Meech Lake Accord: History & Overview

Feature by Rhonda Parkinson || Sep 14, 2007

The Meech Lake Accord is a set of failed constitutional amendments, proposed in the late-1980s. One of the key objectives of the Meech Lake Accord was to gain Quebec’s explicit acceptance of the Constitution Act, 1982. It was the first attempt to amend the Constitution under the new rules for constitutional change set out in the Constitution Act, 1982. The purpose of this article is to provide a general introduction to the Meech Lake Accord, including the substance of the agreement and an overview of why it failed to be ratified. In providing this general introduction, this article overviews the main clauses in the Meech Lake Accord, arguments for and against the Accord, and provides a chronology of events leading to its eventual demise.

Road to Meech Lake: Quebec and the Constitution

Bringing Quebec into the constitutional fold

Overview of the Meech Lake Accord

Summary of the main features of the Accord

Reaction to the Meech Lake Accord

Public and political debate on the Accord

Fate of the Meech Lake Accord

Timeline of events and examination of Accord’s defeat

Sources and Links for More Information

Lists of article sources and links for more on this topic

This article was written by Rhonda Parkinson. It has since been altered by Jay Makarenko.


Road to Meech Lake: Quebec and the Constitution

Bringing Quebec into the constitutional fold

Quebec and the Constitution Act, 1982

The roots of the failed Meech Lake Accord can be found in previous efforts at constitutional renewal that culminated in the patriation or “bringing home” of the Canadian Constitution in 1982. Prior to 1982, the Canadian Constitution, consisting of the British North America Act (now called the Constitution Act, 1867) and subsequent amendments, did not contain an amending formula. As such, the constitution remained a British statute, amendable only by an Act of the British Parliament. Beginning in the 1930s, federal and provincial governments held a series of discussions to try to reach agreement on an amending formula. Later, these were expanded to include issues such as the division of powers between federal and provincial governments, changes to national institutions (such as the Senate), and the entrenchment of rights in the Constitution. These discussions, however, led nowhere.

Ultimately, the Canadian constitution was not patriated until 1982, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was able to persuade nine provincial leaders to support his “people’s package” of constitutional reforms, that included an amending formula (and the entrenchment of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Constitution). Quebecers, however, did not feel that their aspirations for greater provincial autonomy were reflected in the constitutional package. Quebec, ultimately, would be the only province not to sign the new constitutional agreement, officially called the Canada Act, 1982.

Despite not being a signatory to the document, Quebec was legally bound by the 1982 Constitution. Nonetheless, the situation was problematic, for several reasons. Quebec refused to participate in constitutional conferences, making it difficult to make further amendments to the constitution in areas such as Aboriginal rights. Quebec’s non-participation also gave the province of Ontario a defacto veto over constitutional change in areas requiring the support of 7/10 provinces and 50 percent of the population, the general amending formula outlined in the Constitution.

Between 1982 and 1985, furthermore, Quebec made blanket use of the notwithstanding clause, passing legislation to protect past, present, and future provincial laws from Charter obligations.

Changing Political Environment

A subsequent change in government, at both the federal and provincial levels, signalled a possible end to the stalemate. The Conservative Party, led by Brian Mulroney, defeated the Liberals in the 1984 federal election. During the election campaign, Mulroney had vowed to bring Quebec back into the constitutional fold “with honour and enthusiasm.” The following year, the federalist Quebec Liberal Party returned to power, defeating the Parti Québécois - a separatist political party formed for the purpose of negotiating Quebec’s independence from Canada  - in the Quebec provincial election. In June 1985, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa laid down the five basic constitutional demands that would need to be met in order for Quebec to sign the Constitution Act, 1982:

  • constitutional recognition of Quebec as a distinct society;
  • a Constitutional veto for Quebec over constitutional change;
  • a role for Quebec in the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court of Canada;
  • a constitutional guarantee of increased powers in the field of immigration; and,
  • a limitation of the federal spending power.

Negotiating the Meech Lake Accord

At an annual Conference of Canada’s Premiers, held in Edmonton, in August 1986, the Premiers issued a statement that the next series of constitutional discussions would constitute ‘the Quebec round,’ and would focus on meeting Quebec’s five conditions. The ‘Edmonton Declaration’ stated that “the top constitutional priority is to embark immediately upon a federal/provincial process, using Quebec’s five proposals as a basis for discussion, to bring about Quebec’s full and active participation in the Canadian federation.” Other issues, such as Aboriginal self-government and Senate reform, would be left for future constitutional negotiations.

