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Eight: Pressure Points

The mood across Outer Canada during the summer of 1990 was anything but supportive of our present model of top-down democracy in Ottawa. We agreed with Inner Canadians on many issues, ranging from wanting lower interest rates to the need for stronger national leadership, but, unlike these fellow citizens, we urgently require changes to make our national government representative of all Canadians. Such changes relate to various fields: grants to cultural agencies, constitutional commitments, the handling of the taxation system. In each of them the pressure on national unity has increased: thus these issues deserve a closer look from the standpoint of Outer Canadians.

Culture and Communications

Cultural disaffection among Outer Canadians is a growing problem with national unity implications. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a national crown corporation whose television and radio services are used by an estimated twelve million Canadians daily, is a major culprit. It should be a major unifying vehicle providing a broad cultural highway of national self-expression. It should allow Canadians everywhere to share a cultural heritage that reflects our full national diversity.

Neither the English nor the French television network of the CBC currently provides an adequate contribution with respect to regional and cross-cultural communications. This vein was first documented officially during 1977 when the Boyle Commission of Inquiry concluded that virtually all regular network CBC English television series were produced in Toronto with Ottawa providing some political programs. As for the rest of the country, said Harry Boyle, then chairman of the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC), the Prairies and Atlantic Canada provided virtually nothing, although British Columbia contributed more significantly (e.g., the recently terminated Beachcombers). The Commission concluded glumly: "The regions of English Canada, from sea to sea, exist chiefly during the summer vacation."

In the case of the French language Radio-Canada, based in Montréal, the presentation of the regions of Canada outside Québec was so extremely limited that the two solitudes were encouraged in the structures of the corporation. A content analysis of major national television and radio newscasts of the corporations done for the Boyle Commission in mid-1977 indicated the extent of the problem. The estimate of the common ground in the sampled English and French media was approximately 15 percent. More than half of the time used by Radio-Canada on Canadian news focused on Québec events, whereas on English news only 17 percent of the air time was devoted to Québec. The enforced separation of the two solitudes continues to be virtually total. For example, the television drama series Lance et Compte (He Shoots, He Scores-- Radio Canada 1986) was extremely successful in Québec; its English audience was minimal. Some say this was because the English version was censored, but it certainly indicates important cultural differences. The 1977 drama by Radio Canada, Duplessis, was watched by two million Québeckers, a quarter of the population; in English Canada, the series attracted less than 5 per cent. CBC’s television series, The Nature of Things, produced for twenty-seven years and sold to 30 countries, has never been shown in French in Canada.

Both the English and French CBC television networks give little attention to Outer Canadians. A study for the Boyle Commission revealed that Radio Canada and CBC devoted less than 1.3% of their sampled news time to British Columbia. To the four Atlantic provinces, Radio-Canada news allotted no time and CBC English television news devoted 3.2% of its time during the period surveyed. The Prairies received 13.6% of English television news time but only 2.8% of the French television time. The North got 13.6% of English television but only 1.3% of French television news time.

Toronto, Ottawa, Montréal and Québec City were the sources of 73 percent of both the television and radio news. Four of the larger cities in Outer Canada, Halifax, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver, could each muster just between one and two percent of the news items. All other communities in Outer Canada presumably failed to register at all on what the CBC editors thought was newsworthy during a ten-day period in our ongoing national story. Understandably, Harry Boyle’s 1977 reporting letter to Prime Minister Trudeau stated that, "the CBC has thereby, in the commission’s view, failed in its very important responsibility to ‘contribute to the development of national unity’" Both Outer and Inner Canadians will have to assess for themselves whether it’s doing significantly better today.

The president of the CBC at the time, Al Johnson, conceded that the corporation had failed to adequately reflect English Canada and French Canada to each other. I am unaware of any independent or content analysis since 1977 which demonstrates substantive improvement on the television news side. It is my sense that things have improved only very little since the Boyle report of 1977.

The late-1989 study by the Fraser Institute’s National Media Archive still chided the trend of our national media for unbalanced regional coverage. Based on an analysis of six topics (free trade, the federal election, labour, health care, privatisation and abortion) the study revealed that news from Ontario dominates media reporting, with nearly two-thirds of the CBC’s and a little over half of the Globe and Mail’s coverage focusing on Ontario. The Atlantic provinces and Québec received minimal coverage from both media: 1.4 per cent and 9.7 per cent respectively. Prairie provinces took 22 per cent of the Globe and Mail’s coverage and only 8 per cent of CBC time. British Columbia did better with 18 and 22 per cent respectively. The North hardly attracted any story at all on the six issues analysed -- 0.2 per cent.

A spring 1990 study by the same National Media Archive revealed that 90 per cent of the CBC stories on the GST originated in Ontario. The only other province that attracted attention was Alberta, where opposition to the GST is the strongest because of the absence of a visible provincial sales tax. Over half the coverage on CBC and two-thirds on CTV on the issue originated from Ottawa and more than one-third of the coverage on CBC came from the Toronto studio. The voice of Outer Canada, the region most adversely affected by the GST, was virtually absent.

The 1989 coverage of the Meech Lake accord by CBC was also highly Toronto-centred with almost 80 percent of all statements coming out of the Toronto studio. None of the stories about Clyde Wells or Newfoundland, according to the National Media Archive, were broadcast from Newfoundland, and only 3 per cent of CTV’s stories were.

On the CBC English radio news side, an internal corporation analysis suggests an exemplary record in reporting regularly from many centres across Canada. Radio news is clearly much more portable than television news, but even so it appears to deserve high marks as a vehicle for having Canadians speak to each other across often vast distances. An independent analysis of four major CBC AM radio programs, As It Happens, Sunday Morning, Morningside and The House, performed in 1985 by Professor Barry Cooper of Calgary, concluded that 78 per cent of the sampled items originated in Central Canada. This suggests that the current affairs section of CBC radio has yet to catch up with the Boyle Commission’s recommendations.

