At midnight on June 30, 1990, the Meech Lake Accord, Canada’s first attempt at amending its Constitution, died a quiet yet well-publicized death. There was no climactic national vote to mark the occasion, nor was there one root cause as to why the Accord failed. As one Meech Lake insider famously remarked, “the Accord did not expire from any single wound, but rather died a death of a thousand cuts”. While the accumulation of those one thousand unnamed cuts may have ultimately brought about the Accord’s demise, the foundation of that failure can still be identified.
The root causes of the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord are the “distinct society” clause within the Accord, the 1988 language legislation introduced in Quebec, and the constitutional amending formula itself. To understand why the Meech Lake Accord failed, one must examine the evolution of the Accord as a constitutional amendment and why its creation was necessary in the first place. The necessity of a constitutional amendment was guaranteed in April 1982, when Queen Elizabeth II signed into law the Constitution Act, 1982.
The new Canadian Constitution, which ended Canada’s colonial status with Britain, was seen as a great achievement for both the country and its Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. However, it was destined to create conflict and division within Canada, as it had been signed despite the strenuous opposition of the government of Quebec. The Parti Quebecois, in power in Quebec during the constitutional negotiations of the early 1980s, possessed a mandate of bringing sovereignty to the province. Failing that, the goal of the PQ was to define the province of Quebec as “distinct” from the rest of Canada.
As such, signing legislation which would not only strengthen ties with Canada but make Quebec equal to every other Canadian province was simply out of the question. Prime Minister Trudeau, a fervent believer in provincial equality for the sake of a united nation, pushed ahead with the new Constitution despite Quebec’s objections. While the province would technically be governed by the Constitution despite its refusal to recognize its inclusion, the perceived exclusion of a significant segment of Canada’s population damaged the validity of the Constitution as a whole.
Therefore, the introduction of a constitutional amendment with the goal of bringing Quebec into the Constitution became inevitable for Canada. The stage was set for an attempted constitutional amendment with the election of two key political figures: Conservative Brian Mulroney as Prime Minister of Canada in 1984, and Liberal Robert Bourassa as Premier of Quebec in 1985. Prime Minister Mulroney campaigned on a platform of national reconciliation, pledging in a campaign speech in 1984 to bring Quebec into the Constitution.
Federalist Premier Bourassa was brought to power by a province exhausted from seemingly endless sovereignty struggles. At the behest of Prime Minister Mulroney, Premier Bourassa released in May of 1986 a list of conditions necessary for Quebec’s accession into the Constitution of Canada: a veto over constitutional changes affecting federal institutions, additional powers over immigration, the right to opt out of federal spending programs in the areas of provincial jurisdiction, a role in nominating members of the supreme court, and the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society.
With the agenda for future constitutional reform having been set by Quebec, Prime Minister Mulroney convened a meeting of provincial Premiers on April 30, 1987. The First Ministers meeting took place at a federal government resort on Meech Lake, just north of Ottawa in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec. The agreement reached in principal, thereafter referred to as the Meech Lake Accord, promised the provincialization of each of Quebec’s demands bar the distinct society clause, which would be exclusively for Quebec. In return, Quebec would officially accept the 1982 Constitution.
A subsequent First Ministers meeting in Ottawa on June 2-3, 1987 formalized the legal language of the Meech Lake agreement, and the Accord was formally signed by the Prime Minister Mulroney and all ten provincial Premiers. Quebec’s provincial legislature ratified the Accord on June 23, 1987, activating a deadline of June 23, 1990 for the amendment to be ratified by every provincial parliament, the House of Commons and the Senate. By the spring of 1988, Alberta, Saskatchewan and PEI followed suit, with the House of Commons voting in favour of the Accord in September of that same year.
Shortly thereafter, however, problems began arising with the ratification. New provincial governments elected in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Manitoba meant Premiers in power that never signed the original Accord and now expected to be able to negotiate terms before pledging their support. By early 1990, Prime Minister Mulroney knew the Accord was in danger of not being ratified. In a last ditch attempt to shore up support for the struggling legislation, he convened a final First Ministers meeting in Ottawa in June, right before the Accord’s deadline.
However, faced with the resolute opposition of Newfoundland and a procedural technicality in Manitoba, June 23, 1990 passed without the Accord being ratified. Meech Lake had failed. Within the proposed amendment itself, the primary cause for the failure of the Meech Lake Accord was the clause recognizing Quebec as a “distinct society”. While the clause itself could be considered fairly innocuous, merely recognizing Quebec as distinct from the rest of Canada in terms of language and culture, the Quebec government’s refusal to allow the term to be defined created ample room for interpretation.
