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Our much scorned prime minister set a loose shape and the likely timing on the constitutional crisis in his Toronto and Quebec City speeches.

There’s to be a swirl of public argument in many forums until July, then a reading by his government of the substantive wishes of the people expressed in the debate, then a federal program for a renewed Constitution to take to the premiers -and perhaps to the people through referenda.

What Mulroney’s foreshadowing is a fall spent in something like the familiar first ministers’ conferences.

Separately, each of Mulroney’s speeches is worth reading, and side by side they complement each other. “Change” was his buzzword to both audiences but his themes in Quebec were firmer and more blunt.

Those who think Mulroney is the prime cause of the current crisis will choke on some florid phrases or such piety over Meech as “Last June, Canada missed a rendezvous with its destiny.” Nonetheless, his analysis shelves any hopes they had for an early resignation. It won’t come before he has another turn at the table with Robert Bourassa and the other premiers.

The best hope before Christmas for Mulroney haters will crystallize or fade in the next four weeks. His harsh lines that Quebec must be fully out or fully in, that Quebecers who think independence will come easily with little hurt are dreaming, may shake out more Tory MPs into the Bloc Quebecois array led by Lucien Bouchard.

Is there a chance of such defections? Could Bouchard pick up the dozen or so MPs from Quebec whose votes might turf Mulroney and his government out this spring, say in vote on the budget?

It seems a longshot to me: 10-1 or higher. In part, this is because the likely defectors know what a literally dreadful mess a federal election this spring would make. To take this further, discount the bluster you hear from the opposition parties, in particular from the NDP or the Reform Party which seem to have the most going for them. There is little appetite for an election now or soon among MPs of any party.

Those many in English Canada who are not Progressive Conservatives but who want to keep Quebec in Canada and are not blinded by hatred of Mulroney cannot quarrel much with what he said this week. Of course, Jean Chretien and Audrey McLaughlin made the stock critique over a lack of detail or substance. Good, they said. At last he’s standing firm for Canada. But how’s he going to do it? Where’s his plan? Substance is missing!

Certainly there’s truth in this critique but for at least four months it’s irrelevant. This is so not just because Mulroney artfully set the Spicer enterprise going with a July deadline or gave a parliamentary committee the long, rather academic task of canvassing means for procedure on the Constitution. No, it’s because of a position Mulroney was forced to take after the Meech accord failed.

Only Clyde Wells, Frank McKenna, and Manitoba’s quartet of Filmon-Carstairs-Doer-Harper expiated more than Chretien and McLaughlin on the fatal flaw of the Meech process. It had not been “open.” Mulroney and the original band of premiers worked “behind closed doors.” They left the people outside; they struck the “deal” in private.

This much emphasized exclusion of the people and their wisdom from the Meech process explains why constitutional hearings have been under way again in many of the provinces, and why Mulroney loosed Keith Spicer and his group.
In these two speeches Mulroney could not go beyond the readiness of his government for “major structural changes.” He had to say he must wait for all the various responses from the people, including what Bourassa’s Liberal Party does with its Allaire report, and subsequently, what the Bourassa government and the National Assembly take from the Belanger-Campeau commission’s report.

Two matters of significance should become clearer by mid-summer.
First, whether the recession deepens or lessens. A deepening might have cautionary consequences in Quebec.

Second, whether the flood of debate in English Canada will end in some consensus on how far those who negotiate the renewal of the Constitution may go in offering changes which might satisfy Quebec. For this prospect we must reflect on the hangover from the Meech failure.

Will the clear majority in English Canada have disappeared that rallied behind Clyde Wells and the now immortal Elijah Harper last June? Few disagree that a referendum on Meech would have rejected the accord last year. Yet the provisions in the accord will seem minor to what Quebec will want in any renewed negotiations.

If, as seems sensible, one anticipates the gist of what the Spicer and other hearings produce will be very general with lots on the great desire of English Canadians to keep Canada whole and not specific constitutional changes to satisfy Quebec aspirations, then the best likelihood is a Meech II. But it should be far briefer than Meech I. Who can imagine Bourassa, in the name of Quebec, abiding more hours of Clyde Wells and his imperative of a strong, central government?

The certainty from Mulroney’s stance this week is not that the odds are on Quebec staying; it’s that the parting will not be serene.