A large part of Atlantic Canada’s present difficulties are the put-downs it receives constantly from our national media. As a national institution concerned with national unity, the CBC should make an effort first to understand the region better, including its potential, and then to minimize the number of insults broadcast about the region. Why, for example, are CBC English television stations in the region (as elsewhere) only permitted about an hour daily for local news and current affairs in contrast to its English radio, which has seven or eight hours daily in prime time for local programs?

The standard argument of CBC English television against the charge that it constantly trivializes Atlantic Canada in particular and Outer Canada in general is that television costs more than radio. But Atlantic Canadians pay taxes too, and a lot more could be done if the Canadians-talking-to-Canadians part of the network’s mandate was taken more seriously by both its senior management and federal cabinets. Why should CBC staff in Toronto be permitted to indulge Inner Canadian prejudices and in all likelihood their limited understanding of Atlantic Canada in choosing virtually everything that is shown on The National, The Journal and almost everything else appearing on the English network? Presumably the privately-owned CTV and Global television networks would improve their overall treatment of the region if our public network provided better leadership.

Harry Bruce’s excellent book about Atlantic Canada, Down Home, provides another perspective on the CBC from Canada’s east coast. In the rnid-1960s, Jack McAndrew was based in Halifax as Chief of the Outside Broadcast department for the Atlantic region of the CBC. Increasingly he resented, in Bruce’s words, "the cultural imperialism of his superiors in Toronto. The Maritime stories they wanted seemed always to be clichés, features about Anne of Green Gables, Highland games, national parks, and fishermen in slickers and rubber boots. When he suggested more original stories, CBC headquarters in Toronto insisted they were ‘not representative of the region’. . . . They wanted only the most stereotyped stories from down here. If you didn’t have a seagull shittin’ on the lens, they just didn’t want it." A man of real principle, McAndrew later turned down the best CBC job in the Maritimes, that of regional director, because it might have appeared that in accepting it he was endorsing its policy of gutting regional creative production. He quit the CBC in Toronto and with his family relocated to Charlottetown.

McAndrew complained that in the late 1970s under its former general manager, Peter Herrndorf, the English branch of the CBC sacrificed music, drama and variety programming in favour of becoming "a purveyor of information": "I say you find the soul of a nation in its artists, not in panel discussions on freight rates and free trade," he argued. Also the Boyk Commission noticed that the rare television adaptations of English novels about Canadian life tended to be "completely reshaped from within the CBC."

The Caplan-Sauvageau Task Force on Broadcasting Policy, after hearings across Canada, noted in 1986, "a widespread feeling that our broadcasting system, like so many other Canadian institutions, reflects reality largely as it is understood in Toronto and Montréal. Similarly, there is strong belief it also reflects the mainstream elite of central Canada. As a result, Westerners, Easterners, Northerners, women, natives, ethnic groups and minority groups in general feel that Canadian broadcasting neither belongs to them nor reflects them." Participants in a follow-up series of forums on broadcast policy, sponsored by the Canadian Association for Adult Education, reinforced this same message about helping, not hindering, the regions to develop voices on the national scene. Fil Fraser of Edmonton, a former CBC broadcaster, described CBC regions today as "a sham. The regions are not producing programming because they have no access to the network schedule and they don’t have any money to produce with."

Yet a third volley from Outer Canadians was presented to the House of Commons Committee on Communications and Culture during 1987 in St. John’s. Robert Paterson of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, objecting strongly to a recommendation of the Caplan-Sauvageau Task Force that all CBC television production in Atlantic Canada be done henceforth in Halifax, pointed out that the proposed regional centralization "cuts some regions Out of the national dialogue Newfoundland and Labrador, along with the other regions of Canada, need to preserve their ability to present themselves to other Canadians and tell them what they think."

In Halifax, David Colville, on behalf of the Nova Scotia government, lamented that "the problems of gaining either regional or national network time and money must be resolved in CBC head office in Toronto. The standing joke here is the $500 cup of coffee." He looked forward fondly to a day when regional and national programming would be decided together. In Halifax, Alexa McDonough, leader of the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party, spoke of her province’s "wealth of real, long-established cultures. Nova Scotians do not want a broadcasting policy that enables us to be more like Torontonians, no disrespect intended to Torontonians. We want a broadcasting policy that helps our unique Nova Scotian character to grow and flourish on our terms, as well as maintaining healthy ties with our fellow Canadians."

In Moncton, New Brunswick, Liane Roy of the Acadian Society made the point that the Radio Canada national news received in New Brunswick "often concerns Montréal and does not reflect the situation in New Brunswick." Claude Thériault, president of the Canadian Artists’ Representation, made essentially the same point to the same hearing: "the programs produced by la Maison de Radio-Canada in Montréal do not reflect the reality of the French language community throughout Canada." Going on about his problems in obtaining more regional programming, he complained,". . . every time we try, we are told that programming is the responsibility of headquarters. Headquarters is either in Montréal, in terms of decision-making, or in Toronto. And in both cases what you get is a reflection of those provinces. You do not get a reflection of the Canadian situation."

In Northwestern Ontario, David Wright told the Communications Committee that his region consists of over 100 counties and is the size of France but must obtain its local TV news from CBC Winnipeg. "The alienating affect of this is hard to overestimate until you live here and realize your community is never mentioned on any national network and no sporting event in your area is ever covered by a local reporter. ... Our area is, by default, portrayed as an accident-prone ‘empty quarter’ rather than in its true colours as a fascinating and diverse territory... Only a disaster or a federal or provincial election will draw a TV crew."

For years, the CBC has not troubled itself much with discharging its legislated mandate to be a cultural link between our diverse cultures and with regions. A regional consensus appears to exist across the country that our private television broadcasters are even worse.

The proposed amendments to the Broadcast Act as specified in Bill C-40, now at the report stage in the House of Commons, might result in the phrase presently in the CBC’s mandate that it "contribute to the development of national unity" being removed in the new act. Replacing it is the requirement that the CBC "contribute to shared national consciousness and identity." In view of the reality that the CBC in its own interpretation of the unity mandate has quite often been dangerously close to becoming a voice for the government of the day, and perhaps never more so than in its coverage of the first ministers’ meeting in June, 1990, 1 believe that relieving CBC of its national unity mandate in the area of news reporting should result in fair, unbiased and accurate journalism. However, in other areas of broadcasting such as public affairs, entertainment, special events, sports, etc., the CBC should continue to remain a vehicle of Canadian unity by reflecting regions of the country and by explaining Canadians from urban and remote communities to one another.

