The Meech Lake Accord (French: Accord du lac Meech) was a package of proposed amendments to the Constitution of Canada negotiated in 1987 by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the ten provincial premiers. It was intended to persuade the government of Quebec to endorse the 1982 constitutional amendment and increase support in Quebec for remaining within Canada. Its rejection had the effect of energizing support for Quebec sovereignty.
In 1981, a round of negotiations led by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to patriate the constitution reached an agreement that formed the basis of the Constitution Act, 1982. Although this agreement passed into law, amending the British North America Acts, it was reached despite the objections of Quebec Premier René Lévesque, and the Quebec National Assembly refused to ratify the amendment. The Supreme Court of Canada had previously ruled in the Quebec Veto Reference that Quebec never had, according to constitutional convention, a constitutional veto and that no province did. The Supreme Court also ruled that the new constitution applied to all provinces notwithstanding their disagreement. Ultimately, Quebec was the only province that did not favour patriation as agreed to by the other premiers.
Brian Mulroney's election as Prime Minister of Canada while Robert Bourassa served as Premier of Quebec created a new climate, different from the bitter opposition between Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque. Bourassa gave five key "demands" for Quebec to "sign on" to the constitution.
The accord was negotiated at a 1987 meeting between Mulroney and the provincial premiers at Willson House, Meech Lake, in the Gatineau Hills. The two territories (Nunavut was not yet a Canadian Territory) were planned to be invited, but a week before the invitations were sent, Mulroney stated that the territories did not have enough power to affect important decisions. They did, however, participate through video conference.
The Accord contained five main modifications to the Canadian constitution: a recognition of Quebec as a "distinct society"; a constitutional veto for all provinces; increased provincial powers with respect to immigration; extension and regulation of the right for a reasonable financial compensation to any province that chooses to opt out of any future federal programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction; and provincial input in the appointment of senators and Supreme Court justices.
Because the accord would have changed the constitution's amending formula, it needed to obtain the consent of all provincial and federal legislatures within three years. Mulroney termed this the "Quebec round" of constitutional talks and promised future reforms after the Accord had been approved.
Opposition leaders generally agreed to the accord. Liberal Party leader John Turner was put into a tough position, considering the popularity of the agreement in Quebec (a traditional Liberal stronghold until Trudeau's patriation of the constitution in 1982) and the Trudeau ideal of federal power within the Federation. He soon agreed to the accord, causing a rift in his party. New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent also agreed with the accord. Preston Manning of the Reform Party opposed it, saying it gave Quebec unequal status among provinces. The Canadian monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, made a rare foray into political matters when she publicly expressed on 22 and 23 October 1987 her personal support for the Meech Lake Accord, for which she received criticism from its opponents.
When the Meech Lake Accord was debated in the Quebec National Assembly, it was opposed by the Parti Québécois. After the ten provincial premiers agreed to the accord, national public opinion polls initially showed that a majority of Canadians supported the proposed agreement.
Arguments against the accord focused on the devolution of federal powers and control to the provincial governments. Pierre Trudeau spoke out against the accord, claiming Mulroney "sold out" to the provinces. Trudeau argued that Quebec, while distinct, was no more distinct than many other places in the nation. He also stated his belief that the federal government should actively oppose provincial initiatives to change the balance of powers within Confederation. In a newspaper opinion piece, Trudeau wrote: "[T]he federation was set to last a thousand years. Alas, only one eventuality hadn't been foreseen: that one day the government of Canada would fall into the hands of a weakling. It has now happened." Some Liberal MPs called on Trudeau to be their "spiritual leader" against the accord, further undermining John Turner's already fragile leadership.
Criticism was directed at the way the Accord was reached, as initial negotiations and drafting of the agreement were only conducted by the First Ministers, to the exclusion of Aboriginal leadership, linguistic minorities inside and outside Quebec, feminist groups, and other stakeholders in the Constitutional debate. The agreement also lacked public confirmation through a popular referendum. The ten premiers and the prime minister came to be seen as "11 men in suits" dealing with the foundations of the country behind closed doors and without additional voices.
By June 1990, the same polls showed that a majority now rejected the accord. Much of this decline in support was attributed to the "distinct society" clause, which some in English Canada saw as granting Quebec "special" status. Bourassa's use of the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian constitution to set aside the Supreme Court's decision to strike down parts of Quebec's Charter of the French Language (which toughened the requirements for French predominance on commercial signs) played into this; while constitutional, it was generally seen as a draconian action aimed at the English-speaking minority in Quebec.
