Established following the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, the Commission on the Political and Constitutional Future of Quebec (better known as the Bélanger-Campeau Commission) was a non-partisan Quebec commission active from 1990 to 1991. The purpose of the Commission was to try to find a solution to the constitutional crisis of the time. Despite its commitment to establishing a new partnership with Canada, its efforts ended in failure.
Canada had been engaged in constitutional negotiations since the 1960s. (See also Constitutional History.) The “rebuilding” of the federal State as a multicultural nation with two official languages was not entirely in keeping with the aspirations of the Québécois for recognition of a Canadian duality and the development of Quebec’s autonomy.
The Patriation of the Constitution in 1982 without the agreement of the Quebec government created significant political tensions in Quebec. The constitutional issue led to a series of negotiations between Canada and Quebec. Brian Mulroney, who became Prime Minister with the election of the Progressive Conservative Party in September 1984, promised to bring Quebec into the new federal regime “with honour and enthusiasm.” The Quebec Liberal Party under Robert Bourassa, which was elected in December 1985, continued the negotiations which led to the Meech Lake Accord (1987). The “five essential conditions” to be met for Quebec to sign on to the Constitution included control of immigration issues, the possibility of withdrawing from certain federal programs without financial loss, the right to veto constitutional amendments, and the recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society.” The fifth condition was a guarantee that 3 of the 9 judges on the Supreme Court were to be specialists in civil law, which is specific to Quebec.
The Meech Lake Accord had to be approved by all of the provincial legislatures. As this did not occur within the 3-year time frame established, the accord died in June 1990.
In Quebec City, the Liberal government asserted that Quebec was “free and capable of assuming its destiny.” On 29 June 1990, one week after the expiration of the Meech Lake deadline, Robert Bourassa and Jacques Parizeau announced the creation of a commission. On 22 August 1990, Robert Bourassa named Michel Bélanger, a federalist and President of the National Bank of Canada, and Jean Campeau, a sovereigntist and former CEO of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, to head this commission. According to Robert Bourassa, the purpose of the commission was to redefine the political and constitutional status of Quebec and to light the way ahead in the best interest of Québécois. The commission was to involve all of the provincial political parties, as well as members of the federal Parliament representing a Quebec riding. Robert Bourassa gave the commission 6 months to perform the work and draft a report.
The work of the Commission was carried out in parallel with that of the Constitutional Reform Committee of the Quebec Liberal Party, chaired by Jean Allaire, who also prepared a report on this issue. (See also Allaire Report.)
The Work of the Commission
The Commission had 36 members: the 2 chairs, 10 Liberal MNAs (including the Premier), 7 PQ members (including the leader of the opposition, Jacques Parizeau), 4 unionists, 4 members of the business community, 3 Quebec federal MPs (one from each party represented in Quebec), 1 MNA from the Equality Party (a provincial anglophone party), 2 city councillors, and 3 individuals from the cooperative, education and cultural communities, respectively. The majority of its members were men, including representatives from the anglophone and Italian minorities. Eight of the members were women; however, there were no Indigenous members or representatives of visible minorities.
The working sessions began on 6 November 1990 and ended on 23 January 1991. Public hearings were held over 9 weeks in 11 administrative regions. Fifty-five experts were asked to identify Quebec’s “main constitutional issues,” the powers that should be repatriated from the federal state, those that should be shared, and the type of economic partnership that should be maintained with Canada. The Commission also heard from 235 individuals or groups and reviewed 607 briefs.
The Commission submitted its report on 26 March 1991.
In addition to discussing constitutional issues, the report examined various important social issues. It placed particular emphasis on the necessity to take into account the claims and rights of the Indigenous peoples. The authors also mentioned the necessity of maintaining “respectful, harmonious relationships” with Quebec’s anglophone community. With respect to the francophones outside Quebec, the report criticized the dominance of English in social settings, which restricted the development of the francophone communities. The Commission further stated that symmetric federalism prevented Quebec “from championing the francophone groups outside the province in all of their judicial proceedings.” The Commission thus recommended that Quebec contribute “in a different manner… to francophone dynamism in Canada.”
The Commission also discussed the ongoing economic inequalities in society and the significant differences between Montreal, where the vast majority of new arrivals live, and the other regions in Quebec. Finally, the Commission advocated for “the close economic interdependence” with the rest of Canada, as well as for the “free circulation of people, goods, services and capital,” regardless of Quebec’s future constitutional status.
The Commission recommended that the National Assembly quickly pass “a law establishing the process of determining Quebec’s political and constitutional future.” To this end, it recommended that a referendum on Quebec sovereignty be held in June or October 1992. In addition, it suggested the creation of a parliamentary commission designed “to assess any offer of a new constitutional partnership made by the federal government.”
If this referendum showed support for sovereignty, Quebec would then become “a sovereign State, one year to the day from the date of the referendum.” A special National Assembly parliamentary commission would be created to study the issues related to Quebec’s accession to sovereignty, including the creation of an economic partnership with Canada, the establishment of new democratic institutions, the adoption of laws, the creation of mechanisms related to taxation, and participation in international organizations.
However, should the referendum show support for a new partnership with the Canadian federation, the National Assembly would establish a special parliamentary commission. Its mandate would be to take into account the proposals for a “new constitutional partnership put forward by the Government of Canada.” This new commission would also be tasked with studying the matter and holding consultations, in order to make recommendations to the National Assembly.
The report was signed by 32 of the 36 commissioners, excluding the federalist members and the member from the Equality Party.
The Commission’s report led to the passing, in June 1991, of the Act respecting the process for determining the political and constitutional future of Quebec.
At the same time, the government of Brian Mulroney was working on concluding a new agreement, reiterating the essence of the Meech Lake Accord while recognizing the claims of the Indigenous peoples. Entered into during the summer of 1992, this agreement enabled Robert Bourassa to avoid holding the referendum recommended by the Bélanger-Campeau Commission. The Charlottetown Accord was put to the popular vote in Canada in October 1992. However, it did not receive the 50% support, in either Canada or Quebec, required for its passage.
The Parti Québécois was elected in September 1994, having promised a referendum on Quebec independence. The approach recommended by the Commission was essentially the approach adopted by the PQ government during the Quebec Referendum (1995).