Even Premier Bourassa‘s explanation, that refusing to specifically define “distinct society” protected it from having its application severely limited by the courts, only confirmed to Canadians that Quebec intended to use the clause to implement its unilingual agenda. The federal government’s explanation of the distinct society clause did little to help matters, and often muddied the waters further. The quandary faced by Prime Minister Mulroney was great: how to convince Francophone Quebecers that the inclusion of the clause was significant, while assuring English Canada that is was a purely symbolic phrase and essentially meaningless.
The problem with this two-pronged marketing campaign was that neither Quebec nor the rest of Canada resided in a vacuum. The federal government could not argue within Quebec that the Accord opened up a wide range of possibilities for the province without Ontario being aware of the inconsistency. Conversely, they could not argue to Western Canadians that the Accord was merely an entrenchment of existing political rights without Quebec becoming aware of the minimization.
Given the contradictory arguments provided by government officials, Canadians and Quebecers alike did not know who or what to believe. The ambiguity of such a highly symbolic and potentially powerful statement led to accusations and resentment from both sides. Quebecers especially valued the symbolism of the statement because it affirmed their belief that Canada was founded by two nations and two peoples: England and France, Anglophones and Francophones. Quebec viewed resistance to the Meech Lake Accord as being anti-Quebec, anti-French, and possibly even racist.
In many parts of Canada, especially in the West, the refusal to spell out clearly what being a “distinct society” meant to Quebec confirmed the suspicion that it was not merely an affirmation of the province as a distinct social and cultural entity, which most Canadians generally accepted already, but code for possessing the right to special treatment. The distinct society clause became the focal point for much of English Canada’s anger over the Accord. However, Anglophones were not the only people upset with Quebec being granted a special status.
Minority and women’s groups were unhappy with their exclusion, while the aboriginal peoples were particularly irate. The ease with which the Meech Lake Accord was negotiated rubbed salt into the wounds of aboriginal leaders still smarting from the recent collapse of yet another round of negotiations aimed at guaranteeing aboriginal self-government. Canada appeared to be more than willing to appease Quebec by branding them “distinct” while ignoring the natives’ fight for status and recognition.
As tensions mounted, Canadians began demonstrating their frustration, most notably with the public desecration of a Quebec provincial flag in Brockville, Ontario. In the face of such hostility, many Quebecers felt betrayed. They had voted convincingly to remain Canadian during the 1980 sovereignty referendum and were now prepared to accept the Canadian Constitution. Canada, however, was no longer willing to give Quebecers what they wanted in exchange for their pledge of unity: the Meech Lake Accord.
The distinct society clause contributed to the Accord’s demise because the federal government could not provide a cogent explanation as to its scope, the undefined nature of the term contributed to a general feeling of suspicion, and the exclusion of other special interests groups created an overwhelming atmosphere of bitterness towards Quebec. While many factors contributed to the Accord’s demise during the ratification process, the most damaging event to both Meech Lake and French-English relations in Canada was the introduction of Quebec’s December 1988 language legislation.
This legislation, formally known as Bill 178, required that only the French language be present on outdoor commercial signage. Any signage within the province that possessed English, even if it was secondary to the French, was deemed illegal. The passage of Bill 178 into law created an uproar within Canada. To many, it confirmed their deepest fears regarding the “distinct society” clause: that Quebec would use it to eradicate the English language from the province. For most people, it was simply unconstitutional, both within the parameters of the Canadian Constitution, and Quebec’s own Charter of Rights.
When the legality of the legislation was questioned, two separate Quebec courts and the Supreme Court of Canada struck it down. However, Premier Bourassa, fearing an upsurge of “nationalist sentiment”, invoked the notwithstanding clause, delaying the implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision for five years. This decision, which was viewed by even the most moderate Canadian as Quebec’s refusal to honour Canadian law, only exacerbated the furor that was continuing to rage within the country.
Within his own province, 67 per cent of Quebecers did not agree with Premier Bourassa’s invocation of the notwithstanding clause, and three well respected cabinet ministers resigned in protest. During the period of upheaval over the Quebec language legislation, popular support for the Accord fell from 52 per cent in June 1988 to 31 per cent by January 1989. More troubling even than the diminishing support for the Accord was the backlash created elsewhere in Canada. Several Ontario municipalities, including Sault Ste.
Marie and Thunder Bay, declared themselves unilingual in an attempt to voice their displeasure over the Quebec language legislation. While the intention may not have been to personally attack French Canadians, it is understandable why many perceived it as such. Ontario was not alone in reacting negatively towards Quebec, however. Increasingly frustrated with the province, other Canadian jurisdictions began airing their past objections. The Manitoba people recalled losing an aircraft maintenance contract to Quebec, despite a superior bid by a Winnipeg firm.
