Meech Lake Ten Years After

Where were you when the Meech Lake accord died? Prime Minister Jean Chrétien could answer that one in a snap: on June 23, 1990, he was in Calgary's Saddledome being elected leader of the Liberal party. For just about everybody else, though, the game is hardly as compelling as remembering where they cheered Paul Henderson's goal, say, or shed a tear for John F. Kennedy. But Deborah Grey has a good story. She was the lone Reform MP back in 1990 - a one-woman outpost of western outrage over the accord that was supposed to reconcile Quebec to federalism. On the Saturday when the deal finally collapsed, Grey was at her house on Laurier Lake, northeast of Edmonton. Her German shepherd, Juno, wandered back from a romp in the bush that morning with a wad of masking tape stuck under her collar. "So I pull it off and stretch it out straight, and on it is written, 'Hi, Deb. Hooray! Meech Lake is dead,' " Grey laughs. "I never did find out who did it."

There would have been no shortage of candidates in rural Alberta for scrawling an anti-Meech Lake greeting. The accord, signed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the 10 premiers on April 30, 1987, had turned into a lightning rod for every sort of discontent during the more than three years the provinces gave themselves to ratify the deal. In the end - the very bitter end - Manitoba and Newfoundland failed to pass it by the deadline. Yet Meech Lake's influence has arguably been as great in failure as it might have been in success. The episode drove Lucien Bouchard out of the federal Conservative fold to inspire a separatist resurgence. It split the Liberal party along lines that still divide followers of Chrétien, who opposed the accord, from backers of Paul Martin, who supported it. And Grey, now interim Canadian Alliance leader, was joined in Ottawa in 1993 by a Reform swarm elected, in no small measure, because of anti-Meech Lake sentiment - a populist backlash that gained momentum when Meech's successor, the Charlottetown accord, was defeated in an October, 1992, referendum.

But the politicians who championed the accord were also fervent - while the close coterie of journalists who chronicled it were almost as impassioned. Some reporters dreamed that it would settle arguments stretching back at least to the dawn of modern Quebec nationalism with the Quiet Revolution of the early 1960s. Elly Alboim, who as CBC television's parliamentary bureau chief was one of the most influential shapers of the way Meech Lake was portrayed in Canadians' living rooms, brought to the story all the baggage of an anglophone Montrealer - and one who had joined the public broadcaster just a week before the 1970 October Crisis. "I had lived and breathed Quebec stuff all my professional life," says Alboim, now a communications consultant with Ottawa's politically potent Earnscliffe Strategy Group. "I guess I really did think at the time that Meech Lake was potentially the culmination of 30 years of effort."

That culmination was supposed to be achieved when five proposals put forward by then-Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa were accepted, with modifications, by Mulroney and the nine other premiers. Four of those demands might have sailed through with little public debate: Quebec would gain more control over immigration, and other provinces could negotiate for the same power; Quebec's traditional three seats on the nine-member Supreme Court of Canada would be entrenched in the Constitution, and Ottawa would make all appointments to the court from lists proposed by the provinces; the federal government would compensate any province that opted out of future national programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction; and any future constitutional reform that changed federal institutions would require the unanimous consent of Ottawa and the provinces.

But the fifth tenet - listed first, in fact, in the triumphant communiqué issued at Meech Lake on April 30, 1987 - sparked controversy from the outset: Quebec would be declared a "distinct society." The pro-Meech Lake forces claimed, mostly outside Quebec, that recognizing the province's distinctness was mainly a matter of symbolism and psychology. Bourassa, however, insisted that the distinct society clause changed the way the entire Constitution, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, would be interpreted by the courts when it came to Quebec. Who was right? No less an authority than Brian Dickson, the late chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, asserted in a 1996 speech that the courts already "take into account Quebec's distinctive role in protecting and promoting its francophone character." So formally recognizing that fact, Dickson declared, would not have changed much.

There were, of course, legitimate grounds for opposing a constitutional change that explicitly set Quebec apart from the other provinces. But something less rational, and at times ugly, was also in play. Even today, the main players on both sides of the debate hesitate to discuss the degree to which outright anti-Quebec bigotry was behind the fierce opposition to the clause.

