by Andrew Cohen, Cohen,
A Canadian Challenge/Le Defi Quebecois
by Christian Dufour
Quiet Resolution: Quebec`S Challenge To Canada
by Georges Mathews
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|From Accord To Ambiguity
by Ramsay Cook
In the aftermath of Meech Lake, all deals are off
THE MEECH LAKE ACCORD was hatched in that peculiar Canadian incubator, the Premiers` Club, whose most striking characteristics, according to Andrew Cohen in A Deal Undone, are "the male bonding, the union of the jocks, the fidelity and the fraternity." Who will ever forget that scene late on Saturday, June 9, when, after nearly a week of arm-twisting, the premiers took turns congratulating each other on "standing tall." It was
like an on-field victory celebration, except that the players had never allowed the fans into the stadium. And just as the provinces made the Meech Lake Accord, transforming the "Quebec Round" into the "Provincial Round," so, too, the provinces defeated it.
First there was Richard Hatfield who, facing certain defeat by a party led by a proclaimed opponent of Meech, called his kamikaze election before ratifying the accord. That gave the opponents of the deal, in Quebec and the rest of Canada, their first glimmer of hope. Next came Howard Pawley, and finally Clyde Wells. But there was also Quebec, virtually ignored in most accounts of the accord`s demise. Probably no single event was more important in making passage of the accord impossible than the Quebec provincial election on September 25, 1989, for its results set the terms for the final months of debate.
From the outset there was little discussion of the accord in Quebec; the near silence of the normally voluble Quebec nationalist Community was a surprise at
first glance. But, in reality, both the Parti Quebecois and its supporters recognized immediately that they could not lose this debate. If the accord passed, they knew that the debate would continue, Premier Bourassa having promised far more than its passage could possibly deliver. If it failed, then that could be represented as the final proof that the "beau risque" was a farce. As the debate outside Quebec dragged on, the Parti Quebecois leader Jacques Parizeau skilfully took charge. His party had shown an unexpected increase in strength in the 1989 elections; and while Bourassa could now warn the rest of the country that he needed the Meech lifeline, Parizeau aggressively pushed Bourassa into a corner. His strategy was twofold. Whenever his emissaries, notably Claude Morin, appeared before non-Quebec audiences, they encouraged Meech`s opponents in their belief that Quebec would use the "distinct society" clause to demand more. In Quebec, Parizeau forced Bourassa to repeat his claim that Meech was the absolute minimum and that any modification would amount to a further humiliation of Quebec. As Parizeau managed the game in Quebec City, Lucien Bouchard exercised a similar stranglehold over events in Ottawa. Between the two of them they ensured that the unconditional surrender of the dissenting premiers was the only salvation.
Thus the game was played out in the provinces in a way that left the federal government with only one strategy: head knocking. Having sweet-talked (and that is what it was, for Mulroney never made one serious speech on the content of the accord in three years) most of the premiers and the leading media into his doomsday script, the prime minister chose to "roll the dice." He almost got
his lucky seven, only to see the fickle cubes come up with snake eyes; and it was Jacques Parizeau who raked in the take. All that was now left for him to propose, in statesmanlike fashion, was that Quebeckers cease their fratricidal quarrels and find a common, sovereignist solution. Once again, Bourassa bit. Never fight them when you can join them is the Quebec premier`s motto.
The problem, from the beginning, was the agreement among the initial signatories that no change could be made in the "seamless web" that had been woven at Meech Lake and the Langevin Block. (In fact, two significant changes were made at Langevin, largely to help David Peterson`s bid for a majority government in Ontario; this raises the question of why others were impossible.) But that commitment to everything or nothing at first puzzled, then frustrated, and finally angered those who thought the accord represented a good first draft that could be improved. And when all of the federal parties and most of their provincial counterparts joined the call for total acceptance, women, French and English minorities, the disabled, many ethnic groups, several unions, and the Native people concluded that something was fishy in Meech Lake. Negotiated in camera, subjected to almost no debate among normally rancorous politicians, and open to no change: here was a deal that really was being rammed down people`s throats.
