30th Anniversary of the Defeat of the Meech Lake Accord

Political and Constitutional Renewal Has Never Been More Urgent

June 23, 2020 marked the 30th anniversary of the defeat of the Meech Lake Accord. Thirty years after its defeat, the issue of vesting sovereignty in the people through political and constitutional renewal remains the main issue to be resolved. The struggles of workers, youth, women, and the First Nations for their rights and the rights of all, including the fight against COVID-19, are coming up against the denial of their political power, which poses the block to their implementation of a nation-building project that defends the rights of all, provides a new direction for the economy and makes Canada a zone for peace.

Today, political power is concentrated in the hands of supranational private interests which collude and compete for narrow private gain and domination. Notably, to the detriment of the well-being of all and the right of the people to determine their own affairs, they manoeuvre through states at their disposal, including Canada. Today, the Canadian constitutional system is the instrument of the factions of the imperialist ruling elite, who have no real ties with Canadians other than the economic and political power they have usurped and continue to wield against them. They operate through various governments, so-called democratic institutions, the cartel political parties of the Canadian parliament, the provincial legislatures and the Quebec National Assembly. Canada urgently needs a modern constitution that vests sovereignty in the people and guarantees the rights of all, including the Aboriginal and treaty rights of the First Nations and the right of the Quebec nation to self-determination.

The Failure of the Meech Lake Accord

On June 23, 1990, the Meech Lake Accord was defeated. It was a set of amendments to the Constitution of Canada negotiated behind closed doors in 1987 by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the provincial premiers. The failure of the Meech Lake Accord marked a deepening of the constitutional crisis which has now become an existential crisis due to Canada's all-sided integration into the U.S. war economy and state arrangements.

The Meech Lake Accord was signed as a result of the crisis which accompanied the 1980 Quebec Referendum on the place of Quebec within Canada and the refusal of Quebec to sign onto the Pierre Trudeau government's patriated Constitution of 1982. Trudeau had promised that he would draft a new constitutional agreement after the Quebec referendum was defeated. His promise was realized in the form of the addition of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and an amending formula to the British North America Act of 1867 (BNA Act 1867). Called the Canada Act, it was passed by the British Parliament on March 29, 1982 and, on this basis, it was claimed that the Constitution was "patriated." While the claim is made that this ended Canada's formal dependence on Britain, the fact is that the Queen of England remains Canada's Head of State.

Canada's Constitution Act (1982) was the "Canadian equivalent" of Britain's Canada Act and its text was included in the Canada Act along with an amending formula and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, it did not recognize Quebec's right to self-determination and Quebec refused to sign it. This created a constitutional crisis which the Mulroney government attempted to resolve by commencing constitutional negotiations in 1985. These negotiations culminated with the Meech Lake Accord two years later on June 23, 1987.

Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa said the Constitution needed five modifications for Quebec to sign. On this basis, the following changes were laid out in the Accord:

- 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.

These amendments and the agreement did not address the causes of the constitutional crisis. These include: the need to guarantee nation-to-nation relations with the Indigenous peoples so as to end colonial injustice and provide redress for all the wrongs committed against them; the need to end all notions of rights based on privilege and so-called reasonable limits; the need to vest sovereignty in the people and not a fictional person of state, let alone one who is a foreign monarch; and the need to enshrine equal rights for all citizens and residents. Finally, it requires recognizing the right of the people of Quebec to self-determination, including secession if they so decide -- something the Meech Lake Accord refused to do.

Two years after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord another constitutional deal was reached behind closed doors in the form of the Charlottetown Accord on which a referendum was called. The first of three books written by Hardial Bains during the campaign (above) provided the only real information on the contents and significance of the Accord which was rejected by the Canadian people in the referendum.

Instead, the Meech Lake Accord seeking to maintain the status quo, declared Quebec a "distinct society" within Canada; it gave Quebec a constitutional veto; increased provincial powers with respect to immigration; extended and regulated the right to reasonable financial compensation for any province that opted out of any future federal programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction; and provided for provincial input in appointing senators and Supreme Court judges.

Because the Meech Lake Accord would have changed the Constitution's amending formula and modified the Supreme Court, all provincial and federal legislatures had to consent to it within three years. The 10 provincial premiers soon agreed but, as the three-year deadline for consent of all legislatures drew near, the consensus began to unravel. To try to save Meech, a First Ministers' Conference was held 20 days before the signing deadline, resulting in an agreement for further rounds of constitutional negotiations. During that conference, Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells attacked the secrecy of the whole process of decision-making. On June 23, 1990, the deadline date, Elijah Harper, a First Nations Member of the Manitoba Legislature, signaled his refusal to give approval by holding up an eagle feather. This blocked the motion required for the Manitoba Legislature to vote on the Accord. Wells then cancelled a proposed vote in the Newfoundland Legislature and the Meech Lake Accord was officially dead. That is what was called the failure of the Meech Lake Accord.