Former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna remembers being unsettled when he realized how widespread those sentiments were. When he was elected premier of New Brunswick on Oct. 13, 1987, he at first opposed the accord, which had been signed by his Conservative predecessor, Richard Hatfield. Many Meech Lake critics hailed McKenna as "Captain Canada." But his zeal for opposing the deal soon faded. "Reading the mail I was getting - and I was getting it by the thousands of letters - it became obvious to me that I was not on the same side as the people who were supporting me," McKenna recently told Maclean's. "There was well-motivated opposition from people who had a centralist view of Canada. But I was also receiving a lot of mail that was anti-Quebec or anti-French, and thinly disguised. I realized very quickly that I had nothing in common with those people and it was a terrible error to be associated with their cause."

But Deborah Grey is having none of that. "Anti-Quebec? Anti-French? No, not at all," she declares. "The feeling was, either we're all equal or we're not." As well, she says anxiety over the distinct society clause was tied to a deep suspicion over the way the deal was cooked up. "People were saying to me, 'What is this distinct society definition?' " she recalls. "And, 'Who are these guys who were coming and going in these big, fancy cars at this big, fancy place on Meech Lake?' That was the frustration."

The big, fancy place was Willson House, an elegant pile of red sandstone in Quebec's Gatineau hills, 25 km northwest of Ottawa. Built by the industrialist and inventor Thomas Willson in 1910, it was bought by the government in 1979 and restored to its Queen Anne Revival glory. Mulroney gathered the premiers there in seclusion to cut a deal that would persuade Quebec to sign on to the Constitution. He subscribed to the view that Quebec was left "alone, isolated and humiliated" in 1982 when Pierre Trudeau brought the Constitution home from Britain and took the revolutionary step of adding the Charter of Rights and Freedoms - against then-Quebec Premier René Lévesque's opposition. Mulroney had vowed to bring Quebec back into the constitutional family with "honour and enthusiasm" - the cornerstone of his appeal to the many Quebec nationalists he coaxed into his Tory coalition.

Cloistered in a conference room on Willson House's second floor, with a quintessentially Canadian northward view of narrow little Meech Lake, the premiers bonded. Mulroney, the old labour lawyer, got his deal in 10 short hours. Later, opponents of the accord would fasten on the image of the First Ministers hunkered down in a room deciding the nation's destiny. But those who supported the accord never saw much reason to object to the process. To Liberal leader John Turner, whose support for Meech Lake undermined him politically, it looked like the Canadian way. "Remember," Turner says, only half-jokingly, "this country was founded in a room in Charlottetown - John A. and the boys, right?"

But, then, Sir John A. Macdonald's boys came to be called the "Fathers of Confederation." Mulroney and the premiers of 1987 were stuck with the label "11 men in suits." As a direct result, First Ministers may never meet in quite that way again. One of the casualties of the Meech Lake debacle was so-called executive federalism - the practice of the premiers and the Prime Minister using their get-togethers as deal-cutting, agenda-setting summits. Since 1990, federal-provincial agreements, like last year's social union framework agreement, tend to be much more painstakingly - and publicly - constructed over years of meetings, with plenty of outside consultation.

Gary Filmon, the former Conservative Manitoba premier who is now leaving politics after losing a provincial election last fall, says the indelible lesson Meech Lake taught Canadian politicos was this: indulge in top-down, brokerage politics and voters will punish you. (Filmon himself defeated NDP premier Howard Pawley, one of the original Meech Lake 11, in a 1988 provincial election.) "When you look at the names and the faces that were associated with Meech Lake, every single person who signed that agreement was gone from office within a very few short years," Filmon observed in a recent interview.

The political carnage wreaked by Meech Lake did not just come at the ballot box. Intramural damage within the federal parties was at least as severe. A month before the deadline for passing the accord through the provincial legislatures, Bouchard, Mulroney's environment minister, quit the Tories - and gave up on Canada. Bouchard was angry over a special committee report that recommended reforms aimed at satisfying some of Meech Lake's adversaries, steps he argued diluted what Bourassa had won for Quebec. That committee was headed by a promising Tory MP named Jean Charest, who is now Bouchard's archrival as leader of Quebec's provincial Liberals.

