Charlottetown Accord: History and Overview

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Feb 10, 2009

The Charlottetown Accord is a set of failed constitutional amendments, proposed in the early 1990s, to gain Quebec’s formal acceptance of the Canadian Constitution. The Charlottetown Accord was the second attempt to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold, and was initiated after the failed Meech Lake Accord of 1987. This article provides an introduction to the history and substance of the Charlottetown Accord.

Events Leading to the Charlottetown Accord

From the Meech Lake Accord to the negotiation of the Charlottetown Accord

Overview of the Charlottetown Accord

Summary of key proposals under the Charlottetown Accord

1992 Referendum on the Charlottetown Accord

Referendum question, campaign, and results

Aftermath of the Defeat of the Charlottetown Accord

Post-Charlottetown impacts and developments

Sources and Links to More Information

List of article sources and links to more on this topic

Events Leading to the Charlottetown Accord

From the Meech Lake Accord to the negotiation of the Charlottetown Accord

Quebec and the Canadian Constitution

The history of the Charlottetown Accord is rooted in one of the central characteristics of Canadian politics: Quebec’s place in Canada. More specifically, the Accord stems from the constitutional events of the early 1980s. During that period, the federal government, helmed by Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and the provinces undertook negotiations on a set of constitutional reforms, which culminated in the passage of the Constitution Act, 1982. This constitutional agreement included elements such as patriating the Canadian Constitution, implementing a new formula for amending the constitution, and adding a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Quebec was the only Canadian province not to approve the Constitution Act, 1982, arguing that it did not reflect any of its demands for constitutional reform. This did not leave Quebec outside of the constitution in legal terms; all the new constitutional provisions applied to that province even though it refused to sign the agreement. Nevertheless, it did leave Quebec outside the constitutional fold in a symbolic sense. The Government of Quebec, unlike the other provincial governments, had not formally consented to the basic political framework governing the country.

The Meech Lake Accord

In the late 1980s, the federal government, then led by Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, attempted to address Quebec’s demands and symbolically bring the province into the constitutional fold. This resulted in a new package of constitutional reforms in 1987, referred to as the Meech Lake Accord.

The Meech Lake Accord met five of Quebec’s key demands: constitutional recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society” within Canada; a veto on constitutional amendments; increased jurisdiction over immigration; participation in Supreme Court of Canada appointments; and financial compensation when Quebec opted out of national programs set by Ottawa in areas of provincial jurisdiction. The federal government was able to gain the consent of the other provincial premiers to Quebec’s demands by extending most of the same rights to them as well. The Meech Lake Accord further included clauses which entrenched the Supreme Court of Canada in the constitution, providing for provincial participation in Senate appointments, and guaranteeing annual first ministers’ conferences on the Constitution and on the economy.

For more information on the Meech Lake Accord:

While the federal government was able to secure the agreement of all Canada’s provincial premiers (including Robert Bourassa, then premier of Quebec), the Meech Lake Accord nevertheless failed. Under the constitutional amending formula adopted in 1982, the Accord had to be approved by the federal and provincial legislatures within three years. In most jurisdictions, this legislative approval was easily secured. In the provinces of New Brunswick, Manitoba and Newfoundland, however, it was not to be the case. In New Brunswick and Manitoba, new provincial governments were elected before the Accord could be ratified, both of which had reservations about the constitutional agreement. While Newfoundland had initially ratified the Accord, a new government later rescinded legislative approval. In the end, both Manitoba and Newfoundland failed to pass the Accord before the three-year deadline, resulting in the Accord’s failure.

The failure of the Meech Lake Accord is significant for a number of reasons. First it left, unmet, Quebec’s demands for constitutional reforms, leaving the province symbolically outside the constitutional fold. Following this failure, Quebec publicly announced that it would not participate in further constitutional talks. Second, it brought forth public dissatisfaction with the manner in which the agreement was reached; key components of the Accord had been negotiated and agreed to by federal and provincial leaders behind closed doors and without any public consultation. Third, the Meech Lake Accord raised calls for the inclusion of other interests in any future constitutional reform. One particularly significant interest was that of Aboriginal groups who were seeking constitutional recognition of their right to self-government. In the Manitoba legislature, for example, Aboriginal MLA Elijah Harper had delayed passage of the Accord beyond the deadline because of the absence of any advances for Aboriginal Peoples.