The people of Newfoundland recalled their disastrous Churchill Falls hydroelectric deal with Hydro Quebec, which cost them tens of millions of dollars in income. In general, Canadians were tired of federal politicians seemingly providing preferential treatment to Quebec in exchange for political support. With their pride hurt over the unilingual language legislation in Ontario, and the growing enmity elsewhere in Canada, French Canadians in Quebec reacted by increasing nationalist sentiment and sovereignty rhetoric, just as Premier Bourassa feared.
Overall public opinion of the Accord would never recover and, in the end, the 1988 language legislation introduced in the province of Quebec struck a death knell for both Meech Lake and civil relations between Quebec and the rest of Canada. The constitutional process for amending the Canadian Constitution is the final primary cause of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. The negotiating procedure used to create the legislation and the amending formula chosen for ratification guaranteed that the Accord would fail, regardless of the substance of the Accord itself.
Meech Lake was negotiated within the context of executive federalism which, as the name suggests, involves high level negotiations amongst top bureaucrats from both the provincial and federal governments. It can be very successful if there is a strong consensus amongst the parties and the constituents they represent. However, as in the case of Meech Lake, it can be disastrous if the issue creates a great public divide. Secretive by nature, the executive federalist negotiations at Meech Lake took secrecy to the extreme.
The original meeting was attended by only the ten First Ministers and Prime Minister Mulroney, who acted as mediator. Aides, policy wonks and legal experts were all excluded from the negotiations, possibly to prevent their interference in the spirit of reconciliation amongst the ministers. Few officials were present at the June 2-3, 1987 Langevin meetings, and that was only by necessity to iron out the legalese of the amendment. In short, the people with the knowledge and expertise on how to structure and market an important amendment to the Canadian people were absent from the negotiations. One ould assume that the landmine issue of Quebec’s “distinct society” would have been addressed, either through definition or clarification, had the political experts been present. The secrecy surrounding the Meech Lake Accord negotiations extended to communication with the general public as well. Few, if any, public consultations were held prior to the Accord being negotiated. More troubling was the Accord being presented as a “fait accompli”. Canadians were told that hearings regarding the proposed legislation could be held if they wished, but only “egregious errors” in the original Accord would be rectified.
Their exclusion from the negotiation process, especially in light of the significant contributions made during the constitutional negotiations in 1980-82, made Canadians angry. These mock hearings, which allowed Canadians to voice their concerns regarding Meech Lake without having those concerns addressed or even acknowledged by their elected officials, only served to increase public resentment. With their opinions seemingly irrelevant, Canadians focused the brunt of their frustration and anger into the only outlet they could: the Meech Lake Accord.
While the exclusion of the general public in the negotiation process irreparably damaged public opinion of the Accord, the amending formula adopted by the federal government was even more detrimental to Meech Lake. The 1982 Constitution spells out multiple amending formulas that may be applicable depending on what section of the Constitution is to be amended. The general amending formula calls for ratification in the Senate, the House of Commons, and two thirds of the provincial legislatures representing at least 50 per cent of the population of Canada, within a three year time limit.
Had the general amending formula been used for Meech Lake, it is far more likely, probable even, that the Accord would have been ratified. Instead, it was decided that unanimous ratification was necessary to amend the Canadian Constitution in such a fundamental way. This decision guaranteed the politicization of the Accord and its usage as an instrument for political gain by those whose assent was required for ratification. Provincial elections in New Brunswick and Newfoundland, which occurred after the Accord’s negotiation, were won by candidates campaigning n an anti-Meech Lake platform, capitalizing on the significant reduction in public support. Furthermore, Premiers and their political parties recognized that threatening to kill the Meech Lake legislation would be a powerful bargaining chip in ongoing negotiations with the federal government over provincially important issues, such as federal transfer payments. The failure of the unanimity clause is evident when you examine the statistics: the Accord was ratified by the House of Commons and eight provincial legislatures making up 94 per cent of the Canadian population, yet it still failed.
As Katherine Swinton pointed out, “That an amendment could fail […], with such widespread support […], does suggest a problem with the amending formula”. The failure of Meech Lake had immediate and lasting effects on Canadian constitution-making and Quebec’s relationship with the rest of Canada. The threat to Canadian unity had never been more severe, with Quebec humiliated by Canada’s perceived rejection of them.
A surge of separatist fervour following the Accord’s demise resulted in the founding of the Bloq Quebecois in the House of Commons, made up of eight members of parliament from both sides of the aisle, led by Lucien Bouchard. The Bloq’s political purpose was to gain sovereignty for Quebec from the rest of Canada even if they, ironically, had to use their political power in the Canadian federal government to achieve it. Conservative Western Canadians continued to voice their resentment of Quebec’s “special status” and Prime Minister Mulroney’s conciliatory attitude towards them by forming the Reform Party of Canada.