The performing arts grants by the Canada Council for support to the arts go disproportionately to Inner Canadians. The grant figures over a period of years indicate that cultural groups in the Toronto region and in Montréal get more than half of the Council’s grants to metropolitan areas. Spokespersons for the Council insist that regional fairness is not part of this mandate. It is self-evident that Toronto and Montréal have both more industrial and corporate patrons of the arts and larger populations to fill theatre seats.

The experience of the Canada Council’s exploration grants programs in recent years may be representative. The program was established to provide federal support for projects in fields such as theatre, film, writing, music, dance and other visual arts. The regional breakdown of the contracts seems reasonably fair on a population basis, but again, bearing in mind the economic state of the various provinces, the Council should direct more of its grants to Outer Canadians and fewer to the Toronto-Ottawa-Montréal based artists. Generally speaking, Outer Canadian artists need more help, whereas some of their counterparts in the favoured cities do not. Ottawa’s excellent Little Theatre, for example, has operated successfully for many years without a nickel of federal, provincial or municipal money. It is now almost impossible to obtain a ticket to its plays shown during the winter season.

The federal government spent more than two-thirds of its 1987-88 expenditures on culture in Ontario and Québec; the Atlantic provinces, having about 9 per cent of our population, received a mere 6.3 per cent of the money and the Western provinces and the North, having approximately 30 per cent of the population, received 15.4 per cent.

Telefilm, the national film and television production agency in Montréal, has a strong Central Canadian tilt. When, during a Commons Communications and Culture committee hearing in the summer of 1989, I confronted its executive director, Pierre DesRoches, with the fact that most of the movie and television projects it had supported in recent years had been in the Toronto-Ottawa-Montréal triangle, he replied that regional considerations are not a factor in allocating funds. One of the problems with Telefilm is that its notion of Canada appears to stop at the limits of Toronto and Montréal.

Newspapers and magazines are influential cultural forces. They are read by millions of Canadians and inform them on a wide range of topics, from professional sports to economics. Public opinion is at least partly fashioned by the print media. A survey of national reader habits done by Statistics Canada during 1978 found that 62 per cent of those surveyed about what they read in newspapers said they "read usually" local and regional news. Another 18 per cent said they read such news "sometimes." A study done for the 1981 Kent Royal Commission on newspapers found that more than two-thirds of readers said they were very interested in local and regional news. Such information should accurately and fairly reflect the communities across the country, including their full range of opinion, attitudes and perceptions on issues of community concerns.

At the turn of the century, 114 daily newspapers were published across Canada. Eighteen cities each had more than two daily papers. A further seventeen communities published two daily papers. By the start of World War I, there were 138 dailies and 138 publishers. Today, there are 110 dailies and only seven Canadian cities have two or more daily papers in the same language and under different ownership. Competition is healthy in only four cities of Outer Canada: Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and Québec City. As a rule the dailies in Outer Canada are owned and managed by Inner Canadians.

In Western Canada, a number of historically proud regional voices have been humbled in recent years, including the Vancouver Sun, Victoria Daily Colonist, and Victoria Times. The Winnipeg Tribune was closed. Today, as Vancouver’s George Woodcock notes, "an independent press has ceased to exist beyond the Rockies. Every word printed every morning and afternoon in British Columbia appears on sufferance of powerful combines whose headquarters are in Central Canada or even farther away." In Alberta, the Toronto-based Southam and Sun publishing companies own the competing dailies in both Edmonton and Calgary. In Saskatchewan, the Armadale Corporation owned by the Toronto-based Sifton family owns the only daily newspapers published in Regina (The Leader Post) and Saskatoon (The Star Phoenix). In Manitoba, there appears to be a strong consensus among both readers and journalists that the 1980 passage of the Winnipeg Free Press into the hands of Toronto’s Thompson chain weakened its traditional position as an independent and strong Prairie voice, at least outside its editorial pages. Three large companies dominate 90 per cent of the market in Québec: Pierre Pladeau’s Quebecor, Paul Desmarais’s Gesca, and Jacques Francoeur’s UniMédia. In the overall English-language market across Canada, the Southam and Thompson chains control 59 per cent of the circulation between them and the Irvings in New Brunswick control another 15 per cent.

The recent purchase by Ottawa’s National Gallery of "Voice of Fire" by the American artist, Barnett Newman, generated much public outcry over the $1.8 million spent on one addition to the Gallery’s collection. Cultural institutions in Outer Canada already envy the $3 million yearly budget of the National Gallery. Many Canadian artists from different parts of the country, moreover, are seriously under-represented in the Gallery’s collection. The "Voice of Fire" incident, among other things, has reinforced the view that national cultural agencies financed by all the taxpayers respond mostly to the tastes of a small elite in Inner Canada.

Meech Lake Mayhem

The Meech Lake accord was widely seen in the outer eight provinces as an accommodation of political and business elites in Inner Canada. Few Outer Canadians were surprised that the three reluctant assemblies were all in peripheral provinces. When Elijah Harper, an Indian member of the Manitoba legislature, deftly used the rules to kill the accord, Outer Canadians were generally very supportive. Clyde Wells of Newfoundland has been the real scourge of the Meech Lake defenders. The Prime Minister denounced him when the Newfoundland legislature rescinded its earlier accord approval and when he refused to hold a vote after Harper stopped it in the Manitoba legislature.

The road to these incidents in the Manitoba and Newfoundland legislatures began with the 1980 Québec referendum on sovereignty-association, which was lost by the Parti Québécois by approximately 40 per cent to 60 per cent. During the emotional campaign that preceded the referendum, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised that a "no" victory would bring renewed federalism. Many Quebeckers concluded he had in mind the more decentralized model advocated by then Québec Liberal leader Claude Ryan. Trudeau never went out of his way to correct this impression. Real bitterness grew in the province when it turned out during the constitutional wars of 1980 and 1981 that this was not his concept at all.