The Post-Meech Lake Period

Following the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990, there occurred a series of deliberations regarding the nation’s constitutional future. Within Quebec, there were the Allaire Committee and the Belanger-Campeau Committee. The former’s final report advocated a highly decentralized vision of Canadian federalism, in which the provinces would hold almost all powers. The final report of the Belanger-Campeau Committee went on to argue that if the rest of Canada did not provide Quebec with a new constitutional arrangement, then the province should separate and become an independent nation.

The federal government responded to Meech Lake’s failure by forming the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future. The Forum attempted bypass a key criticism of the Meech Lake Accord: specifically, its lack of public consultation. Consequently, the Forum invited ordinary Canadians to share their views concerning constitutional issues; over an eight-month period, it heard the views of approximately 400,000 Canadians from across the country. In its final report, the Forum supported the recognition of Quebec’s distinctiveness, Aboriginal self-government, and the settlement of Aboriginal land-claims. The Forum also concluded that the policy of official bilingualism was a divisive issue in Canada, and that federal funding for multiculturalism should be cut.

In addition to the Citizens’ Forum, the federal government formed several committees to examine and advise on constitutional issues. The Beaudoin-Edwards Committee, a joint House of Commons-Senate committee, examined the issue of the constitutional amending formula, subsequently recommending that the requirement for unanimous provincial consent for large constitutional changes should be replaced by a system of regional vetoes. A special cabinet committee on Canadian Unity and Constitutional Negotiations produced a document entitled Shaping Canada’s Future Together, which included a 28-point package of constitutional proposals. The federal government further convened a series of specialized public forums to discuss both the proposals and the findings of the Citizens’ Forum. This resulted in a final federal policy document titled A Renewed Canada.

Negotiation of the Charlottetown Accord

Following this period, in 1992 the federal government, the provinces (not including Quebec), the territories, and Canada’s Aboriginal leaders negotiated a comprehensive set of constitutional proposals. These proposals were then presented to Quebec, which rejoined negotiations at a full-fledged national conference in Ottawa later that year. After further bargaining, the leaders (including Quebec) unanimously agreed to a new set of constitutional reforms ― to become known as the Charlottetown Accord. The agreement is so named because its final aspects were negotiated in Charlottetown, the provincial capital of Prince Edward Island (PEI).

In addition to the constitutional requirement that it be ratified by the federal Parliament and the legislatures of all ten provinces, the federal government further announced that a national referendum would be held on the Accord. On a national basis, the Accord was defeated by a vote of 55 percent to 45 percent. Moreover, a majority of voters in seven of the 10 provinces (including Quebec) voted against the Accord.

Overview of the Charlottetown Accord

Summary of key proposals under the Charlottetown Accord

The Canada Clause

A central component of the Charlottetown Accord was the “Canada Clause,” which was intended to be an interpretive section of the Canadian Constitution. The Canada Clause set out general values which it asserted defined the nature of the Canadian character and political society. One such value was the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society within Canada. Other aspects of the Canada Clause spoke to the rule of law, Canada as a parliamentary and federal system, Aboriginal Peoples of Canada and their rights, official-language minorities, cultural and racial diversity, individual and collective rights, gender equality, and the equality and diversity of the provinces. The purpose of this Clause was to symbolically recognize what the leaders believed to be the core values of Canada. On a more practical level, it would require the courts to interpret the Constitution in accordance with the basic values outlined.

Division of Powers

A second and important part of the Accord included changes to the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments. Many of the proposed changes would have provided greater power for the provinces. This included extended exclusive provincial jurisdiction over six areas: forestry, mining, tourism, recreation, housing, municipal and urban affairs, and cultural affairs (though the federal government would retain jurisdiction over national cultural institutions, such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board). The Accord further required that the federal government conduct negotiations with the provinces to “harmonize” policy in areas such as telecommunications, labour development and training, regional development, and immigration.

In addition to extending provincial jurisdiction, the Accord placed significant limits on the exercise of key federal powers. The Accord would have abolished the federal powers of reservation and disallowance, which allowed the federal government to nullify legislation passed by provincial legislatures. It would also have subjected the federal declaratory power under s. 92 (10)(c) of the Constitution Act, 1867 to provincial consent.

