Three and a half years after they delivered the most resounding No in the country to the ill-fated Charlottetown accord, British Columbians are reluctantly turning their minds once again to the thorny and all-toofamiliar thickets of the constitutional debate. Earnest groups of ordinary citizens have been holding public meetings to air the subject. It preoccupies many of the writers who trade opinions and put-downs in the handful of Internet news groups devoted to B.C. affairs. And in the interior city of Kelowna, in the Okanagan Valley, Quebec’s status in the country is once again “a hot issue,” says Barrie Clark, who hosts a daily morning phone-in show on local radio station CKOV. But nothing in the renewed attention to the subject suggests that British Columbians have changed their minds about one central issue:
Quebec’s demand for constitutional recognition as a distinct society. “That’s understood,” says Clark. “And it’s rejected.”
Ottawa is clearly hoping that that judgment is not ir-
Dion pleaded with his listeners to recognize that “our country is in danger.” A formal recognition of Quebec’s distinctiveness, he assured his audience, would “not change the balance of powers, it does not convey special status.” Dion begged British Columbians “to embrace Quebec society in their hearts.”
In their hearts, perhaps, but there appears to be little appetite for doing so in the Constitution. “They agree with the reality” of Quebec’s distinctiveness, observes D’Arcy Rinald of the callers who phone his talk show on CKEG radio in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island. “But they don’t trust the federal government not to grant Quebec more powers with distinct society.” That concern was
revocable. In a signal of the importance that the Chrétien government places on winning B.C. support for its unity strategy, including legislative recognition of Quebec’s distinct society, it sent new Unity Minister Stéphane Dion to Vancouver on March 2 to appear at a public forum devoted to the unity issue. In a darkened, bunker-like conference room deep beneath the neo-hippy vendors on colorful Robson Street,
echoed last week by B.C. Premier Glen Clark, who said that Quebec and the federal government “want to see changes to the Constitution filtered through the lens of distinct society, which then confers special status that the rest of the country doesn’t have.” Whether Dion—or anyone else from Ottawa—can overcome that pervasive dis-
trust, is, to put it mildly, doubtful. In the central interior lumbering
and university town of Prince George, callers to Ben Meisner’s daily show CKPG “will not listen to or respect any politician who talks to them on this issue,” observes the host. “They don’t believe any party.” Dan Kerslake, who hears the views the Peace River country roughnecks, ranchers and housewives who call in to CKNL Fort St. John, agrees. “They’re sick of hearing about it,” he says. “I don’t know they’re even prepared to listen.” Constitutional fatigue may be one reason for British Columbians’ failure to warm Dion’s appeal. Another, especially outside Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, is a rising unease about land claims. The concern
prompted partly by continuing negotiations and the belief by many voters that the outcome will be different classes of citizenship, in which natives and Quebecers will receive different treatment. Finally, there is a widespread conviction that even recognizing Quebec as a distinct society will not alter that province’s determination to separate.
province’s determination to separate.
For others, fear that the country may indeed dissolve over a failure to accept Quebec’s distinct society has hit home. “Maybe we just have to change the terminology to get at some meaningful recognition of Quebec’s distinctiveness,” suggests Jeff
B.C. Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell, meanwhile, muses about tying recognition of Quebec’s differences to similar acknowledgment of other provinces’ distinctiveness. “If British Columbia is a distinct society, and Newfoundland is, and Quebec is,” Vancouver’s former mayor suggests, “that might be one way of going about it.” And ÿ while callers to Rinald’s i Nanaimo hotline show, for example, reject a constitutional clause on distinct society, they may be more open to grant-
Scouten, the slender, bearded lawyer who organized the Vancouver forum at which Dion spoke. That point is not lost on other Canadians: the language of the constitutional debate—especially the term distinct society—was one of the main topics at the Confederation 2000 constitutional conference in Ottawa over the weekend, sponsored by the Business Council on National Issues.
ing Quebec—and other
If most British Columbians agree that Ottawa’s unity initiatives face a hard sell, many express hope that Canada’s politicians will make the effort to keep the country together. “I’m not sure that we have either the commitment or the political will,” concedes orthodontist Ron Markey, one of dozens of so-called ordinary Canadians who participated in the public consultations that led to the Charlottetown accord. “But given those two things, I think it’s doable.” The risk for Ottawa, however, is that so many of Markey’s fellow British Columbians feel that they have heard it all before—and rejected it.
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