Much to celebrate in No vote: Canada
dodged a bullet when we rejected entrenching whiners' rights
Sun 27 Oct 2002
Ten years ago Saturday, Canada dodged an enormous bullet
-- the Charlottetown accord.
By a margin of 7.4 million to 6.1 million, Canadians said No to that elite-driven
mishmash of special interest pandering in only the third national referendum in our
history. They -- we -- said No decisively -- 54 per cent to 45 per cent (one per cent of
ballots were spoiled) -- despite one of the most expensive and blatant propaganda
campaigns in our history. Or perhaps because of it.
The Yes side outspent the No side by a ratio of 12 to 1 in perhaps the best Canadian
example ever that big money does not taint the outcome of elections, at least not a lot.
In addition to the millions spent by the official committees, Ottawa spent tens of
millions more than usual on government advertising. There were extra tourism ads that
summer and fall boasting about Canada's natural beauty, culture and nightlife ('Moose Jaw:
You'll come for the scenery; you'll stay for the cabbage rolls and after-hours leather
There were special ads honouring our peacekeepers and ads commemorating our selection
by the UN as the world's finest country in which to live. The appearance of these
commercials during the campaign was not coincidental.
Every establishment figure, or so it seemed, every parliamentary party (Reform, with
just one seat, was not, as yet, a recognized caucus), every major business and cultural
group backed a Yes. Actors, cowboy crooners and opera tenors, comedy troupes, retired
hockey heroes, academics, rock bands, poets and entrepreneurs all flogged the elite line,
ad nauseam: Charlottetown was good for Canada. Its rejection would destroy us.
How could it not be so? All the really smart people were on board. Only Reform and the
National Action Committee for the Status of Women stood opposed among nationally
Even that year's World Series figured in the campaign. The Blue Jays won two days
before the vote, bringing Canada its first-ever major league title. Commentators predicted
the victory would "unite Canadians from coast to coast," and push the Yes side
over the top. The tickertape parade was scheduled for voting day and given live national
coverage. And Prime Minister Brian Mulroney flogged the Jays as hard has he could as
heroes for "all Canada."
Still the deal flopped.
With its recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, its social charter and its
codification of group "rights," it would have permanently placed one province
ahead of the rest, entrenched welfare as a constitutional right and forever permitted
politically powerful groups who like to see themselves as perpetual victims --
aboriginals, feminists, visible minorities, gays -- to trump everyone else's rights to
freedom of speech, association, property and conscience.
Of course, since 1992, Canada's courts have pretty much entrenched the entire group
rights agenda -- some groups are just more equal than others -- via judge-made law. But
absent the amendments Charlottetown would have foisted on the Constitution, there at least
remains the faint hope that future, less intrusive and activist courts can be persuaded to
roll back the most egregious aspects of this agenda.
Negotiators for the Alberta government who I knew and admired at the time (and admire
still), such as then-deputy premier Jim Horsman, bitterly proclaimed after the successful
No vote that Senate reform was probably off the table for good. Premier Don Getty -- who
was no good on fiscal matters, but not bad on the Constitution file -- said "I was
there and I know how tough it was (to get Ottawa and the other provinces to agree to an
elected Senate), and I don't see it coming back."
Seven years later, in the winter of 1999, standing in a hotel conference room in Ottawa
at the first United Alternative assembly (the precursor to the Canadian Alliance), I
watched a mostly Reform party crowd adopt a 2-E Senate plank in the vain hope of
attracting central Canadian Tories to their new entity. This appeasing dilution was
proposed by Triple-E Committee founder Bert Brown and seconded by elected
senator-in-waiting Ted Morton. And as I watched the third E being flushed away for the
sake of political expediency, I recalled Getty's foreshadowing and wondered if he wasn't
being shown to be prescient.
Still, it is unlikely the third E would ever have been achieved through Charlottetown,
either. The Senate in the accord was weak and the veto of future constitutional changes
post-Charlottetown was strong. I remain convinced Charlottetown would have given us, in
perpetuity, a partially elected Senate, with diminished powers, and a seat allocation that
favoured Atlantic and Central Canada.
I still recall with great joy and relief the night the accord died.
Columnist, Edmonton Journal
Editorial Board Member, National Post
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