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7,425 words riveted Canada

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ONE of the more curious aspects of the student protests in Quebec is the near absence of any discussion of Quebec nationalism, usually a staple of past protests in the province. Yet for this generation of coddled students, who believe they are entitled to low or even free university tuition, the Quiet Revolution of the early ’60s is ancient history.

This does not mean that the Quebec nationalism or the separatist movement is dead, only that it has been temporarily moved to the back of the line. A recent Leger Marketing poll, for example, revealed 44.5 per cent of the Quebecers asked still support Quebec leaving Canada if the Constitution could not be sufficiently altered to meet the province’s demands.

This figure is slightly lower than the 49.4 per cent who voted in favour of separatism in the 1995 Quebec referendum.

Part of these lingering dreams about a Quebec nation, as illogical as it might be, can be traced back 25 years to June 2, 1987, and a fateful allnight private meeting convened in Ottawa by then prime minister Brian Mulroney with the 10 provincial premiers.

The main subject of discussion was the famous (or infamous) Meech Lake Accord, for a while the most analyzed, probed and dissected 7,425-word government document in federal-provincial relations.

Constitutional and legal scholars have never again found themselves in such demand by the media as they did during the period from June 1987, when the accord was approved, to June 1990, when it died after it failed to obtain the required unanimous provincial ratification.

This included in Manitoba, where NDP MLA Elijah Harper, unhappy with the way First Nations peoples were left out of the accord, effectively used procedural rules to block debate and a vote on the accord in the legislature.

Thirty years ago, on April 17, 1982, Pierre Trudeau watched as Queen Elizabeth signed into law the Canada Act, complete with the amending formula and Charter of Rights and Freedoms he had hammered out with the premiers months earlier. All of the premiers supported the new made-in-Canada constitution except one: Quebec’s René Lévesque, the leader of the separatist Parti Québécois.

When Brian Mulroney became prime minister in 1984, he intended to right what he considered a great wrong. He would find a way for Quebec to rejoin "the Canadian family" and in the process leave a legacy that would surpass that of Pierre Trudeau.

He got his chance a year later after Liberal Robert Bourassa became premier of Quebec. By the spring of 1987, Bourassa had put forward five demands for Quebec to sign the Constitution. This included a vaguely worded clause that recognized Quebec as a "distinct society" and the transfer of various federal powers to the provinces. The demands became part of an accord agreed to in principle on April 30, 1987, by Mulroney and the premiers at the government conference centre located at Meech Lake in Gatineau, not far from Ottawa.

Almost as soon as that meeting ended, the trouble began and it never really stopped.

Questions were raised by, among others, Manitoba NDP Premier Howard Pawley about provisions in the accord that would provide federal funding to provinces but no controls on how that money was allocated.

Then, the retired Trudeau, the Voldemort of this saga from Mulroney’s perspective, wrote a harshly worded newspaper article in which he denounced the accord as a "total bungle" and a calamity for the country in the making.

Trudeau’s stinging diatribe — which, in fact, contained lots of tough criticism, but not much in the way of substantive argument — highlighted one of the accord’s great weaknesses.

Several of its clauses, as legal documents are apt to be, were open to interpretation. Inside Quebec, nationalists believed Bourassa had sold out the province, while in the rest of Canada academics and commentators suggested Quebec was getting too much.

A successful labour lawyer and mediator by training, Mulroney was not taking any chances. He called another meeting for June 2, 1987, which turned into a 19-hour marathon until he and the premiers were more or less satisfied with a tweaked Meech Lake Accord.

Formal minutes of the meeting deliberately were not kept so everyone would be free to say what they really felt. By all accounts, half the time was spent dealing with Mulroney’s seething anger about the Trudeau intervention. He was the proverbial "other man in the room," as PEI premier Joe Ghiz recalled — or, the "phantom of the Meech Lake opera," as Peter C. Newman dubbed him. Finally, New Brunswick premier Richard Hatfield had enough. "Will you forget about that bastard Trudeau?" he demanded. Though the distinct society clause, which was later to sink the accord, received some attention it was the spending-power issue that was the most contentious.

At one point after midnight, when the chance for unanimous approval seemed to be fading, Mulroney called the still skeptical Howard Pawley aside, as the former premier recounts in his memoirs, and warned him in that prime ministerial, ominous baritone that "if you don’t agree to this, you will be responsible for breaking up our country." That was a scare tactic Mulroney was to use on many other occasions during the next three years.

The country is still together, but at that moment it seemed to be hanging by a thread.

Neither Pawley, nor any of the other premiers, wanted to be responsible for Quebec separating, and by 5 a.m. a consensus had been agreed to with a few clarifications added to the original accord. Mulroney would not let any of the premiers leave the room until they each signed the document.

That should have been the end of this constitutional melodrama, yet much to Mulroney’s frustration, the accord was a disasterin- waiting. The federal government and provinces were given a three-year time limit to ratify it; three long years that saw several of the premiers, including Manitoba’s Pawley, defeated in provincial elections and replaced by anti-Meech successors. The accord, as legal scholar Patrick Monahan explains, exposed the dissatisfaction of Canadians with the idea that "11 men in suits" behind closed doors could change the constitutional structure of the country. Thereafter, openness and transparency became essential.

Mulroney, himself, compounded the final negotiations three years later with his penchant for hyperbole, but that is the subject of another 25th anniversary retrospective for June 23, 2015.


Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in an historical context. Levine’s latest book is William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny, which won this year’s Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction.

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