In 1987 the Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney attempted to win Québec's consent to the revised Canadian Constitution — following the Québec government's rejection of it in 1981. The result was the Meech Lake Accord, an agreement between the federal and provincial governments to amend the Constitution by strengthening provincial powers and declaring Québec a "distinct society." Political support for the Accord later unravelled, and it was never put into effect.

Quebec and the Constitution

The separatist Québec government had refused, in 1981, to accept the new Constitution patriated from Britain by the federal Liberal regime of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. That decision effectively estranged the province from the Canadian "constitutional family." However, a new political climate emerged in the mid-1980s that offered hopes of ending this impasse — with the election of a Liberal government in Québec under Premier Robert Bourassa, and a Progressive Conservative government in Ottawa led by Mulroney. Mulroney opened constitutional discussions with all the provinces, during which Québec made a series of proposals that, if accepted, would have led to its formal endorsement of the Constitution.

Québec was as legally bound as any province by the provisions of the Constitution Act of 1982. The Québec proposals would have amended this Act. As a result they took on great significance.

The Québec proposals could be divided into two parts. The first dealt with the distinctiveness of Québec in the Canadian federation, the second with a potpourri of other matters. These tended to enhance the role of the provinces in their relationship with the federal government. Not surprisingly then, all of the provinces initially agreed to the package under a principle of "juridical equality." This package became known as the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord of 1987, named after the lake north of Ottawa in the forested Gatineau hills, where the premiers and federal leaders — in private negotiations at a government retreat named Wilson House — reached the agreement.

Distinct Society

The Accord recognized the province of Québec as a distinct society within Canada. At the same time, it recognized as fundamental characteristics of Canada both the anglophone minority in Québec, and the francophone minority elsewhere.

Provincial Powers

The provinces were, for the first time, given a formal role in nominating persons to sit on certain federal institutions (namely, the Senate and the Supreme Court of Canada).

For some time, social programs falling within provincial legislative jurisdiction (health care, for example) had largely been financed by the federal government: the federal government held greater taxing power, and hence possessed greater spending ability than the provinces. Provincial concerns with this related to federal conditions attached to this financing. Under the Accord, a province could opt out of one of these programs provided it established its own, and provided its own program had objectives compatible with the national objectives of the program. In such a case, the federal government would continue to finance the new provincial program with reasonable compensation.

Under the Constitution Act of 1867, the provinces and the federal government were given joint or parallel jurisdiction over immigration, leading to a series of agreements on the settlement of new immigrants in Canada. The Accord gave constitutional status to those agreements.

The Accord also made constitutional the federal-provincial consultative process by requiring that at least one First Ministers (prime minister and premiers) meeting be held annually, and by requiring that the issues of Senate reform and the fisheries be discussed at those meetings.

Constitutional Amendment

The Accord slightly changed the existing method for amending the Constitution. Before the Accord, two formulas existed: The general formula required the consent of the Senate and the House of Commons and the legislatures of two-thirds of the provinces, provided those provinces comprised 50 per cent of the population of Canada.

For some specialized listed matters, the formula required the consent of Parliament and the legislatures of all of the provinces. A third section listing other specialized matters existed as well, but these matters required only the general amending formula. The Accord took this latter list of specialized matters, added a number of other issues, and moved them to the first list of specialized matters. As a result, all specialized matters (such as changes to the Senate and the creation of new provinces) came to require the unanimous consent of Parliament and the legislatures of the provinces.

Reaction

Opinion polls showed the Accord to be popular with a majority of Canadians after it was unveiled in 1987. There was relief in the country that Québec would soon be brought back, politically, into the constitutional fold, and hope that this might soften separatist attitudes in that province towards the rest of Canada.

In the ensuing three years, however, as ratification votes on the Accord proceeded in various provincial legislatures, critics emerged to savage the agreement — especially, they argued, the way it would weaken federal power. The most notable opponent was Pierre Trudeau, who came out of retirement to lead the attack on the Accord, accusing Mulroney of having "sold out" to the provinces. Many in English Canada also grew uncomfortable with the "distinct society" clause, arguing this would give Québec special status in Confederation, rather than make it one of 10 equal provinces.

Because the Accord had been negotiated behind closed doors by the First Ministers —"11 men in suits," as they were described — it became an unwelcome symbol of backroom political deal-making. As opposition piled up, so the Accord lost favour with the public. Meanwhile, there were fears that if the Accord didn't become law there would be a backlash in Québec, where the deal remained popular, leading to serious national unity problems.

Ratification

To become law the Accord had to be ratified within three years by Parliament and the legislatures of all 10 provinces in accordance with s41 of the Constitution Act of 1982. Québec's legislative assembly was the first to pass the required resolution of approval on June 23,1987. The Accord had to receive unanimous provincial ratification on or before June 23,1990. In early June of 1990, all premiers finally agreed to ratify the Accord — subject to guarantees of further constitutional discussions following the Accord, on such issues as an elected Senate, the amending formula itself, and equality and aboriginal issues.

Despite this agreement, on the final ratification date the Accord unravelled. In Manitoba, although all political parties had finally agreed to endorse the Accord, it required public hearings unless there was unanimous consent of all members of the legislature to dispense with such hearings. One member, Elijah Harper, withheld his consent and ultimately the Accord did not come to a vote in that province.

On the same day, wishing to allow Manitoba extra time, the federal minister responsible for federal-provincial relations suggested extending the ratification date by three months — necessitating re-ratification in Québec. This dissatisfied Premier Clyde Wells of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Newfoundland legislature had initially ratified the Accord in 1988, but Wells — who came to power the following year and became an outspoken critic of the Accord — insisted on putting it to another vote in his legislature, or to a plebiscite in his province. In 1990, the Manitoba delay gave Wells an excuse to avoid bringing the issue to a vote, ultimately delivering yet another blow to the Meech Lake Accord, and ensuring its disintegration.

Legacy

In 1990, angry that the political consensus around the Accord had come apart, Lucien Bouchard, Mulroney's environment minister and Québec lieutenant, walked out on the Progressive Conservative government along with a handful of disenchanted backbencher Québec Members of Parliament — from the PC and Liberal parties. They formed the Bloc Québecois, a group dedicated to pursuing Québec's interests in the House of Commons.

Bouchard's decision was a hard political blow for Mulroney. At the same time, the prime minister's popularity was falling as public opinion in English Canada hardened against the Accord, in part because of its negative image as deal negotiated in the political backrooms. Canadians had also grown weary of the many years of constitutional wrangling. In spite of this, Mulroney pushed ahead after the death of the Meech Lake Accord with a new round of constitutional talks aimed at winning Québec's consent — this time after an exhaustive series of public consultations — resulting in the Charlottetown Accord of 1992. This second agreement was eventually defeated in a national referendum. As of 2014, there have been no further official efforts at constitutional change in Canada.