The Two Ambitious Attempts at Constitutional Change That Will Forever Be Linked to Mulroney’s Name

The death of Brian Mulroney, the 18th Prime Minister of Canada, will remind Canadians of many things—his evisceration of John Turner in a televised debate (“you had an option, sir!”), […]
Published on March 4, 2024

The death of Brian Mulroney, the 18th Prime Minister of Canada, will remind Canadians of many things—his evisceration of John Turner in a televised debate (“you had an option, sir!”), his gigantic 1984 electoral victory, the introduction of the GST, the negotiation of a free trade pact with the United States, and his work to muster international support against South African apartheid.

But it is most likely that his name will be forever linked to two ambitious attempts that ultimately didn’t bear fruit: the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord.

The controversial patriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982, engineered by Pierre Trudeau and a coalition of provincial premiers, had left a sour taste in the mouth of many Québecois. They felt that their province’s uniqueness and special place in Confederation had been slighted by the new arrangement. Premier Bourassa demanded that in order to win his province’s approval, Quebec would have to be given recognition of its distinct status, a veto over constitutional changes, and controls over immigration and Supreme Court appointments.

Prime Minister Mulroney agreed to negotiate a deal that would get Quebec to “sign on” to the new Constitution. In April 1987, he and the 10 provincial premiers met at Meech Lake in Gatineau Park and, under conditions of considerable secrecy, reached an agreement, the so-called “Meech Lake Accord.” Quebec would get its “distinct society” status, the power of provincial governments would be increased, and all future constitutional amendments would give every province a veto over changes.

Debate on the accord was intense. Supporters praised its embrace of Quebec and the spirit of “cooperative federalism”; opponents castigated the notion of “asymmetrical federalism” and the weakening of federal authority. Minority groups, women, and natives deplored their lack of input, and Quebec nationalists felt that the new arrangement didn’t go far enough.

Legal approval of the changes required ratification by all provinces within three years but this proved impossible to achieve. Defeat in provincial elections of a number of the premiers who had negotiated the accord meant the deal met with unexpected opposition across the country. Moreover, Quebec legislation against English-language usage aroused widespread resentment. Frantic efforts to accommodate everyone’s concerns were shipwrecked by legislatures in Manitoba and Newfoundland. The Meech Lake Accord was dead.

Not only had the proposed accord failed to constitutionally embrace Quebec, the debates had, in fact, inflamed nationalist sentiment there. A Mulroney cabinet minister, Lucien Bouchard, left the Progressive Conservatives to head up the new sovereigntist Bloc Québecois.

Undaunted, in 1991 Brian Mulroney appointed former Prime Minister Joe Clark to lead negotiations for constitutional changes agreeable to all the provinces and the disgruntled special interest groups. The result was the Charlottetown Accord. Under its terms, Quebec was recognized as distinct, aboriginal self-government was guaranteed, provincial powers would be increased at the expense of the federal government, and the Senate would be drastically reformed. All of this would have to be approved by a referendum vote in October 1992.

Despite the support of every federal party, every provincial premier, native and women’s groups, and the talking heads of the national media, the accord met with stubborn resistance. In the West, there was resentment over Quebec’s special status, in Quebec there was a sense that their sense of “nationhood” had been insufficiently recognized, while in Ontario the unpopularity of the Mulroney government made approval there a dicey proposition. Everywhere there was grumbling about the machinations of the elite, and a determination to make the voice of the everyday citizen heard.

When the votes were tallied, the Charlottetown Accord was strongly rejected. Though approved heartily in the northern territories, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia, and narrowly given the nod in Ontario, the proposal was thrashed in the West, Quebec, and New Brunswick. The possibility of negotiated constitutional change seemed dead.

The result of all of Brian Mulroney’s heartfelt desires to achieve national concord and bring his home province into a happy alliance with the rest of Canada produced a dangerous backlash. His Progressive Conservative Party (under the leadership of Kim Campbell after his resignation in 1993) was obliterated in the next election. Separatist sentiments in Quebec swelled. The Bloc Québecois had won 84 seats and the status of Official Opposition. The Parti Québecois won the 1994 provincial election and sponsored a bitterly fought referendum on sovereignty in 1995 in which continued federation with Canada won only by the slenderest of margins.

Politicians in Canada have a notoriously short shelf life; few of them leave any sort of lasting inheritance. That will not be the case with Brian Mulroney, whose actions in power still have resonance today.

First published here.


Gerry Bowler is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. 

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