Victory in the referendum in Quebec led to a new showdown

October 21 1996


Victory in the referendum in Quebec led to a new showdown

October 21 1996




In the days immediately following the Quebec referendum on Oct. 30, 1995, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien worked feverishly behind the scenes to secure a coalition of premiers in favor of a

reform package of constitutional measures. Against the prevailing advice of his senior cabinet ministers and his caucus, Chrétien became increasingly desperate to deliver on the promises he made at a pre-referendum rally in Verdun, Que., on Oct. 24. Chrétien got the support of Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow and calculated that he could count on four other provinces. What he was

not prepared for was the response of Ontario’s Mike Harris, who broke with the province’s long tradition of playing the broker between Quebec and the rest of English-speaking Canada. The con-

sequences of Chrétien’s failure and Harris’s action are still being played out. But the inside account of the drama is detailed in Double Vision, to be published later this month, by reporters Edward Greenspon, Ottawa bureau chief of The Globe and Mail, and Anthony Wilson-Smith, Ottawa editor of Maclean’s. The following excerpt is from a chapter titled “Après le déluge. ”

Victory in the referendum in Quebec led to a new showdown

On the morning after the referendum, Jean Chrétien was up and at his desk in his study at 24 Sussex Drive shortly after 7 a.m., as usual. Ahead of him lay a quick caucus meeting at 8 a.m., followed by an all-day cabinet session. Chrétien was determined to move swiftly on his commitments to Quebec. He had promised in the final week of the campaign to

grant Quebec formal recognition as a distinct society and a veto over constitutional change on matters affecting the province, and he intended to keep his word. He was no longer troubled by previous objections he might have had to Quebec’s constitutional demands, nor did he see any irony in the fact that he was the person meeting them. As his chief of staff, Jean Pelletier, said later: “Chrétien is a practical man, not an ideologue. If a formula no longer answers the need of the day, he looks for something else.”

Even before the referendum campaign began, the Liberals had been planning a post-referendum charm offensive. They wanted to appear more co-operative in areas where the federal government and the provinces shared control, such as health care and the environment. On Sept. 27, Chrétien wrote a note

to Sheila Copps, in her role as environment minister, pointedly suggesting that she end jurisdictional disputes she was entangled in with several provinces. “Dear colleague,” the letter began, “I am writing to seek your assistance in the management of several potentially difficult issues during the period of national reconciliation which will follow the referendum.” Proposed actions would be studied on several fronts, the letter continued, including “health care, social policy and environment in order to demonstrate both federal commitment and leadership in forging a stronger federation.”

As Chrétien sat down with his cabinet that Tuesday morning, Canadians from coast to coast were looking to him for leadership. But for now, his main concern was upholding his promises—and salvaging what remained of his credibility in Quebec. He was fixated on the hastily conceived commitments made at Verdun a week earlier.

His ministers, feeling the need to purge their pent-up fears, conducted an emotional post-mortem. They were shaken by how close they had come to losing the country, and there were conflicting feelings of relief, frustration, exhilaration and exhaustion.

Copps broke into tears at one point. They had made it only halfway around the table when Peter Donolo, the Prime Minister’s director of communications, slipped in, just before lunch. The overall tone of the morning media coverage was not kind to the Prime Minister. Donolo wanted the ministers to point out

Reprinted with permission from Double Vision: The Inside Story of the Liberals in Power, copyright Edward Greenspon and Anthony Wilson-Smith, published by Doubleday Canada Ltd., Toronto.

Anxious to act quickly, the PM looked to Ontario for aid on the distinct society

that the federalists had been trailing until the Prime Minister entered the fray. He had pulled it back from the brink. But Labor Minister Lucienne Robillard strongly objected. They could not do that, she protested: it would look as though they were blaming Quebec Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson. In fact, some of them did.

The post-referendum fallout was just beginning. The western premiers were gathered in Yorkton, Sask., that Tuesday for a meeting scheduled weeks previously. The premiers closeted themselves in the local Holiday Inn. At 10 p.m., they sent out for pizza. They did not have their officials in the room with them, and the atmosphere was informal, the conversation forthright. When they finally turned to Quebec, Alberta’s Ralph Klein

proved to be the most aggressive on the topic. He felt the country had been hijacked by Quebec. Now it was time to turn to the grievances of others. The premiers decided that the provinces should take the lead.

