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Columnist – Meech Lake Accord « Douglas Fisher



Columnist – Meech Lake Accord
Fisher had opined and covered Canada’s constitutional issues throughout his career. The issue of how to accommodate Quebec in Confederation had won him enemies as an MP. He has always been remembered for his statements on Quebec culture at the Laval conference in 1961. Graham Fraser says of Quebec, Fisher “reflected the widely held view to quit your bitching. That was a strongly felt view in large parts of English Canada.”[351]

Fisher’s own account of his first informal meeting with Trudeau supports this. They found themselves in the steam bath on Parliament Hill.

    I realized this was the new find from Montreal, Trudeau. So I introduced myself and he introduced himself. We sat there. In five minutes he was into an argument about the constitution. Well I always…a technique that, I don’t know where it came from…I have always felt that the best thing to do when you’re in an argument is to change the subject almost immediately, and then rip along, which I did and it got him angry as hell. I said there is no use talking to you. Your coming at this as a lawyer and I said this is politics and politics is history and you are not going to decide the fate of Canada with lawyers. There is a country out there and people who have feelings. I meant that very seriously.[352]

So, in 1990, how did Fisher report the final days of negotiations on the Meech Lake Accord? How did his reporting compare to the political columnists in the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star? Federal – provincial negotiations to amend the constitution in 1987 resulted in what became known as the Meech Lake Accord. In 1982 Quebec refused to sign the constitution. The Accord was an initiative to get all provinces and the federal government to agree to a constitutional process that would include Quebec. The federal government and the provinces then had three years to ratify it in the Canada’s legislatures. In June 1990, with the deadline approaching last minute meetings and negotiations failed to save it. Most provinces found ways to pass the Accord but the governments of Newfoundland and Manitoba refused to meet the deadline.

It is important to note Fisher, ever the participant, took a stand on Meech. He did this in January 1990 when he signed a letter in support of Meech. The letter was signed by a number of former Trudeau cabinet ministers and Gordon Robertson, the former clerk of the Privy Council, spoke for the group when he appeared at the news conference making the letter public. Amongst those signing were two journalists, Fisher and Bruce Hutchison. The letter stated, “We believe that the accord reflects the reality of Canada, and that if accepted, it will contribute to building trust, understanding and harmony within the Canadian federation.”[353]

As with the review of the 1968 election, I will start with the Globe and Mail coverage and then the Toronto Star before reviewing Fisher’s work. The review will cover June 4 to 7 and June 13 to 30.

In 1990 the lead columnist for the Globe and Mail was Jeffrey Simpson. His column usually appeared under the lead editorial. Simpson wrote 16 columns over the 21 days surveyed. All but one mentioned Meech.[354] Simpson wrote carefully and fully about the accord. On June 5, the eve of the last minute first ministers’ conference to try to save the deal, Simpson summed up the situation.

    Meech Lake was an ephemeral triumph of so-called executive federalism, when the accord was negotiated, and for a brief time thereafter, it appeared Meech would pass. Then public antipathy made itself felt, first in cold political terms in New Brunswick, then in Manitoba, and finally in Newfoundland, although all premiers felt the heat of public opposition.
    Public debate, shattered what executive federalism had wrought. Now, after extensive public debate and new hearings by a Commons committee, executive federalism in the form of this week’s dramatic first ministers’ conference is trying to stitch together what the past two years have torn apart.[355]

Over the next three weeks Simpson reviewed the politics of the collapsing agreement. The Liberal party elected Jean Chretien leader during this period, choosing him on the day Meech failed, June 23, and Simpson wrote about Chretien’s unwillingness to take a stand on Meech while acknowledging that Chretien was “in a tight corner.” Simpson went to Calgary for the Liberal leadership convention and five of the columns assessed the impact of the failure of Meech on the Liberals and Chretien. Simpson also wrote about the impact on Quebec. He predicted, “The death of Meech Lake would drive (Quebec Premier) Mr. Bourassa into a far more nationalist position.”[356] He wrote that Lucien Bouchard, after quitting the Conservative cabinet over Meech, was “waiting for the call. Just when and how it will come remains unclear, but there can be no doubt he expects it.”[357] Simpson called Meech “a national psychodrama” and wrote, “Canada without Meech would not be the Canada before Meech.”[358]

Simpson’s analysis was even-handed. For the most part he went beyond the minute-by-minute developments instead gauging and predicting the reaction in all parts of the country from British Columbia to Newfoundland but always with a strong focus on the implications for Quebec and for Canadian federalism.