On April 30, 1987, federal and provincial leaders met to negotiate the basic features of the agreement. (The name by which the Accord is more commonly known, the Meech Lake Accord, stems from the location of that meeting – at a retreat on Meech Lake in Quebec’s Gatineau Hills). In the weeks following the meeting, it became clear that several of the provinces were beginning to rethink their positions on key features of the agreement, particularly the distinct society clause and limitations on the federal spending power. These concerns were raised at a subsequent meeting of the First Ministers, held on June 2 and 3, 1987, at the Langevin Block – the Prime Minister’s Office, in Ottawa. Ultimately, several amendments to the original agreement were required before the First Ministers agreed upon the final legal text. 


Overview of the Meech Lake Accord

Summary of the main features of the Accord

The Meech Lake Accord consisted of amendments to the Canadian Constitution. The first section, and by far the most contentious in the proposed agreement, recognized Quebec’s distinct place within the Canadian federation. The remainder of the proposed amendments were designed to meet Quebec’s demands for greater autonomy by increasing the powers of all the provinces vis-à-vis the federal government.

Distinct Society Clause

The distinct society clause provided constitutional recognition of Quebec’s distinctive character, in terms of both its culture and language. The clause stated that the constitution will be interpreted in a manner consistent with the recognition that Quebec “constitutes within Canada a distinct society.” It went so far as to affirm the role of the Quebec government and legislature in preserving and promoting Quebec’s distinct identity.

This specific clause further recognized Canada’s bilingual, bicultural heritage, stating: “the existence of French-speaking Canadians, centred in Quebec but also present elsewhere, and English-speaking Canadians, concentrated outside Quebec but also present in Quebec, constitutes a fundamental characteristic of Canadian society.” To this end, this tenet of the agreement affirmed the role of Parliament, and the provincial legislatures, in preserving this fundamental characteristic.

Federal Spending Power

This amendment clarified what would occur if/when a province chose not to participate in programs initiated by the federal government in areas under exclusive provincial jurisdiction. (Since the early twentieth century, the federal government has used its spending power to establish social programs in areas that fall either wholly or partly under provincial jurisdiction, such as health care, social assistance, and pensions. Historically, a tension has existed between the federal and provincial governments over these “shared-cost programs.” While the provinces have typically welcomed the federal funding attached to such programs over the years, many have also resented the inevitable conditions attached.) 

Under the Meech Lake Accord, the federal government would have been required to provide reasonable compensation to those provinces that chose to opt out of a shared-cost program in an area of exclusive provincial jurisdiction, provided that the province established a similar program that was “compatible with national objectives.” The amendment would not have been retroactive, and would have applied only to programs established after the Accord came into force – with no impact on established programs.

Supreme Court of Canada

The Meech Lake Accord proposed changes to the method of selecting Supreme Court of Canada judges. Under the Accord, provincial governments would have been guaranteed a role in judicial appointments to the Supreme Court. Whenever a vacancy on that court arose, the Premiers could submit nominations, and the Prime Minister would make his/her appointment from the list of names submitted. Prior to the Accord, the Prime Minister was free to consult with the provinces before choosing a Supreme Court justice, but was under no obligation to take their views into account; this practice continues to this day, long after the Accord’s death.  

The Meech Lake Accord, further, provided a constitutional guarantee of the traditional practice of having three of the nine Supreme Court judges appointed from the bar of the province of Quebec, due to that province’s unique civil law tradition. (This practice has its origins in the 1875 federal legislation establishing the Supreme Court). While all of the premiers could submit nominations for a non-Quebec vacancy, only the Quebec premier could submit names whenever a vacancy arose among the three Supreme Court judges from Quebec.

Veto Over Constitutional Change

The Meech Lake Accord expanded the areas of the Canadian Constitution requiring the unanimous consent of Parliament and all ten provincial legislatures for amendment. Had the Accord been implemented, this change would have effectively given Quebec (and the remaining nine provinces) veto power in key areas, since amendments in these areas could not be made without their consent. The proposed change to the amending formula covered the following areas:

  • changes to the Senate, including those relating to its powers, method of selection, and provincial representation;
  • changes to representation within the House of Commons;
  • changes to the Supreme Court of Canada;
  • the establishment of new provinces; and,
  • the expansion of existing provinces.