Another significant federal limit of the Accord concerned its constitutional spending power. While the federal government is prohibited from legislating in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction, it is nevertheless permitted to spend money in those fields. Over the years, this has led to fiscal arrangements in which the federal government finances provincial programs through transfer payments and other fiscal mechanisms. In exchange for this financial support, the federal government often places conditions on how the provinces may deliver their programs. This provides the federal government with significant leverage over the provinces, and allows it to encourage its own policies in areas beyond its constitutional jurisdiction.

The Accord would have placed some limitations on this federal spending power. It would, for example, have given the provinces the constitutional right to opt out of any new national shared-cost programs set up under provincial jurisdiction, while still being entitled to federal compensation. In other words, a provincial government could establish its own program that was separate from any national program and still receive funding from the federal government. The Accord, however, would have required provincial programs to required to meet “national standards” to receive federal funding. It is important to note that this provision only applied to new programs, and would not be retroactive to programs implement prior to the Accord.

Aboriginal Self-Government

The Accord would have substantially altered the status of Aboriginal groups in Canadian political society. Under the Accord, an Aboriginal right to self-government would have been enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. Moreover, the Accord would have recognized Aboriginal governments as a third order of government, analogous to the federal government and the provinces. In other words, Aboriginal governments would have been granted their own order of government, which would have been constitutionally autonomous from the federal and provincial levels of government. Aboriginal legislation, however, would have been required to be consistent with the principles of “peace, order, and good government in Canada,” and would have been subject to judicial review under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Beyond these general principles, the Charlottetown Accord did not provide any details on the precise form that such Aboriginal self-government would have taken, or how the transition would have been effected. Further, it provided for a breathing period before Aboriginal groups could access the right to self-government in the courts. This would have allowed the federal government and the provinces time to negotiate the details in the absence of court decisions. If, however, self-government was not realized during this period, then Aboriginal groups could litigate matters in the courts.

In addition to the principle of self-government, the Charlottetown Accord would have entrenched existing treaty rights in the Constitution (although it would not have created any additional treaty rights) and it would have given constitutional recognition to Métis rights.

Parliamentary Reform

The Accord also included a number of institutional reforms to Canada’s Parliament, both to the Senate and the House of Commons.

In the case of the Senate, the Accord would have seen the Upper Chamber reformed along “Triple-E” lines, with elected members, equal provincial representation, and effective powers. Each province would have had six representatives in the Senate (regardless of population size), with the territories receiving one each. Senators would have been selected through direct elections instead of being appointed by the federal government (customary practice). Quebec senators, however, would have been chosen by the provincial legislature.

Under the Charlottetown Accord, the new Senate would have enjoyed no power over government money bills (such as the budget), nor would the defeat of government legislation in the Senate be considered a vote of non-confidence (as in the House of Commons). The Senate would, however, have enjoyed a unilateral veto over federal laws that taxed natural resources, as well as key government appointments. In the case of other laws, defeat in the Senate would have resulted in a joint sitting with the House of Commons (it is important to note, however, that the members of the House of Commons would have significantly outnumbered senators, 337 to 62).

To compensate Ontario and Quebec for their loss of 18 senators, these two provinces would have each been given 18 additional seats in the House of Commons. Furthermore, British Columbia would have gained an additional four members, while Alberta would have gain two members. Under the terms of the Accord, Quebec would also have been constitutionally guaranteed a minimum of 25 percent of the seats in the House of Commons, regardless of its proportion of the national population.

Other Key Proposals

Other key proposals under the Charlottetown Accord included:

  • Supreme Court of Canada Appointments: The current practice of appointing three Supreme Court judges from Quebec would have been enshrined in the constitution. The federal government would have retained the power to appoint judges, but it would have been required to do so from lists supplied by the provinces.
  • Constitutional Amending Formula: All provinces would have been given a veto over future constitutional changes to the country’s major political institutions. This would have significantly increased the number of matters that required unanimity for an amendment to the constitution.
  • Social and Economic Union: A “social charter” to promote such objectives as health care, welfare, education, environmental protection, and collective bargaining would have been developed. Furthermore, a commitment to strengthen economic unity by reducing inter-provincial barriers to the free flow of goods, services, labour, and capital would have been realized.

