Canadian ears closed to calls for reforms: East vs west, elite vs the masses, Indian vs Indian . . . the constitutional referendum has exposed many splits, writes David Usborne

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The Independent Online
constitutional referendum, one displayed in downtown Vancouver is especially obscure: 'Say no to waxy build- up', it says in huge capital letters. Asked about the slogan, the taxi driver puts on a 'surely-you-must- know-that' face. 'Well, that's because out east all the politicians have got wax in their ears. They don't listen to us, never have.' He will vote 'no', he adds.

Opposition to the constitutional package negotiated in late-August by federal, provincial and aboriginal leaders in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, is strongest here in British Columbia, on the Pacific coast, and in its Rocky Mountain neighbour, Alberta. Both provinces, say the polls, will vote heavily against the deal.

In part, the western provinces are distrustful of the package itself. The new constitution would give Quebec special status as a so- called 'distinct society' within Canada with a guarantee of at least a quarter of the seats in the federal parliament. In return, the west would be granted its request of a reformed Senate, making it a fully-elected upper house. Many here, however, think the Senate reform too timid and the concessions to Quebec too generous.

Rafe Mair, a radio chat-show host, has for several weeks dedicated his daily three-hour morning programme to ridiculing the proposals. 'Instead of bringing us a pony like we asked, Santa has come with a pet cat,' he said. Mr Mair, known by his detractors as Rant More, has become a leading spokesman for the 'no' side in British Columbia, regularly making mincemeat of ministers who come to defend the pact.

But he also articulates the other, more basic, instinct behind opposition in the west: an urge to raise two fingers to Ottawa, Quebec and, more personally, the Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, whose nationwide unpopularity is especially strong out here.

'If they (the Ottawa politicians) stopped treating BC like a land of albino pygmies they would know what the feeling out here is,' Mr Mair said. He slates the concessions to Quebec as appeasement.

In Alberta, the 'no' camp has found its spokesman in a fiery, populist politician whose own fortunes are likely to be boosted dramatically by a rejection of the pact. The leader of the Calgary- based Reform Party, founded in 1987, Preston Manning, is exploiting feeling against the east and Quebec to secure the deal's downfall. If he succeeds, his party, which has supporters ranging from Christian fundamentalists to radicals dreaming of Albertan secession, could become an important force in the Ottawa parliament after the next elections.

Stephen Harper, his closest political associate, says the 'yes' side's greatest liability has been Mr Mulroney himself and the intellectual class that has come out to support him: 'The 'yes' message is being carried by elites. But the 'no' message is being carried by ordinary people.'

In such places as the Ranchman Saloon on the Macleod Trail south of Calgary, where real and phoney cowboys like to drink, Mr Harper's assessment seems about right. Pausing between shots at the pool table, Jeff Randall has nothing good to say about Mr Mulroney. 'I voted for him in 1984, but wouldn't again, ever,' he rails, furious that the Prime Minister had just gone on television warning that it was now or never for solving the problem of Quebec. 'That's bullshit. If someone's going to be executed and there's doubt, you don't say, 'Sorry, we can't wait'.'

The prospect of a 'no' vote, of Quebec then making fresh moves towards secession, and the rise of the Reform Party, alarm not just politicians but businessmen too. Kent Jesperson, president of the powerful oil company, the Nova Corporation, in Calgary, said gloomily: 'I think every region of the country would become frustrated, perhaps leading to the gradual disintegration of the country. Is the rest of the country going to stay together with Ontario having even more clout? I don't think so. The country would start to drift and come apart.'