Additionally, the right of a province to opt-out of a constitutional amendment, limited in the 1982 Constitution to matters of education and culture, was expanded to include all areas related to the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments.

Immigration

Under section 95 of the Constitution Act, 1867, immigration is considered a “concurrent” power, meaning that responsibility for immigration is shared between the federal and provincial levels of government. Historically, the federal government has negotiated immigration agreements with several provinces, including the Cullen-Couture agreement with the province of Quebec, which gave the province a greater role in the selection of immigrants. The Accord would have amended section 95 to commit the federal government to negotiate an agreement on “immigration or the temporary admission of aliens” with any province that requested it. Entrenching this commitment in the Constitution ensured that an agreement could not be changed without the consent of both governments, and could not be overridden by Parliament.

The Meech Lake Accord, furthermore, committed the federal government to negotiating an immigration agreement with Quebec that a) incorporated the principles of the Cullen-Couture agreement; b) guaranteed Quebec would receive an annual number of immigrants, within the annual total established by the federal government, proportionate to its share of the population, with the right to exceed this figure by five percent annually for demographic reasons; and, c) committed the federal government to withdrawing services for receiving and integrating immigrants into Quebec.

Senate Reform

The Meech Lake Accord committed the First Ministers to hold annual constitutional conferences to discuss various matters, including the composition of the Senate – and specifically, the role and functions of the Senate, its powers, the method of selecting Senators, and representation in the Chamber. As an interim measure, the Accord further committed the Prime Minister to fill Senate vacancies from a list of nominees provided by the provincial governments. Under the terms of Confederation, Senate seats are regionally distributed, with a specific number of seats designated to each province. The Meech Lake Accord provided that, when a vacancy arose in a specific province, the Prime Minister would be obligated to fill the vacancy from a list of nominees submitted by the provincial premier of that province. The Accord did not, however, specify the number of names that would be on the list, or how the nominees were to be chosen.

Other items slated for discussion at annual constitutional conferences included the roles and responsibilities of the two levels of government in relation to fisheries. The First Ministers, furthermore, committed to holding annual conferences to discuss the state of the Canadian economy.

Amending the Constitution

The Meech Lake Accord represented the first test of Canada’s new amending formula, found in Section V of the Constitution Act, 1982. Certain sections of the Accord fell under the “7/50 formula” – requiring the consent of Parliament and seven out of ten provincial legislatures (within a three-year-period), representing 50 percent of the population. Others fell under areas requiring the unanimous agreement of Parliament and all ten provincial legislatures, with no designated time limit. Accordingly, it was decided to apply the most stringent features of both amending formulas to the Meech Lake Accord. In order to be enshrined in the Constitution, the Meech Lake Accord would need to be ratified by Parliament and all ten provincial legislatures within three years.  


Reaction to the Meech Lake Accord

Public and political debate on the Accord

Public Debate on the Accord

Opposition to the Meech Lake Accord was based on both substantive and procedural issues. Before negotiators had agreed upon the final legal text, former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau emerged from retirement to condemn the Accord in an article that ran in the Toronto Star and the Montreal’s La Presse on May 27, 1987. In the article, entitled “Say Goodbye to the Dream of One Canada,” Trudeau stated the Accord was a “victory for those who never wanted a charter of rights entrenched in the Constitution.” Trudeau concluded by stating that, if ratified, the Meech Lake Accord would “render the Canadian state totally impotent.”

Later, various political leaders, academics, and others spoke out against the Accord. In particular, the Accord faced stiff opposition from certain identity groups – including Aboriginal groups, women’s organizations outside Quebec, and minority language groups. Supporters of a strong central government also came out against the Accord; with the notable exception of the distinct society clause, there was a strict adherence to provincial equality throughout the agreement. The result was that the Meech Lake round of constitutional negotiations had been described as a “provincializing round,” that would constitutionally entrench a significant expansion in provincial powers.

It also became clear the protracted negotiations leading up to the Constitution Act, 1982  had significantly altered the Canadian public’s expectations of how the process of constitutional reform should unfold. Through public hearings and other mechanisms, Canadians became intensely involved in the debate leading to the patriation of Canada’s constitution. Furthermore, with the entrenchment of a charter of rights, Canadians had come to feel a sense of ownership in “their” constitution. While (failed) constitutional negotiations prior to 1979 had been conducted out of the public eye between government officials and/or First Ministers, the public would no longer accept a process of constitutional change being played out behind closed doors.

