Symbols are important, candidate says, 
but he won’t reopen the Constitution

By Tonda MacCharles
Toronto Star

(BOB:  Yes, I’m guilty.  I made Bob Rae cry.  I was the one who asked this question, to which he gave an excellent albeit emotional answer.  Which showed me he really cares.)

MONTREAL – For a moment there, it looked like Liberal leadership hopeful Bob Rae would lose it. 
Not the race – that’s anyone’s guess. His composure. 
As Rae answered an Ontario aboriginal delegate who asked whether he would enshrine aboriginal First Nations as a “third level of government under the Constitution,” he exhibited heartfelt concern, passion, impatience and constitutional fatigue, and then, perhaps, just plain fatigue.
He is tired, that’s clear. During the open “bearpit” session here – the only one by a leadership candidate yesterday – Rae’s voice cracked several times, not a good sign for tonight’s speech. 
Fatigue is obvious, and understandable, after nearly 10 months of campaigning.
Until that point, the session had showcased Rae’s humour, intelligence and ease in front of an audience — all assets going into tonight’s first ballot vote.
He took jabs at the media, getting laughs from his listeners.
He bandied questions about his record having run a government deficit as Ontario’s NDP premier in the mid 1990s. Rae reminded the audience of his skinny-dipping appearance on national TV: “Anyone who saw me on Rick Mercer will know I don’t have a lot of baggage.”
And then he launched into his stock, serious answer about having made mistakes and having “learned” that governments cannot ignore deficits even as they try to tackle the social and economic fallout of a recession. In fact, Rae’s strategists say they are confident he “has scaled that mountain in this race.”
Now, asked about reopening the Constitution, after “Quebec as a nation” threatened party unity, Rae said flatly, not now. 
It is, he said, a near-impossible task that distracts from and does not address real problems.
He touted his efforts as Ontario premier to work on a government-to-government basis with native communities, regardless of the Constitution. He praised the $5 billion Kelowna accord, negotiated by Paul Martin. 
A veteran of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accord debates, Rae then went on a rant.
“Frankly, once you get diverted … then you’ve got to go back and listen to all the other groups who also want something. And every other part of the country, `Well, while you’re at it would you mind adding this, and would you mind adding that.’ And then say, okay, now we have to go back and get a referendum in each and every province to agree with it.
“I don’t want to spend my time doing that. I want to spend my time allowing aboriginal communities to improve self-government. I want to spend my time making sure education is available for aboriginal kids.
“I want to focus,” he said, drawing applause before going on, “I want to focus on what the real issues are, and what the real questions are … 
“Symbols are important, but believe me, cutting down the suicide rate, providing opportunity for people, making sure that every aboriginal child wakes up in the morning,” and suddenly, it looked as if Rae would turn away, as tears welled up, his voice broke, and he stammered the rest of his answer: “feeling that there is a real future for them.”
The room, which was filled to overflowing with about 400 delegates, many of them Rae supporters, but many also uncommitted, burst into applause.
He recovered quickly. Only those sitting close to the front of the room saw the tears.
Last night, a rumour had Joe Volpe ready to support Rae, something Volpe’s camp denied. The Rae team would only say, “rumours are running rampant tonight.”