For more information on Supreme Court of Canada appointments:

1992 Referendum on the Charlottetown Accord

Referendum question, campaign and results

Why a Referendum?

Like the Meech Lake Accord, the Charlottetown Accord required approval in the federal Parliament and all 10 provincial legislatures to come into effect. Unlike the Meech Lake Accord, however, the Charlottetown Accord was submitted to an additional step ― a national referendum.

The question posed in the referendum, held across the country, was as follows: “Do you agree that the Constitution of Canada should be renewed on the basis of the agreement reached on August 28, 1992?” In order for the Accord to be approved, a majority of voters nationally would have to answer “Yes” to the referendum question. Moreover, the question would have to be approved in each province, meaning that defeat in just one province would result in a defeat for the Accord overall.

The federal government’s decision to hold a referendum stemmed from several reasons. First, a major criticism of the Meech Lake Accord was that it was negotiated behind closed doors by federal and provincial leaders. A referendum would allow the general public to express its views on the new constitutional deal. Second, three provinces, Quebec, Alberta, and British Columbia, were holding their own referenda on the Accord, regardless of whether a referendum was organized by the federal government. Third, it was believed that if the Accord was approved by the public in a referendum, the provincial legislatures would have no choice but to also approve the agreement. This would protect against provincial governments changing tack if a new government was elected before the Accord could be ratified (as was the case with the Meech Lake Accord).

Referendum Campaign

The campaign saw an alignment of groups into “Yes” (in favour of) and “No” (against) the Accord.

The “Yes” side included the federal Progressive Conservative Party, the Liberal Party of Canada, and the New Democratic Party. All of the provincial and territorial leaders supported the Accord, as did many First Nations, women’s, and business leaders. Key elements of the “No” side included Quebec separatists, the federal separatist Bloc Québécois party, the federal western-based Reform Party, and the provincial Parti Québécois.

When the campaign began, the Accord was popular across Canada. All three major federal party leaders travelled the country in support of it, while large amounts of money were spent on pro-Accord advertising. While many acknowledged the Accord had flaws, it was commonly argued that Canada would break apart without it.

As the campaign progressed, however, the Accord steadily became less popular. This was attributed to a number of factors. As the Accord involved such broad changes to the constitution, it was easy for the electorate to find at least some part of the agreement with which it disagreed. Declining support for the Accord may have also been closely connected to the extreme unpopularity of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the governing Progressive Conservative Party.

Public criticism of the Accord also had a strong impact. Critics, especially those in Western Canada, characterized the Accord as a document created by the nation’s elites to codify their particular vision of what Canada “should” be. Another important source of criticism came from former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, architect of the 1982 constitutional reforms. Trudeau argued the Accord would result in the end of a unified Canada and the disintegration of the federal government.

Results of the Charlottetown Accord Referendum

The national referendum was held on October 26, 1992. On a national basis, the Accord was defeated by a vote of 55 percent to 45 percent. Moreover, a majority of voters in seven of the 10 provinces (including Quebec) voted against the Accord. Only those in Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and the Northwest Territories voted in support of the Accord. It’s also important to note that 62 percent of Aboriginals on reserves voted against the Accord (Comeau & Santin, 1995).

The national referendum was not legally binding, meaning that federal and provincial leaders could still bring the Accord before their legislatures for ratification. Considering the large defeat of the Accord both nationally and on a province-by-province basis, leaders decided not to proceed with this option. As a result, the Charlottetown Accord, like its predecessor the Meech Lake Accord, was dead.

Results of the Referendum on the Charlottetown Accord (by Jurisdiction)


Voted “Yes”

% “Yes” Votes

Voted “No”

% “No” Votes


133 193


77 881


Prince Edward Island

48 687


17 124


Nova Scotia

218 618


230 182


New Brunswick

234 010


145 096



1 710 117


2 232 280



2 410 119


2 397 665



198 230


322 971



203 361


252 459



483 275


731 975


British Columbia

525 188


1 126 761



5 354


6 922


Northwest Territories

14 750


9 416


Total Canada

6 185 902


7 550 732


(Source: Marianopolis College, 2000)

Aftermath of the Defeat of the Charlottetown Accord

Post-Charlottetown impacts and developments

Quebec’s Status in Canada

The primary result of the defeat of the Charlottetown Accord concerns the place of Quebec in Canada. On the one hand, the Accord’s defeat represented maintenance of the status quo. While Quebec continued to be bound by the Canadian Constitution, it still had not been brought “symbolically” into the constitutional fold. As of December 2008, no attempts have been made to negotiate a constitutional settlement with the province since the Charlottetown Accord.