Demonstration against Meech Lake Accord outside the Manitoba Legislature, June 21, 1990.

The Problems Inherent in the Accord

A main feature of the Meech Lake Accord was its failure to clarify what was meant by "distinct society" when referring to Quebec. It stated that Quebec was a "distinct society" and declared that the role of the Legislature and Government of Quebec was to "preserve and promote the distinct identity of Quebec." The term "distinct society" remained undefined in the documents and the "distinct" features of Quebec were not enumerated, nor were any guidelines given by which these features could be preserved and promoted. "Distinct society" was subject to many interpretations, but the predominant one that emerged was the old fiction that Quebec was distinct simply because the people spoke French. By making language the only issue, the Meech Lake Accord formulation of a "distinct society" denied that the Quebec people comprise a nation that has historically evolved with a common economy and territory, language, culture and psychology that have the imprint of this development. Further, it denied the Quebec people the right of self-determination. Telling the Quebec Legislature what it was to do also did not go over well.

Another significant feature of the Meech Lake Accord was its overall promotion of national disunity and inequality. Defining a nation by language alone leads to the theory that Canada is populated by a large number of different "language-nations," all of which should or could supposedly have independent status, but only two of them -- the "English" and "French" -- are given pride of place.

The Meech Lake Accord also created disunity by devolving federal powers to the provinces, suggesting the existence of 10 small nations (the provinces) and one big one, the federal government. The two territories (Nunavut did not yet exist) were not invited to Meech Lake (they participated by video conference) because Mulroney considered they had insufficient power to affect any decisions. This was seen to imply that the regions of Canada each had different status. The Accord also gave each province a veto to block legislation and it was clear that each province would use its veto to promote the narrow interests of its own regional economic and political power-brokers rather than to advance an overall national interest or aim.

A third main feature of the Meech Lake Accord was its failure to affirm or even address the hereditary rights of the Indigenous peoples, which amounted to a suppression of those rights. The rights of the Indigenous peoples are not a peripheral issue but should be enshrined in the Constitution of Canada. They have a rightful claim to the territories of their ancestors and to the determination of what must be done with them. As sovereign peoples they have the right to determine not only their own affairs but to participate in determining the affairs of Canada as a whole. In the proposed modifications to the Constitution, the Meech Lake Accord did not deal with any of this. Indigenous leaders also raised two other issues. One was their exclusion from the entire Meech Lake proceedings. The other was the potential transfer of federal services to the provinces implied by the clause calling for compensation to provinces for opting out of federal programs. This could have led to the dismantling of programs very important to the well-being of the Indigenous peoples.

A fourth main feature of the Meech Lake Accord was the anti-democratic nature of the proceedings. All consultations were held behind the backs of the people. In fact, people referred to the process as 11 white men in suits dealing with the future of the country behind closed doors. Once the Meech Lake agreement was reached in secret, the 11 First Ministers then tried to impose it on the people without any discussion or deliberation. There was no broad consultation of the people at any time, the agenda was not set according to what the people wanted, and the items discussed and included in the Accord were only those that the First Ministers wanted.

Meech Processes and the Spicer Commission

The people's extreme displeasure with the Meech Lake proceedings was captured by the 1990 Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future, commonly referred to as the Spicer Commission. Mulroney, who was forced to convene it just after the Meech Lake Accord was defeated, claimed that his government wanted to hear the opinions of Canadians. The Spicer Commission published its findings in 1991 with many Canadians expressing their acute awareness that something was lacking in the Canadian political process, that politicians were not to be trusted, and that mechanisms were required to empower the people. Many called for the formation of a constituent assembly which would enable the people to deliberate and decide on their own constitution. All of the proposals and recommendations of the Spicer Commission were subsequently ignored by the Government of Canada.

Problem Posed and to Be Solved

People today want to be the arbiters and decision-makers. This is the battle that is being waged everywhere on the question of who decides. Canadians, Quebeckers and Indigenous peoples rejected the Meech Lake Accord because today history demands that power be transferred to the people who act on their own initiative and in their own interest.

The Meech Lake Accord confirmed that in the form of political power inherited by Canada, absolute power today resides in the financial oligarchs and their political representatives. This absolute power is not the defender of the rights of the people and is not at the service of the people's well-being and the resolution of the problems they face. The reality is that public authority has long since been destroyed and narrow private interests have directly usurped public institutions, which are now their preserve.

Today, no government has the consent of the governed and the need for democratic renewal is more urgent than ever.

This article was published in

Volume 50 Number 23 - June 27, 2020

Article Link:
30th Anniversary of the Defeat of the Meech Lake Accord: Political and Constitutional Renewal Has Never Been More Urgent - Christine Dandenault


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