Premiers and National Unity

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on September 29, 1997. Partner content is not updated.

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on September 29, 1997. Partner content is not updated.

Premiers and National Unity

Very few politicians who have been bucked from Canada's constitutional bull are eager to get back up and ride again. So what were Frank MCKENNA and Roy ROMANOW thinking of last week when they showed up in Calgary, fairly glowing with enthusiasm for resuming the ride? The baby-faced New Brunswick premier and his more rugged-looking Saskatchewan counterpart can both rub sore spots from past constitutional tangles. Romanow confesses to nagging worries about fallout from the messy 1981 deal he helped cut, which patriated the Constitution over the Quebec government's objections. McKenna was the premier who, as a rookie in 1987, demanded changes before he would pass the Meech Lake accord - the first blow in its nasty demise. Yet here they were in Calgary, carrying the draft language for another constitutional amendment in their briefcases and worrying the heck out of the other premiers, for whom constitution is a four-letter word. "Those two have a sense of desperation about their role in history," said one premier after the Calgary meeting broke up with a more modest offering than Romanow and McKenna intended. "The attitude they brought to the talks was that they were prepared to do anything to appease or satisfy Quebec."

McKenna acknowledges he carries the burdens of past unity battles. "I certainly have regrets about our failures and have always accepted my share of responsibility," he told Maclean's after returning to New Brunswick last week. "I personally would like to be part of a national unity success." He did not get it in Calgary, where nine First Ministers met in Quebec's absence - but then he did not fail either. After plenty of what Romanow later called "hot talk - some tough language you might not print in Maclean's," the premiers emerged waving a sheet of paper in the cold Calgary night, proclaimed a modest victory, and gratefully scurried home without further injury. "The content of that statement in Calgary is about as far as you could push a consensus in that room," says Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon of last week's deal. "You try adding to it, it falls apart."

The premiers' elixir for the country's unity troubles covered seven points and took up just one page. It expressed a recognition of Quebec's "unique character" while making a firm point that all Canadians and all provinces are equal in status. Fearful of starting what one premier called "a political grassfire in the West," the nine made sure the document would be acceptable to Reform party Leader Preston Manning, who is so in tune with hardline opinion towards Quebec separatists. They even chose to use many of Manning's own words in drafting their so-called Framework for Discussion on Canadian Unity, pinching the phrase promoting Quebec's right to "protect and develop" its language and culture from a letter of advice the Reform leader sent to the premiers last July. As the premiers prepared to leave Calgary's stately McDougall Centre to tell the country of their accomplishment, Ontario Premier Mike Harris phoned Manning to tell him: "You won."

Canadians outside Quebec will get their say in yet one more round of public consultations, promised in the agreement and aimed at finding what final form - if any - this expression of affection for Quebec should take. The ever-enthusiastic Romanow insists "you could take these statements and very quickly work them into constitutional language," which is also the preferred and cautious interpretation of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Quebec opposition leader Daniel Johnson. The leader of Quebec's federalists, Johnson has long urged the rest of the country to send him a written offer on how to renew the federation.

But neither B.C. Premier Glen Clark nor Alberta's Ralph Klein hid their horror at the prospect of another campaign to amend the Constitution. And the Calgary text was, of course, dead before arrival with the separatist government in Quebec. "It belittles us, holds us back, reduces us," Premier Lucien Bouchard acidly responded, noting that his province would get no special powers. After all, as Harris himself pointed out, the statement offered nothing to Quebec "other than, 'We love you and we want you in Canada.' "

That, quite clearly, fell short of perfection for premiers Romanow and McKenna, and the federal government. Trying to stir his fellow premiers into making a generous offer to Quebec, Romanow had used apocalyptic language going in to the meeting. There was a "fault line" running though the country at Quebec, he warned. And the time clock for bridging it was at "two minutes to midnight." But the stormy meeting in Calgary showed that the unity fault line also runs through the nine non-Quebec premiers. In Alberta and British Columbia, where the Reform party's rottweiler instincts against concessions to Quebec are the strongest and where referendums on constitutional change are required by law, there is no desire to replay in public the agonies that stalked the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. But economically weaker Atlantic Canada has the most to lose should Quebec secede. The three Liberal premiers of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, all spiritually close to Chrétien on the unity issue, allied themselves with Romanow and adopted a reach-out-to-Quebec strategy.

Of course, each premier moved across the divide at various times during the discussions. But most shared the view that McKenna and Romanow's own constitutional demons have helped push this newest round of unity talk on the country. Although McKenna did reaffirm his government's commitment to the Meech Lake accord shortly before it died in 1990, his fingerprints remain on the early attempts to strangle it. The Meech Lake experience "weighs on him," a close friend of the premier said last week, especially as his self-imposed limit of 10 years in provincial politics nears fulfilment. "He is in the twilight of his career, and when most politicians reach that stage they start to speak to the history books," said the friend. "He has the fear of God that Quebec might go."

