By HUBERT BEYER
VICTORIA -- The people have spoken and their wisdom should not be doubted. Nobody knows that better than the three main players in the drama that unfolded before the eyes of Canadians on November 21, 1988.
Prime Minister Mulroney, in what was probably his most gracious speech ever, said that now comes "the time for healing in the land." New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broadbent began his speech by confessing his unwavering belief that "the people are always right." Liberal Leader John Turner showed himself equally gracious in conceding victory to his adversary. If democratic elections serve countries as surrogates for civil war, this was one of the bloodiest wars ever fought in Canada. Some wounds need healing, indeed, particularly in the west.
The message western Canada sent to Ottawa cannot be lost on the prime minister. His party got massacred in British Columbia. In Alberta, the NDP elected its first member ever, and throughout the west, the Reform Party showed surprising strength. Opinions are split over why the Tories fared so badly in British Columbia. A Socred backlash was one reason. A lot of British Columbians were simply dissatisfied with Premier Vander Zalm's conservative policies, and in the absence of a provincial election, lashed out at the only target available.
Anyone ruling out the Socred backlash theory should remember 1975. Spooked by the three-year NDP reign, the voters turfed out Barrett and a short time later dealt the NDP a crushing blow in the federal election.
Former Liberal cabinet minister and ex-president of the Liberal Party, Iona Campagnola, hit the nail on the head when she said that British Columbians treat every election as a provincial election.
But the backlash against our own government cannot alone account for the slaughter in B.C. of Tory candidates at the polls. Unease about free trade also played a big role. Allaying people's fears over the effects of free trade on our lumber industry, our agriculture, our grape growers must be part of the prime minister's promise to heal the wounds.
There is also the long-standing conviction in the west that we are always the loser in the game of confederation. That's why the Reform Party showed such remarkable strength and in doing so, helped defeat numerous Tory candidates.
The most remarkable thing about the election was that it left nobody a real loser. The Tories got their second majority mandate; the NDP sent more members to Ottawa than ever before; and the Liberals emerged as a strong and healthy opposition. All three party leaders have reason to be proud of the results.
There can now be little reason for the Liberals to dump Turner. He has acquitted himself well. The same goes for Broadbent, although he may well tender his resignation as party leader. And Brian Mulroney did what no other Conservative leader has been able to do in this century. He formed two majority governments back to back.
Free trade is now a fait accompli. The prime minister says he wants to get the deal ratified by Parliament before Christmas. Then comes the real test. With all the election rhetoric out of the way, Canadians can begin to assess the effects free trade will have on their country, their culture, their social programs, their lives.
I don't believe for a moment that the horrible scenarios painted during the campaign by the Liberals and the NDP will come true. Surely, the fabric of our society is strong enough to withstand the inevitable pressures that come with closer economic ties to the U.S.
A U.S. magazine in a recent piece on free trade tried to reassure Canadians that their culture is in no danger of being eroded by the U.S. For more than 200 years, the writer said © tongue firmly stuck in his cheek © America has tried to erode the culture of southern Alabama without the slightest sign of success.
Free trade will have its casualties. Jobs will be displaced, but that's nothing new. Any progress displaces jobs. Industrialization displaced hundreds of thousands of jobs; so did high technology more recently. The important thing in the long run is whether the displaced jobs will be replaced. And that question is no longer academic for Canadians.
For better or worse, we are launched on the road to free trade with the United States. That decision was made by Canadians at the polls. With all the exposure the free trade issue got during the campaign, the prime minister has a solid mandate for its implementation.
And if the effects of free trade include a challenge to our cultural and social institutions, so be it. Without challenge no institution can claim strength. A country that cherishes its social and cultural heritage will have enough strength to ward off any challenge. I happen to believe that
Canadians have that strength.