Instead of defending the agreement itself, proponents of the Meech Lake Accord tended to focus on the need to ‘bring Quebec back into the constitutional family.’ Because the constitutional agreement represented Quebec’s minimum demands for signing the Constitution, any attempt to change the Accord would make it very difficult for Premier Bourassa to ‘sell’ the agreement in Quebec. Furthermore, any changes could cause the entire agreement to unravel, as making a concession to any one of the parties with a stake in the Accord would inevitably require another to give something up. Accordingly, the Accord was presented as a ‘seamless web’ – no changes could be made to any part of the agreement without invalidating the whole. Furthermore, federal officials emphasized that the Meech Lake Accord was merely the first phase of a process of constitutional renewal; issues of importance to other groups, such as Senate reform and Aboriginal self-government, would be negotiated in later rounds.

As opposition to the Accord mounted, however, individuals (including several provincial premiers) and groups such as the “Friends of Meech Lake” came forward to defend the agreement. In general, supporters of the Accord outside of Quebec included those who felt it was important to find a symbolic way to bring Quebec back into the constitutional family, as well as proponents of greater provincial autonomy, and business groups who wanted the matter settled.

Political Opposition to the Accord

Ultimately, opposition to the Accord found expression at the political level. In the months following the original agreement, several provincial governments fell from power, defeated by opposition parties that had expressed serious reservations about the Accord during the election campaign. There was no legal requirement for these newly elected governments to hold a vote on the Accord in their respective provincial legislatures. Furthermore, if a provincial legislature had already ratified the Accord under the previous government, they were free to rescind this ratification (through a subsequent vote in the provincial legislature). 

Between 1987 and 1990, Conservative governments in New Brunswick and Newfoundland were defeated by opposition parties that had campaigned on the need for changes to the Accord. In the case of New Brunswick, Frank McKenna’s election in 1987 brought a leader who refused to ratify the Accord without changes. In Newfoundland, following his election victory in 1989, Liberal party leader Clyde Wells threatened to rescind Newfoundland’s previous ratification of the Accord.

The situation was slightly different in Manitoba, where, in 1988, voters elected a Conservative minority government. The leader holding the ‘balance of power’ in the minority government, Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs, stood opposed to the Accord.

The following section provides an overview of the positions taken by pro and anti-Meech forces on specific sections of the Accord:

Distinct Society Clause

The heart of the Meech Lake Accord, the distinct society clause was by far the most contentious feature of the constitutional agreement. On an ideological level, while Quebec has always viewed itself as one of two founding peoples, many English Canadians felt ‘la belle province’ should be treated as merely one of ten equal provinces. These individuals objected strongly to the idea of distinct or ‘special’ status for Quebec.

Others felt it was a mistake to make the distinct society clause an interpretive clause (meaning the Constitution would need to be interpreted in accordance with the clause). Instead, they suggested that Quebec’s distinct society status could have been recognized in a preamble to the Meech Lake agreement. As such, the clause would have provided recognition of Quebec’s distinctive place within Confederation, without raising legitimate concerns that the distinct society clause would weaken the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Quebec (since in the future the Courts would need to interpret the Charter in a manner consistent with Quebec’s distinctiveness).

Francophone and Anglophone minorities voiced opposition to the wording within the distinct society clause, claiming it placed Quebec’s status as a distinct society above the rights of these two minority language groups. While the clause affirmed the role of federal and provincial legislatures in preserving the existence of minority language groups, it gave the Government of Quebec the role of preserving and promoting its distinct identity. There were fears that francophones outside Quebec, and anglophones within Quebec, would have fewer rights than French Quebecers. Women’s groups, such as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, expressed concern that women’s Charter rights were threatened under the Accord. They argued that, in effect, the Accord would create a ‘hierarchy of rights,’ in which the rights of women would be subordinate to the rights contained in the distinct society clause.