Following months of terribly divisive wrangling, all the first ministers except René Levesque signed a compromise constitutional package containing a popular Charter of Rights that was proclaimed by the Queen in Ottawa on April 1, 1982. No one had any doubt that the provisions of both the old and the new constitution applied as much to Québec as to any other part of Canada. René Levesque himself recognized this by invoking the notwithstanding clause of the 1982 Constitution Act to declare that all Québec statutes were to be expressly excluded from the federal Charter of Rights.

In late 1985, when the Québec Liberals defeated the Parti Québécois, the resurrected premier, Robert Bourassa, put forward five conditions for his government to sign the 1982 Constitution: recognition of the province as a distinct society; a veto for Québec on constitutional amendments; a larger role for the province in immigration; a provincial role in appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada; and limitations on federal spending power. At the time, these principles offended few Canadians, including the premiers of the day. Presumably, most believed that no one’s rights anywhere would suffer by respecting them.

During the next ten months, Brain Mulroney, who had been Canada’s prime minister since September, 1984, and Québec’s premier Robert Bourassa lobbied the other premiers. Following a 19-hour bargaining session in an elegant cottage beside Meech Lake in Gatineau Park, and to the astonishment of many, all eleven signed an agreement on April 30, 1987. The accord achieved the very important goal of bringing Québec amicably to the constitutional table. However, when the fine print was later examined, nothing in recent Canadian history, including the 1980-82 patriation of the Constitution and the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement, revealed deeper differences among Canadians.

Both major Québec political parties -- the Liberals and the Parti Québécois -- and probably a majority of French-speaking Quebeckers had rejected Pierre Trudeau’s 1982 Constitution, a fact that was of grave concern to anyone who sees Canada as essentially a family. Nor can anyone minimize the potential appeal of nationalist voices in Québec now the Meech Lake accord has failed. The August 13, 1990 win of the Bloc Québécois candidate Gilles Duceppe in the East Montréal by-election with 68 per cent of the votes is a clear indication of the mood in a post-Meech Québec. Unfortunately, the Quebeckers speaking up then and now for the province as a continuing part of Canada were neither as numerous nor as articulate as Canadians generally expected. The Parti Québécois, which won approximately four in ten votes during the 1989 provincial election with an openly separatist platform, clearly wanted it to fail. Robert Bourassa’s comments about the need for a new government "superstructure" if the Meech Lake accord expired and statements afterwards about the need for full political sovereignty disturbed many non-Québeckers. Equally troubling were various opinion polls indicating that a majority of residents of the province judged that failure of the accord to win acceptance would significantly increase the likelihood of independence for Québec. The prime minister of Canada, moreover, strongly reinforced the "either-or" view, presumably as part of his win-at-any-cost strategy to obtain support from all ten provincial legislatures before June 23, 1990.

Arrayed against these factors were major defects in both the process and substance of the accord. Eleven first ministers reached an agreement in secret meetings. They were able to ram their private deal through their legislatures untouched later on, relying on what is probably the most extreme party discipline in the democratic world. How could they presume to exercise exclusive control over constitution-making? Why was there no real participation of the ordinary citizen in this process through the convening of a constitutional assembly or some other means? Why were Canadians not even afforded the opportunity to approve or reject what amounted to a new constitution in a subsequent national referendum? One of the original Meech Lake group, Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick, had earlier rejected any notion of allowing Canadians to express themselves on constitutional issues: "I am opposed to a referendum at any time for any purpose. Any referendum is an attack on our superior system and should never be encouraged." It appears that Hatfield was not in touch with his province on this and other matters. In his first rendezvous with voters after his participation at Meech Lake, they elected only Liberals, led by Frank McKenna, to the New Brunswick Assembly.

Examining the Meech Lake accord during the summer of 1987, the House of Commons-Senate Committee conceded that its public hearings were little more than a charade. It noted in its report that, in future, both "legislators and the public must be encouraged to participate in the process of Constitutional change before and not after First Ministers meet to make decisions." Outer and Inner Canadians alike agreed it was unacceptable democratic and constitutional practice for provincial premiers to arrogate to themselves alone the right to remake the constitution.

Constitution-making Elsewhere

Other democracies have updated their constitution with full democratic legitimacy. The United States did it two centuries ago after winning independence from Britain. Most of the American states were then behaving like independent republics, with seven of the thirteen issuing their own currencies and showing mostly indifference to the fate of the larger union. A number of national leaders in the War of Independence responded to a growing paralysis by meeting during 1787 in convention at Philadelphia to devise an improved system of government.

Fifty-five delegates from all but one of the American states refashioned the American constitution, albeit behind closed doors, in meetings which lasted four months. At the end, thirty-nine individuals signed the document, a safe majority. It included George Washington, who said it was about as good as could be expected and could be corrected later by amendments. Federal and constitutional laws were to override all conflicting state ones. No longer would the union be "a firm league of friendship" among the states. A new national government was to be established by the American people as a whole. Each state, large or small, got two senators with six-year terms as all states were nominally equal. The voice of the people in the House of Representatives, based on population, would be heard frequently through biennial elections. Both chambers were equal on most legislative matters, although initially only the House could originate tax measures.

A system of checks and balances, so absent in Canada’s national government, was established by placing each of the executive, legislative and judicial branches on a separate basis of authority. Voters were the ultimate source of power, but the delegates wished to minimize the risk of one political party capturing the entire government, presidency, House of Representatives, Senate and federal judges, in a single election. The House and Senate were to balance each other in legislation and Congress and the President were to check each other. Members of the federal judiciary, having the final word on what the new constitution meant, were appointed for life to provide them with the necessary independence. Both they and the president, however, could be ousted for cause by the Congress through an impeachment process.

For constitutional amendments, the Americans dropped the rule of the earlier articles of Confederation which required the consent of every state. Instead, amendments could be proposed by a two-thirds vote in each house or upon application from the legislatures of two-thirds of the states for a constitutional convention. Amendments proposed by either method would go into effect when ratified by the legislatures or conventions in three-fourths of the states.

