The Meech Lake Accord and the destruction of a political party

Brian Mulroney's insistence on crafting constitutional change went from master stroke to the death of the Progressive Conservative Party

Pat Murphy on the Meech Lake AccordTORONTO, Ont., May 12, 2017 /Troy Media/ – Politics can be a funny business. One minute you’re riding high believing you’ve hit a home run, then it turns out you’ve actually struck out.

That happened in Canada 30 years ago. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Meech Lake Accord was initially heralded as a master stroke, only to subsequently prove instrumental in the disintegration of his federal Progressive Conservative Party.

Canadians were caught by surprise when Mulroney and the provincial premiers emerged from their April 30, 1987, negotiating session with a draft agreement for constitutional change. But it seemed like a good surprise. After bitter recriminations over Quebec’s supposed exclusion from the 1982 constitutional settlement, the province’s government was getting back on board.

There were favourable opinion polls and positive editorials. Even the federal opposition parties – the Liberals and the New Democrats – endorsed the accord. It was an apparent home run.

Except it wasn’t.

By the end of May, Pierre Trudeau – the former Liberal prime minister – had entered the fray.

Although Trudeau was deeply unpopular when he left office, respect for him lingered with many people.

Trudeau always had a penchant for withering rhetoric, so he pulled no punches. As he lit into Mulroney – calling him a “weakling” and accusing him of having “sold out” – you got the sense he was having fun.

Opinions differ on the source of Trudeau’s passion.

Ostensibly it was because the accord’s recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society” and the provision of greater powers to the provinces undermined Trudeau’s “One Canada” vision and weakened the central government. And there was the claim that it provided the separatists with a victory they’d been unable to win in the 1980 referendum.

Others take a less charitable view. In their reckoning, Trudeau’s ego couldn’t abide the idea that Mulroney might succeed where he failed. Mulroney would bring the Quebec government on side where he hadn’t.

Trudeau dug in, pursuing his case in venues like CBC’s The Journal and in a bravura six-hour appearance before the Senate.

And others joined the fight, complaining about the lack of aboriginal involvement and the way the accord was negotiated behind closed doors by “11 men in suits.”

The dynamic was already shifting by the time the accord was officially signed on June 3, 1987. Although it had been less than five weeks since the initial unveiling, it was now a race against the clock.

Could the accord be ratified by Parliament and all 10 provincial legislatures within the three-year period allotted by the Constitution Act? Or would the gathering opposition slow it down sufficiently and perhaps even outright derail it?

Other things happened as well.

When the Supreme Court invalidated Quebec’s restrictive language laws in December 1988, Premier Robert Bourassa responded by invoking the notwithstanding clause and then doubled down with a more restrictive Bill 178. English-speaking Canada wasn’t amused.

And provincial elections in New Brunswick, Manitoba and Newfoundland replaced three of the premiers who signed the accord, thus diluting its political support.

Eventually, the accord collapsed, unable to get the necessary ratifications in time.

Unwilling to accept defeat, Mulroney tried again with the ill-fated 1992 Charlottetown Accord.

Mulroney’s electoral coalition was always fragile and Meech exposed it on two sides. Quebec was a case in point.

Initially, though, Quebec support ticked up to just shy of 53 per cent in the 1988 election, giving Mulroney 63 of the province’s 75 seats.

Then came Lucien Bouchard’s rebellion. Unhappy with what he saw as a watering down of the accord in an attempt to win ratification, Bouchard – Mulroney’s environment minister and Quebec lieutenant – walked out in May 1990. That gave rise to the formation of the Bloc Quebecois and the consequent decimation of the Progressive Conservative Quebec vote.

Meanwhile, the Reform Party rose to the right. Formed largely from hitherto Blue Tories who, among other things, resented what they saw as the federal party’s obsession with appeasing Quebec, Reform swept Western Canada and cut deeply into traditional Tory support in Ontario.

Some problems are best left alone. And setting your mind on resolving them suggests more hubris than prudence.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit. 


The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.
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One Response to "The Meech Lake Accord and the destruction of a political party"

  1. Michael OShea   May 12, 2017 at 3:29 pm

    According to Mr. Murphy, those who questioned Trudeau’s motives in opposing the Meech Lake Accord believed “Trudeau’s ego couldn’t abide the idea that Mulroney might succeed where he failed.”

    There is a definite ring of truth to this. The Distinct Society clause of the Meech Lake Accord paled in comparison to the outright veto on constitutional change that Mr. Trudeau had offered to Premier Bourassa at the Victoria Conference in 1971.

    To listen to Trudeau, the Distinct Society clause would be the death knell for Canada and could never under any circumstances be accepted. But did he really believe that? In Jean Chretien’s Memoirs he relates the following conversation with Trudeau the day he delivered his infamous speech in Verdun, a few days before the 1995 Quebec Referendum.

    Chretien had decided to offer Quebeckers a veto on future constitutional change and the Government of Canada was going to declare that Quebec a Distinct Society. Before leaving for Montreal, he telephoned Trudeau. Chretien recalls that he found Trudeau nervous about the future of Canada. He then told Trudeau “I may have to say something you won’t like about distinct society and the veto.” Trudeau told Chretien: “You’re in charge. Do what you think you have to do.”

    Mr. Murphy concludes: “Some problems are best left alone. And setting your mind on resolving them suggests more hubris than prudence.” My conclusion is somewhat different. Some solutions are best left alone. And setting your mind on undoing them suggests more hubris than prudence.