On a Sunday evening, June 3, 1990, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the ten provincial premiers marked the third anniversary of the Meech Lake Accord at a dinner in the architectural splendour of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec.
But no one was celebrating over the shrimp and beef and fiddleheads. Three of the leaders, New Brunswick's Frank McKenna, Manitoba's Gary Filmon and Clyde Wells of Newfoundland, had been elected after the accord was struck, and all had expressed serious reservations about what was in the document. As a deadline for decision rapidly approached, the deal was unraveling.
Twenty days later, Meech Lake was dead. Canada embarked on a half-decade of mistrust and disillusionment which brought the country to the edge of destruction.
|As the member for Rupert's Land, Elijah Harper stalled the Manitoba legislature past the deadline for approval of the Meech Lake Accord (courtesy Reuter).|
The Quebec government had stood aside when the new constitution was signed in 1982. Meech's supporters said they wanted to set that right, to bring Quebec back into the Canadian family. Under the accord, the constitution would be modified to designate Quebec a "distinct society," and to give it and all of the provinces both a veto over major constitutional reform and new powers, for example in immigration and the appointment of Senators and Supreme Court justices.
The Quebec National Assembly ratified Meech Lake on June 23, 1987. For it to take effect, the country's other ten parliaments had three years from that date to sign onto the arrangement. For a while, Meech seemed an inevitability, a straightforward triumph of federal-provincial co-operation.
But only for a while. Resistance built and support plummeted as a deal done in the dark came into the light. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau took on the role of opposition leader, pouring scorn on Mulroney and Meech. A pusillanimous prime minister, he claimed, was giving the country away to the provinces. By the beginning of June 1990, almost half the Canadian people were with Trudeau, opposed to the agreement.
Mulroney worked furiously to retrieve the momentum during a six-day negotiating marathon that followed the June 3rd dinner. McKenna came ostentatiously on board and the other two dissident premiers each agreed to hold a vote in their legislatures. They did so, however, without enthusiasm.
The votes in Winnipeg and St. John's never took place. As a protest against Meech's lack of attention to aboriginal issues, Elijah Harper, a Cree member of the Manitoba legislative assembly, said a soft but emphatic "no" to Gary Filmon's request for unanimous consent to put Meech onto the floor for debate. Clyde Wells, always an outspoken opponent of the accord, meanwhile found Harper's stand highly convenient. If there was not to be a decision in Manitoba, he could argue, a vote in Newfoundland would simply be a useless academic exercise.
Frantic federal-provincial negotiations continued right up to the June 23rd deadline. They were not helped by Mulroney's admission, in a rash interview to the Globe and Mail, that he had deliberately left his final attempt to forge a consensus to the last minute in order to manufacture a crisis atmosphere. In his colourful language, the prime minister boasted that he had picked early June and decided that was the time when "I'm going to roll all the dice." A howl went up across the country at Mulroney's cynical manipulations. He had given his opponents the moral high ground, complained one premier who favoured Meech.
It became a national parlour game. Who had killed Meech Lake? Mulroney, with his infamous dice? The stubborn Clyde Wells? A determined Elijah Harper? Journalist Andrew Cohen's compelling account of Meech Lake, A Deal Undone, concludes that the politicians may have held the dagger, but that the whole country was an accomplice. "As much as English Canada misunderstood Quebec, and it did, Quebec misunderstood English Canada. It was predictable that Meech Lake would come to represent the flashpoint in a clash of wills."
Minorities forget less easily than majorities. A Quebec City commentator recalled that in his province "the collapse of Meech was as close to an apocalyptic event as can be imagined in peacetime. The massive river of blue and white that flowed through Montreal for the fête nationale parade that weekend was proof Quebeckers wanted the death of Meech avenged."
A direct line runs from June 23, 1990 to the 1995 Quebec referendum, the day when Canadians almost lost their country.