In the federal Liberal party, Turner's days as leader were numbered when Trudeau, who had seemed a fading force in retirement, returned to the fray, his aura intact, to combat Meech Lake. He argued trenchantly that it would leave Ottawa "subordinate to the provinces" in too many areas. "Trudeau opposed it effectively," Turner admits ruefully. "And Chrétien was his acolyte, and he used Meech Lake as a lever against me as the leader of the party." Turner announced he was stepping down, on May 3, 1989, as the Meech Lake debate was heating up.

With Turner on his way out, a leadership race turned the Liberal party's family squabble over Meech into open warfare. Chrétien, the front-runner to replace Turner, was against the deal; Paul Martin, his main rival, was aggressively for it. Chrétien's inner circle remains unforgiving to this day over how Martin's pro-Meech youth supporters taunted their man as a "vendu" (traitor) at a candidates' debate in Montreal. "It was totally unplanned," says one Martin organizer who was there that day, about the chanted insults. "And it got totally out of hand." Some Liberal insiders believe that incident - and the deep schism it exposed within the party over how to approach Quebec - accounts for the continued reluctance on the part of some of Chrétien's closest advisers to see Martin ever take over their party.

No image from the final, intense push to pass Meech Lake is more iconic than that of Manitoba NDP MLA Elijah Harper, a Cree from Red Sucker Lake, lifting an eagle feather and uttering a solemn "No." Harper performed his monosyllabic ritual day after day in Manitoba's legislature, denying the unanimous consent needed to introduce the accord for debate without the normal two days' notice. Using that procedural tactic to prevent Meech Lake from being passed by the deadline was first discussed by Harper and Phil Fontaine, then head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, a few weeks earlier over breakfast at a Winnipeg's Charter House diner. Fontaine, who is now running for his second term as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, stresses that aboriginal leaders had no complaint with what Quebec was winning through the accord. They just wanted their own special status enshrined, too. "Our particular concern," he notes, "was with the further imposition of the Big Lie that Canada was made up of two founding nations, two official languages."

Fontaine bristles at any suggestion that Harper's protest was anything less than Meech Lake's death blow. But others say the real credit - or blame - belongs to then-Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells. His Liberals won the April 20, 1989, provincial election and soon rescinded approval of the accord passed by Wells's predecessor, Conservative Brian Peckford. Although Wells was never reconciled to Meech Lake, he agreed to at least put it to a vote in Newfoundland after a last-ditch effort to save the deal. But Wells never called that vote. When Manitoba's legislature failed to vote on time, Wells decided not to risk having his legislature turn down the accord and be, as he put it, "blamed by the nation."

But would Newfoundland MLAs have voted against Meech Lake on June 22, 1990? Senator Lowell Murray, who was Mulroney's minister of state for federal-provincial relations and a key architect of the accord, believes otherwise. Murray says senior Liberal politicians who were actively trying to drum up support for the expected Meech Lake vote in the Newfoundland legislature reported at the time that they had enough MLAs on side to carry the day. As for Harper, Murray says the fact that his ploy was merely procedural would have meant that late passage of the accord in Manitoba would have been viewed as legally adequate. "Meech failed," Murray says, "essentially because Clyde Wells wouldn't put it to his legislature."

At the time, certainly, Wells was hailed as a hero by Meech Lake's adversaries. The day after he decided not to put the matter to a vote in St. John's, he arrived at the Liberal convention in Calgary to a warm embrace in the stands from Jean Chrétien. While anti-Meech Liberals backing Chrétien applauded Wells and Trudeau, Martin's pro-Meech forces were despondent. In their campaign tent outside the Saddledome, Martin's youth supporters wept as TV news reported the death of the accord. "It made for a weird atmosphere," recalls John Duffy, a Martin adviser at the time, and now a government relations consultant in Toronto. "Everybody knew there was going to be a splintering of coalitions."