The constitutional proposals were sent by the Philadelphia delegates to Congress for approval with two recommendations: first, it should be returned to each state for approval at special conventions to be chosen by state voters, and, second, it should be ratified by nine states among the thirteen before going into effect, leaving dissenting states, if any, without any national roof. A furious national debate followed, but conventions were elected in all states to assess it. By mid 1788, nine states had ratified. By 1790, the rest had come on board. The victors in seven of the states had agreed to enact a bill of rights through amendments to the constitution, which was done the following year. The American people early on pointed the way to constitutional change on an essentially democratic model.

Following World War II, West Germany provided a modern example of democratic constitutional renewal that might have considerable appeal to Canadians for a post-Meech Lake reform of our constitution. Like Canada today, the regions of Germany which became the Federal German Republic faced a major crisis in 1948 when the Soviet Union withdrew from the four-nation occupational government. A constituent assembly was convened with sixty-five delegates being chosen on a population basis from each state. In fact, the delegates were chosen by the various state legislatures and were mostly members of them. Mirroring closely the strength of the various political parties at the time, delegates met in a series of committees for five months before producing a new constitution.

Subsequently, the assemblies of all states except Bavaria approved the proposals and the first national elections were called under its provisions in late 1949. On the promise that the Basic Law was a creation of representatives of the entire population, the refusal of the Bavarian parliament to approve it was considered unfortunate but legally insignificant. Bavarians in fact have participated as fully as any residents in the Federal Republic since its inception.

"Distinct Society"

The text of the Meech Lake accord eventually attracted even greater criticism than its elitist and secretive process. Naming Québec as a distinct society in an interpretation clause rather than in the preamble or in a substantive provision created uncertainty about its scope. The province is clearly distinctive, linguistically, culturally and demographically, but many of us worry that this provision, as worded and placed in the accord, would have allowed the language and other rights of non-French speaking Quebeckers to be adversely affected by future Québec legislation designed to enhance this distinctiveness.

Multicultural, women’s and aboriginal communities were sceptical about the protection, if any, afforded them under the Meech Lake agreement because their rights to equality were not included, as well, even within the interpretation section. Women’s organizations contended that the accord placed their Charter of Rights-based equality rights in serious jeopardy. Ethno-cultural communities worried that the "linguistic duality -- distinct society" provisions might be used to weaken the present constitutional position of the eight to nine million Canadians having their origins in nations other than Britain or France. Aboriginal leaders resented that their excellent claims to distinctiveness and constitutionally-recognized self-government were not even mentioned in the accord, itself completed only a few weeks after the Aboriginal-First Ministers Constitutional Conference concluded with nothing substantive achieved.

The immigration provision was a particular sore point in some of the outer eight provinces. Why should the constitution of Canada provide for immigration agreements between Ottawa and provinces which appear likely, on the basis of the current Canada-Québec agreement, to guarantee that Québec would receive one quarter of all immigrants coming to Canada each year? How could a better population balance among the provinces ever be reached without increased immigration to the outer ones? The federal-provincial agreement already in effect on immigration appeared to explicitly prevent this from happening.

In the spring of 1990, Angus Reid-Southam News conducted an opinion survey which found that opposition in Outer Canada to enacting the Meech Lake accord in its original form was 73 per cent in British Columbia, 64 percent in Alberta, 74 per cent in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and 65 per cent in Atlantic Canada. Specific objections in Outer Canada to the Meech Lake accord came from aboriginal peoples, women, linguistic minorities, most ethno-cultural groups, northerners, and many of those favouring a Triple-E Senate.

In Manitoba, Howard Pawley, who had signed the accord, was replaced as premier by Gary Filmon with a minority Conservative government, before it could be ratified by the legislature. Following the passage of Québec’s law banning English on outside commercial signs, Filmon angrily withdrew the accord from his assembly. Afterwards, he, Manitoba Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs and NDP leader Gary Doer, maintained one of the tightest all-party alliances in Canadian history until the recent Manitoba election was called. Until the dying moments of the first ministers’ June meeting in Ottawa, they held firmly that the agreement could not be passed without prior substantive amendments. Manitoba public opinion remained so strong in support of this all-party position that whichever of the three parties broke from the consensus seemed likely to lose most of its seats in an ensuing provincial election.

In Saskatchewan, Grant Devine’s Conservative government pushed the accord through quickly with little legislative opposition or public debate. The Social Credit majority in Victoria also passed it with minimal scrutiny. Nonetheless, one clear lesson from the regional debate was that Westerners were no longer homogeneous on constitutional issues. Alberta Premier Don Getty managed to obtain passage in the Alberta legislature without public hearings, but ones held by the New Democrats heard 150 groups and individual presentations which were sharply critical.

One of the submissions came from Eugene Forsey, Newfoundland-born and probably Canada’s leading constitutional scholar, who excoriated the proposal. He was confident that the effect of the unanimity feature of Meech meant that every province would have an absolute veto over most future proposals involving constitutional amendments. He saw the implications for the territories as a "gratuitous buffet in the face for the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, and delivered by a body in which they were not represented and which, as far as I know, gave them no chance to be heard." For aboriginals, Forsey expressed regret that at the very least the list of matters to be discussed at First Ministers’ Conferences should have included aboriginal rights. On the distinct society, he argued that its presence in the interpretation section of the accord meant that the courts were being directed to interpret the constitution in a manner consistent with the principle of Québec being a distinct society. Would the position of English-speaking Québeckers deteriorate if this occurred? He also concluded that the principle of language duality, as worded and located in the Meech Lake accord, would amount to "sheer humbug" for French-speaking Canadians in the other nine provinces. The clamour for changes in the agreement soon mounted, led in large measure by the new Liberal premier of Newfoundland, Clyde Wells.

First Ministers’ Meeting in Ottawa

Many Canadians noted the seven-day first ministers’ meeting in Ottawa and most were offended by its secrecy. Even the participants were distressed enough to agree to consider at the next constitutional conference using mandatory public hearings before adopting future constitutional amendments. What fools they thought Canadians if they believed anyone could now believe such self-serving nonsense. Their sudden reformation was weak and tardy.

