Will Canada Unravel After Failure of the Meech Lake Accord?
AFTER the recent unsuccessful effort to modify Canada's Constitution, many United States commentators pronounced the impending downfall of that country. In Quebec, discussions are under way that could lead to the adoption of its ``national'' constitution. Shades of Lithuania? Probably not. To this observer, predictions of collapse in Canada seem premature. Annexationists and those who delight in the demise of governments generally should not cheer too soon nor too loudly.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Understanding our neighbor's constitutional crisis requires a return to 1982, when Canada ``patriated'' (as its citizens are wont to say) its Constitution. Before 1982, the structure of Canadian government was determined by an 1867 British statute, the British North America Act, which could only be amended in London. The BNA Act set up a federal, but otherwise British, structure. The structure was British in that fundamental individual rights were not placed out of the reach of legislatures.
The British link delighted many Anglo-Saxon Canadians, but the desire to ``patriate'' or Canadianize the Constitution was a dream for Pierre Trudeau, the Qu'eb'ecois prime minister in the 1970s and early 1980s. Mr. Trudeau is an anti-American who demonstrated little respect for individual rights (his repression of political unrest in Quebec in 1970 is without precedent in recent North American history), and even less for private property (he nationalized some of Alberta's petroleum industry without compensation).
In a seeming paradox, but mainly to make ``patriation'' salable to legal activists, Trudeau suggested that a Charter of Rights be attached to the ``patriated'' Constitution. Although a US-style document, this charter differs significantly from its American counterpart. For instance, it enshrines group entitlements (to ``multiculturalism,'' for example) and enables governments to override individual rights as long as this is done explicitly.
Unfortunately for Trudeau, modification requests to London in the past had entailed the consent of all 10 provinces. Unanimous consent was a daunting prospect since Quebec's government was controlled by the separatist Parti Qu'eb'ecois. Trudeau and the nine premiers from English Canada hammered out an agreement one evening in Ottawa. The proposed new constitution was sent to London, where Britain's Parliament quickly ratified it, washing its hands of the ``Canadian problem.'' A subsequent Canadian Supreme Court decision rejected Quebec's legal challenge to the validity of the process.
When Trudeau's Liberals were defeated by Brian Mulroney's Conservatives, the political pressure to ``legitimize'' the new Constitution by obtaining Quebec's assent to it was overpowering. Mr. Mulroney had been elected with substantial support from Quebec nationalists. In addition, Quebec's Parti Qu'eb'ecois government was defeated by Robert Bourassa's Liberals, de facto provincial allies of Mulroney's Conservatives. After some posturing before a mostly indifferent population, all 11 first ministers agreed in 1986, at Meech Lake in Western Quebec, to a formula remodifying the Constitution.
This ``Meech Lake accord'' provided, among other things, that:
Quebeckers would occupy three of the nine seats on the Supreme Court, with the provincial government having a determining voice in the selection of these justices;
Quebec would be constitutionally recognized as a ``distinct society'';
All provinces would have to agree to any amendment to the composition of Canada's Senate (the Senate, an appointed body like the United Kingdom's House of Lords, is nearly powerless; meanwhile, the House of Commons, 70 percent of whose members come from populous Ontario and Quebec, lacks regional balance);
All provinces would have to agree to the creation of any new province.
Nowhere in the 1982 patriation process or the 1986 Meech Lake negotiations was opinion from individual Canadians provided for. Canadians were mute about the process to begin with, and have traditionally accepted government intervention rather meekly, but as they digested the agreement many of them became apprehensive.
Some English-Canadian displeasure was unarguably a manifestation of bigotry. Nineteenth-century language legislation in many provinces has led to the assimilation of once-substantial Francophone minorities, and some Canadians are annoyed that any French-speaking communities remain in the country. But it must be noted, notwithstanding strenuous affectation of Quebec politicians to the contrary, that the bulk of public dissatisfaction with the Meech Lake accord is broad-minded: