Democratic Renewal and a Modern Constitution Are an Urgent Need – The significance of the Meech Lake Accord today is that in this era the people want to be the arbiters and decision-makers. It is the work for democratic renewal which will open society’s path to progress.
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 Quebec’s refusal to sign on to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau government’s “patriated” Constitution of 1982. Trudeau had promised that he would draft a new constitutional agreement after the 1980 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), an act of the British Imperial Parliament, which is called the Constitution of Canada. With Pierre Trudeau’s addition, the BNA Act 1867 became Canada’s Constitution Act 1982. It was the “Canadian equivalent” of Britain’s Canada Act passed by the British Parliament on March 29, 1982. 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 and, most importantly, Canadians have never adopted a constitution of their own, enshrining what they would consider to be the principles guiding Canada in the 21st century. In other words, the Constitution of Canada does not vest sovereignty in the people of Canada in any way, shape or form.
Canada’s Constitution Act 1982 includes an amending formula as well as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Besides not vesting sovereignty in the people, which means it did not enshrine the modern conception of equality or the rights and duties of citizens on a modern basis, it also failed to establish nation-to-nation relations with the Indigenous peoples and to recognize Quebec’s right to self-determination. Failure to recognize Quebec’s right to self-determination is why 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 that basis, the following changes were laid out in the Accord: it declared Quebec a “distinct society” within Canada; 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.
In this way, instead of modernizing the Constitution in a manner that favours the people, the Meech Lake Accord sought to maintain the status quo.
Because the Meech Lake Accord would have changed the Constitution, according to the Amending Formula, the changes – especially those which modified the Supreme Court – required the consent of all provincial and federal legislatures 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, to his eternal credit signalled 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 and get unanimous consent. Premier Wells then cancelled a proposed vote in the Newfoundland Legislature and the Meech Lake Accord was officially dead.
A main feature of the Meech Lake Accord was its failure to clarify what was meant by “distinct society” when referring to Quebec. When it stated that Quebec was a “distinct society” it also 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 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 to 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 “ethno-linguistic 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 (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. Meech also gave each province a veto to block legislation and it was clear that each province would use its veto to promote 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 giving the colonial suppression of those rights a green light. The rights of the Indigenous peoples are not a peripheral issue but should be enshrined in the Constitution of Canada on a modern basis, beyond the incorporation of the Royal Proclamation of 1763.
The Royal Proclamation was issued by King George III to officially claim British territory in North America after Britain won the Seven Years War. It sets out that only the Crown can buy land from First Nations.
The Indigenous peoples have a right not to be subjected to the decision-making of the Crown. They have a rightful claim to the territories of their ancestors and to the determination of what can and must be done with them. As sovereign peoples they have the right to determine not only their 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 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 directly affects programs crucial to the well-being of the Indigenous peoples over which they must be able to exercise control.
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 agreement was reached in secret, the 11 First Ministers tried to impose it on the people without any discussion or deliberation. There was no broad consultation involving 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 on behalf of the narrow private interests they were sworn to serve and protect.
The people’s displeasure with the Meech proceedings was captured by the 1990 Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, commonly referred to as the Spicer Commission. Prime Minister Mulroney, who was forced to convene it just after Meech was defeated, claimed that his government wanted to hear the opinions of Canadians. The Spicer Commission published its findings in 1991 with many Canadians and the people of Quebec 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.
The significance of the Meech Lake Accord today is that in this era the people want to be the arbiters and decision-makers. It is the work for democratic renewal which will open society’s path to progress, not reordering the status quo in the name of change, modernization or making every vote count.
The Meech Lake Accord confirmed that a form of political power has emerged in Canada with absolute power resting in the hands of global oligopolies, with those who call themselves the people’s political representatives in fact acting in the service of their cartels and coalitions. The suggestion that the Prime Minister and the 10 provincial premiers should be the only ones to propose the Constitution, and that the people should be excluded from the process was resoundingly rejected because the times demand that power be transferred to the people acting in their own interests. People want to take politics out of the hands of the narrow private vested interests and place them in the hands of those who will deal with the real problems that the people face, such as the economic insecurity that is the number one worry and the deepest concern of the people, along with Canada’s integration into the U.S. war machine.
The failure of the Meech Lake Accord also led to the eventual demise of the parliamentary configuration of the Liberal and Conservative “party-in-power” and “party-in-opposition,” with the virtual decimation of the Conservatives in 1993. This was followed by the sorry state of the Liberals as a result of the “sponsorship scandal” following the 1995 referendum in Quebec, which concentrated more and more power in fewer and fewer hands. Since then, the political parties with seats in the House of Commons have formed a mafia-like cartel to keep the people disempowered. What are called political parties are all about getting elected on the basis of maintaining data bases to micro-target voters while the divide between those who govern and those who are governed widens with each passing day. Today no government has the consent of the governed and the need for democratic renewal is more urgent than ever.
The causes of the constitutional crisis clearly require attention. 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 enshrine equality of membership in the body politic by ending all notions of rights based on privilege and so-called reasonable limits and enshrine equal rights for all citizens and residents; the need to vest sovereignty in the people and not a fictitious person of state, let alone one who is a foreign monarch. Finally, it requires recognizing the creation of a free and equal union by 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. Unless Canada is constituted as a free and equal union, one part will remain superior to the others and rule over all those who are citizens and residents and all its constituent parts including the Indigenous nations and all national minorities, by using police powers whenever it does not get its way.
The Time to Modernize the Constitution Is Now!
(Hardial Bains Resources Centre Archives)