The Toronto Star’s national affairs columnist was Carol Goar. Over the period reviewed Goar filed 11 columns and ten referenced Meech.[359] On four days the Star opted to put her analysis piece on page one and Goar was given many more column inches than Simpson. As with Simpson the Liberal convention appeared to result in Goar giving Chretien and the Liberals position more space than the Conservative position. Three of the columns focused on Chretien and the Liberal party as well as Meech. Like Simpson, Goar devoted one column to Senate reform and like Simpson called the issue “a pure power struggle.”[360] Goar also explored the motives of Chretien as he moved from an opponent of Meech to a supporter and then falling silent on the issue in the critical final days. “So Chretien is caught between his convictions and political reality.”[361]

A theme of Goar’s coverage was the need for political leadership. At various times she was critical of the leadership of Chretien, Mulroney and provincial premiers. Her column on June 20 summed this up.

    This would require a degree of statesmanship that we have not yet seen in the Meech Lake debate. The nation’s leaders would have to move from the level of procedural tactics to the level of personal courage.[362]

Goar did not come out for or against Meech. She expressed concern about the impact of the failure of Meech on Canada but without Simpson’s dire warnings. For Goar the end of Meech left a “legacy of acrimony and mistrust that will live on.”[363] Like Simpson, she concluded the method of executive federalism resulted in a “refusal to listen to criticism or alter their course.”[364] Goar recognized the possibility of a new federal party in Quebec advocating separatism and saw it as a “testament to Mulroney’s failure to achieve national reconciliation.”[365]
However Goar pointed out that the Liberal position on Meech meant Chretien received none “of the small pleasures of victory” and that in Quebec Chretien “was denounced as a traitor.”[366]

Goar’s analysis covered much of the same territory as Simpson but with less emphasis on the various provincial perspectives and a greater focus on the political leaders. On June 30, the day before Canada Day, Goar’s final paragraph hinted that she felt something had been lost in the defeat of Meech.

    Perhaps we need to shrug off our understated patriotism. Perhaps we need to seek men and women who epitomize what we value about Canada, and urge them to enter public life. Perhaps we need to grieve a little for the Meech Lake accord – not the piece of paper, but the lost opportunity.[367]

In the Toronto Sun Doug Fisher wrote ten columns during this period. Nine of the columns made reference to the accord in some way. Fisher was the first of the three columnists to take on the issue of the Senate. He conceded that the issue of a reformed Senate would be a key to the last minute Meech negotiations. He wrote, “It is gross that Meech pivots on something so irrational.”[368] However the bulk of the column was a review of the failures of the Senate as a Canadian political institution and his opinion that “a reformed Senate just offers more negativism, and a similar amount of talk to be ignored.[369]

On June 6, while the first ministers were meeting to try and hammer out a deal, Fisher wrote a column called “Real life on Meech Lake.” The column opened with a reference to the meeting on the Accord but then veered off to a description of Meech Lake. Fisher summered on Meech Lake and knew it well but looking back the column seems out of place and out of character for Fisher who rarely dealt with matters about his personal life. Fisher did place his cottage in relation to the turn off to the Prime Minister’s residence at Harrington Lake. Fisher didn’t reveal that on occasion he made the 100 metre walk up to the gates for a visit with the Mulroneys. On June 15 Fisher devoted a column to the CBC’s coverage of the political machinations around the accord.[370] The CBC all-news channel, Newsworld, was a year old and Fisher noted the channel “has married the omnipresence to omniscience, and CBC-TV news has jumped far ahead of any metropolitan daily or the Canadian Press.”[371] Simpson ignored the impact of television but two weeks after Fisher column Carol Goar made much the same point in her piece on the lessons from Meech. “The CBC’s all-news channel has changed the dynamics of Canadian politics irrevocably.” Goar zeroed in on the real impact, “For those in power it was a glaring illustration that there is no room for sloppiness in an era of instant information.”[372] Fisher also gave one column over to the grievances of the aboriginal communities in Canada and their demands around Meech. As with his piece on the Senate Fisher opened up the discussion to a broader think piece on what kind of aboriginal self-government was needed.[373]

