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National Unity: 1968-2000, Return of the Liberals

Paul Okalik, Lucien Bouchard, Jean Charest, Preston Manning, Meech Lake

Mulroney retired in 1993. He had become unpopular and was attacked for imposing new taxes, particularly the unpopular Goods and Services Tax, and for failing to reduce the deficit, solve economic problems, or end the constitutional crisis. His former allies among the Quebec nationalists formed a new party, the Bloc Quebecois, to work in federal politics for the independence of Quebec. Alienated westerners turned to the Reform Party (now part of the Canadian Alliance), a new conservative movement led by Preston Manning of Alberta. Mulroney’s successor, Kim Campbell, Canada’s first woman prime minister, was overwhelmingly defeated by the Liberals in the 1993 national election after just four months in office. Her Progressive Conservative Party, which had been a force in national politics since Confederation, won only two seats in the 295-seat House of Commons. The New Democratic Party, usually Canada’s third party, fared almost as badly, winning just nine seats.

Quebecois Jean Chretien, a veteran politician and former member of Trudeau’s governments, led the new Liberal government. The Liberals continued many of the Progressive Conservatives’ economic and social policies, including NAFTA, and, to the dismay of many of their supporters, sought to balance the federal budget rapidly. Chretien cut spending while maintaining tax rates and supported private rather than public enterprise as the key source of economic growth. Governments dedicated to free enterprise took power in Alberta in 1993 and in Ontario in 1995, and both cut government spending and taxation significantly.

Chretien’s government remained popular in its early years while its opposition was divided into a Quebec bloc, a conservative western bloc, and mere fragments of the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP. Unemployment remained high, however. Chretien’s failure to fulfill a promise to scrap Mulroney’s Goods and Services Tax damaged his reputation for honesty. The country’s reputation as an international peacekeeper was marred by scandals over the behavior of Canadian troops in Bosnia and Somalia. Above all, the Chretien government remained vulnerable to constitutional crisis as sentiment for sovereignty remained high in Quebec.

In 1995 Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, a hard-line separatist, held the province’s second referendum on sovereignty. Even though there was widespread anger in Quebec over the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, defeat was expected. However, Lucien Bouchard, the head of the Bloc Quebecois, entered the campaign and revitalized it. Bouchard’s passionate speechmaking and his promise of undefined ties with Canada after achieving sovereignty gave the pro-sovereignty side a late surge. The referendum was rejected by the barest margin: Less than 1 percent divided the no votes (50.4 percent) from the yes votes (49.6 percent). Parizeau resigned, and Bouchard succeeded him as premier of Quebec. Bouchard’s determination to continue the pursuit of sovereignty challenged Chretien’s federal government, which had hoped that a clear victory in the referendum would enable it to focus on other issues. Quebec’s own economic difficulties forced Bouchard to sideline the sovereignty issue during 1996 and 1997, however.

Chretien’s Liberal government was elected to a second term in June 1997, but it received a reduced share of the vote and won a bare majority of the 301 seats in the newly expanded House of Commons. The opposition remained divided. The Reform Party (now the Canadian Alliance), with strong support in western Canada, became the official opposition. Its leader, Preston Manning, continued to advocate a much reduced federal government, greater provincial autonomy, and free-enterprise principles. The Bloc Quebecois still held most of Quebec’s seats. The Conservatives began to rebuild their popularity, and the NDP grew slightly.

In October 1997 nine provincial premiers (all but Quebec’s) proposed a new constitutional offer to Quebec, known as the Calgary accord. With a separatist government still in power in Quebec, however, Chretien’s federal government preferred to emphasize economic issues. A decade of spending cuts and taxation, coupled with prosperity and low interest rates, finally brought 20 years of federal budget deficits to an end, and persistently high unemployment rates began to fall slowly.

In 1998 Jean Charest, a popular young Quebecois who had revived the federal Progressive Conservative Party, was persuaded to become leader of Quebec’s provincial Liberal Party. The move made him leader of the federalist forces in Quebec. Despite Charest’s efforts, in provincial elections held later that year the Parti Quebecois was reelected as the dominant party in Quebec, and Charest became the opposition leader.

In 1998 the Supreme Court of Canada issued an important ruling on the legal status of any bid by Quebec to secede from Canada. The court declared that Quebec does not have the right of unilateral secession, meaning that secession must be agreed to by the federal government and therefore cannot occur simply at the will of the separatist government. The ruling obligated the federal government to negotiate regarding secession if a clear majority of citizens in Quebec voted to secede on a clear question of whether they wanted to secede. However, the ruling lacked a definition of what would constitute a clear majority or a clear question. In an effort to clarify these issues the Chretien government introduced the so-called clarity bill, which formally passed into law in June 2000. Under the law, negotiations may occur only if the federal House of Commons has determined that the referendum question was clear and that secession was supported by a clear majority. The law also specifies that secession may not occur until a constitutional amendment governing the process is negotiated and adopted.

On April 1, 1999, a large region of the Northwest Territories officially became the separate territory of Nunavut, the first Canadian territory or province with a majority indigenous population. Paul Okalik, a young Inuit lawyer, became Nunavut’s first territorial premier.

Chretien’s Liberal Party held firmly onto power in the November 2000 election, increasing its parliamentary delegation to a comfortable majority. Chretien, who called the election just three and a half years into his five-year term, became the first Canadian leader since World War II to win a third consecutive majority government. Chretien gambled that a strong budget surplus and high ratings for his government in public opinion polls would bolster support for his party. The Liberals gained seats in eastern Canada and Quebec, reducing the power of the Bloc Quebecois. The Canadian Alliance won additional seats in western provinces, solidifying its position as the main party on the right.

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