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Canada's two greatest missed opportunities

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QUEBEC CITY -- Quebec's independence movement in many ways owes its current resurgence to the fallout from the constitutional talks of the 1980s and 1990s.

The failures of these proposals contributed to the feeling there was a fundamental impasse between Quebec and other provinces in Canada and gave impetus to independence.

Yet, at the same time, Canada lost out, not only in terms of national unity but also by failing to achieve meaningful changes proposed for such projects as the Charlottetown Accord.

In order to understand the Charlottetown Accord, one has to understand the Meech Lake Accord. But in order to understand Meech, one has to go back even further, to the circumstances surrounding Canada's 1982 Constitution.

The circumstances by which Canada asserted its right to modify its Constitution without the approval of the Westminster Parliament in London were both politically and personally charged. Pierre Trudeau, prime minister at the time, viewed this project as the logical next step in Canada's growing political maturity.

However, there were heated disagreements between the federal and provincial governments as to the scope of the new agreement. Ultimately, Trudeau was able to strike a deal that every province except Quebec could accept. René Lévesque, at the time Quebec's premier, was furious at what he viewed as a betrayal by the other provinces.

At the same time, the other provinces were suspicious of Levesque's good faith in negotiating, given his sovereignist government had more incentive to frustrate the political process than to prove Canadian federalism could work.

After Trudeau left office, Brian Mulroney was swept into power with an agenda that ambitiously promised to finally obtain Quebec's consent to Canada's Constitution. This campaign plank helped him to capture a majority of seats in Quebec, contributing to one of the largest-ever majorities in the House of Commons.

Mulroney, an experienced, shrewd negotiator, assembled all the premiers at an exclusive resort at Meech Lake outside Ottawa and hashed out the deal that bears its name. The agreement gave major concessions to Quebec, notably: increased power over immigration, greater provincial input in naming senators and Supreme Court judges and the infamous "distinct society" clause.

What he did not account for, however, was that a provision in Trudeau's 1982 Constitution allowed a three-year "reserve" period, during which a province could take back its consent. In the years that followed, new provincial governments were elected, particularly in Newfoundland and Manitoba, that were skeptical of the terms for Meech.

Ultimately Meech failed, symbolized by Elijah Harper's waving of a feather in the Manitoba legislative assembly, using procedural tactics to frustrate the process, which he felt did not recognize aboriginal rights. At the same time, Canadian voters at large were suspicious of the circumstances of the deal, which had been wrought in backroom negotiations without input from citizens. In June 1990, Meech died.

Not one to give up a fight easily, Mulroney returned to the drawing board and regrouped his forces. Because several provinces had passed laws requiring future Constitutional amendments to be put to referendum, this time he pitched the proposal directly to Canadians. After extensive public consultation and special consideration for Canada's aboriginal communities, Mulroney reached another agreement, which was named for the city that was the birthplace of Confederation: the Charlottetown Accord.

In many ways, Charlottetown was the project that should have been undertaken in the first place. It included vast structural changes, including a reformed Senate premised on equality for the provinces, with a certain number of seats set aside for aboriginal representation.

Perhaps most importantly, it included the bold "Canada Clause," an interpretive guide to the Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms attempted to define Canadian values, including protection for the environment, aboriginal self-government, access to a public health system and education, the goal of full employment, gender and racial equality and other worthy objectives.

Unfortunately, when it came time to vote, Canadian voters were disillusioned with Mulroney, talk of the Constitution and politics in general. On Oct. 26, 1992, it was rejected by voters.

The consequences of the failures of Meech and Charlottetown were profound for Canada; in many ways, we are still living in the political half-life of their implosion.

The sad result has been a constitutional logjam, as politicians have subsequently avoided constitutional talk at all costs for fear of reopening Pandora's box after finally getting it closed.

Yet when removed from the heated context of its time, there is little doubt that many of the components of the Charlottetown Accord would have had beneficial effects for the Canadian federation.

Say what you will about the effects of Charlottetown's failure, but in an era of political stagnancy and rampant lethargy and apathy, one cannot help but feel a sense of nostalgia for the time when Canadian leaders dared to dream big.

Nelson Peters is originally from Manitoba. He has spent much of the last five years in Quebec, where he completed a degree in civil law at Laval University.

--Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 22, 2012 A11

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