Mission accomplished

Testiness aside, the First Ministers reach consensus

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 1 1996

Mission accomplished

Testiness aside, the First Ministers reach consensus

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 1 1996

Mission accomplished

Testiness aside, the First Ministers reach consensus


In the most exclusive political club in Canada, membership has its privileges—and a curious but consistent code of behavior. Whenever the country’s First Ministers get together, as they did last week in Ottawa, the premiers invariably complain about perceived injustices inflicted by the federal government. Then, at the end, the prime minister soothingly declares that while no agreement was reached on anything substantive, everyone was heartened by the discussions.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the conclusion of a day and a half of talks between Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, the 10 premiers and two territorial leaders. This time, the leaders achieved full or partial agreements in several significant areas. Along with the usual divisive issues, including the Constitution and regional disputes,

and a notable fit of pique by British Columbia’s rookie premier, Glen Clark, they managed to achieve consensus on the creation of a national securities commission that will involve eight provinces. New agreements were also reached on pan-Canadian environmental controls, as well as shifting more control over manpower training, forestries and mining to the provinces. And in the spirit of co-operation, most of the premiers, including, apparently, Quebec’s Lucien Bouchard, will join Chrétien on a third Team Canada Asian business mission— this time to the Philippines, South Korea

and Thailand—next January. Declared Chrétien: “The premiers told me they had never come to a meeting before where they discussed so many different subjects in such a short time.”

As a result, a meeting that federal officials deliberately sought in advance to downplay ended with an unusual degree of accomplishment and no small amount of controversy. The biggest cause of both was the creation of the national securities commission. While Quebec and British Columbia refused to join in, it is likely to delight investors and professionals in the field by ending duplication and simplifying the operations of the often complex and costly business of regulating publicly traded companies. But one of the problems for the provinces joining the national program, in turn, is that they will lose revenue from current fees charged by provincial commissions. And, £ predicted Bouchard, the pan| Canadian commission, which I will almost certainly be S based in Toronto, will be so 25 big that it will swamp the two ^ remaining provincial commissions in Quebec and British Columbia and create “some kind of chaos.” Meanwhile, in keeping with what Chrétien calls his “little-by-little” approach to reforming federalism, the Prime Minister agreed that Ottawa will gradually extract itself almost entirely from such fields as forestry and mining, where it previously shared jurisdiction with the provinces. Still, many of the premiers are unhappy with the fact that the transfer of power will not be accompanied by a transfer of money or tax points. Instead, the provinces will be expected to pay for the new services they offer from their existing revenues.

The meeting also made substantial progress on the highly controversial issue of social programs. Most provinces have hotly protested the fact that Ottawa has cut its cash contributions to provincial health and welfare programs but still sets strict standards for that spending. Last week, Chrétien finally agreed that the federal government will work with the provinces to

find ways to set those standards together. As well, Ontario Premier Mike Harris won general support for his insistence that, when the provinces take over manpower training, money must be allocated on the basis of each province’s number of unemployed. That means that Ontario, with 35 per cent of unemployed Canadians, will likely get 35 per cent of the estimated $2billion training fund. “In that area, there is not room for debate,” warned Harris.

But divisiveness still marked much of the meeting. Outside of the department of foreign affairs building, where Friday’s meetings took place, native leaders demonstrated against their exclusion from the conference. (Assembly of First Nations national chief Ovide Mercredi pledged a renewed push for native sovereignty “in order to get attention in this country.”) Inside, the leaders conducted business as usual—which meant they found no shortage of things to express disappointment with. During the talks, the range and depth of complaints clearly showed that as well as getting angry at Ottawa, the premiers are also quite capable of being annoyed with each other. Alberta’s Ralph Klein,

Ontario’s Harris, and British Columbia’s Clark, for example, complained about Ottawa’s decision to give $1 billion to three Atlantic provinces to compensate them for the harmonization of their sales taxes with the federal Goods and Services Tax. Atlantic premiers, in turn, complained about those complaints.

