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Behind `English' Canada's Rejection of Unity Pact

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 4, 1992


ALEXANDRIA MCDIARMID is no political analyst. At least not in the ordinary sense.

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But the 22-year-old telemarketer and sales representative waiting for a streetcar in downtown Toronto easily puts her finger on the main reason she voted no in the Oct. 26 nationwide referendum on a plan to remake Canada's Constitution.

"They [the politicians] didn't pay enough attention to details," says Ms. McDiarmid, a Toronto native. "I'm not the old-fashioned kind of person - I'm not just going to agree with politicians, to say `yes' just to make the government happy."

She didn't. Neither did 7.5 million others, 54.4 percent of voters, who soundly rejected the Aug. 28 Charlottetown Accord.

The accord, signed by the prime minister and all 10 provincial premiers, would have recognized Quebec as a "distinct society" and given it a guaranteed minimum level of representation in the Supreme Court and House of Commons; made the federal Senate an elected body; recognized natives' right to self-government; and dispersed some federal powers to the provinces. It was a big vote with nearly 75 percent of all voters taking part. But did the politicians get the message?

"English" Canada voted no for a score of reasons, polls showed, not least because it was felt that predominantly French-speaking Quebec received too much power in the deal. Voters in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, in particular, endorsed that view.

Quebec Liberal Party voters and Quebec separatists voted no, on the other hand, because they thought the deal gave Quebec too few new powers.

Politicians interpreted the vote as an overriding public desire that lawmakers deal with economic concerns rather than constitutional matters. That seems a correct but limited interpretation, observers say. The fact that the accord was rejected by six of Canada's 10 provinces conveyed another less appealing message for the deal's backers.

"By far the most important reason Canadians voted against the deal was they felt it was insufficiently democratic," says Leo Panitch, chairman of the department of political science at York University in Toronto.

"I think voters realized that what the Charlottetown Accord would have done was put in place a process of executive federalism forever, whereby these premiers and prime ministers would sit down and make decisions behind closed doors."

Says Michael Hawes, an associate professor of political science at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario: "There is a feeling that our politicians can't resolve the most fundamental problems. There was a huge failure for the `yes' in Ontario."

Ontario voters had been expected to broadly support the deal but did so by less than one percentage point.

"If you can't convince the mainstream to be onside on a deal like this, you can't convince anybody," he adds.

Voting also fell along class lines, with wealthier, more educated, more urban voters tending to vote yes, while blue-collar, rural, and less affluent urban Canadians voted no - in both "English" Canada and Quebec.