Canada tries to bring Quebec to terms with new Constitution
Edmonton, Alberta — Canada is again wrapped up in constitutional issues. Garde Gardom, British Columbia's minister of intergovernmental relations, talks of ``a bit of d'ej`a vu'' stemming from his earlier involvement in the federal-provincial negotiations which led in 1982 to the patriation of the Canadian Constitution from Britain.
The present discussions stem from the 1984 campaign promise of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to make it possible for the Quebec National Assembly to approve this new Constitution with ``honor and enthusiasm.''
At a constitutional conference in 1981, the Quebec premier at that time, separatist Ren'e Levesque, refused to sign the resulting agreement on the basics of a new Canadian constitution.
Despite that refusal, then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the nine other provincial premiers did approve the document. It formed the basis for a resolution adopted by the Parliament of Canada on Dec. 2, 1981, asking the Parliament of the United Kingdom to pass the ``Constitution Act, 1981.''
That bill, passed in 1982 by the British Parliament, replaced the British North America Act of 1867, the legislation which formed the Canadian confederation and, up to that time, was the written portion of the Canadian Constitution. The new act was to have ``the force of law'' in Canada and it terminated the British Parliament's power to legislate for Canada.
In fact, The British Parliament had not legislated for Canada, except at the Canadian Parliament's request, for more than 50 years; nonetheless, it was embarrassing for many Canadians to have a British bill as their nation's Constitution.
Prime Minister Mulroney would now like to clean up this matter of Quebec's adherance to the new Constitution. From a political standpoint, success could boost the chances of his Progressive Conservative Party retaining some of its seats in Quebec in a future federal election. Mr. Mulroney was in Quebec last week campaigning for his party, pointing to the role Francophones play in his government, and reaffirming his determination to get the constitutional issue settled so it provides ``justice for Quebec.''
Circumstances have changed, observers believe, which make prospects for Quebec's adherance more favorable.
For one thing, Quebec has a new provincial government not pledged in theory to the independence of the province. And high unemployment has meant that economic conerns are dominant, and separatism dormant. At the same time, antagonism in English-speaking Canada toward French-speaking Quebec has diminished.
Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa submitted five proposals as a basis for discussion to the annual premiers conference in Edmonton, Alberta Aug. 10 to 12. The nine other premiers agreed with him to use those proposals ``as a basis for discussion to bring about Quebec's full and active participation in the Canadian federation.''
The most controversial issue is Quebec's request for a change in the amending formula which would, in effect, give Quebec veto power over constitutional changes.
At present, an amendment approved by both houses of the federal Parliament must be approved by seven provinces representing at least 50 percent of the national population. That formula was designed so no individual province had a veto.
Under Mr. Bourassa's proposal, Parliament and seven provinces with 75 percent of Canada's population could amend the Constitution. This would give both Quebec, with 25.9 percent of the population, and Ontario, with about 36 percent, an effective veto. Quebec, indeed, wants to retain that veto even if its population drops below 25 percent.
Provincial officials in Alberta describe that proposal as ``extremely difficult.'' With their traditional distrust of central Canada, the western and eastern provinces are most unlikely to approve veto rights for Ontario and Quebec.
Officials here see no problem with other Quebec proposals, or at least see some room for compromise and agreement. These proposals include: explicit recognition of Quebec as a distinct society; a guarantee of increased power to influence immigration policy; participation in nominating judges to the Supreme Court; and limits on federal spending when it concerns provincial jurisdictions.
These constitutional issues are expected to get another hearing at a summit of provincial premiers and Prime Minister Mulroney here starting Nov. 21.
Some of the other provinces also have their own agendas for amendments. British Columbia wants an amendment protecting property rights, for example. Alberta and other western provinces would like reforms of the Senate that would make it an elected rather than an appointed body. And the Maritime Provinces would like more powers to regulate their fisheries.