Canada Averts Constitutional Crisis
Holdout provinces drop demands for revisions in accord in exchange for Senate reforms. MEECH LAKE ACCORD
OTTAWA — CANADA'S constitutional crisis is over. The threat of French-speaking Quebec breaking away to form a semi-sovereign nation has ended - for the time being.
After seven days of negotiations by the premiers of the 10 Canadian provinces and Brian Mulroney, prime minister of the Canadian confederation, Quebec got what it wanted - a promise by three holdout provinces to ratify the Meech Lake constitutional accord that had been agreed to unanimously by all 11 governments three years earlier.
``This is a happy day for Canada,'' declared Mr. Mulroney before signing an agreed-upon document Saturday evening.
One after another, the 10 premiers, including Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, gave speeches, often in French and English, affirming Canadian unity. For the sake of national unity, the premiers of the three holdout provinces - New Brunswick, Manitoba, and Newfoundland - had to drop earlier demands for changes in the accord.
However, they did win promises from Quebec and the heads of the other governments to consider reform of Canada's appointed Senate and other constitutional changes in the future.
The goal of the western and Atlantic provinces is to win an elected Senate that would give them greater representation in Ottawa. Seating in the House of Commons is based largely on population. So Quebec and Ontario, where some 56 percent of Canadians live, often dominate Canadian politics.
The Meech Lake accord brings Quebec voluntarily within the Canadian Constitution. From confederation in 1867 until 1982, the Canadian Constitution was a statute of the British parliament. It was ``patriated'' to Ottawa in 1982. But Quebec, then ruled by a Parti Qu'eb'ecois government that sought greater separation from the remainder of Canada, did not sign the revised Constitution. This was primarily because the Quebec government feared that an addition to the Constitution, a Charter of Rights, might interfere with its right to promote French and limit the use of English in the province. Nonetheless, Quebec has been subject to the Constitution.
Legislatures of the three holdout provinces must ratify the accord by a deadline of June 23. Though Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells said he did not approve of the accord, he did promise to take it before his Cabinet for a decision on whether to call a referendum or simply bring it before the provincial legislature. That cabinet session was scheduled for yesterday.
The so-called ``First Ministers'' conference was influenced by provincial politics as well. Political experts say the premiers of Quebec as well as those of the three holdout provinces have emerged as ``heroes'' in their provinces.
Mr. Bourassa emphasizes that the Meech Lake Accord - which defines Quebec as a ``distinct society'' - was left untouched. Quebeckers are keen to be recognized constitutionally as having their own culture and language. Bourassa also notes that since he has always indicated his willingness to discuss Senate reform and other constitutional changes once the accord was ratified, he has not given away anything in this regard either.
However, a specific Senate reform was discussed at the meeting. It would enlarge the Senate, giving more seats to the western and Atlantic provinces and shrinking those of Ontario. It would leave the number of Quebec seats untouched. At present, the powers of the Senate are limited. Unanimous approval of all 11 governments will be required for any reform to be enacted. It is not known whether Quebec will actually allow creation of an elected Senate with real powers and thereby reduce its own influence in Ottawa. The plan calls for action by 1995, with hearings by a commission starting this summer.
Newfoundlanders have long held a grudge against Quebec because of a deal signed before the 1974 OPEC boost in the price of oil (and thence other forms of energy) that sold power from the Churchill Falls hydro project in Labrador to Quebec at bargain rates. Quebec has refused to alter the deal and its position has been upheld by the courts. So Mr. Wells' stubbornness in regard to the Meech Lake accord played well at home. Many Newfoundlanders also feel that they, like Quebeckers, are part of a ``distinct society'' and that Quebec should not be so favored by this term in the Constitution.
Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon comes from a province where Canadians of Ukrainian, Icelandic, Greek, Vietnamese, and many other heritages far outnumber French-Canadians. Many believe that Quebec gets too many special deals - including a major defense contract that went to a Montreal firm despite a lower bid from a Winnipeg company.
New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna switched to supporting the accord earlier last week. One political observer suggested this might have had something to do with a similar switch a few months earlier by a sizeable provincial voting bloc, the French-speaking Acadians.
Referring to the three-year debate on Meech Lake, Mr. McKenna expressed a common sentiment in Canada: ``I think it's important we get Meech Lake off the agenda. I don't think Canadians ever, ever want to hear about Meech Lake again.''
According to a recent public opinion poll, a majority of Quebeckers would approve greater independence for their province. Quebeckers rejected such ``sovereignty-association'' in a 1980 plebescite after then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised constitutional reform.