Parsing piffle with the premiers

Allan Fotheringham September 29 1997

Parsing piffle with the premiers

Allan Fotheringham September 29 1997

Parsing piffle with the premiers

Allan Fotheringham

The McDougall Centre is an oasis of calm amidst all the towers to Mammon that make downtown Calgary such a paved-over bleakness. It was built in 1907 of a pleasing sandstonethere's a touch of Santa Fe to it-in the classical revival style that was popular in those times. At the official opening, Alberta Premier Alexander Rutherford declared the building "the finest in the Dominion."

It has lovely grounds and flower beds and is now the site for the provin cial government's offices in southern Alberta. It is named after a Methodist missionary whose family settled here in 1860 and became a passionate de fender of Indian causes, particularly the Stoney Indian tribe just west of Calgary.

It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that these hallowed grounds host nine-tenths of the premiers of Canada, whose only hope is prayer. They have no ideas, they have no direction, and only the ghost of a Methodist missionary has any chance of saving them.

The luscious flower beds are in danger of defoliation as the camp followers of the Constitution slouch about. You can tell this is a provincial premiers’ meeting because the main players are mobs of TV techies—all in jeans and unusual haircuts.

In the wake of the deifying of Di—paparazzi and all that—one wonders whether all this attention to the Confused Nine is really necessary. To paraphrase Winston, never have so many been gathered to report so little from so few.

Mangling the neat lawns, sipping on stale coffee, were some 110 bored and jaded types—from the BBC producer to the Los Angeles Times man. Of the 110 wool-gatherers, 26 were from the CBC— from Don Newman and Jason Moscovitz down to the lowliest (i.e. union-protected) baggage-smasher. Is this really what we need to report that the premiers couldn’t decide what to do and therefore clouded their indecision in wads of piffle, bafflegab and codswallop? One wonders.

In the aftermath of the Paris tragedy and the London angst and Earl Spencer’s searing indictment in Westminster Abbey, there is perhaps some time for reflection. As we waited for 10 hours in the autumn Calgary chill, waiting for a pronouncement we knew would

be nonsense, one quiet chap on the lawn mused, “Do you think if we weren’t there, they would be?”—nodding his head to the windows above where the piffle was being mixed like a bad omelette.

The answer is probably not. If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there, is there any sound? This describes perfectly a provincial premiers’ conference, where they try to decide how many angels can dance on a pinhead.

Covering such a farce is the same as what they used to say in the army—hurry up so you can wait. The premiers are here because the main man—terribly unpopular in his own province—is not much of a factor in the separation debate and so has unloaded his responsibilities on the Confused Nine.

Flattered by the attention, they have scheduled this confab in Calgary while they still have the attention of the headlines. So they retreat behind closed doors, surrounded by high swivel servants who know how to parse piffle, how to construct bafflegab, how to put the proper tense in codswallop.

It is all out of Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s stage classic wherein two derelicts in ash cans wait in vain for someone who is never going to come. The jaded mobs waiting on the dank Calgary lawn are also actors in a staged event, the meandering nine hiding behind the windows above knowing that the cameras—the carg nivorous cameras—will be there no s matter how late in the night they £ emerge with their nonsense.

I Among the mob is the wise Graham Fraser, just returned from his Globe and Mail tenure in Washington, and Bruce Wallace, leaving his London post with Maclean ’s to become Ottawa bureau chief. They were tentative, they confess, at trying to get up to speed on these new constitutional happenings. They laugh, after an hour on the lawn. Same plot, different stage, same gridlock, just change the names.

How can one take seriously the thinkers of the nation who issue a Framework for Discussion on Canadian Unity of seven brief paragraphs that states “the legislature and government of Quebec have a role to protect and develop the unique character of Quebec society within Canada.”

Followed immediately by a paragraph stating: “If any future constitutional amendment confers powers on one province, these powers must be available to all provinces.” Say what?

George Orwell in Animal Farm taught us that everyone is equal but some are more equal than others. The premiers in their rumpled jeans and Armani T-shirts, to demonstrate that they are just like the lads down at the mall, are not up to the task tossed to them by a Prime Minister who can’t figure out what to do. To you we throw the torch could be more accurately described as “y°u guys grab this burning sucker.”

They would be well-advised to go back to sewer bylaws and paving roads while we look, in vain, for a leader in Ottawa who can lead.