Canadian Rejection of `Unity' Deal Reshapes the Political Landscape
MONTREAL — LITTLE more than a day after the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series - a historic first for Canada - a radical remaking of the nation's Constitution supported by Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's "dream team" of political superstars was dramatically defeated.
Two years and hundreds of millions of dollars in the making, the landmark "constitutional unity" package, designed mainly to bind Quebec more tightly to the Canadian federation, was overwhelmingly rejected in six of the country's 10 provinces, including Quebec itself. A simple majority "no" vote in any single province in the nationwide referendum Oct. 26 would have defeated the deal.
"We unified the country alright - against the Charlottetown Accord," former Ontario Premier David Peterson remarked to a Canadian broadcaster, referring to the deal by the name of the town where it was signed, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
Yet the worst-case scenario envisioned by many - that Quebec would vote yes, and a western province no, thereby inflaming provincial separatism - did not occur. Indeed, some observers think the separatist threat has been muted by the vote.
"I think the [separatist] Parti Qucois has to be a bit disappointed," says Richard Simeon, a University of Toronto political scientist. Even though 55 percent of Quebec voters rejected the accord, "I'm sure they would have liked Quebec to be the most dramatic rejection of this deal. Instead British Columbia was," with 67 percent voting no.
The public rejection of the deal signed Aug. 28 by Mr. Mulroney and all 10 provincial premiers, and backed by all three federal parties, signals several shifts in Canadian politics, including:
* Postponement by as much as two years of a showdown referendum in Quebec over sovereignty in the predominantly French-speaking province.
* The likely end of Mulroney's political career, several analysts say. In coming months he will have to work hard to keep his narrow governing coalition together. Early elections appear possible because of pressures developing out of the referendum defeat, they say.
* Shifting emphasis from constitutional reform to the economy. This represents a long-term change in which societal problems likely will be addressed through government policy rather than constitutional changes.
* The likelihood of closer scrutiny of the world's seventh-largest economy by cautious money managers. Financial markets and international investors are leery of the potential for division in Quebec.
While saying he completely accepted the vote as an honorable decision by Canadians, Mulroney lamented that "solutions we thought we found are now lost. What remain are the real grievances in many parts of Canada."
Others, like Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow, found little positive to say. "If there is any silver lining, it's that Quebec wasn't left out there alone," he said.
Quebec political observers are divided on how much support the separatist Parti Qucois (PQ) will gain from the vote. But top party officials clearly hoped the province would reject the deal by a 60 percent majority - the same majority by which a sovereignty referendum was defeated in 1980 - thereby giving them leverage in any future provincial election.
"We have to face the fact that many who joined us had different hopes than we do," said PQ vice president Bernard Landry in an interview. "The [referendum] vote will boost the morale of our troops. If I were [Quebec Premier Robert] Bourassa, I would be a little bit ashamed to stay too long in power - he has lost the confidence of the populace on a central issue."
In his bid to sell the constitutional deal, Mr. Bourassa's credibility was heavily damaged by the tape-recorded comments of top aides who said he had "caved in" at the bargaining table. Yet, ironically, Bourassa has gained in popularity and standing in polls. Analysts here say he is in good position to seek reelection due to the peculiar trait of the Quebec electorate to punish their premiers' aspirations in big referendums but then reelect them.
Bourassa, however, may be alone among Canadian politicians in avoiding a price for failure. Behind the constitutional debate that has numbed many has been a growing division between Canadians and their politicians. A Canadian government commission documented the public and regional backlash against government, calling it "fury in the land."
"This is the first time I can remember that most Canadians believe their future will be worse than their past," says historian Desmond Morton of the University of Toronto. "It will be harder for their children to have careers and security than it was for them ... and they resent it.... Being a compromise, the accord required a little discomfort, and Canadians weren't prepared to put up with any more discomfort from their leaders."
Josee, a native Quebecker, agrees. She reflects what some call a "great divide" between Canadians and their government, and what others say is simply a deep cynicism about politicians' aims.
"I voted no because these guys just aren't working hard enough," she says. "There were too many things about this deal that made me uncomfortable. It's safer to vote no. That's not a vote to separate," she quickly adds. "I just don't like them terrorizing everybody with the whole sovereignty thing."