Brian Mulroney now divides his days between work as a senior partner with the Montreal law firm Ogilvy Renault and duties as a director of a variety of international companies. A decade after the collapse of the Meech Lake accord, and seven years after he resigned as prime minister, Mulroney says that, politically, he has "left my ghosts behind" - and seldom looks back. Looking tanned and relaxed, he made an exception recently as he spent two hours in his Montreal office discussing Meech and related issues with Maclean's Editor at Large Anthony Wilson-Smith:
Maclean's: Ten years after Meech, the divisions are still felt in the country. Do you have any second thoughts about how it turned out?
Mulroney: I feel quite serene about it all: I did what I had to do. You have to look at the context in which we acted. In 1982, Quebec was not a party to the patriation of the Constitution. In 1985, a federalist government was elected in Quebec. In 1986, the premiers met in Edmonton, and unanimously wanted a Quebec round. The idea that we rushed into Meech at the last moment is nonsense.
Maclean's: How would Canada be different if the Meech accord had passed?
Mulroney: It would have given the federal prime minister a lethal counterpunch to the chief separatist argument that the 1982 patriation of the Constitution is illegitimate, because it does not have Quebec as a signatory.
We saw what happened when Mr. Bouchard turned his guns on Mr. Chrétien on this issue in the 1995 referendum. We saw what happened when Mr. Bouchard held up a copy of that 1982 document and pointed out the absence of Quebec. The separatist vote soared, the federalist vote sunk.
Meech would have changed that. It would have said, 'This has been fixed, we have a signature, the country is united.' Tactically and strategically, there is no denying that our Constitution is barren of the signature of one of our most important provinces, and of one of the quote two founding peoples unquote of this country.
Maclean's: But opponents always insisted that Meech would have conferred special rights upon Quebec by declaring it a distinct society.
Mulroney: I always cite former chief justice Brian Dickson on the issue of recognizing Quebec as a distinct society. He said, and I quote him directly, that 'entrenching formal recognition of Quebec's distinctive character in the Constitution would not involve a significant departure from the existing practice in our court.' So much for the idea of judicial calamity.
Maclean's: On a personal level, you suffered a painful blow when Lucien Bouchard quit your cabinet in May, 1990, and renounced federalism, ending a friendship of some 30 years. In retrospect, how do you feel about his actions and motivation?
Mulroney: It's something that requires a fair amount of explanation and, to be fair, a reasonable amount of nuance. But one fact is incontrovertible. In March, 1990, Mr. Bouchard spoke to a meeting of the Quebec caucus, and said, 'I urge you all to remain loyal to the Prime Minister, who has fought so hard for this. Let's all see what happens on June 23, but until then, he deserves our support, and needs our loyalty.'
That was in March: he left in May. His argument was that Meech had changed. But compare the document at the time he left with the text of the 1987 agreement: not a comma had been changed. And never was there even an ounce of dilution of Meech.
Maclean's: When you look back at the final failure of the accord, what is your view of the role of Clyde Wells?
Mulroney: Mr. Wells signed a formal constitutional instrument before the people of Canada committing his province to either hold a referendum on Meech, or a vote in the house of assembly. He did not attach conditions to it: the commitment was unequivocal. He cancelled the vote - he dishonoured his signature. He'll have to live with the consequences.
Maclean's: And Manitoba premier Gary Filmon?
Mulroney: I have no comment on him. He and Mr. Wells can explain themselves to history.
Maclean's: As premier of New Brunswick, Frank McKenna began the process of questioning Meech after it had been agreed upon.
Mulroney: Robert [Bourassa] always felt McKenna was one of the people principally responsible for the breakdown of Meech. I feel McKenna realizes now this was the mistake of his life. But he was man enough to recognize that, and to move to try to fix it.
Maclean's: Pierre Trudeau also played a key role in mobilizing public opinion against the agreement. What do you feel was his motivation?
Mulroney: I don't know what drove him. A very prominent Liberal minister once said that what Mr. Trudeau disliked was that I succeeded where he failed. His ideological objections baffle me because the conditions of Meech were consistent with past constitutional discourse he had been involved in.
Mr. Trudeau successfully portrayed the accord as a concession to Quebec. He made a very personal attack on all of us - the prime minister and the premiers. And this is the man who will go down in history as having made the most sweeping concession in history - the notwithstanding clause that allows provinces to opt out of Supreme Court rulings.
Maclean's: Which raises the fact that Mr. Bourassa used that clause in 1988 to override a Supreme Court judgment that would have allowed bilingual signs in Quebec.
Mulroney: That was a mistake by Mr. Bourassa, and I told him so. I told him the Supreme Court judgment was absolutely correct. He said, 'All I'm doing is using a constitutional provision provided by Mr. Trudeau.' I said that is a wrong gesture to make, and it will create great unhappiness in the rest of the country - as it did.
Maclean's: In the wake of that, some say it might have made more sense to then fold your tent and let Meech die.
Mulroney: A leader must lead. The easy thing after Bourassa did that in 1988 would have been to abandon Quebec. But it would not have been the right thing. The irony was that people came to blame Meech for Mr. Bourassa's actions on this issue - when the notwithstanding clause was a condition created by Mr. Trudeau.
Maclean's: Publicly, Jean Chrétien, then and now, has generally been reticent on his views of Meech. What do you think of his role in 1990?
Mulroney: I think Mr. Chrétien played a very significant role in the failure of the accord. I know he likes to say I opened up a whole can of worms unnecessarily [in initiating constitutional talks], but he didn't always feel that way. I would point to an interview he gave in 1984 to Le Devoir in which he said that the new prime minister had a 'historic opportunity' to fix the Constitution. This was the man who later told Canadians that if Meech failed, life would just go on as it had previously. And this is the same man who, five years later, with a week left before a referendum vote, broke down in tears in front of his caucus and told them he feared he had lost the country. And finally, this is the man who has since moved to institutionalize most of the key provisions of Meech, though he is not able to constitutionalize them.
But then, we shouldn't be surprised by that. Mr. Chrétien opposed free trade, NAFTA, the GST and privatization initiatives, and then reversed field on all of 'em. So why should he be any different with Meech?
Maclean's: You built a coalition that brought together Quebec nationalists and western Canadians. Is that workable in the present political context?
Mulroney: First, I would point out that in 1984, we won over federalists in Quebec first from the Liberals, and nationalists came later. All polls showed that the greatest shift in support in Quebec came straight from the Liberals to us. But when I look at Reform, or whatever they call themselves right now, it's clear what they think of the idea - they are now understanding that to win, they have to become more progressive conservatives. They are also understanding that they have to elect people in French Canada, reach out from west to east, and build a coalition. Well, if that's the goal, that's what the Conservative party has always been and done, so why not stay with them?
Maclean's: What of the argument that nationalism seems a spent force in Quebec, so it would be better to just let the present quiet prevail?
Mulroney: This can't last. That argument is precisely the one that Mr. Chrétien made in 1990, and look what happened. I'm not suggesting we rush into anything. You'll never get a deal with a sovereigntist government. That's why we made our deal with Mr. Bourassa.
I'm not here to push for Meech. I've come to understand you just do what you can and what you believe in, and let history judge. In my case, history will note that my government twice obtained the signatures of all premiers and the prime minister on constitutional agreements [including the Charlottetown accord of 1992], and that's something I'm very proud of.
Some day, there will be a new prime minister not bound by any baggage, someone who can make a fresh start. He or she will invite the country to dream a bold dream for the future. Part of that golden dream for Canada surely has to be a formula that makes the people of Quebec signatories and full partners in the Canadian Constitution.
Maclean's June 19, 2000