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National Unity: 1968-2000, The Continuing Constitutional Debate

Meech Lake Accord, Charlottetown Accord, Elijah Harper, Manitoba legislature, Brian Mulroney

Trudeau retired in 1984. Partly because his party had not been able to improve the economy, the Progressive Conservative Party soon swept into power, led by Brian Mulroney, a bilingual Quebec lawyer. Mulroney had built support in Quebec, traditionally a Liberal stronghold, by recruiting nationalists when sovereignty-association seemed unlikely to be achieved. He made national unity a high priority and sought to amend the new constitution so that Quebec could accept it.

Working closely with Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, Mulroney negotiated the Meech Lake Accord, a package of changes to the constitution. This agreement between the federal and provincial governments was signed in June 1987. It gave all the provinces substantial new powers and gave Quebec the undefined but potentially large powers of a “distinct society.” The constitutional changes seemed assured of passage because all the provincial premiers supported the accord.

However, all the provincial legislatures had to ratify the accord within a three-year period. Opposition soon emerged as public debate focused on the weakening of federal authority in Canada, on the distinct-society clause, and on complaints that the agreement had been reached during closed-door negotiations that were undemocratic. Trudeau spoke out from retirement to condemn the accord as a surrender of vital federal powers. Indigenous leaders, who had been campaigning for expanded self-government, protested their exclusion from the process. When the governments of three provinces changed in elections, the required unanimous consent of the provinces was lost. Ottawa worked desperately to save the accord, but a last-minute vote in the Manitoba legislature was blocked on a procedural technicality by an Ojibwa-Cree member, Elijah Harper. Newfoundland and Labrador also failed to ratify the accord. Time ran out, and the Meech Lake Accord died in June 1990. In Quebec the failure of the accord was widely interpreted as a rejection of Quebec itself, and support for sovereignty surged.

The Mulroney government tried again, this time with widened public consultation and increased participation by indigenous leaders. The result was the Charlottetown Accord, which was endorsed by the premiers in 1992 and presented for ratification in a national referendum. However, Quebec nationalists rejected this new accord as inadequate to Quebec’s needs, and the new accord also failed to satisfy the growing aspirations of many groups and regions in the rest of Canada. It was defeated both in Quebec and elsewhere. The PQ returned to power in Quebec in the provincial election of 1994 with renewed determination to achieve sovereignty-association.

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