ST. JOHN'S, Canada — A controversial package of amendments to the Canadian constitution that would have given special status to Quebec died in the Newfoundland provincial legislature here Friday. The failure is likely to lead to a serious testing of the bonds between English and French Canada in the coming months.
"It's a sad day for Canada," said an exhausted-looking Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as he left his offices in Ottawa late Friday evening. "It's obviously a sad day for me as prime minister, but I'm particularly thinking about the youth of Canada."
Mulroney has long been warning Canadians that if they rejected the constitutional amendments, Quebec would take it as a rejection of French Canadians in general. He declined to make extensive remarks Friday, and is scheduled to make a formal address today.
The breakdown came when Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells abruptly canceled a scheduled vote in the legislature on whether to ratify the amendments. A short time later, Lowell Murray, a member of the national Senate who has been acting as Prime Minister Mulroney's point man in the ratification battle, pronounced a death notice on the process.
Wells' action "has dashed the one remaining hope to have (the amendments) succeed," Murray said.
Many analysts have accepted Mulroney's contention that Quebec's political leaders may now feel compelled to begin finding ways of separating their province from the rest of the country.
Jacques Parizeau, leader of the nationalist opposition Parti Quebecois said, "We are in a situation tonight where . . . Canada is saying no to Quebec."
The constitutional amendments, which had to be accepted by all 10 Canadian provinces to become effective, would have recognized Quebec as a "distinct society" within Canada, with a special duty to preserve its different language, culture and historical roots. The so-called "distinct society clause" was one of the most controversial and confusing elements of the constitutional amendments, which would also have have altered the federal-provincial power relationship in such areas as spending and immigration policy.
Many English-speaking Canadians worried that since the words \o7 distinct society \f7 could be defined in different ways by different people, Quebec might come up with radical interpretations and use the special status to enact laws offensive to the rest of Canada.
Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, reacting to the news from Newfoundland, said, "English Canada must understand that Quebec is today, and has always been, a distinct society, free and able to assume control of its destiny." He, too, is expected to make a more detailed address on Saturday.
In a turbulent session of the Newfoundland legislature, opposition leader Tom Rideout denounced Wells, saying the premier's action killed the amendments without the dignity of a vote.
"Are you afraid (they) might pass?" he shouted across the green-carpeted room at Wells as his fellow Progressive Conservatives thumped their benches in approval.
But Wells was just as angry and adamant in his lengthy speech Friday.
"The Meech Lake Accord is wrong for the long-term future of Canada and wrong for the long-term future of this province," he said.
Canadians call the amendment package the Meech Lake Accord because it was drafted at a retreat center on the shores of Meech Lake, in Quebec.
Wells' surprise move Friday evening came in response to an equally surprising proposal earlier in the day by the federal government to extend the deadline for ratification. For months, the government has been saying categorically that the deadline would fall on June 23--today--and that no extension could be granted.
For the government to come up with a way of rolling back the deadline now, one day before it fell due, clearly enraged Wells.
"We've tried our best, Mr. Speaker, to be accommodating, to turn the other cheek. But we're running out of other cheeks," he said.
Throughout Wells' speech, Conservatives shouted their objections from across the room, forcing Wells to call repeatedly on the Speaker to restore order.
Wells was angered because he had asked the federal government for an extension more than a week ago, so that he could put the constitutional amendments to a public referendum in his province.
At that time, the federal officials refused, probably assuming that Newfoundland voters, given such an opportunity, would kill the amendments. Newfoundland is far poorer than Quebec, and people here feel that Quebec is a major cause of their plight, having fleeced them badly in a 65-year contract for a huge, joint hydro-electric power project. They resent the idea of giving their neighboring province any special privileges.
At that point, Wells had said he accepted the federal government's position and would do the next best thing to holding a referendum: He said he would let his legislature vote on the issue instead.