Some academics and constitutional experts, however, argued that the distinct society clause did not give Quebec any special powers. Michael Mandel, a Professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, stated that the problem with the clause lay in the wording: “The clause said nothing so it could be interpreted as saying anything.” He argued that, ultimately, the clause would not have led to greater powers for Quebec, or lesser powers for other groups. Similarly, constitutional experts such as Peter Hogg, an advisor to the federal government during the Meech Lake negotiations, suggested the distinct society clause would have a minimal impact on how the courts interpreted the Charter in Quebec. This view was shared by women’s groups within Quebec, such as the Fédération des femmes du Québec, who argued the clause did not threaten the rights of women.

Federal Spending Power

The second most contentious area of the Meech Lake Accord was the proposal to limit the ability of the federal government to initiate new programs in areas falling exclusively under provincial jurisdiction. Under the Meech Lake Accord, a new section would have been added to section 106 of the Constitution Act, 1867, stating that provinces could opt out of national shared-cost programs in areas under provincial jurisdiction and still receive compensation, provided the province established its own program that was compatible with national objectives.

Critics argued this constitutional change would limit the ability of the federal government to provide social programs of equal value to all Canadians. Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells articulated the fears of many individuals in the poorer or ‘have-not’ provinces when he stated that, if enacted, this change would result in a “patchwork of services” across Canada. There were concerns the federal government would find it difficult to establish any new shared-cost programs in areas falling under provincial jurisdiction in the future, even if a need for these programs existed among certain segments of the population.

Proponents of the Accord argued that the spending power provision gave provincial governments the flexibility to adapt shared-cost programs to meet their respective needs. Furthermore, there was no threat to long-established programs of importance to Canadians, such as health care, since the provision would apply only to new shared-cost programs.

Senate Reform

The Meech Lake Accord committed federal and provincial governments to making Senate reform the first priority in the subsequent round of constitutional negotiations. Some advocates of Senate reform, however, argued that the requirement for unanimous agreement (found in the amendments to the amending formula, requiring the consent of all provincial governments and the federal government to make changes to national institutions, including the Senate) would make meaningful reform of the Senate extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. For example, it would be a challenge to obtain unanimous agreement among the First Ministers on problematic issues such as regional representation in the Senate; any plan to provide a more equitable distribution of seats, based on population, would require a significant shift in representation from Ontario and Quebec to the remaining eight provinces. In a presentation to the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution, outlining his objections to the Meech Lake Accord, New Brunswick Liberal leader (and soon-to-be premier) Frank McKenna stated that he feared the unanimity requirement “will put Senate reform in a constitutional straightjacket.”

On the other hand, advocates of Senate reform pointed out that the Meech Lake Accord placed Senate reform squarely on the constitutional agenda, with the provision for annual conferences on this issue until it was resolved. They further argued that unanimity would realistically be needed to make any meaningful changes to the Senate. In a 1988 article entitled “Senate Reform: Forward Step or Dead End?,” University of Lethbridge Professor Peter McCormick states that, given the political fallout from Quebec’s failure to sign the Constitution Act of 1982, a federal government would feel compelled to obtain unanimous provincial agreement before initiating any significant changes to Canada’s national institutions, including the Senate.

Immigration

The sections of the Meech Lake Accord dealing with immigration were designed to clarify the role of the federal and provincial governments in this area, and to provide constitutional recognition of existing immigration agreements previously struck between the federal government and Quebec.

Opposition to this section of the agreement was not as widespread as it was to other sections of the Meech Lake Accord. Nonetheless, there were concerns that Quebec might choose to make language a criterion of selection for immigration to that province, particularly since the distinct society clause recognized the role of the Quebec government and legislature in both preserving and promoting Quebec’s distinct society. Furthermore, as Orest Kruhlak, former Director, Multiculturalism Program, Department of the Secretary of State, points out in “Constitutional Reform and Immigration,” there were potential logistical difficulties in ensuring that Quebec received 25 percent of the total number of immigrants to Canada in any given year, particularly since the Accord guaranteed that Quebec would have received an annual number of immigrants, within the annual total established by the federal government, and proportionate to its share of the population. After the death of the Meech Lake Accord, the federal Conservative government concluded an immigration agreement with Quebec that remained true to the spirit of the provisions under the Accord, while revising the language to remove the problematic word “guarantee.” Instead, both governments committed to pursuing policies that would help Quebec achieve its goals regarding immigration levels.