Romanow contacted Newfoundland’s Clyde Wells, who held the rotating position of chairman of the annual First Ministers’ conference. On behalf of the western premiers,

Romanow suggested that Wells investigate the possibility of holding a special meeting of all the premiers. On Wednesday, the western premiers issued a communiqué that called for what they considered truly national decisionmaking in the days ahead, but it was widely interpreted as a power grab at the expense of a weakened Ottawa. Wells reported back that there was not sufficient consensus among the provincial leaders for a meeting. Some of the premiers he had talked to felt that they would look divided.

Jacques Parizeau had announced on Tuesday his decision to resign as premier of Quebec.

While others speculated over Lucien Bouchard’s intentions, Chrétien had no such doubts: in caucus, he spoke of his rival’s ascension to the premiership as a fait accompli. Now, he said, was the time to corner Bouchard and leave him with some unpalatable choices.

Later that day, Chrétien flew to Toronto to give a speech at a $500-a-head Liberal fund-raising dinner. Chrétien stayed overnight for a secret meeting the following morning with Ontario Premier Mike Harris. The Prime Minister desperately wanted to line up six provinces willing to support a constitutional amendment on distinct society. Under the Constitution, such an amendment required seven provinces representing at least 50 per cent of the country’s population. Chrétien felt that if he could get six outside Quebec, then he could put Bouchard—or whoever succeeded Parizeau—on the spot. The Quebec premier would then look like the rejectionist, the one who stood in the way of change.

Chrétien felt he could count on the three Maritime provinces, while assuming that Newfoundland’s Wells would never agree. He also figured on the support of two of the Prairie provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Romanow was uneasy about the notion. “I told him,” he said later, “that this is a tough sell out here.” But he also made it clear that his province would not block change if Chrétien could line up the requisite number of oth-

er provinces. On the other hand, Alberta and British Columbia could not be expected to support anything that smacked of special status for Quebec.

That left Ontario. Chrétien and his advisers were encouraged by the fact that Harris had supported both the Meech Lake accord and the Charlottetown accord. And the Ontario legislature had passed a resolution in the late stages of the referendum campaign asserting recognition of Quebec’s “distinct character within our country.” Harris arrived for the meeting at the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel, overlooking Lake Ontario, at about 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, and proceeded to a sprawling suite on the top floor with a panoramic view. A large Canadian flag stood near the window. The Ontario pre-

The cupboard was bare

When Finance Minister Paul Martin tightened the purse strings in Ottawa, his cabinet colleagues tried to test his resolve and that of the Prime Minister. Finally, at a June, 1994, cabinet meeting, Jean Chrétien came to his finance minister’s defence with a vivid display of the power of his office:

Martin announced his spending freeze at the start of the meeting. Across the table, ministers could see Chrétien look-

ing down, seemingly oblivious. It wasn’t clear to anyone but Martin that he had even discussed the matter with the Prime Minister. About 10 minutes into the meeting, one of the ministers spoke on a pet project that required some new money. Martin began to interject. But Chrétien cut him off. “Didn’t you hear the minister of finance?” he asked. “Just

10 minutes ago, he said there wouldn’t be any more money.” Another 10 or 15 minutes went by and another minister made mention of a new spending initiative. This time, Martin turned beet red. But again the Prime Minister beat him to the punch. His patience was wearing thin, too. “Didn’t you hear me 10 minutes ago?” he demanded sharply. “I said there is no money. Can’t you guys understand that? The next one who asks for new spending, I’m going to cut his budget by 20 per cent.”

mier was ill with flu, and running a fever. He hadn’t wanted to meet that day, but federal officials had pushed hard.

Chrétien wanted to move quickly to give Quebec an effective veto, guaranteed by the federal government, over any constitutional change that would affect it. As well, Chrétien wanted to recognize Quebec’s distinct status in the Constitution using language based on the so-called Canada clause in the failed Charlottetown accord. That provision would not override the Charter of Rights, satisfying what had always been Chrétiens chief objection to any such move.

