Friday, June 25, 2010

Meech Anniversary

The other day was the twentieth anniversary of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in June 1990. This was supposed to be Brian Mulroney's signature contribution to the Constitution of Canada, allowing him, to some extent, to out-Trudeau Trudeau. He would have a deal that Quebec would officially agree to-they would come in from the cold, etc.--at minimal cost to the rest of the country, and separatism would be dead.

The longer the proposal was debated, the more unpopular it became. In the end all that was required was the votes of two small legislatures, Manitoba and Newfoundland/Labrador. In Manitoba one elected member prevented an affirmative vote; in Newfoundland it was tougher, with the Premier himself opposed. If Mulroney had imposed a shorter timeline for provincial agreement--say two years instead of three--he might have succeeded. But even beyond these small provinces, Meech was dead. Trudeau emerged from retirement to object to any increase of powers for the provinces in general, and any recognition of Quebec as a "distinct society."

There were many complaints that the public had not been consulted enough. Mulroney, one could say heroically, put another deal together, the "Charlottetown Accord," a bit more reminiscent of the original constitutional negotiations that culminated in the British North America Act. There were many more provisions, making this more of an unpredictable crap shoot for the constitution. There was a lot of consultation, and finally a referendum. Mulroney lost. He had demonstrated an uncanny ability to get agreement at the elite level--he eventually had virtually all the "names" with him, even the union leaders--while making himself and his government almost unbelievably unpopular.

Columnists used the occasion to restore some of the earlier debate. Andrew Cohen in the Globe: Mulroney was wrong, and the people were right: the failure of Meech did not destroy the country. On the other hand (Chantal H├ębert, the Star), the Meech issue did a lot to create the Bloc Quebecois so that separatists are now at home in the House of Commons. Meech along with the deficit helped make the Reform Party the Official Opposition, put "the Albertans" or people in some ways on the right more in charge of "conservatives" in Canada, and make Stephen Harper Prime Minister. Mulroney's kind of people are less in charge than they were. Would it have been better if Mulroney had not even started this whole debate?

Once Chretien became Prime Minister, he quietly got the provinces to agree to a lot of the substance of Meech by way of the "social union"--which has received very little publicity. Chretien sleep-walked into yet another Quebec referendum, and when the federalists nearly lost, he threw money at Quebec. Enter (eventually) Stephen Harper.

I think Preston Manning deserves the credit for "Plan B"--insisting that the Parliament of Canada has a role in determining the meaning and aftermath of a Quebec referendum.

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