As the deadline approached, the consensus began to unravel. Pressure from voters at home brought many premiers, especially those in the western provinces, under fire. The accord became an issue in some provincial elections, as New Brunswick elected the Liberal government of Frank McKenna, which revoked the previous government's approval of the accord. Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells would soon do likewise.
With a matter of months before the accord deadline, a commission led by prominent federal Tory cabinet minister Jean Charest recommended some changes to the accord. This prompted Lucien Bouchard, environment minister and Quebec lieutenant under Mulroney, and others to leave the Progressive Conservatives. Eventually, they and several disenchanted Liberals formed the federal Bloc Québécois party.
Arguably, the most pressure was on Robert Bourassa. To most Quebecers (at least 80%, according to various polls conducted by newspapers at the time), the accord was the bare minimum acceptable. Any weakening of the accord would undermine Bourassa's position and possibly bring a large backlash from Quebec.
This prompted a first ministers conference on June 3, 1990 (20 days before the deadline of the accord) "The Last Supper" - CBC Archive. After a week of negotiations, an agreement for further rounds of constitutional negotiations was devised to follow ratification of Meech Lake. All ten premiers again signed the new Accord, although Wells said that he would have to consult with the people of Newfoundland before committing to the Accord.
The agreement promised a commitment to Senate reform by July 1, 1995; the proposed Senate would be elected, "effective" (having power over most bills), and be more representative of the other provinces. If a unanimous agreement was not made, the Senate would convert to Quebec having 24 seats, Ontario having 18, Prince Edward Island with 4, and all other provinces with 8 seats. Further, it proposed a guarantee to not weaken gender equality; to give the territories the power to nominate senators and Supreme Court justices; future conferences on Aboriginal and minority language issues; and later discussions on a "Canada Clause", how new provinces would be formed, and a new amending procedure.
During the meeting, Wells echoed the feelings of many in the country:
We must never again implement this process for Constitutional reform. It is impossible for the eleven first ministers to do justice to the matters they have to consider, and it is grossly unfair to the 26 million people of this nation to have their first minister closeted and making decisions in a secret way without letting them know what was at stake, and the basis of the decisions were made.
New Brunswick soon accepted the accord, and Frank McKenna toured the nation to drum up support.
In Manitoba, however, things did not go as planned. With many First Nations protesters outside, the legislative assembly convened to approve the accord. Unanimous support was needed to bypass the necessary public consultation and Member of the Legislative Assembly Elijah Harper raised an eagle feather to mark his dissension. Harper opposed bypassing consultation because he did not believe First Nations had been adequately involved in the accord's process.
Even though a legal route was found to give Manitoba more time (the deadline would be extended three months, with Quebec being able to re-approve the Accord), Clyde Wells and opposition leader Thomas Rideout agreed to cancel the planned free vote in the Newfoundland House of Assembly, because the outcome would have most likely been a refusal. The accord was officially dead.
The defeat of the accord was felt most in Quebec. In a speech to the National Assembly of Quebec delivered moments after the death of the accord, Bourassa captured the nationalist sentiment of the moment:
...English Canada must clearly understand that, no matter what is said or done, Quebec is, today and forever, a distinct society, that is free and able to assume the control of its destiny and development.
The speech and other actions by Bourassa gave Quebecers the impression that the Liberals were open to all options, even the calling of a referendum on independence. Polls at this time showed a majority in favour of sovereignty-association. This would result in the Allaire Report and a promise to hold a referendum on sovereignty or a new constitutional agreement by 1992.
Ontario Premier David Peterson had played a prominent role in creating the accord and continued to support it in the face of growing opposition. This would eventually lead to a backlash in his own province. Though Peterson's association with the accord was not further highlighted by the media, the federal government was dealing with the fallout. Thus, the issue was still fresh in voters' minds when he recommended the Lieutenant Governor call a snap election in 1990, and it was partially responsible for his party's defeat.
Mulroney's popularity plummeted. The handling of the accord was condemned by many people and the exhaustive and interminable debates over it caused a backlash against further constitutional negotiations.
In November, 1990, Mulroney decided to seek the input of Canadians on the country's constitutional future by convening the Citizen's Forum on National Unity. The forum was more commonly known as the Spicer Commission, after its chair, Keith Spicer.
A variety of constitutional conferences and the efforts of former Prime Minister Joe Clark resulted in the Charlottetown Accord, which contained many of the same proposals, along with concrete involvement of First Nations groups. The Charlottetown Accord, unlike Meech Lake, was put to referenda (on October 26, 1992), but it was also defeated in most provinces, including Quebec.