The Meech Lake Accord

In 1987 Conservative Party Prime-Minister Brian Mulroney attempted to amend Canada’s constitution to give greater powers to the provinces and to Quebec in particular.

The changes Mulroney was hoping to implement were:

1) Recognition of Quebec as a distinct society.
2) Constitutional vetoes for the provinces.
3) Provincial control over immigration policies.
4) Provincial powers in the selection of federal Senators and Supreme Court Justices.
5) The right for provinces to receive financial compensation if they opt-out of federal programs.

On paper the amendments looked good, but immediately upon introducing his plan in Parliament, Mulroney was assailed by a storm of contraversy from all sides, including within his own Conservative Party. The reason was because of the first amendment proposal: recognition of Quebec as a distinct society.

Because the proposals would have modified the Supreme Court, the accord of all 10 provinces was required, so Mulroney invited the provincial premiers to a summit at a small house on Meech Lake in the Gatineau Hills, just outside Ottawa.

At first national opinion polls showed support for the accords in all ten provinces, but as people read more into the fine details they realized that offering Quebec a separate status from the other provinces could, theoretically, give Quebec more power in Parliament over other jurisdictions, unequal shares of federal money transfers and even the right to negotiate its own foreign affairs policy. Within a few months of the proposals being made public, opinion had shifted from support to outright opposition.

Thus when the premiers sat down at Meech Lake in the summer of 1990, 9 of the 10 Provincial Premiers were staunchly against the accord. Quebec’s seperatist Premier, Robert Bourassa, attempted to use the discord between the provinces and the federal government to negotiate greater advantages for Quebec, but within a few days of the summit starting the other 9 Premiers were firmly allied against him and Brian Mulroney.

The Meech Lake Accord, as it has become known, was soundly defeated by the provinces and, by this point, the opposition parties in Parliament and many of Mulroney’s caucus. Constitutional reform, which could have given greater autonomy to the Provinces, was left in tatters due to the clause giving Quebec unequal powers in order to appease the seperatist bloc.

Meech Lake was also the end of Brian Mulroney’s career. His domestic image as a Reagan-like reformer had turned into one of a powerless devil’s advocate, willing to sacrifice the unity of the nation in order appease Quebec nationalists. Within a few months of the failure of Meech Lake, the Conservative government in Parliament faced a vote of no-confidence and Mulroney was forced to step down as Prime-Minister.

He would be replaced by one of Canada’s most popular and succesful Prime-Ministers, Jean Chretien, who not only fought the Quebec separatists head-to-head but led the nation into 12 years of unprecedented fiscal surpluses and material wealth.

Meech Lake, despite being a complete failure, was an historic moment in Canada’s political history and unified the country against Quebec seccession.


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