At midnight on June 30, 1990, the Meech Lake Accord, Canada’s first attempt at amending its Constitution, died a quiet yet well-publicized death. There was no climactic national vote to mark the occasion, nor was there one root cause as to why the Accord failed. As one Meech Lake insider famously remarked, “the Accord did not expire from any single wound, but rather died a death of a thousand cuts”. While the accumulation of those one thousand unnamed cuts may have ultimately brought about the Accord’s demise, the foundation of that failure can still be identified. The root causes of the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord are the “distinct society” clause within the Accord, the 1988 language legislation introduced in Quebec, and the constitutional amending formula itself.
To understand why the Meech Lake Accord failed, one must examine the evolution of the Accord as a constitutional amendment and why its creation was necessary in the first place. The necessity of a constitutional amendment was guaranteed in April 1982, when Queen Elizabeth II signed into law the Constitution Act, 1982. The new Canadian Constitution, which ended Canada’s colonial status with Britain, was seen as a great achievement for both the country and its Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. However, it was destined to create conflict and division within Canada, as it had been signed despite the strenuous opposition of the government of Quebec. The Parti Quebecois, in power in Quebec during the constitutional negotiations of the early 1980s, possessed a mandate of bringing sovereignty to the province. Failing that, the goal of the PQ was to define the province of Quebec as “distinct” from the rest of Canada. As such, signing legislation which would not only strengthen ties with Canada but make Quebec equal to every other Canadian province was simply out of the question. Prime Minister Trudeau, a fervent believer in provincial equality for the sake of a united nation, pushed ahead with the new Constitution despite Quebec’s objections. While the province would technically be governed by the Constitution despite its refusal to recognize its inclusion, the perceived exclusion of a significant segment of Canada’s population damaged the validity of the Constitution as a whole. Therefore, the introduction of a constitutional amendment with the goal of bringing Quebec into the Constitution became inevitable for Canada.
The stage was set for an attempted constitutional amendment with the election of two key political figures: Conservative Brian Mulroney as Prime Minister of Canada in 1984, and Liberal Robert Bourassa as Premier of Quebec in 1985. Prime Minister Mulroney campaigned on a platform of national reconciliation, pledging in a campaign speech in 1984 to bring Quebec into the Constitution. Federalist Premier Bourassa was brought to power by a province exhausted from seemingly endless sovereignty struggles. At the behest of Prime Minister Mulroney, Premier Bourassa released in May of 1986 a list of conditions necessary for Quebec’s accession into the Constitution of Canada: a veto over constitutional changes affecting federal institutions, additional powers over immigration, the right to opt out of federal spending programs in the areas of provincial jurisdiction, a role in nominating members of the supreme court, and the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society. With the agenda for future constitutional reform having been set by Quebec, Prime Minister Mulroney convened a meeting of provincial Premiers on April 30, 1987. The First Ministers meeting took place at a federal government resort on Meech Lake, just north of Ottawa in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec. The agreement reached in principal, thereafter referred to as the Meech Lake Accord, promised the provincialization of each of Quebec’s demands bar the distinct society clause, which would be exclusively for Quebec. In return, Quebec would officially accept the 1982...
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