The two leaders sat in armchairs facing each other. Senior adviser Eddie Goldenberg was with the Prime Minister, and Guy Giorno, a young Tory lawyer and policy ad-

viser, accompanied Harris. Goldenberg asked Giorno not to take notes. Harris had expected Chrétien to show him a draft of the motion and the proposed amendment, but the Prime Minister stuck to generalities. He described his two-pronged plan. He said he would have enough provinces lined up to force Quebec into a corner if Ontario signed on. The legislation would make Bouchard look intransigent if he refused to go along.

Harris felt Chrétien was acting precipitously and told him so. He pressed Chrétien to explain why he needed to move so quickly. Each time, the response came back to Chrétien’s promises a week earlier in Verdun, and the need to deliver on them. Harris argued that the country was not ready, and neither was Ontario. “Jean, I tell you as a friend,” he said, “it’s a mistake.” Chrétien didn’t give up. As the meeting wound down, he asked Harris: “Can I have your support?”

“No,” Harris answered.

Without Ontario, Chrétien would be forced to fall back on a secondary plan to pass a federal resolution recognizing Quebec as a distinct society, outside of the Constitution. Disappointed, he flew back to Ottawa. The fire of the pre-referendum unity rally the previous Friday in Montreal, when people seemed ready to promise almost anything to keep Quebec in Canada, was now reduced to ashes, the embers cooling quickly. Hardline talk-show hosts like Rafe Mair in British Columbia and Dave Rutherford in Alberta were already on the warpath against concessions to Quebec. Chrétien’s aides believed that similar sentiments in rural Ontario provided the real explanation of Mike Harris’s unbending stance in the morning meeting with the Prime Minister. As now seemed perpetually the case, federalists in Quebec dismissed the suggestions to appease them as too weak, while the rest of the country considered them too strong.

In this second post-referendum cabinet meeting on Thursday afternoon, many of his ministers urged Chrétien to slow down, consider his options, and allow the country to catch its breath. He could keep his promises later, they argued, as part of a more comprehensive package. Even Allan Rock, the minister whose department would be responsible for putting the veto and distinct society promises into practice, expressed strong reservations about the Prime Minister’s hell-bent determination to proceed. Very few ministers, with Sheila Copps one of the exceptions, backed immediate action.

It was a tough meeting for the Prime Minister, one that participants described as unusually brutal and frank. Chrétien took it from all sides, but as Prime Minister, he chose to trust his instincts. As had Harris, his ministers concluded that his desire to press ahead had to do more with a need to save his own credibility than with a permanent solution. When Chrétien pounded the

gavel to end discussion, he made clear that he intended to proceed.

On Thursday night, Chrétien had Jean Charest over to dinner at 24 Sussex. Charest, too, urged the Prime Minister to slow down. Like other Canadians, he argued, the people of Quebec were exhausted by the referendum process and in no hurry to revisit constitutional issues. It would be better to deliver more later rather than some watered-down notions of distinct society and the veto right now.

Chrétien listened but didn’t agree.

At the same time, he made several oblique suggestions to Charest about his own future that could have been interpreted as encouragement to go after the leadership of the Quebec Liberal party in place of Daniel Johnson. Charest, who was already cross at the Liberals for bumping him from national television on referendum night, was further annoyed by that. He thought the Liberals, after

treating him with care and respect before and during the campaign, were now casually dismissing both him and Johnson.

After the meeting with Harris, Chrétien knew he could not get agreement on a constitutional amendment on distinct society, and so he put the matter temporarily on ice. But formidable problems remained on the issue of a veto. The drafts coming over from the justice department didn’t hold together. Using the Verdun speech as their guide, the drafters kept bogging down on the deliberate vagueness of Chrétiens promises. He hated precision, and was almost incapable of it. Years ago, he had responded to a reporter’s

question about the Constitution by saying: “Why ask me, I’m not a lawyer.” But he was a lawyer, and in the aftermath of the referendum, that was more clear than ever.