Romanow, too, while emphasizing that he is "not motivated by a sense of guilt or regret about the 1981-1982 experiences," carries scars. He often muses aloud that "we may have lost part of our soul" through the trauma of the patriation debates - when he was Saskatchewan's intergovernmental affairs minister. "It nags me somehow to the extent that I raise the issue of whether or not we have lost that soul," he said again last week. The result, as McKenna noted, is that he and Romanow "were prepared to go the furthest - the two of us are always prepared to put more on the line."

That went beyond the simple commitment to a public consultation on unity - the so-called bottom up process - that premiers like Clark were willing to support. As the premiers arrived, Romanow was meeting with the national media outside the building, cranking up expectations for a comprehensive offering to Quebec. "I wanted to paint a pressure point," said Romanow afterward, sprawling on a hotel bed replaying the day. "I'm not an advocate of executive federalism, but there had to be some medium between wide-open, unfocused consultation that results in a whole list of demands." The prospect of constitution-drafting horrified Clark. "I think Glen felt he was trying to stop a runaway train," said another premier.

Clark arrived an hour late, by which time McKenna had given an opening statement and canvassed the room for attitudes. But when Clark at last spoke, he told the others that his concerns focused on how difficult it would be to sell another deal in British Columbia. "The B.C. realities may not be pleasant, but that's the public opinion Clark lives with," said one premier. An undeterred Romanow figured that Clark was saying he was willing to deal. "I thought then," said Romanow, "that we stood a better chance of not getting opposition from him on substance; that what he was really telling us about was the reality of being able to move it ahead in his province."

But the substance would not be easy. The premiers worked on the text without their officials in the room for several hours. When it appeared that some premiers were balking at recognizing the historic role of Quebec's legislature to protect the French language and culture, Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin threatened to walk out and pronounce the meeting a failure. But the most heated arguments came over finding the language to ensure that nothing in the text would be seen as conferring extra powers or special status on Quebec. In the third draft, written at 7:30 in the evening and obtained by Maclean's, the hardline premiers proposed to declare: "It is not the intention of this proposal to confer additional powers, but if any powers are conferred on one province as a result of this proposal, then these powers should apply equally to any other province in comparable circumstances."

Romanow was furious at the attempt to frame the intent in such negative terms. Harris and Filmon agreed, pulling Klein and Clark onside to rewrite the section. The clause was later modified to ensure that any new powers were available to all provinces. But Clark held out - alone and through the day's most bitter exchanges - until the others agreed to separate that sentence from the section recognizing Quebec's uniqueness.

Ultimately, however, the final price of getting the hardliners to sign on may have been Chrétien's agreement to hold a First Ministers' conference on the future of Canada's social programs. Tobin kept in touch with the Prime Minister throughout the day, and secured his pledge to convene a meeting before early December. Premiers like Alberta's Klein may not feel great passion for the intricacies of constitutional debate, but can become terribly animated when the federal government's role in health care is discussed. Now, those premiers will have an opportunity and a national platform to make their case.

Chrétien's advisers downplay the political risks of the conference. "It's important that we have some good news to announce at the time," said Peter Donolo, Chrétien's communications adviser. "We all know that this is just a power grab by some provinces, but they don't have the solidarity to pull it off." The federal government's supporters also argue that the appetite for devolving power to the provinces is declining. "Polls show that most people don't want the provinces to take over health care," said one Liberal premier.

But others remain furious that Ottawa is considering the creation of new federal health programs at a time when the provinces are still absorbing previous cuts: Ottawa is currently canvassing the provinces on prospects for launching new national programs on home care and pharmacare. "They're slapping us in the face," one angry premier said last week. "They say, 'Sit down, boys. We've got the money and we know how to spend it.'" His was not a lonely voice. "It's nice for them to look like white knights, coming in with new spending programs," noted another premier sardonically. "But we're saying, 'Hey, wait a minute. We paid the price. We're still absorbing the pain of your cuts. And now you want a new program?'"

Chrétien may need to step softly around the premiers' sensibilities. His advisers admit privately that any unity initiative led by the provinces has a far greater chance of success than one that comes from Ottawa. And the hardline track of the federal government's Quebec strategy was waylaid last week when the Supreme Court declared it would not hear Ottawa's case challenging the legality of any unilateral declaration of independence by Quebec until next February. The court is currently one judge short of its full complement of nine, and, said Chief Justice Antonio Lamer: "If there's ever been a case that has to be heard by nine judges, it is this one."

That left the premiers' Calgary declaration as the main unity battlefront. "It's not perfect, it's maybe not the way I'd do it, but I think we found the compromise," said a weary Romanow. The Constitution was back in play - for better or for worse. And if the Calgary offer is not enough, said one western official, "we might as well throw our energies into the terms of secession."

Maclean's September 29, 1997