Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Thursday April 24, 1997
Deal with national unity now: Mulroney
Brian Mulroney, who twice failed to enshrine distinct society status for Quebec in the Constitution, is warning Canada’s political leaders that they must try again or risk the breakup of the country.And the former Tory prime minister says time is running out — a constitutional deal must be concluded before the next referendum on Quebec independence, likely within three years.
Mulroney issued the wakeup call in a speech to the Canadian Club yesterday, less than two weeks before Jean Chretien is expected to call a vote, in which national unity could become the sleeper issue, despite the best efforts of the prime minister, most premiers and other party leaders to downplay it.
Although he called on federalist politicians to put aside partisanship to resolve the constitutional question, Mulroney repeatedly took veiled shots at Chretien for failing to show leadership on the issue and for lulling Canadians into a false sense of security before and after the 1995 referendum.
“In the eyes of many, constitutional reform is a tar baby and nobody wants to touch it. To do so is both unfashionable and unpopular.”
Mulroney’s call to arms was greeted by a standing ovation from the almost 1,000 well-heeled guests at the nearly soldout luncheon, who included a host of former Mulroney cabinet ministers, other prominent Tories and the cream of Toronto’s business elite.
A number of Mulroney’s allies from past constitutional fights were present, including former Grit prime minister John Turner and ex-Ontario premiers — Tory Bill Davis, Liberal David Peterson and New Democrat Bob Rae.
While Mulroney’s barbs were aimed at Chretien, he may have inadvertently hurt his successor, Tory leader Jean Charest, as well as Tory premiers Ralph Klein and Mike Harris. Both have resisted any attempt to reopen constitutional talks. Harris, in particular, has called the distinct society concept outdated and unnecessary.
Charest personally supports distinct society status for Quebec, but has had trouble getting his candidates to agree. In deference to them, Charest’s platform avoids promising to entrench distinct society in the Constitution.
Several senior Tories said privately that Mulroney was not doing Charest any favours by making such a high-profile speech just before an election, reminding Canadians of his despised past. Mulroney insisted the timing of his speech was coincidental.
Ironically, given Mulroney’s primary target, Chretien’s Liberals are likely to make the strongest commitment of any party to distinct society. Party insiders say the Liberal platform, to be unveiled during the campaign, will specifically promise to enshrine distinct society in the Constitution.
Mulroney also slammed Chretien’s so-called Plan B — spelling out the consequences of and the rules for independence through such mechanisms as seeking a Supreme Court ruling on the legality of unilateral separation.
He said it only allows for an orderly transfer of powers.
The only way to unite the country, Mulroney asserted, is to get Quebec to finally sign the Constitution.
Mulroney did not have any advice as to how constitutional recognition of Quebec can be achieved without the legally required support of Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, whose premier, Lucien Bouchard, refuses to discuss constitutional issues. (Hamilton Spectator, A1, 4/15/1997)