Plan to Remake Canada

The new Maritime quest for unity began during those achingly anxious hours when Quebecers counted their ballots and decided the fate of the entire country. As the tally in last October's referendum seesawed back and forth, Liberal MP George Rideout, a former mayor of Moncton, N.B.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 5, 1996

Plan to Remake Canada

The new Maritime quest for unity began during those achingly anxious hours when Quebecers counted their ballots and decided the fate of the entire country. As the tally in last October's referendum seesawed back and forth, Liberal MP George Rideout, a former mayor of Moncton, N.B., realized that his region was powerless, divided and on the brink of geographic isolation from the rest of the nation. He had to act. Within three weeks, he and his fellow Maritime Liberal MP Ronald MacDonald, gathered 20 regional businessmen and academics at the Keddy Hotel in Truro, N.S., to revive the elusive, decades-old dream of Maritime unity: the combination of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island into one super-province. In a striking breach of decorum, the two MPs did not bother to tell Prime Minister Jean Chrétien about their plans to change the country's very structure until the conference was over. "We decided that it was better to apologize than to ask for permission," Rideout told Maclean's last week. "Canada lost its innocence last October, and all of these things are now on the table and have to be discussed."

Rideout's sentiments epitomize the tough message that hundreds of politicians, businessmen, academics and troubled voters have delivered to the federal cabinet: the rest of the nation must never again be caught unprepared while Quebec decides everyone else's future. As a result of that widespread feeling, Maclean's has learned, the cabinet committee on national unity, under the chairmanship of former intergovernmental affairs minister Marcel Massé - named Treasury Board president in last week's cabinet shuffle - has drawn up a multi-stage package of largely nonconstitutional changes that he presented to Chrétien last weekend. The first stage concentrates on the redistribution of powers between Ottawa and the provinces. It also outlines a proposed new hardline stance that would see the federal government refuse to honor future referendum results on separation unless the question is clear - and unless far more than 50 per cent of the population votes to separate.

Maclean's has also learned that the proposal does not attempt to satisfy the constitutional concerns of every group in one large package. The aboriginal demand for self-government, for example, will be deferred for a later stage. Instead, the first round will concentrate on the efficient functioning of the federation. If the provinces consent, Ottawa will gain more powers over the economy, such as the right to regulate securities, and it will aggressively promote internal free trade among the provinces. The provinces, in turn, will exercise exclusive control over such areas as mining and forestry. They may also gain the right to work with Ottawa to set national standards for social programs such as medicare. Massé said that his national unity committee had to respond to the widespread public mood of uncertainty and gloom. "That indicated to us that the situation is urgent, that we must produce a reform in the federal government that corresponds to what all Canadians, including Quebecers, want," he said. "We must not make the federal government powerless - but we must make its role more relevant, more efficient and better known to Canadians."

The key elements of the package include:

1) Ottawa will concentrate on the areas in which it can excel, especially strengthening the economic union. Over the next few months, it is likely that Chrétien will reach out to the premiers, calling for the creation of a "Domestic Team Canada" that will work together to eliminate barriers to the free movement of labor, capital, goods and services. As influential Queen's University economist Tom Courchene, who coined the "domestic team" phrase, said in an interview: "Canada needs a 'national policy' for the 21st century which is economic-based and people-based. The obvious candidate is not 'jobs, jobs, jobs,' but 'skills, skills, skills.' "

2) Ottawa has concluded that most Canadians want the federal government to preserve its role as the guardian of such social programs as medicare. But there may be a crucial change in Ottawa's traditional approach. At present, Ottawa sets the standards for such programs - and withholds funds if the provinces break its rules. In future, if cabinet agrees, Ottawa will, for the first time, allow the provinces to participate as equal partners in the creation of guidelines. This could mean greater diversity in the structure of such programs as welfare.

3) Massé has called for limits on Ottawa's ability to launch new spending programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction such as child care. But his colleagues are unlikely to agree. Ottawa may state, as a principle, that it will not introduce new programs in a province unless that province consents. But Ottawa is unlikely to offer financial compensation to provinces that start their own programs, even if they are similar to national initiatives.

4) The proposal lists up to one-quarter of federal programs from which Ottawa could withdraw, including mining, forestry, tourism and housing. Those programs were selected on the basis of the so-called subsidiarity rule of the European Union: that is, powers should devolve to the lowest level of government that can effectively perform the service. Insiders say that Massé consulted all 15 EU members to devise his criteria for efficiency. Using those criteria, for example, Ottawa is prepared to relinquish its powers over forestry to the provinces, but it will continue its research into such problems as the spruce budworm control because it does not make sense for individual provinces to spend money on identical work.

5) The controversial recognition of Quebec as a distinct society must be enshrined in the Constitution. But that cannot be accomplished during the first stage of reform because there is not sufficient provincial agreement to guarantee success. The new intergovernmental affairs minister, Stéphane Dion, who shares many of Massé's views, said in an interview last week that one of his main goals is to convince English Canada to change its mind about distinct-society status for Quebec. Dion said that he would be willing to amend the wording of the phrase - as long as the essential concept of Quebec's distinctiveness is enshrined as an interpretative clause. "I cannot think that this country will die only because of two words," he said. It is even possible that Ottawa will simply abandon the phrase. As Simon Fraser University public policy expert John Richards said last week: "The term means so many contradictory things that it is not helpful to national reconciliation."

The proposed package represents a compromise between those federal officials who believe that Ottawa must concentrate on substantive proposals for national change, and those who maintain that it must get tough with Quebec. Last week, a scant 24 hours before his appointment to the human resources portfolio, former transport minister Doug Young told Maclean's that Ottawa should no longer sit silently on the sidelines while Quebec devises its referendum rules, sets the question and determines the winning margin. Instead, he maintained, Ottawa should state, clearly and repeatedly, that if Canada is divisible, Quebec is also divisible. "What is this pussyfooting around all about?" he said. "You have to have rules of the game."

The cabinet's national unity committee has steered clear of such dramatic proposals. It has, however, taken an unequivocal stand: unlike in the two previous Quebec referendums, it will never again passively accept Quebec's right to formulate the question - and its assertion that more than 50-per-cent approval constitutes victory. Instead, it will demand a clearer question and a yet-to-be determined higher margin - even though that position is likely to be controversial in Quebec, if only because many voters will argue that it is too late to change the rules.

But that tough love is enormously popular in the rest of the nation. On Jan. 19, the Reform party flatly asserted in its "Twenty realities of secession" statement that Quebec's borders are not set in stone. "People felt that this stuff should have been out there 10 years ago," says the party's constitutional critic, Stephen Harper. "We are now 30 years into this crisis and nobody has talked about the consequences of separation. Certainly, no one can accuse this country of having overemphasized it."

Whatever the fate of the cabinet committee's proposals, and whatever the success of Dion's quest to enshrine "distinct society" in the Constitution, it is clear that the Oct. 30 referendum result has changed the nation - and its politicians - far more than anyone could have predicted. Groups that had held back during the referendum have become active instigators in the quest for change. In mid-December, the Business Council on National Issues, Canada's major business lobby group, privately distributed an influential 16-page package that combined precise proposals for nonconstitutional change with the pointed observation that Ottawa "has a duty to all Canadians to spell out clear rules governing a proposed secession." The package went to the Prime Minister, all premiers, senior federal officials and Massé. President Tom D'Aquino said in an interview that the council acted because the situation is too urgent to ignore. "We had a very narrow brush with disaster, both financially and politically," he warned. "And we said to ourselves, 'Never should this happen again.' " It is a view that many federal politicians now reluctantly share.

Maclean's February 5, 1996