But Clark, if anything, eclipsed his fellow premiers with the volume and vehemence of his complaints about Ottawa. The cause of his anger, along with annoyance over the securities commission, was Ottawa’s refusal to hand over jurisdiction over fisheries in the wake of vastly depleted salmon stocks off the Pacific coast. Clark called the meeting “a big waste of time,” denounced the federal government’s “arrogance” and “intransigence” and suggested that British Columbia will behave in future “in a more confrontational way,” although he did not specify what he meant. As well, at one point during the Thursday night dinner of roast lamb and turnip at 24 Sussex Drive, he hinted strongly that he would boycott the next Team Canada trip. But he was roundly upbraided by several other premiers. Ontario’s Harris suggested tartly that perhaps Clark “was still in an election mode,” while Newfoundland’s Brian Tobin said much the same thing. New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna told Clark that the trade missions represented important contributions

to national unity. And the B.C. premier’s public remarks annoyed other leaders, several of whom suggested that he was posturing. Said Chrétien: “He was not like that inside the room. He was very nice.”

All that came to pass in the wake of determined efforts by several leaders to ensure that the meeting would not be characterized by chaos and disagreement. Chrétien alternately annoyed and alarmed most of the premiers when he lectured them before the meeting on the importance of not appearing too combative in public. Such behavior, he said, would only play into the hands of Quebec sovereigntists looking for proof that federalism is inflexible and unworkable (Bouchard, needless to say,

The B.C. premier eclipsed Bouchard in his (

was not privy to that lecture). As a result, one premier told Maclean’s that during the dinner at Chrétien’s residence, many of them were “walking on eggshells.”

But at the same time, during a meeting that all sides insisted would concentrate almost exclusively on economic issues, the leaders still found time to talk—and argue—about a number of seemingly unrelated issues. Not surprisingly, the Con-

stitution was foremost among them. The Prime Minister put the topic on the agenda, in order to fulfil a constitutional requirement that obliges Ottawa and the provinces to discuss the amending formula by April, 1997. Chrétien had also hoped, at one point, to placate Quebecers by discussing possible ways to give the province constitutional recognition as a distinct society, as well as a veto over future constitu-

lplaints about Ottawa

tional changes affecting their province. But those efforts were resisted by, among others, Bouchard, who insisted before the conference that any such talks were futile—and did his best to ensure that outcome by promising to walk out if the topic was raised. When Saskatchewan’s Roy Romanow did so, Bouchard kept his word, excused himself, and went to the washroom. In the end, the constitutional dis-

cussion centred on the amending formula and, officials estimated, took no longer than four minutes— but fulfilled the constitutional requirement.

Some of the premiers gave equally short shrift to a federal proposal to create and partially fund a second infrastructure program similar to Ottawa’s 1993 plan, under which the federal government committed $2 billion—funding that was matched by provincial E5 and municipal governI ments—to such areas as I roads and sewers. On this I issue, there was disagreez ment on two fronts. Clark ° and Harris both initially suggested that the federal gesture amounted to nothing more than a pre-election ploy. As well, the plan was delayed because the premiers could not agree over how the money should be spent—or how it should be raised. Klein and Manitoba’s Gary Filmon wanted the money used to repair highways, while Romanow pushed for more investment in research and development facilities. In the end, the premiers agreed to further study. If the plan proceeds, individual provinces will likely be allowed greater flexibility in

spending. In addition, the private sector may be asked to replace cash-strapped municipalities.

Almost as interesting as the meeting itself was the jockeying for position that took place between the provinces and Ottawa. Quebec brought a massive delegation of 23 officials to the meeting; Ontario, by contrast, brought five. Similarly, Quebec officials meticulously planned for the meeting weeks in advance, taking into account everything from potential alliances with other provinces on specific issues to the number of representatives they would be allowed in the room. And they lobbied, unsuccessfully, to have federal officials move a curtain that blocked a view of the meeting room—in order to allow journalists to see Bouchard leaving, as promised, when the Constitution was discussed. Ontario, for its part, led a determined but deliberately more low-key effort to have Ottawa change the manner in which employment insurance funds are distributed among provinces (at present, Ontario receives only half as much in unemployment insurance benefits—about $4 billion—as its taxpayers contribute). For all that, and despite their disputes with British Columbia and Quebec, federal officials claimed to be satisfied and relieved at the outcome. “We got a lot done,” Chrétien insisted. “No one should be surprised that we disagree—in a democracy, that is what happens.” By that definition, the democratic tradition is alive and well in Canada—and will likely be so for generations to come.