”

Similarly, the federal government was forced to defend itself against an opposition assault early in the week following the publication in Maclean ’s of a transcript of an Aug. 26 conference call in which senior aides to federal cabinet ministers discussed Ottawa’s strategy to win support for the North American Free Trade Agreement. No sooner had that controversy begun to fade than Quebec’s largest

women’s organization released a transcript of a conversation in which the principal adviser to Secretary of State Robert de Cotret threatened to cut off the group’s federal funding if it did not renounce its support for Quebec sovereignty. De Cotret later said that the call was a “misunderstanding,” and that the group would keep its federal funding of $105,000.

Those incidents left organizers of the “yes” campaign politically bruised. In addition, they face the challenge of winning over many Canadians whose minds apparently have been made up without considering the accord’s contents. In one fiery exchange at a junior college in St.Hyacinthe, Que., a pro-sovereigntist student told Bouchard the proposals were “shit,” and angrily challenged him to explain how they would help Quebec. Snapped Bouchard: “Sit down for a couple of hours and read it. At least you will be opposed to something you have understood.” For both supporters and opponents of the accord, that clash underscored the danger that the referendum campaign will be dominated far more by passion than by reason.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

with GLEN ALLEN in Boucherville and LUKE FISHER in Ottawa

GLEN ALLEN

LUKE FISHER