By Saturday, Chrétien had a terrible cold. He stayed in bed in the morning, then got up to make a brief appearance at a Liberal national executive meeting, then

went back home to bed. That afternoon, word reached Ottawa that Israeli Leader Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated. It was decided that Chrétien would leave on Sunday for Israel in order to attend the funeral.

Just as it seemed that nothing was going as planned, things got markedly worse. That night, Aline Chrétien pumped her husband full of cold remedies and sent him off to bed. Shortly before 3 o’clock in the morning, she heard a commotion in the hallway. Thinking it was the staff getting their bags ready for the next morning, she went out into the hall to shush them so they wouldn’t disturb her ailing husband. Instead, she confronted a strange man brandishing a knife and putting a glove on one hand. Aline retreated into the bedroom, locked both doors, woke Chrétien, and called the RCMP. The Prime Minister, groggy from the effects of medication, initially told her she was dreaming. But then, as he became fully conscious, he picked up a 15-inch stone Inuit carving to use as a weapon. After a sevenminute wait that seemed much longer, an RCMP detachment arrived and arrested the intruder.

Chrétien phoned and woke up Eddie Goldenberg. “We have a

Chrétien was keenly concerned about his personal credibility

problem,” he said in the cold, flat voice that he reserves for when he is furious. No one knew who the intruder was, or what had motivated him. The already edgy PMO staff, home just a few hours from the Langevin Block, phoned and roused one another with the shocking news.

The experience deeply rattled Chrétien for many months. On the flight overseas, visibly upset, he speculated to reporters that the incendiary language used by sovereigntists in the referendum campaign might have sparked the incident. The RCMP’s incompetence made the Prime Minister angry, but over time, he directed his fury as much at the manner in which the incident was treated as a joke in some quarters. But as far as Chrétien was concerned, it was an assassination attempt, plain and simple.

When Chrétien returned from his trip, it was clear that the only way to achieve action on recognition of Quebec as a distinct society was via a federal resolution. Constitutional change would have to wait. As for the veto, he was still thinking only in terms of Quebec, as he had promised in Verdun. But the restless Liberal caucus soon made it clear that that was not acceptable.

Despite those objections, the Prime Minister gave no public or private sign through most of November that he was considering vetoes for any part of the country outside Quebec. The cabinet’s unity committee, which was meeting two to three times a week, proceeded on

that basis until Nov. 27, when Eddie Goldenberg walked in with a new document, rendering all its previous work obsolete. The Prime Minister had reversed course and would announce a veto formula based on the aborted Victoria constitutional agreement of a quartercentury earlier, a long-standing

favorite of his. Each of four regions—Quebec, Ontario, the West and Atlantic Canada—would be given equal weight. And it would be publicly announced that very day, along with federal recognition of Quebec as a distinct society.

The problem was that under the formula, British Columbia, the third-largest and fastest-growing province, with a society and culture markedly different from the three Prairie provinces, was nonetheless lumped in with its neighbors. Along with Alberta and Ontario, it was one of only three “have” provinces paying more into federal coffers than it took out. Chrétien apparently didn’t appreciate the great psychological and economic changes that had occurred in British Columbia since 1971, when the four-regions concept had first been broached.

Political disaster loomed, as some ministers immediately understood. Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin, privy to the new plan as a member of the unity committee, argued forcefully that British Columbia should also get a veto, that the Prime Minister could gain badly needed points in that province by getting out ahead of the curve and recognizing the province’s growing importance and clout. It, too,

Changing tack on NAFTA

Then-Liberal leader Jean Chrétien and trade critic Roy MacLaren were returning to Ottawa on May 27, 1993, to vote against the bill that would create a continental trade bloc of 360 million people in NAFTA. They knew at the time that if they eventually formed a government, they would have totally different intentions:

Still Chrétien didn't seem comfortable about the vote, or at least not to MacLaren. The two of them flew back together from Toronto that day. Chrétien's driver got them to the House of Commons just as the division bells stopped ringing. They slipped into their seats with

seconds to spare. Along the way, they had joked about how much easier it would be to miss the rollcall altogether. But they did their duty: both stood to vote against NAFTA, knowing full well that, once seated on the other side of the House, they would take a decidedly different position.