The Prime Minister revealed his personal agenda the following week during a Globe and Mail interview. The entire first ministers’ exercise, he boasted, was deliberately timed by him to bring the impasse down to eleventh-hour negotiations. He had told his advisers a month earlier when the meeting would occur during the first week of June. "That’s the day we’re going to roll the dice." He also expressed no regrets -- "none whatsoever" -- about the absence of public debate on the constitutional negotiations, contending that the private talks followed the precedent set by Canada’s founding fathers. "This is the way Confederation came about. There was no public debate; there was no great public hearings. It became a kind of tradition." This was, of course, historical illiteracy. There was intensive public input and debate before Confederation. The Confederation Debates which records the various proceedings is a volume of 1,032 pages and is known by anyone who has ever looked seriously at our history.

According to Michel Gratton, Mulroney’s former press secretary, after the Globe and Mail interview was printed the prime minister telephoned Clyde Wells to persuade him that his schedule was simply too full to hold the first ministers’ meeting at any other time. Senator Lowell Murray’s travels across the country to meet with all ten premiers in search of sufficient consensus to call a meeting was a farce. The prime minister knew he’d be convening a conference even though he had protested repeatedly there would be no meeting if it was doomed to failure. In short, outright deception is a perfectly acceptable practice in Brian Mulroney’s Ottawa. The meeting, when held, was almost identical in form to Montréal labour negotiations held during the 1960s.

First Ministers’ Agreement

Substantively, the first ministers’ doomed agreement in June 1990 on the Meech Lake accord was essentially a worthless bauble for all who had concerns about features of the accord.

For example, a federal-provincial-territorial commission, appointed by the three levels of government, was to hold hearings on Senate reform and make recommendations to a First Ministers’ Conference to be held by the end of 1990. Given that there have been eight or nine official studies on Senate reform, a further one was clearly unnecessary, but at least this one was to report quickly. If the Meech Lake accord had passed, any substantive Senate reform would have required the unanimous agreement of eleven legislatures, a prospect unlikely, in practice, to disturb the status quo.

To create new provinces out of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, the first ministers agreed that future conferences should address options for their provincehood, including the only reasonable one (to Outer Canadians) that they should become so exclusively by a joint representation of Commons and Senate. This was useless because the Meech Lake accord, if passed, would have afforded a veto to every provincial legislature on giving the two territories provincial status. The agreement threw the territories only two very small sops: discussion on any issue that the prime minister exclusively decides affects them, and a non-binding promise that once the Meech Lake accord was ratified the role of the two territories in Senate and Supreme Court of Canada appointments would be a subject of future constitutional amendments.

A three-paragraph legal opinion from six lawyers was attached to the first ministers’ agreement, which the Prime Minister and some of the premiers claimed ensured that the distinct society clause would not be used as a sword to reduce rights within Québec. Most Canadians are immediately skeptical of anything said by lawyers in three paragraphs. More seriously, the best known of the jurists, Peter Hogg, was so identified with the pro-side of the Meech Lake debate that the legal objectivity of the opinion was suspect to many. Nor was the thrust of the opinion as helpful as Meech Lake defenders might wish. For example, it said that the protection of the Charter is "not infringed or denied" by the distinct society clause, but then added that it "may be considered, in particular, in the application of section I" (which says that rights are "subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society"). The opinion also conceded that the clause could be considered by courts in determining whether a Québec measure fits within the legislative authority of the province.

I agree with John Whyte, dean of the law school at Queen’s University, that the opinion was "confusing in intent, substance and effect" and that under the surface it described a process by which the rights of Canadians living in Québec were probably going to be diminished. Like so much in the hurried agreement, it was also legally irrelevant. Instead of referring the distinct society and other controversial clauses to the Supreme Court of Canada for an opinion, as could have done at any time during a three-year period, Brian Mulroney persuaded most of the premiers to attach a letter with little legal weight. It was neither signed by any of the premiers nor adopted as sound by them. No court can give weight to a legal opinion bearing only a very thin veneer of government sanction and neither confirmed by legislative resolution nor endorsed by government resolution. Legal mayhem would otherwise result. The lawyers’ letter in essence constituted a sordid little manoeuvre to attempt to convince the first ministers and Canadians generally that the Charter of Rights would apply in all provinces to the same degree.

Apart from the constitutional guarantee of equality the agreement gives to both official languages within New Brunswick, linguistic minorities in the other nine provinces and territories received nothing substantive. Changing anything in the important area of languages would require either the unanimous consent of all premiers or a constitutional amendment, which could be vetoed by any legislature.

The agreement promised that at first ministers’ constitutional conferences held every three years, representatives of aboriginal peoples would be invited to participate in the discussion on matters of interest to them. An amendment of the constitution, presumably in relation to the constitutional rights of aboriginals, would be sought from provincial and federal legislators. The overwhelming opposition to the passage of the Meech Lake accord by aboriginal peoples across the country was thus understandable. They received nothing from the agreement except a commitment to discussions once every three years.

The agreement noted various failed efforts over two decades to draft a statement of constitutional recognition, a "Canada clause," and said all drafts might be submitted to a Special Committee of the Commons. Following public hearings, it would report to the first ministers at the end of 1990. Unfortunately for Canadians interested in substance, given that the Meech Lake accord would then have been the central part of our constitution with a unanimity rule, this was nothing but more warm air from our first ministers.

Many who were familiar with the practices in other federations worried that the Meech Lake accord’s requirement of unanimity by all provincial legislatures for constitutional amendments would, in practice, make them impossible. The first ministers’ agreement again bound no first minister to anything except further discussion at constitutional conferences. In short, the first ministers promised Canadians "peace in our time" in a way very reminiscent of Neville Chamberlain’s pledge to Britain after the Munich agreement of 1938. The public participation in the process was so minimal and the crisis atmosphere created by supporters of the agreement so blatant as to repulse any Canadian democrat. The only substance to the first ministers’ agreement was the entirety of the 1987 Meech Lake accord. Something far too important to be left to well-meaning or scheming politicians -- the constitution of the country -- would have been usurped by them except for a courageous Outer Canadian, Elijah Harper.