His three columns the week after Meech died were about the impact on Canada. On June 25 he cautioned that Canada’s leaders couldn’t simply leave Meech behind. Like Simpson and Goar, Fisher believed the process had created fundamental shifts. “Too many forces are now in play. There are too many immediate imperatives for the prime minister and the premier of Quebec and even for Jean Chretien, the new leader of the Liberals.[374] This column focused on the “urgent” need for “quick, sensible responses to Quebec’s sudden freedom.” The next two columns, June 27 and 29, focused more on the view from English Canada. In the first, Fisher again referenced CBC’s coverage but this time he reported on the appearances of three English Canadian historians (Michael Bliss, David Bercuson and Jack Granatstein) who gave their take on the consequences of Meech.

    Granatstein was affably reasonable in suggesting that now English Canadians could create what they have been blocked from for so long by Quebec’s demands and needs – a powerful central government for an English-speaking Canada![375]

Two days later Fisher wrote, “In short, we ought to get busy on Canada, as the Quebecois are determining the system for their precious autonomy.”[376] Simpson and Goar also speculated on the meaning of the failure for Canada but Fisher saw it more starkly and took the side of English Canada.

    Today federal Canada has two national parties. The head of one, the PM, represents a Quebec riding. The other intends to. Each is in a political scenario that really closed when Meech failed and the Quebecois at once began their transit to a new state. The transition must be ours as well as their. Do we stand by while they debate, refine and inaugurate their new system of government![377]

On balance Fisher’s contributions about Meech represented the view from and about English Canada. His decision to try to accommodate Meech in January was clearly challenged by events. Fisher says he did support Meech and argues, “I always felt the main reason it was allowed to drag. We had a couple of premiers who didn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground.”[378]

These columns, from this period, also illustrated how Fisher had moved to a more conservative position over time. He himself acknowledges that he became “a populist…a conservative populist,”[379] and the Meech columns, particularly the last three, confirmed that. Meech showed Fisher, now over 70, more focused on his observer role. However of the columnists reviewed only Fisher, ever the participant, took a public position on Meech. While Fisher wrote extensively on Meech he stuck to his regular columns. He wrote the fewest columns and while Simpson and Goar got more play in their newspapers Fisher’s editors did not give him additional space. The final days of Meech saw round the clock negotiations seven days a week but none of that resulted in a larger, timelier Fisher presence in the Sun.

351.Fraser interview, March 6, 2009.
352.Fisher interview, March 10, 2009.
353.Globe and Mail, January 23, 1990, pg. 12.
354.Note: Robert Sheppard wrote ten columns on Meech during this period for the Globe and Mail. His column was called “The Provinces.”
355.Simpson, Globe and Mail, June 4, 1990, pg, 6.
356.Simpson, Globe and Mail, June 27, pg. 14.
357.Simpson, Globe and Mail, June 15, 1990, pg. 6.
358.Simpson, Globe and Mail, June 28, 1990, pg. 6.
359.Note: Thomas Walkom, the Star’s Queen’s park columnist, wrote five columns on Meech during this period.
360.Goar, Carol, Toronto Star, June 7, pg. 23.
361.Goar, Toronto Star, June 16, pg. D1
362.Goar, Toronto Star, June 20, 2009, pg. 1.
363.Goar, Toronto Star, June 23, 2009, pg. 1.
365.Goar, Toronto Star, June 30, 2009, D4.
368.Fisher, Toronto Sun, June 4, 1990, pg. 11.
370.Note: The author was a senior producer at CBC News during this period and worked closely with the Ottawa Bureau on the coverage.
371.Fisher, Toronto Sun, June 15, 1990, pg. 11.
372.Goar, Toronto Star, June 28, pg. 23.
373.Fisher, Toronto Sun, June 18, 1990, pg. 11
374.Fisher, Toronto Sun, June 25, 1990, pg. 11.
375.Fisher, Toronto Sun, June 27, 1990, pg. 11.
376.Fisher, Toronto Sun, June 29, pg. 11.
378.Fisher interview, March 10, 2009.
379.Fisher interview, March 15, 2009.

©George Hoff