Six months later, they were on the other side. On Thursday, Dec. 2, Chrétien informed his cabinet of Canada’s intention of proclaiming NAFTA into law. He chose to present the decision to cabinet as a fait accompli, raising the matter at the end of the agenda and then adjourning the meeting without inviting debate. In the early days of the government, with the Prime Minister firmly in charge, nobody presumed to challenge his quick draw on the gavel. In any case, it would have been hard to resist given the support of the three major economic ministers, namely the three M’s—Paul Martin in Finance, MacLaren in International Trade, and John Manley in Industry.

formed a distinct society. But Chrétien, caught in his time warp, stuck to the old formula. For close to a week after the Nov. 27 announcement, the Liberals sat unblinking in Ottawa while the negative responses rolled in from Alberta and British Columbia about the government’s distinct society intentions for Quebec and especially its veto plans for four regions of Canada. Chrétien and his advisers couldn’t, or wouldn’t, comprehend the fire storm the proposal had sparked, particularly in British Columbia. Two years after Chrétien had named his cabinet, the weakness of the B.C. contingent came home to roost. The six MPs from the province often spent as much time fighting one another as they did working together to pursue B.C. interests. Backbencher Herb Dhaliwal and Secretary of State

Raymond Chan had once clashed for the nomination in the same riding, and still didn’t get along with each other; Hedy Fry and Ted McWhinney were considered by colleagues to be shameless egotists forever considering themselves poised on the edge of cabinet; Anna Terrana hadn’t created any kind of profile; and National Revenue Minister David Anderson, the one MP from the province in the full cabinet—a reluctant choice at that—had immediately made a bad impression once he got there with his involvement in several minor controversies.

Liberals in the province felt panicked by the inten-

sity of the reaction. Some thought the political fallout comparable to the outrage that had greeted the National Energy Program in Alberta in 1980. Nonetheless, Chrétien did not budge, insisting the package would go ahead as planned. ‘To you the members from B.C., close the file and deal with your normal work,” he admonished them at a caucus meeting.

On Monday, Dec. 4, Anderson met with the unity committee and pleaded for relief. He warned that the negative response in British Columbia was overwhelming. He was almost desperate in his insistence on some action. Other B.C. MPs transmitted similar messages.

Anderson asked for, and finally received, a one-to-one meeting with the Prime Minister and persuaded him to hear out the province’s small contingent of Liberal MPs. Before suppertime, the PMO con-

tacted the group, giving its members 10 minutes’ notice of a meeting with the Prime Minister. It was held down the hall from Chrétien’s third-floor office in the Centre Block. They met for 20 minutes, peppering Chrétien with prognostications of the dire consequences that would befall them. At the end of the session, Chrétien thanked them for coming but gave no indication whether he had changed his mind.

He had, although he left it to Allan Rock to make the announcement at a news conference the following afternoon. Rock, flanked by his B.C. colleagues, made official the government’s capitulation. “In a word,” he said, “the government has listened.” The measure, the government pronounced, also meant that Alberta would effectively gain a veto as well, because it had more than

50 per cent of the population of the three Prairie provinces. In Quebec, nobody thanked the Prime Minister. The Bloc Québécois pointed to the change as further proof of the worthlessness of Quebec’s veto; the proof was that it had taken just a week or so for British Columbia to achieve what Quebec had demanded for years. Falling short of a constitutional amendment, Chrétien also piloted a motion through Parliament on Dec. 11 committing the federal government to recognize a limited form of distinct society status for Quebec. The Bloc Québécois and Reform voted against.

The contretemps with British Columbia underscored Chrétien’s stubborn streak. Once he decided on a course of action, little short of divine intervention—or a near full-blown caucus insurrection— could dissuade him. That was evident in early November, when he had insisted on pressing ahead with his plans for Quebec despite the objections of almost everyone else in the government. Events at the end of November and the beginning of December also exposed how removed he was from political currents in Canada’s third-largest province. Since becoming Prime Minister, he had spent more time out of Canada than in visiting the more far-flung regions of the country—even those as important as British Columbia. Without personal contact, a politician such as Chrétien, who relied so heavily on his instincts, was forced to engage in political combat stripped of his best weapon. □