Behind `English' Canada's Rejection of Unity Pact

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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."

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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.

"The standard analogy of the difference between Canadians and United States citizens is that Canadians are much more willing to defer to their elites in government, and to toe the line of authority, compared with traditional American hostility toward authority," says Richard Simeon, a constitutional expert at the University of Toronto. "That may have been true once; it is not anymore. We are seeing that in the rejection of executive federalism."

Professor Panitch agrees, citing a 1990 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Globe & Mail poll in which 67 percent of Canadians "thought the whole political system was fundamentally flawed."

"That's a remarkable poll for the year that communism collapses," he says.

After the 1990 collapse of the Meech Lake Accord, an earlier attempt to address Quebec's demands for greater recognition of its "distinct society," the government dispatched the Spicer Commission to gauge the sentiments of ordinary Canadians. The commission found a "fury in the land," based on a feeling that Canada was insufficiently democratic, Panitch says. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and others tried to avoid similar complaints about the way the Charlottetown Accord was constructed by spending month s and millions of dollars soliciting public opinion in town-hall meetings.

It did not work. Activists like Judy Rebick, leader of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, participated in the meetings but denounced the accord as reflecting only a little of the substance of those gatherings. Meanwhile, critics complained that the "yes" forces, particularly Mr. Mulroney, were guilty of scare-mongering when they predicted an imminent split with Quebec and economic woes if the accord were rejected.

"Nobody likes to be pressured," says Michel Decary, Quebec vice president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. "If someone was trying to sell me an insurance policy and said they had to have it signed or they were going to walk out, I'd say go ahead and walk out. That is the wisdom of the people of Canada in this vote."

Ana Sarmiento, a student who moved to Toronto from El Salvador five years ago, became a Canadian citizen last year. Amid her studies she took time to read the entire text of the complex accord document, and she did not like what she saw.

"I read it," she says, grimacing. "I really thought it could be improved. I was hoping after it was rejected last week that they would dispose of everything they had and start over. But what they've said is that they'll just keep adding to it."

Yet with the massive "no" vote comes the likelihood of federal elections in the next six months with the Reform Party and Bloc Qucois (Quebec's federal separatist party) both poised to increase their representation in Parliament. This could leave Canadian democracy with more diversity of representation, but also more ideologically polarized and fractious.

Weary of decades of constitutional wrangling, voters have halted it, at least temporarily, and have put implicit constraints on any such attempts in the future.

"Even though Charlottetown is history, we have made a very definite constitutional change," Professor Simeon points out. "There will be no future constitutional change without a referendum to ratify it.... Now it is, in effect, a part of our Constitution."

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