Canada's Angry Voters

Many Canadians view the constitutioanl changes being voted on next Monday as just another back-room deal

A NEW coalition is in the making in Canadian politics, forged by years of constitutional discussion, disorder, and disenchantment.

It brings together the far left, the far right, French-speaking Quebecois independence-seekers, unilingual, English-speaking Quebec haters, feminists and antifeminists, Indians and those who oppose Indian rights. This is the coalition that opposes the formula for constitutional change that the Canadian federal and provincial governments are putting to a referendum Oct. 26.

This new coalition - the NO side - includes Preston Manning's Reform Party, Jacques Parizeau's Parti Quebecois, Lucien Bouchard's Bloc Quebecois, the National Action Committee on the status of women, diverse aboriginal bands and councils, one of the last self-avowed Marxist-Leninist parties still in existence, and an increasingly querulous Pierre Trudeau.

Promoting the constitutional referendum - the YES side - are all three mainstream Canadian political parties, the leaders of all 10 Canadian provinces and two territories, as well as leaders from big business, the arts, and sports. The YES side counts among its supporters most of the thoughtful Canadian moderates who retain a sense of the country's promise. The NO side must rely upon the angry and alienated, the cynical and the pessimistic.

Needless to say, the YES side is in big trouble.

The referendum question, drawn up by the YES side, is classically Canadian. It reads:

"Do you agree that the Constitution of Canada should be renewed on the basis of the agreement reached on Aug. 28, 1992?" Real stirring, eh?

The Aug. 28 agreement is a deal struck by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (the least popular sitting leader in the Western world), the provincial premiers, the territorial leaders, and aboriginal leaders. In advance of grueling negotiating sessions with the other members of the Canadian ruling elite, the federal government went to some lengths to consult the public. Public commissions traversed the country to find out what citizens wanted.

Unfortunately, the negotiators of the Aug. 28 deal ignored many of the most significant results of the consultations.

Above all, the Canadian people said they wouldn't stand for any more back-room deals struck by arrogant, insensitive politicians. They said they understood that Quebec's unique character needed to be given special constitutional recognition, and they said they knew aboriginal people needed constitutional guarantees of a better deal. But loudest of all, they said they were tired of the discredited political elite playing them for patsies.

There was little that the collection of premiers, federal politicians, aboriginal and territorial leaders could have done - short of bargaining in public or convening a constitutional convention - to ally public fears. Most Canadians see the Aug. 28 agreement as just another back-room deal.

Not that there's much wrong - or right for that matter - with the Aug. 28 agreement. It is a very modest deal, little more than a housekeeping document to tie up some loose ends from Pierre Trudeau's patriation of Canada's fundamental constitutional document - the British North America Act - from Britain in the early 1980s.

If the Aug. 28 deal were implemented, power would shift in some measure from the federal government in Ottawa to the provinces. The unique culture of Quebec would receive slightly heightened legal recognition and protection. And special political rights would be extended to aboriginal people.

But the NO coalition has a great advantage in this fight. It's not required to be coherent, and it only needs to enrage its adherents with a single aspect of a complex package. So, the coalition includes Canadians who think Quebec won too much in the Aug. 28 deal and Quebecois who think they won too little. There are Canadians who think aboriginals are going to get too much special status and aboriginals who say they're getting too little. Others - including some feminists - oppose the package because th ey are not part of it.

THE YES side must sell the whole package, claiming that every element is either just right or the best that can be achieved. Unfortunately, there's no single element that sells itself and the whole deal.

And the package is so various, so complex, that many Canadians apparently intend to vote NO just because they don't understand the proposals and don't want to endorse a deal they haven't digested. But the single greatest problem YES strategists face is that Canadians are simply sick of constitutional talks. The negotiations have absorbed an enormous amount of time, energy, and public money.

For the last couple of years, Canadians - like Americans - have been overwhelmingly concerned about jobs and the performance of the North American economy. Slightly lower on their anxiety list are worries about the environment, the schools, and the cost of universal health care.

But this deal is mostly about what powers are going to be exercised by federal politicians, what by provincial politicians, and what by native leaders. For most Canadians it is almost entirely irrelevant.

It now appears the voting result will be inconclusive. Public opinion polling finds a country leaning against the proposals but deeply split. Would solid support for the YES mean the federal and provincial governments should institute the proposed changes? Would an overwhelming NO vote mean no to Quebec, no to aboriginal peoples, no to decentralization of power?

More likely, a YES vote would be a signal that the Canadian people want their politicians to stop wrangling and start addressing the real issues. And a NO vote? A no to the process. A no from a tired people to their tired politicians.

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