The Reform Party’s political foundation was based upon Western values. Their support base comprised angry Canadians, located primarily in Alberta and British Columbia, who were tired of the injustices suffered by Western provinces at the hands of Quebec and successive French-Canadian prime ministers. In an incredible turn of events, a constitutional amendment designed at cementing Canadian nationalism had fractured Canada’s three party system into five, with the two new federal parties fundamentally at odds with both each other and the rest of Canada.
The Accord’s demise signaled the necessity for a fresh round of Constitutional negotiations, which began in earnest in September 1990. These negotiations, which resulted in the creation of the Charlottetown Accord, became imperative to federalist Canadians following the passage of legislation in Quebec requiring a referendum on sovereignty prior to the end of 1992. The only way to prevent a sovereignty motion that, given the current divisiveness of the political climate and the resurgent separatist movement, had a good chance of being successful was to ratify a constitutional amendment that included Quebec.
Unfortunately, the pressure to create such an amendment within such a time frame meant that important lessons from Meech Lake were disregarded. While the federal government recognized that a primary cause for Canadians’ dissatisfaction with the Accord was the secretive process by which it was created, they still failed to hold legislative hearings or consult special interest groups powerful in the battle for public opinion.
Additionally, even though the Charlottetown Accord was focused on national issues such as federal-provincial divisions of power, the controversial distinct society clause was still included, despite the widespread opposition from Canada at having it formally included in the Constitution. Finally, while the ratification procedure was changed to a national referendum, popular with populist Canadians, a majority of citizens in every Canadian province were required to approve the legislation before it could be ratified.
The referendum prevented the political hostage-taking that marred the Meech Lake process, but the requirement for unanimous provincial majorities meant that the Charlottetown Accord could once again fail despite receiving an overwhelming majority of national popular support. There is no doubt that the Charlottetown constitutional reform process was flawed and, just as with Meech Lake, it failed to win over Canadians, falling in a national referendum on October 26, 1992. The lessons of Meech Lake had been ignored and the price had been paid.
What began as an honourable attempt to integrate Quebec into the Canadian Constitution has disintegrated into a bitter detente: Canada is seemingly unable to ratify a constitutional amendment that will appease Quebec, while Quebec appears incapable of garnering the necessary majority for sovereignty. There is no doubt the demise of the Meech Lake Accord has had a fundamental impact on future constitutional reform, the sovereignty struggle in Quebec, and French-English relations as a whole.
It’s failure, caused primarily by the distinct society clause, Quebec’s unilingual language legislation, and the constitutional amending formula employed, has shaped Canada as we know it and may continue to do so for generations to come. ———————–  Monahan, Patrick. Page 12 of book  Meech Lake and Shifting Canadian Federalism  Meech Lake and Shifting Canadian Federalism (S8)  ibid (S9)  The Two Canadas  The Two Canadas (75)  Improving the Process of Constitutional Reform (317)  ibid (317)  The Two Canadas (76)  The Two Canadas (76)  Meech Lake and Shifting Canadian Federalism (S10) 12] Improving the Process of Constitutional Reform (320)  Improving the Process of Constitutional Reform (320)  Why Meech Failed (10)  Meech Lake and Shifting Canadian Federalism (S12)  Meech Lake and Shifting Canadian Federalism (S12)  Why Meech Failed (59)  Why Meech Failed (45)  After Meech Lake (26)  Citizens (Outsiders) and Governments (Insiders) in Constitution-Making (S136)  Why Meech Failed (15)  40% For Sovereignty Association, 60% Against Sovereignty-Association  Two Canadas  Why Meech Failed (8) 
Two Canadas  Why Meech Failed (8-9)  Why Meech Failed (8) 28] Two Canadas (78)  Why Meech Failed (12)  Two Canadas (78)  Getting Things Done in the Federation (5)  Getting Things Done in the Federation (4)  Getting Things Done in the Federation (6)  Meech Lake and Shifting Canadian Federalism (S21)  Meech Lake and Shifting Canadian Federalism (S21)  Meech Lake and Shifting Canadian Federalism (S21)  Meech Lake and Shifting Canadian Federalism (S22)  Improving the Process of Constitutional Reform (319)  The Charter, Interest Groups, Executive Federalism, and Constitution Reform (23)  Amending the Canadian Constitution (141) 41] Amending the Canadian Constitution (141)  The Two Canadas (76)  Improving the Process of Constitutional Reform (320)  Amending the Canadian Constitution (145)  Amending the Canadian Constitution (145)  The Two Canadas (72)  The Two Canadas (81-82)  The Two Canada (83)  Improving the Process of Constitutional Reform (321)  Amending the Canadian Constitution (165)  Amending the Canadian Constitution (165)  Improving the Process of Constitutional Reform (327)  Amending the Canadian Constitution (155)  Improving the Process of Constitutional Reform (327)