It would not be too much to say, then, that the skills of Jacques Parizeau and the strategy of all or nothing, which Parizeau had recognized as the accord`s weak point, killed an agreement that with a few changes might easily have lived. Though its supporters often presented it as finally settling the "Quebec Question," no one with any understanding of the dynamics of Quebec politics - - where the PQ remains the only serious alternative to the Liberals- could take that claim seriously. Both the Meech Lake Accord and Bourassa`s language policy demonstrated the futility of attempting to appease nationalism.
In his otherwise careful, well-written, and balanced presentation of the Meech Lake story, Andrew Cohen misses the crucial role of Parizeau -- he doesn`t
even include the Quebec provincial election in his handy chronology. And in my view he spends too much time on the politicians, and too little on the events outside parliaments and legislatures that contributed to Meech`s demise. An account that, for example, ignores the work of people like Mary Lou McPhedran, Mary Eberts, and other voluntary workers in such organizations as LEAF really misses the degree to which the Meech debate was wrestled from the hands of the politicians who were determined to control and limit it. If Clyde Wells found, to his surprise, that he had a nation-wide constituency, it was because a variety of voluntary associations -- most of whose members could not have cared less about the split in John Turner`s feckless Liberal party had created that constituency. Still, Cohen`s book is probably as good as we`ll get until historians are allowed to see the private papers of the major players in 10 or 20 years. And he does provide a suitable epitaph for the accord: "...a revolution from above, a new regime constructed by politicians for politicians. It was
constitution-making by stealth."
In Cohen`s account the accord`s defeat is attributed to a series of sometimes trivial (Roland Penner going home to babysit), sometimes important (Bourassa`s decision to override the Supreme Court`s ruling on Bill 101), but almost always unrelated, events. Quebec nationalist writers see things differently: both Georges Mathews, in Quiet Resolution: Quebec`s Challenge to Canada, and Christian Dufour, in A Canadian Challenge/Le defi quebecois, see the failure of Meech as a natural result of an unworkable system, where "two nations" are still doing what comes naturally -- warring. Mathews, when he can tear himself away from Trudeau-bashing, at least has a clear goal: sovereignty-association. He presents a scenario in which Bourassa, with the aid of Lucien Bouchard`s Bloc, could force this on both the federal government and a compliant "English Canada," which he identifies with Ontario. His book was written for Quebeckers, so he offers his solution as one with many advantages for them. Readers of this translation may wonder
why a deal that appears to have only advantages for Quebec should interest them.
Dufour`s book suffers from different deficiencies. He actually appears to know something about Canada outside Quebec: it is provincial, regional, multiethnic, and devoted to individual rights. That distresses Dufour, who yearns, as all Quebec nationalists yearn, almost as much for an English-Canadian "nation" as he does for a Quebec one. That would at last produce negotiations between "two nations," d`egal a egal, as the PQ put it during the referendum. If Quebec nationalists want a nation for themselves, that`s their business, but they have no right to foist one on the rest of us!
What is especially irritating about Dufour`s rather shallow skim over Canada``s history is that he ends with another repetition of the woolly demand that "Quebecs specificity be recognized" in a new constitution. Whatever can that mean? Quebec`s "specificity" is recognized very concretely in the existing constitution and has been since 1867. If further recognition is required, it can only be achieved by an explicit reallocation of powers. What the last 30 years of constitutional debate demonstrated is that those who still want to talk about "specificity," "distinct identity," "special status," and all the other circumlocutions, are the problem, not the solution. Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque devoted their political careers to that demonstration. The authors of the Meech Lake Accord believed that with Trudeau and Levesque gone, the country could return to the confused ambiguities that dominated debate before 1968. We now know that they were wrong. It remains to be seen if the price of that lesson is bankruptcy