Supreme Court of Canada

Reaction to the idea of establishing a provincial role in judicial appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada was generally positive. Even critics of the Accord noted that it introduced an element of fairness to the process, since the Court did monitor federal-provincial disputes. Some believed, however, that the method of selecting Supreme Court judges could add a political dimension to the nomination process. Instead, they proposed placing the final decision for nominating individuals with others, beyond the provincial premiers. For example, The Canadian Bar Association recommended that an Advisory Committee be established that would have included an appointee from the Law Society of the province where a vacancy existed; this Committee would then have recommended the name of the individual to be nominated to the premier of a given province.

Trying to Reach a Compromise: The Parallel Accord

In Spring 1990, with the ratification deadline approaching, the Government of New Brunswick introduced a companion resolution or “parallel accord” in the New Brunswick legislature. Designed to address the concerns of the Accord’s opponents, the companion resolution contained several ‘add-ons’ to the original Meech Lake agreement. Within weeks, the federal government established a House of Commons committee, headed by Quebec Conservative MP Jean Charest (now leader of the Quebec Liberal Party), to study the companion resolution and hold nation-wide hearings on the proposals. In May 1990, the Special Committee to Study the Proposed Companion Resolution to the Meech Lake Accord tabled its final report, endorsing the proposals in the companion resolution and adding several more, including a “Canada Clause” that would include recognition for Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples and recognize the multicultural dimension of Canada’s heritage, as well as a ‘sunset’ clause on the unanimity requirement for Senate reform, meaning that the unanimity requirement would expire after a predetermined date. The mechanism of bundling the additions into a separate document allowed government officials to claim the Meech Lake Accord itself had not been amended, even though some of the language in the companion resolution – regarding issues such as Senate reform and the creation of new provinces – clearly contradicted what was written in the Accord.


Fate of the Meech Lake Accord

Timeline of events and examination of the Accord’s defeat

Timeline of the Accord’s Defeat

The Meech Lake Accord “died” after the condition required for its ratification – unanimous support of provincial and federal legislatures, within a three-year period – failed to be met. On June 23, 1987, Quebec became the first province to approve the Meech Lake Accord, setting the ‘clock ticking’ on the three-year deadline. As events unfolded, it became clear that the provinces of Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland would each play a key role in determining the Accord’s fate. The following chronicles key events that occurred on the road to ratification – that would ultimately determine the fate of the Meech Lake Accord:

  • In October 1987, Liberal leader Frank McKenna won a majority government in New Brunswick, taking every seat in the legislature. McKenna, who had campaigned on the need to amend the Accord, announced that his government would not ratify the agreement without changes. 
  • In April 1988, Manitoba voters elected a Conservative minority government. The leader holding the ‘balance of power’ in the minority government, Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs, stood opposed to the Accord.
  • In April 1989, Newfoundland voters elected a Liberal majority government, led by Premier Clyde Wells. The Newfoundland legislature, under the government of Richard Hatfield, had ratified the Accord. During the election campaign, however, Wells indicated that he would consider holding a second vote in the legislature to rescind Newfoundland’s support for the agreement.
  • On March 21, 1990, Premier McKenna introduced a parallel accord – a set of companion resolutions to accompany the Meech Lake Accord – in the New Brunswick legislature. Based on input received during public hearings throughout the province, the parallel accord focused on Aboriginal rights and the rights of minority language groups, while affirming that the distinct society clause would not impair, or override, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At the federal level, a special House of Commons committee, chaired by Quebec MP Jean Charest, was struck to consider the companion resolution.
  • On April 5, 1990, the Quebec National Assembly passed a motion rejecting any constitutional proposals that would amend or modify the Meech Lake Accord, including the New Brunswick proposal.
  • On April 21, 1990, Newfoundland rescinded its ratification of the Meech Lake Accord.
  • On May 17, 1990 the Charest committee tabled its report endorsing the New Brunswick companion resolution while recommending several additions.
  • On May 22, 1990, Lucien Bouchard, Minister of the Environment, resigned from the Federal Cabinet to sit as an Independent Member of Parliament. In his resignation letter, Bouchard states “The government is making an alliance with those who want Quebec to continue to be humiliated.”
  • On June 3, 1990, the First Ministers began a seven-day negotiating session that ended with an agreement on a companion resolution to the Meech Lake Accord. Although Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa had originally insisted the Accord be passed unamended, he agreed to add-ons that would be passed after the June 23rd deadline. While not fully supporting the agreement, Premier Wells agreed to take the document back to Newfoundland and let his caucus decide whether or not to hold a vote on the Accord in the legislature.
  • On June 15, 1990, the province of New Brunswick ratified the Meech Lake Accord.
  • On June 20, 1990, Premier Gary Filmon introduced the Meech Lake Accord in the Manitoba legislature. The Manitoba legislature, however, would be unable to ratify the Accord by the June 23rd deadline without bypassing normal procedural requirements (including holding public hearings). While these procedural requirements could be bypassed with unanimous support from all members of the legislature, Aboriginal MLA Elijah Harper refused to give his consent. Accordingly, the Manitoba legislature adjourned without voting on the Accord.
  • In order to give Manitoba time to meet its procedural requirements, the Mulroney government announced it would apply to the Supreme Court to have the deadline for ratification extended. It would only do so, however, if the province of Newfoundland ratified the Accord first. (There would be no point in requesting an extension if Newfoundland legislature failed to ratify the Accord, as ratification by all ten provincial legislatures, in addition to the federal Parliament, was required for the Accord to be enshrined in the Constitution).  
  • Feeling pressured by the Mulroney government, Premier Wells cancelled a scheduled vote on the Accord in the Newfoundland legislature – killing the Meech Lake Accord altogether.

