COVER

Atlantic Canadians show hints of desperation

JOHN DeMONT November 13 1995
COVER

Atlantic Canadians show hints of desperation

JOHN DeMONT November 13 1995

Atlantic Canadians show hints of desperation

The office workers seemed to sleepwalk their way past the shops on Spring Garden Road in Halifax last week. The drinkers tipped less at The Lunar Rogue pub in Fredericton; the callers sounded more tense than usual on Bill Rowe’s St. John’s, Nfld., radio talk show, and the regular morning crowd was downright cranky at the Tim Hortons in Montague, P.E.I. Atlantic Canadians

had trouble shaking the fatigue that came from sitting in front of the TV set until well after midnight—nearly 2 a.m. Newfoundland time— before the No side finally sealed its victory. The razor-thin win brought relief and sleep—but not enough of either to overshadow the sinking feeling that, even if the country holds together, the region is staggering towards a doubtful future. A cartoon in the Halifax Daily News captured the mood just right: “The Maritimes will either get screwed if Quebec goes,” said a raccoon-eyed Lucien Bouchard, “or remain screwed if Quebec stays.”

It was an old complaint from people who have griped since entering Confederation about their treatment by the rest of Canada. Now, at least, they have a point: even if Quebec stays, the inevitable push towards decentralization will mean lower equalization and transfer payments for the eternally depressed region. Last week, hints of desperation could be glimpsed amid the relief. How else to interpret the news that New Brunswick Premier Prank McKenna—who campaigned vigorously for the No side—planned to send “special teams” of investment officers into Quebec to lure away nervous businesses? Or the sudden interest expressed by academics, media commentators and even Nova Scotia Premier John Savage in banding together and forging greater economic and political ties among the normally intensely territorial provinces?

No one could doubt the sincerity of the thousands of Maritimers who travelled to the Montreal unity rally three days before the vote, or the politicians who offered to make whatever concessions are needed to appease Quebec. Through the long decades of constitutional wrangling, some of the staunchest voices for Canadian unity have come from the Atlantic region. But last week, with Quebec opting to stay by only a whisker, all the emotion had drained away, leaving only the dull ache of the dayafter hangover.

Not everyone is as stubborn as Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells, who drove the No side into a state of apoplexy with his late-campaign statements against granting special status to Quebec. But he unmistakably struck a chord in his home province, where quibbling about arcane constitutional matters can seem a touch absurd when entire villages are on government support and the unemployment rate of 18.9 per cent is more than double the national average.

Whether it is fatigue, exasperation or simply anger, patience is running thin at the eastern end of the embattled land. ‘When we voted to join the country back in 1949, it £ was by 7,000 votes,” says Bill Rowe, the Newfoundland I broadcaster and journalist. “It was good enough for us. So 5 what is all the fuss about?” The hangover lingers.

JOHN DeMONT in Halifax