Goods and Services Tax

Few policies of the Mulroney government since 1984 have provided more outrage among Canadians generally than its proposed goods and services tax (GST). In parts of Outer Canada, however, the opposition to the tax continues to be the strongest. An Angus Reid poll published in early 1990 found, for example, that 77 per cent of Alberta residents opposed the seven per cent proposal. In British Columbia, 65 per cent opposed the tax; in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, 72 per cent; in Atlantic Canada, 68 per cent. The weakest level of opposition was in Ontario (62 percent). A survey completed by Decima Research for Ottawa’s Finance department in January, 1990, concluded that only 14 per cent of Canadians generally were in favour of the GST. Reid’s regional samples may have been too small to be statistically significant.

The goods and services tax intended to take effect in January 1991 plays very clear regional favourites, hitting most severely the residents of our national family who can least afford further tax burdens. The Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, for example, was clear on the regional effects of the proposed tax: Atlantic Canada contains more low income Canadians than most parts of the country so the inherently regressive nature of consumption taxes will hit residents of Atlantic Canada harder than most Canadians (tax credits which are not fully inflation indexed do not overcome this overall regional impact).

As some of the dust began to settle from the Meech Lake process in late June, 1990, a Globe and Mail-CBC survey asked Canadians across the country if the Senate should pass the GST as passed by the House of Commons. Sixty percent said "no," compared to only 29 percent who said "yes," and 10 percent who were undecided or did not have an opinion. A full regional breakdown of the replies was not provided, but an accompanying story indicated that Québeckers were much more favourably inclined to the proposal, with 39 per cent wanting its passage by the Senate, compared to 26 per cent elsewhere. The lowest support for the measure, it went on, came from the Prairies.

How the GST became such a disaster for the government says a good deal about how little Outer Canada counts in current Ottawa policymaking.

The best insight I can obtain from a senior Ottawa official and from others is that the GST proposal sat on the policy shelf in the Finance department for many years. Attempts were made to sell it to each of the Liberal Finance Ministers during the various Trudeau governments, but each of them, including Marc Lalonde, could see economic and political catastrophe in it. Michael Wilson, a former Bay Street bond trader and firm believer in the trickle-down economics of Ronald Reagan, swallowed the proposal when he became finance minister in 1984. He then sold the concept to the Prime Minister and presumably to the cabinet before it was announced in detail to the government caucus long after the votes from the 1988 general election were safely counted.

To say, as some GST defenders do, that the government outlined the essential features of the GST before the 1988 election is sheer nonsense. What little was said about the GST by ministers before the election -- and it was as little as possible -- bore virtually no resemblance to the substance of Wilson’s technical paper tabled in the Commons in mid-October 1989. The Minister promised in mid-June, 1987, that the tax would meet five broad objectives: "fairness, competitiveness, simplicity, consistency and reliability." No-one today except government MPs would ascribe these qualities to the GST as passed by the Commons in April, 1990.

Equally serious in terms of the Finance Minister’s earlier reputation for honesty are his continuing assertions that the GST will be revenue neutral. In other words, it will not, at the 7 per cent rate at least, cut a nickel from the deficit. Virtually everyone I’ve spoken to who supports the proposal does so in the belief that it is necessary medicine to reduce our federal government deficit and mammoth national debt. If this is representative of the 14 per cent who now appear to favour the GST, it suggests that what little support exists is based on the conviction that the Finance Minister is intentionally misleading Canadians.

Some of the earlier media ads by Wilson’s department, presumably approved by him, would make the average snake oil salesman blush. They were finally stopped when John Fraser, the Commons Speaker, commented adversely on them in the House. In the current fiscal year, however, his department is spending approximately $14 million on what it terms policy development and advertising. Most of it currently appears designed to cajole or bully more than two million small businesses and others --Ottawa’s designated unpaid collectors of the tax -- into registering. The general cynicism about both the measure and its government defenders, anecdotally and in opinion surveys, appears to be increasing everywhere outside Québec.

Senate Hearings

The Senate Finance Committee hearings held over the summer of 1990 on the GST vented the opposition of representative Outer Canadians. In Edmonton, for example, an alderman said the tax, being applicable to city-operated services such as telephones and electricity, would add $20 million to city taxpayers’ yearly bills. To collect the tax, he estimated, would cost another $1 million annually. A retired schoolteacher, who spends half of each year in New Zealand and half on the Prairies, testified that he believes much of New Zealand’s current unemployment and inflation problems relate to the introduction of the GST in the mid-1980s.

The Alberta publisher, Mel Hurtig, told the committee that the GST would further burden individual Canadians while allowing companies to continue as the least taxed among all industrial democracies, including the U.S., Japan and West Germany. During 1989, he stressed, individuals paid 88 per cent of all income taxes and companies about 12 per cent. Since Michael Wilson began his tax reforms in 1986, Canadian corporate taxes rose from $14.4 billion to $15.3 billion, whereas yearly personal direct tax receipts went from $85.3 billion to $112.8 billion. Between 1980 and 1987, our chartered banks paid income taxes at the rate of 2.48 per cent. With many other Outer Canadians, he asked, "Is it justifiable to now transfer billions of dollars of additional tax burden away from corporations onto the backs of families and individual Canadians?" The withdrawal of the manufacturers’ sales tax (MST) and its replacement by the GST are, of course, designed to do precisely this.

Hurtig avoided the usual government charge that he had no alternative to the GST. Among his proposals to the committee were higher effective taxes on large companies, a wealth tax equal to the average among OECD member nations, progressive but small inheritance taxes, a two per cent reduction in interest rates (which would save $7 billion in government debit charges over four years), and additional taxes on expensive houses, cars and other luxury items. My sense is that most of the opposition to Hurtig’s approach to tax reform would come from a few thousand people in Toronto and Montréal.