Why Did the Meech Lake Accord Fail?

The failure of the Meech Lake Accord illustrated the difficulties of achieving constitutional reform under the new amending formula found in the Constitution Act, 1982. Criticisms of the Meech Lake Accord were based on substance as well as process. Despite the fact that constitutional negotiations in the past had frequently been conducted out of the public eye, the Accord was highly criticized for being an agreement between “eleven white men” reached behind closed doors. With respect to substance, the most contentious clause in the agreement was the “distinct society clause” recognizing Quebec’s distinctive place within Canada. The heart of the Meech Lake Accord, the distinct society clause illustrated why it would have been very difficult for the federal government to involve the public more fully in the process. Within Quebec, to gain public support, the Accord had to be seen as giving Quebec more powers. Outside of Quebec, however, the opposite held true: to gain the support of English Canadians who believed in provincial equality and resented the concept of “special status” for Quebec, the Accord had to be seen as merely a symbolic gesture.

Meanwhile, it was clear to those individuals who participated in the negotiation process that making any changes to the Accord, in order to satisfy its opponents, could cause the entire agreement to unravel; as Patrick Monahan notes in Meech Lake: The Inside Story: “making any changes to the agreement required someone to give up something.” As a result, the federal government had little choice but to portray the Accord as a “seamless web” - the entire package had to be ratified in its current form. Even after agreement was reached on a companion resolution with add-ons to the Meech Lake Accord – some of which, such as provisions involving the Senate, contradicted what was in the original agreement - the unanimity provisions meant that the Accord died when two provincial legislatures failed to ratify it.

If the Meech Lake Accord demonstrated the difficulty of achieving constitutional reform, it also illustrated that future efforts would need to be more open, with a greater effort to obtain consensus on the substance of the agreement. These are lessons Mulroney took with him when he initiated his second attempt to bring Quebec into the constitutional family: the Charlottetown Accord.


Sources and Links for More Information

Lists of article sources and links for more on this topic

Sources Used for this Article

  • Gibbins, Roger, ed. MeechLake and Canada: Perspectives from the West.
    Edmonton, Alberta: Academic Printing & Publishing, 1988.
  • Mandel, Michael. The Charter of Rights and the Legalization of Politics in Canada.
    Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc., 1994.
  • Monahan, Patrick. MeechLake: The Inside Story. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
  • Government of New Brunswick. Department of Intergovernmental Affairs. Presentation to the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution. August 25, 1987.
  • Distinct Society: Origins, Interpretations, Implications." Library of Parliament.
    November 11, 2006. <http://www.parl.gc.ca/information/library/….%20The%20Con>
  • "The 1987 Constitutional Accord: The Report of the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons." The Solon Law Archive. November 1, 2006, November 5, 2006, <http://www.solon.org/Constitutions/Canada/English/Committees/Meech_Lake_1987/>
  • "Report on the New Brunswick Companion Resolution." The Solon Law Archive. November 8, 2006, November 11 2006. <http://www.solon.org/Constitutions/Cana…mpanion_Accord/>

Links to Further Information

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