In 1987, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney attempted to win Quebec’s consent to the revised Canadian Constitution. The result was the Meech Lake Accord. It was an agreement between the federal and provincial governments to amend (change) the Constitution. The Accord proposed strengthening provincial powers and declaring Quebec a “distinct society.” The Accord was never put into effect. Political support for it unravelled in 1990. Many Québécois saw the Accord’s failure in English Canada as a rejection of Quebec. Support for separatism soared in Quebec and led to the 1995 Quebec Referendum.
Quebec and the Constitution
In 1981, the separatist Quebec government of René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois refused to sign the Constitution Act, 1982. It was patriated from Britain by the government of Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. (See Patriation of the Constitution.) Lévesque’s decision, and his betrayal by the other premiers, estranged Quebec from the Canadian “constitutional family.”
However, a new political climate emerged in the mid-1980s. The Liberal government of Robert Bourassa was elected in Quebec. The Progressive Conservative government in Ottawa was led by Brian Mulroney. This new dynamic offered hope of ending the impasse. Mulroney opened discussions with all the provinces. Quebec made a series of proposals that, if accepted, would have led to its formal endorsement of the Constitution.
Quebec was as legally bound as any province by the Constitution Act, 1982. The Quebec proposals would have amended this Act. As a result, they took on great significance. The Quebec proposals could be divided into two parts. The first dealt with the distinctiveness of Quebec in the Canadian federation. The second addressed various other matters. These tended to enhance the role of the provinces in their relationship with the federal government.
All the provinces initially agreed to the package under a principle of “juridical equality.” This proposal became known as the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord of 1987. It was named after the lake north of Ottawa in the forested Gatineau hills. The premiers and federal leaders reached the agreement at a government retreat there named Willson House.
The Accord recognized Quebec as a distinct society within Canada. It also recognized both the anglophone minority in Quebec and the francophone minority elsewhere as fundamental parts of Canada.
For some time, social programs falling within provincial jurisdiction (health care, for example) had largely been financed by the federal government. (See also Distribution of Powers.) Since the central government held greater taxing power, it had greater spending ability than the provinces. However, the provinces expressed concern over the conditions that were often attached to this funding. So, under the Accord, a province would be allowed to opt out of one of these programs so long as it established its own program that was compatible with the national objectives. In such a case, the federal government would finance the new provincial program with reasonable compensation.
Under the Constitution Act, 1867, the provinces and the federal government were given shared power over immigration. This led to a series of agreements on the settlement of new Canadians. The Accord gave constitutional status to those agreements. The Accord also made the federal-provincial consultative process constitutional by requiring at least one First Ministers Conference each year. The Accord also required that the issues of Senate reform and the fisheries be discussed at those meetings.
Constitutional Amending Formula
The Accord slightly changed the existing method for amending (changing) the Constitution. Before the Accord, two formulas existed. The general formula required the consent of the Senate, the House of Commons and the legislatures of two-thirds (seven) of the provinces, so long as those provinces made up 50 per cent of the population of Canada. (This is the so-called 7/50 rule.)
For some specialized matters, consent was required from Parliament and all the provincial legislatures. A third section listing other specialized matters existed as well; these matters required only the general amending formula.
The Accord took this latter list of specialized matters, added a number of other issues, and moved them to the first list of specialized matters. As a result, all specialized matters (such as changes to the Senate and the creation of new provinces) would require the unanimous consent of Parliament and the provinces.
Opinion polls showed the Accord was popular with a majority of Canadians after it was unveiled in 1987. There was a general sense of relief in the country that Quebec would soon be brought, politically, into the constitutional fold. Many hoped this might soften separatist attitudes in that province towards the rest of Canada.
In the next three years, however, as votes on the Accord were taken in various provincial legislatures, critics emerged to savage the agreement. They were especially critical of the ways in which, in their estimation, the Accord would weaken federal power. ( See Distribution of Powers.) The most notable opponent was Pierre Trudeau. He came out of retirement to lead the attack on the Accord. He accused Mulroney of having “sold out” to the provinces. Many in English Canada also grew uncomfortable with the “distinct society” clause. They argued it would give Quebec special status in Confederation, rather than make it one of 10 equal provinces.
Because the Accord had been negotiated behind closed doors by the First Ministers — “11 men in suits,” as they were described — it became an unwelcome symbol of backroom political deal-making. As opposition piled up, the Accord lost favour with the public. Meanwhile, there were fears that the Accord’s failure could create a backlash in Quebec, where the deal was still popular. It could therefore lead to serious national unity problems.
To become law, the Accord had to be ratified within three years by Parliament and the legislatures of all 10 provinces. This was in keeping with section 41 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Quebec’s National Assembly was the first to pass the required resolution of approval; it did so on 23 June 1987. The Accord then had until 23 June 1990 to receive unanimous ratification by the provinces.
In early June of 1990, all premiers finally agreed to ratify the Accord on the condition that there be further constitutional discussions on issues such as an elected Senate, the amending formula itself, equality, and Indigenous issues. Despite this agreement, the Accord unravelled on the final ratification date.
In Manitoba, all political parties had finally agreed to endorse the Accord. However, it still required public hearings. The legislature could dispense with such hearings if it had the unanimous consent of all members. But one member, Elijah Harper, withheld his consent. As a result, the Accord did not come to a vote in that province.
On the same day, wishing to give Manitoba extra time, the federal minister responsible for federal-provincial relations suggested extending the ratification date by three months. But this would require re-ratification in Quebec. This approach frustrated Premier Clyde Wells of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Newfoundland legislature had ratified the Accord in 1988. But Wells came to power the following year and became an outspoken critic of the Accord. He insisted on putting it to another vote in his legislature, or to a plebiscite in his province. In 1990, the Manitoba delay gave Wells an excuse to avoid bringing the issue to a vote. This delivered yet another blow to the Meech Lake Accord and ensured its disintegration.
In 1990, Lucien Bouchard, Mulroney’s environment minister and Quebec lieutenant, walked out on the Progressive Conservative government. He was angry that the political consensus around the Accord had come apart. He was joined by a handful of disenchanted backbench Members of Parliament from Quebec. They had all been with either the PC or Liberal Party. Together, they formed the Bloc Québécois, a political party dedicated to pursuing Quebec’s interests in the House of Commons.
Bouchard’s decision was a political blow for Mulroney. At the same time, the prime minister’s popularity was falling as public opinion in English Canada hardened against the Accord. This was due in part to its negative image as a deal negotiated in political backrooms. Canadians had also grown weary of the many years of constitutional wrangling. In spite of this, Mulroney pushed ahead after the death of the Meech Lake Accord. He began a new round of constitutional talks aimed at winning Quebec’s consent — this time, after an exhaustive series of public consultations. The result was the Charlottetown Accord of 1992. This second agreement was eventually defeated in a national referendum.
One further attempt at constitutional change was made in 2017. Quebec’s Liberal premier, Philippe Couillard, proposed having Quebec sign the constitution that year as part of Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations, Canada 150. Couillard published a 177-page proposal that echoed the points former premier Robert Bourassa had pursued in the Meech Lake Accord. However, his efforts were flatly rejected by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who replied, “We are not opening the Constitution.”
See also: Meech Lake Accord: Document; Constitution of Canada; Constitutional History; Constitutional Law; Constitutional Monarchy; Constitution Act, 1867; Constitution Act, 1867 Document; Patriation Reference; Constitution Act, 1982; Constitution Act, 1982 Document; Patriation of the Constitution.