Canada in constitutional limbo


By Harry Blutstein

This year Canada hoped to celebrate the anniversary of 125 years of confederation by resolving its festering constitutional sore, and once and for all end talk in the French-speaking province of Québec of splitting off to become an independent state.

The preparation for the celebrations provided a foretaste of the difficulty of forging an agreement that would satisfy all parties. In choosing an official 125th birthday song from 600 contest entries, the federal government was anxious not to offend anyone. The winning entry mentioned "harmony" and being "together" six times. However, the song failed to mention "Canada" even once!

So it was no surprise when the October 26 referendum on an agreement to overcome Canada's constitutional impasse failed.

The agreement, known as the Charlottetown Accord after the capital of Prince Edward Island where it was finalised, had been cobbled together after protracted negotiations by Canada's political leaders.

The "no" side gained nearly 55% of the cross-Canada vote and support in over half the provinces and territories.

When it was released on August 28, the accord was trumpeted as having met everyone's demands. Québec was to be recognised as a distinct society and its government given sufficient power to protect the French face of the province; self-government was given to aboriginals; the smaller provinces were given a greater voice in an elected Senate; minority language rights would be protected and power would be devolved away from the central government in a number of important areas.

The first reaction was relief. Many people, fed-up with the constant squabbling, were willing to accept almost any compromise to keep the country together.

The Charlottetown Accord not only appeared to make concessions to all parties, but it was also supported by every provincial premier and all three major federal parties. Most of the country's newspapers also warmly welcomed the accord.

The separatists in Québec, as expected, were quick to reject the historic compromise. But soon after the referendum was announced the separatists were joined by a number of incongruous bed-fellows in supporting the "no" side.

Federalists argued that so many powers had been decentralised to the provinces that the country remained a federation in name only. former prime minister Pierre Trudeau came out of retirement to lampoon the Charlottetown Accord as formalising "the weakening of Canada". The western provinces claimed less populous provinces had not been given an effective voice in the Senate, while in Québec Premier Robert Bourassa, who had put his personal credibility on the line, was accused of obtaining a poor deal for his province.

Business leaders were concerned that the agreement contained nothing concrete to overcome inter-provincial trade barriers that are costing the country $C6.5 billion a year. For example, it is easier to import beer from the US than from another province.

The accord was heralded as being all things to all interests. As its text was examined the earlier promise proved to be an illusion.

The "no" side gained nearly 55% of the cross-Canada vote and support in over half the provinces and territories.

English-Canada is reluctant to allow one province greater powers
than the others

Before the referendum Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said that its rejection would signal "the beginning of the process of dismantling Canada". After the vote, Mulroney side-stepped his earlier predictions. He shifted ground by claiming that the priority of the government was to improve the economy rather that be diverted by further constitutional debate. Canada needed to turn its attention "to foster strong and durable economic renewal," Mulroney said.

The editorial in the Calgary Herald the day after the referendum's demise reflected the fatigue of the rulers of English Canada with the idea that constitutional negotiations would continue. "There should be no new offers for a long, long time. Québec will have to decide, on its own, if it wants to remain in Canada."

While it is unlikely that Québec will be so easily put off pursuing its list of minimum demands to protect its identity, Québec's federalists and separatists seem willing to call time-out till at least the provincial election to be held by 1993.

The leader of the separatist Parti québecois, Jacques Parizeau, declared that "this time we said what we didn't want. Next time we'll say what we want." However Parizeau appears to be content to wait until the economy recovers, which is not expected to happen until into the life of the next provincial government, which he hopes to lead, before forcing a referendum in Québec on sovereignty.

Québec's Premier Bourassa is also desperate for breathing space so he can show that further progress on renewing federalism can be made, despite the failure of the Charlottetown Accord.

Putting together a new accommodation that Québec and the rest of Canada can live with will be no simple matter. Québec's position is that confederation is a partnership between French and English Canada. In practice this means that Québec will have more powers than other provinces. If one message was clear from the "no" vote, English-Canada is reluctant to allow one province greater powers than the others. Preston Manning, leader of the western-based Reform Party, which was instrumental in defeating the accord in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, said that granting "special status to more and more groups based on factors such as race, language, culture or gender can only lead to a house divided against itself."

As long as these two visions of Canada exist a final resolution of the constitutional impasse is remote.

