What's a Nice Country like Us Doing in a Place like This?

Article excerpt

I do a great deal of travelling and speaking outside of Canada - one of the things that happens when politicians leave office. I commented that some people choose retirement and some people reach retirement age and others have retirement thrust upon them. But one becomes a member of that international coterie of people who go about expressing their opinions, occasionally for very high fees in various international venues. I chose the topic for tonight's speech because it's the question that I'm asked more and more as people around the world - people in the United States and in Europe - look at Canada infinitely puzzled, infinitely perplexed about what it is that's going on in our country. Last summer I received an invitation from the British Broadcasting Corporation to do a radio documentary on Canada. They were going to do a series of three on the old dominions - Australia, Canada and New Zealand - and former prime ministers present them all - Malcolm Fraser has done the one for Australia and David Lange for New Zealand. I welcomed the opportunity and thought, "This would be wonderful." I was told we would start the work at the end of January, and I thought, "That would be great, my book would be done. There won't be time to go on the book tour yet, so I'll have a chance to turn my mind from things in the past, that are part of my memoir, and to look at the present and future."

Then came the October 30th referendum result, and I'll have to tell you that I was in a complete funk. I thought, "What can I tell a British audience about Canada? How do I even begin to explain what it is that's going on in our country? And how do I do so, while at the same time tell people that this is in fact a country where good and interesting things are happening?"

I just returned home this afternoon from two weeks in the Los Angeles area. Looking through today's papers - I've been away for two weeks and haven't read the news - I see speculation about the possibility of a snap fall election. The truth is it's very difficult to know what to do about the uncertain state that we are in as a country. After two unsuccessful attempts to amend the constitution under the 1982 formula, and the squeaker referendum result in Quebec, we know that whatever our governments do or try to do will come back to us as citizens - either in a general election or in a public constitutional process. So tonight, I'd like to talk about where we are in Canada, and look at some of the illusions and what I call "conventional un-wisdoms" that in my view have gotten in the way of achieving some kind of agreement on a modus vivendi that would enable Canadians to continue living together in one united country as we know it today. After looking at what kind of place we are in, and how a nice country like Canada could get there, I'll give you my view of where we might go from here. I should emphasize that these are my views only - I don't speak for the government and I don't speak for any political party. I've left politics; I've now decided that I'm going to be a middle-aged states-person.

Let's look first of all at where we are. The year-end polling in 1995 showed that in fact a majority of Canadians are pessimistic about the survival of Canada as it now is. A number of our leading public opinion researchers have claimed that they've never seen anything like this bleak view before in their study of Canadian public opinion. Interestingly enough, two-thirds of Quebecers said that they thought Quebec would separate, even though only 52% said that they would in fact vote "yes" in another referendum. As for the narrow victory of the "no" side in the referendum, my friend John Dixon wrote recently, "We need to think of a word that does for loss what the word pyrrhic does for victory." The result has settled nothing, the question was fudged. Despite clear statements to the contrary by the federal government, the premiers and Canadian opinion polls, the "yes" side apparently succeeded in convincing Quebecers - especially "yes" voters - that economic and political partnership with Canada was achievable after a "yes" vote and a declaration of sovereignty. …