The Accord’s defeat also fortified the Quebec independence movement. In the 1994 provincial election, the Québec Liberal Party was defeated by the separatist Parti Québécois, helmed by Jacques Parizeau. In October 1995, Parizeau’s government held a referendum on Quebec sovereignty. The referendum question put to the people of Quebec was as follows:

Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Québec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?

The provincial bill mentioned in the referendum question would have seen a sovereign Quebec use the Canadian dollar as its currency, while its residents would have retained concurrent citizenship, and a new Quebec constitution would have been adopted. It’s important to note, however, that this proposal did not represent complete independence, but a sovereign Quebec with some political and economic ties to Canada.

The result of the referendum was extremely close, and there was a record turnout rate of 92 percent. In the end, the Parti Québécois’s sovereignty proposal was defeated by the thinnest of margins ― of 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent (with 60 percent of Francophones in the province voting “Yes”).

Following the referendum, the federal Liberal government, helmed by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, passed a resolution in the House of Commons recognizing Quebec as a distinct society within Canada. In addition, the Chrétien government announced that no constitutional amendments would be passed without the approval of each region of the country (effectively giving Quebec, as a region, a veto on future constitutional reform), and that labour-market training would be transferred from the federal government to the provinces. Hence, even though the Accord failed, some of its key elements were nevertheless adopted subsequently, albeit in a non-constitutional form (see below for more on the notion of “non-constitutional” reform). In 2006, this recognition of “Québec” as a “distinct society” was replaced, when the House of Commons voted in support of a motion by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to recognize “the Québécois” as a “nation within Canada.”

Trend to Non-constitutional Reform in Canada

Another important impact of the defeat of the Charlottetown Accord was a trend away from formal constitutional reform towards “non-constitutional” initiatives.

Following the 1995 Quebec referendum, the federal government enacted legislation which met some of Quebec’s demands (such as recognizing the province as a distinct society in Canada, giving it veto power over future constitutional amendments, and transferring labour-market training to all provinces). The federal government proceeded with these reforms, however, not through formally amending the Canadian Constitution, but simply through federal legislation enacted in Parliament. Many constitution-related developments since this period have also been in this “non-constitutional” form. Examples include the 1999 Social Union Framework, as well as the 2006 commitment by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to hold elections for future appointments to the Senate.

The trend towards non-constitutional reform is due, in large part, to the difficulties in enacting broad constitutional amendments, such as those involved in the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. Such broad packages are highly difficult to negotiate, largely because of the wide variety of issues they deal with (such as the division of powers, special recognition of Quebec, Aboriginal issues). More importantly, they require unanimous approval from both the federal and provincial governments, and, in the case of the Charlottetown Accord, from the general public. Non-constitutional reforms, by contrast, can be focused on a single issue and be implemented simply through the passage of legislation.

There is, however, a downside to non-constitutional reform. Such initiatives are not recognized in Canada’s formal constitutional framework, but are simply pieces of legislation. They can be enacted, altered, or rescinded unilaterally by governments at any time. A constitutional amendment, by contrast, can only be enacted or altered through the formal constitutional amending formula, which generally requires unanimous consent by the provinces. As such, there is an element of security attached to formal constitutional amendments that does not exist with non-constitutional reform. In the case of Senate elections, for example, the federal government can at any time choose to ignore its previous commitment. If Senate elections had been entrenched in the Constitution, however, this would not be the case (at least not without the consent of the provinces).

Another possible downside of non-constitutional reform is that it does not carry with it the “symbolism” of bringing Quebec into the constitutional fold. One of the key purposes of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords was to gain Quebec’s formal and public consent to Canada’s constitutional framework. Incremental non-constitutional reform, however, does not carry with it the same symbolic value. Nevertheless, some may argue that the value of this symbolism is overrated. In the end, what’s important is that Canada remains united, not the manner in which it is accomplished.

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