As Québecois weigh up the relative merits of renewed federalism against sovereignty, the question constantly arises of whether a nation of seven million can survive within the Canadian state.

The problems were highlighted by a report from the Royal Bank of Canada, which was released in the run-up to the referendum vote. It predicted that within 10 years of a break-up, Canada would suffer a 16% fall in its standard of living, 720,000 additional people would be unemployed and over a million people are likely to migrate to the United States.

Whereas such a report would have once alarmed Québecois, playing on their insecurity, today the report was accepted as one possible scenario, to be judged against more optimistic outcomes. Québec now has economists that have the sophistication to provide alternate views of the future.

According to Pierre Fortin, Professor of Economics at the Université du Québec in Montreal, the economic shock of separating from Canada may inspire greater entrepreneurship, an outward-looking mentality and social consensus within the new state. As the current Canadian economy is in a parlous condition, with a national debt of $C447 billion, Fortin is concerned that the Québec economy, which he contends has a greater underlying strength than the rest of the country, could be pulled down.

Fortin argues that Québec's economy may have a better future on its own. This sentiment is echoed by leading business people. A poll of 200 chief executives found that almost half believed that independence would have a positive effect in the long term.

As the reality of sovereignty for Québec becomes closer, all but committed separatists are apprehensive at prospects of an uncertain future. But for the first time there is a strong feeling that if independence is achieved Québec has the people the expertise to competently run their own economy.

Québec has the 20th largest economy in the world, of similar size to Austria, and nationalists take heart in the success of Singapore, which improved its economic position after it separated from Malaysia.

Without Québec the rest of Canada will be split in two.

One compromise that has been promoted by Parti québecois vice-president and former minister for economic development Bernard Landry is that Canadian provinces form a political association, like the European Community, with a common currency and absence of trade barriers.

Landry disagrees with the reports that have predicted dire consequences for Québec. "The transition costs are affordable. It won't be totally calm seas, but it won't be a hurricane."

While separatists are fielding questions on the cost of transition, the business community, that was once solidly federalist, is now ambivalent. Its preferred option is for greater powers for Québec, within the Canadian federation, and the elimination of the many inter-provincial trade barriers. But a view is emerging among the new vigorous business class that if Québec's minimum demands cannot be met then Québec's long-term economic interests could be better served as an independent state.

A new point for discussion in the debate is the impact of any schism on English-Canada, which is beginning to realise that it may need Québec more than Québec needs it.

The report commissioned by the Royal Bank of Canada identified areas in which separation would harm what was left of Canada. The most dramatic could be its departure from the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrial powers.

Without Québec the rest of Canada will be split in two. It will therefore need to maintain transport and communication links through Québec. The Atlantic provinces in east Canada are very poor and may gravitate towards joining the United States, where they may get a better deal. The premier of Nova Scotia, John Buchanan, has already raised this possibility.

The new Canada would also be unbalanced politically. Without Québec, Ontario would have 48% of the population and would dominate the federal government.

As the country hopes that the forthcoming provincial and federal elections due next year will throw up leaders with greater authority to resolve constitutional differences, the prospects are not good.

Political support across the country is fragmenting into regional groups. In the west the Reform Party is gaining significant support in English-Canada, tired of constantly giving concessions to Québec, while in the east the Confederation of Regions, that opposes official bilingualism, may take the opportunity to expand, from its current base in New Brunswick, into the Maritime Provinces. In Québec the separatist Bloc québecois is expected to have a majority of seats.

Regional parties could capture 80 to 100 of the 295 seats in the House of Commons, making its almost impossible for any of the three national federal parties to obtain a majority. If no party emerges with a clear majority, then future negotiation with Québec may cease as regional interests make parliament impotent. In this atmosphere, a referendum in Québec on sovereignty would have every likelihood of success.

Twenty-five years ago Canada celebrated its centennial with optimism. Dubbed the Pied Piper of Canada, Bobby Gimby immortalised a song called "Ca-na-da", which sold over 300,000 copies. The lyrics went "Ca-na-da/We love thee/Ca-na-da/Proud and free!" This year Gimby sought to duplicate his earlier success by putting up an alternative to the official 125th birthday song called "Let's Get Together, Canada Forever".

"I thought the timing was right", Gimby said. "But a song augments a feeling that's already there. If the feeling's not there, a song can't turn that around." Sales of Gimby's new song have been dismal. n