The submission by Lawrence Alexander, a thoughtful Edmonton businessman in his seventies, represented another frontal attack on the GST. He saw the measure as a blueprint for a far-reaching change in the Canadian way of life. How, he asked, could the advocates of the GST argue that the purchase of items such as gas and heating oil are discretionary? How would taxing air tickets build national unity? Replacing the MST with the GST was simply adopting a remedy which was much worse than the disease. Better, he argued, to increase the income tax without setting up an onerous new system. This would disturb the economy the least and would entail the least administrative cost.

During the summer of 1990, many other points also came to light. The chairman of the Don’t Tax Reading Coalition pointed Out that although 1991 subscriptions to Canadian magazines are to be subject to the tax it would be unenforceable against many foreign publications. A spokesman for one of the three Prairie wheat pools declared they could not change their computerized accounting system by January 1, 1991 because Ottawa officials had been unable to provide enough details. The president of the Canadian Real Estate association pointed out the unfairness of applying the GST to some real estate fees but exempting stock market brokerage fees. Renters would also be hit because many landlords would find a way to pass on to them the GST they must pay on plumbing and other services. A funeral home chain concluded that pre-paid funeral arrangements bought after September 1, 1990 would be subject to the tax. The head of the Saskatchewan Federation of Indians estimated that the GST would cost natives in the province more than $45 million yearly. Indians across Canada are exempt from provincial sales taxes and consider that their treaties exempt them from such levies.

A persuasive letter carried during the summer of 1990 in Vancouver’s West Ender newspaper walked readers through a day off work in the life under the GST of a resident (admittedly one with a relatively high income) who could not qualify for a tax credit. Virtually everything she bought during the day -- newspapers, meals, taxis, stamps, art gallery tickets --was subject to the tax, causing her to pay Out $7.65 on the tax in a single day. During one year, the writer estimated that the tax would cost the hypothetical woman an additional $2,792. On no item she bought did the price drop because of the removal of the MST.

Large groups of Outer Canadians hit to some degree at least by the GST are farmers and fisherman, performing artists, tenants of commercial realty, owners of owner-operated businesses, charities and non-profit organizations. All Outer Canadians will be hit harder than Inner Canadians both as consumers and producers because of the application of the tax to transportation services. Food transportation would also be hit, as a trucking expert pointed out, because you rarely can separate food from other items in a load of merchandise. Most consumer products are made in southern Ontario and the cost of moving a refrigerator from there to, say, Nanaimo or St. John’s would be taxed on the distance involved: the farther one lives from Toronto the more tax one pays. The new levy on transportation also hits producers hardest according to how far they live from the population centres in Ontario and Québec where most products are consumed. A small tax advantage which remote makers of finished products enjoyed under the manufacturers sales tax disappears under the GST.

The Regina-based Western Canadian Wheat Growers, representing 11,000 Prairie grain farmers, concluded that the GST would "significantly reduce farm operating margins." Three reasons: non-family members buying farms will pay seven per cent on land and be required to carry finance charges until the rebate for items other than carrying costs is received; farm implements, not now taxed at point of sale, are expected to rise three to four per cent because of the inflationary impact of the GST; farm purchasers would only receive a portion of this back as a GST rebate.

Tourism is one of the sectors that will be hardest hit by the GST. An industry that generates $24 billion in gross revenues per year, and $11 billion in tax revenue for all levels of government, will lose, according to the Tourist Industry Association of Canada, $1 billion per year and 25,000 jobs by 1993. Joe McGuire, an MP from PEI, noted during the debate on the GST in the House of Commons, that the effects of the GST will be particularly devastating for the Atlantic provinces. About half of the tourists to the region come from Central Canada. With the GST in place they may opt for American destinations.

Some major resource industries in Outer Canada, which for the most part now escape the MST, are also caught. Mining activities will now be taxed on their sales at 7 per cent. Similarly, natural gas sold domestically will be taxed for the first time at the federal level. Forest product companies, much of whose input is not currently taxed, will be hit by the GST both on domestic sales and on expenses such as transportation. Finally, provincial taxes, including sales taxes, are to form part of the value on which the GST is imposed. The residents of hinterland provinces with larger-than-average provincial sales taxes will thus pay more.

The GST will also contribute to the worsening of existing regional disparities and its impact will be most harmful in the provinces with the highest provincial tax rates. For example, in Prince Edward Island, there will be a total of 17 per cent charged through the GST and the provincial tax system as the 10 percent provincial tax will presumably be added to the cost of the item plus the cost of the GST. A farmer on the island will pay more for farm equipment than one in Ontario because of increased costs in transportation.

As this book goes to press in September, it remains unclear what the Senate will ultimately do with the GST bill. Constitutionally, the senators are fully entitled simply to refuse to pass the measure on the basis that it is both sufficiently important to the national economy and radically different from anything hinted at by the Prime Minister and his party candidates during the 1988 election. Our unreformed and unloved Senate is paid --and paid well -- to be a chamber of "sober second thought." If ever another measure warranted the forcing of an election, as the Senate did with respect to the proposed Canada-U.S. free trade agreement, the GST is an ideal candidate. If, however, the Prime Minister takes the view that in order to achieve passage of the measure as is, he is solely entitled since the failure of the Meech Lake accord to fill the present vacancies with Tory apparatchiks, and does so, any real Senate reform will become significantly more difficult to achieve.

Appointing new Conservative senators would still not produce a Tory majority because the Liberals still have 52 of 104 seats. This would leave only Section 26 of the British North America Act, which in theory allows a prime minister to appoint four or eight additional senators in case of a genuine deadlock between the two chambers. As no prime minister during 123 years has successfully applied this provision, our highest court could conceivably decide that its use now by a desperate first minister violates our constitutional conventions. Section 26 has atrophied. The public reaction to such constitutional sharp practice would be negative and would presumably reduce support for the government party even further. The only senator with democratic legitimacy, Stan Waters of Alberta, who was appointed in the period between the June first ministers’ meeting in Ottawa and the collapse of the Meech Lake accord, says that any use of a s.26 by Brian Mulroney to force passage of the GST would be the political equivalent of dropping a nuclear bomb on the Canadian electorate.


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