And that splintering began on the convention floor. Martin supporters from Quebec donned black armbands to mourn the death of Meech Lake. Some wore them over their eyes as Chrétien addressed the convention. A few went on to join Bouchard's new Bloc. To complicate matters, it turned out that Chrétien, despite his early opposition to the accord, had worked behind the scenes to try to get it passed in those final days. No matter. He had long since been vilified by Quebec's national political and media elite. Senator Jean-Claude Rivest, who served as Bourassa's top political and constitutional adviser, says the loss was not just Quebec's - it was Canada's. "Imagine for one moment if Meech Lake had survived," Rivest says. "No Bloc Québécois. No Lucien Bouchard. No referendum in 1995. It would have brought constitutional peace in Canada for 15 or 20 years."

Not everyone agrees. Former CBC bureau chief Alboim believes something like the Bloc - a separatist encampment on Parliament Hill - would likely have followed the end of the Mulroney era in any case. Mulroney's brand of accommodation of Quebec nationalists in federal politics was over. (After all, the Parti Québécois opposed Meech Lake, and Bouchard left before it was clear the deal would fail.) Still, pollsters date a pronounced and sustained rise in support for sovereignty to the accord's demise. And while the No side won a narrow victory in the referendum, about 60 per cent of francophones voted Yes. Christian Bourque, vice-president of the Montreal-based polling firm Groupe Léger & Léger, says the failure of Meech Lake was read as the rejection of "a symbol, or what had been built up as a major symbol, in Quebecers' minds - which was distinct society."

Yet the Meech Lake trauma has not paralyzed Confederation. In 1991, Ottawa negotiated a deal to transfer immigration powers to Quebec City. Other powers, notably over manpower training, have devolved in bilateral deals with the provinces. More recently, Chrétien has pursued his daring strategy of defining the rules for any future Quebec referendum, spelling out how a Yes victory might lead to secession negotiations. The mastermind of that strategy is Stephane Dion, the Montreal professor Chrétien called on to serve as intergovernmental affairs minister.

Dion says he would never have needed to come to Ottawa had it not been for the chain of events Meech Lake set in motion. He thinks it would have been worthwhile to pass the accord, especially the distinct society clause, as a "gesture of recognition" towards Quebec. But as for the dire warning that the country was doomed if the accord failed, he has made it a personal mission to make it more difficult for any future politician to raise the fear that a breakup is imminent. Dion's so-called clarity bill, which is expected to be passed as early as this week, sets firm rules: Ottawa will only recognize a clear majority of Quebecers voting Yes on a clear question in any future secession referendum. The 1980 question on "sovereignty-association" and the 1995 question on "sovereignty-partnership" wouldn't make the grade. "Frankness and clarity are right for Canadian unity, not confusion and ambiguity," Dion declares. "Why? Because Quebecers want to stay Canadian. It's only with confusion that we create artificial support for separation."

These days, few observers see another referendum on the near horizon. Dion says the credit for that is largely due to Canada's solid economic performance, combined with the Liberal government's elimination of the federal deficit. Good times and black ink on Ottawa's books have forced Bouchard to drop his old rhetoric about how Canada was dragging Quebec towards economic calamity. Even some of those who staunchly supported Meech - and were angry over Chrétien's refusal to embrace the deal - credit him with having largely quieted the national-disunity demons merely by governing competently. "Getting along and making that country work is as good policy as there is," McKenna says. "And that is not a view I would have had in 1990."

Today's combination of a high-octane economy and relative peace in federal-provincial relations is no guarantee that Quebec will remain quiet. Many francophone Quebecers remain resentful of Chrétien's government. Yet, despite the bitter feelings and lingering resentment over Meech Lake's fate, Dion believes the substance of the accord could be revived - if the federalist Liberals ousted the separatist PQ in a provincial election. "What was in Meech," he ventures, "now, I think, is achievable." Not likely, says Grey. "It's history," she retorts, "but all of this stuff keeps burbling around just under the surface. Don't try that again with us." Whether in the hopes of those who dream of a future rapprochement with Quebec, or in the wariness of those who fear another plunge into the constitutional morass, Meech Lake, 10 years on, has not yet been flushed out of Canadian politics.

Maclean's June 19, 2000