On a Sunday evening, 3 June 1990, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the ten provincial premiers marked the third anniversary of the Meech Lake Accord at a dinner in the architectural splendour of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History) in Hull, Quebec.
But no one was celebrating over the shrimp, beef and fiddleheads. Three of the leaders — New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna, Manitoba’s Gary Filmon and Clyde Wells of Newfoundland — had been elected after the accord was struck. They all had expressed serious reservations about what was in the document. As a deadline for decision rapidly approached, the deal was unravelling.
See also Meech Lake Accord: Document.)
Twenty days later, the Meech Lake Accord was dead. Canada then embarked on a half-decade of mistrust and disillusionment that brought the country to the edge of destruction.
The Quebec government had stood aside when the new constitution was signed in 1982. (See Patriation of the Constitution.) Supporters of the Meech Lake Accord said they wanted to set that right, to bring Quebec back into the Canadian family. Under the accord, the constitution would be modified to designate Quebec a “distinct society.” The accord would also give all of the provinces a veto over major constitutional reform, as well as new powers over immigration and the appointment of senators and Supreme Court justices.
The Quebec National Assembly ratified Meech Lake on 23 June 1987. For it to take effect, the country’s other ten parliaments had three years from that date to sign onto the arrangement. For a while, passage of the accord seemed inevitable — a straightforward triumph of federal-provincial co-operation. (See also Federal-Provincial Relations.)
But only for a while. Resistance built and support plummeted as a deal done in the dark came into the light. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau took on the role of opposition leader, pouring scorn on Mulroney and the accord. In Trudeau’s telling of the story, an overly timid prime minister was giving the country away to the provinces. By the beginning of June 1990, almost three-quarters of the Canadian people were with Trudeau and opposed the agreement.
Mulroney worked furiously to retrieve the momentum during a six-day negotiating marathon that followed the dinner on 3 June. McKenna came onboard. The other two dissident premiers each agreed to hold a vote in their legislatures. They did so, however, without enthusiasm.
The votes in Winnipeg and St. John’s never took place. As a protest against the Accord’s lack of attention to Indigenous issues, Elijah Harper, a Cree member of the Manitoba legislative assembly, said a soft but emphatic “no” to Gary Filmon’s request for unanimous consent to put Meech onto the floor for debate. Clyde Wells, always an outspoken opponent of the accord, found Harper’s stance highly convenient. If there was not to be a decision in Manitoba, he argued, a vote in Newfoundland would simply be irrelevant.
Frantic federal-provincial negotiations continued right up to the deadline of 23 June 1990. They were not helped by Mulroney’s admission, in a rash interview with the Globe and Mail, that he had deliberately left his final attempt to forge a consensus to the last minute in order to create a crisis atmosphere. In his colourful language, the prime minister boasted that he had picked early June and decided that was the time when “I’m going to roll all the dice.” A howl went up across the country at Mulroney’s cynical manipulations. A premier who favoured Meech complained that Mulroney had given his opponents the moral high ground.
It became a national parlour game. Who had killed the Meech Lake Accord? Mulroney, with his infamous dice? The stubborn Clyde Wells? A determined Elijah Harper? Journalist Andrew Cohen’s compelling account of the accord, A Deal Undone, concludes that the politicians may have held the dagger, but that the whole country was an accomplice. “As much as English Canada misunderstood Quebec, and it did, Quebec misunderstood English Canada. It was predictable that Meech Lake would come to represent the flashpoint in a clash of wills.”
Minorities forget less easily than majorities. A Quebec City commentator recalled that in his province, “the collapse of Meech was as close to an apocalyptic event as can be imagined in peacetime. The massive river of blue and white that flowed through Montreal for the fête nationale parade that weekend was proof Quebecers wanted the death of Meech avenged.”
A direct line runs from 23 June 1990 to the 1995 Quebec referendum, the day when Canadians almost lost their country.