The beginning of the end of Brian Mulroney’s high-stakes effort to induce Quebec to sign the Canadian constitution began in the coffee shop of a downtown Winnipeg hotel.

This article was published 5/6/2015 (2424 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The beginning of the end of Brian Mulroney’s high-stakes effort to induce Quebec to sign the Canadian constitution began in the coffee shop of a downtown Winnipeg hotel.

June 19,1990: NDP MLA Elijah Harper sits in the Manitoba Legislature holding an eagle feather for spiritual strength as he continues to delay the house debate on the Meech Lake Accord.


June 19,1990: NDP MLA Elijah Harper sits in the Manitoba Legislature holding an eagle feather for spiritual strength as he continues to delay the house debate on the Meech Lake Accord.

Time was running out for the ratification of the Meech Lake Accord. Manitoba had yet to pass resolutions in the legislature to approve it and Newfoundland had just rescinded its approval.

Time was also running out for those who were opposed to it, which included Canada’s aboriginal people.

They found it repugnant Meech would entrench the notion of Canada as having been the creation of two founding nations — English and French — while disregarding aboriginal people. Meech also would have strengthened provincial powers, placing First Nations in a weaker position since their treaties were with the Crown.

With days left for a resolution to be passed in the Manitoba legislature — the deadline was June 23, 1990 — Phil Fontaine, then grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, arranged a pivotal breakfast meeting with MLA Elijah Harper at the Charterhouse Hotel.

Harper, representing the constituency of Rupertsland, was the first and only First Nations member of the Manitoba legislature.

The AMC and other aboriginal organizations had long lobbied against Meech in Ottawa and had researched whether they could take legal action to strike down the accord. But it soon became apparent political opposition was the only real card they had to play, since Meech required the approval of all provinces.

For the AMC, that meant getting Harper to take up the fight in the legislature, but the former Red Sucker Lake chief was nervous.

Phil Fontaine says Elijah Harper (right, in 1990) remains a powerful symbol of what's possible when you take a stand for what's right respectfully and humbly.


Phil Fontaine says Elijah Harper (right, in 1990) remains a powerful symbol of what's possible when you take a stand for what's right respectfully and humbly.

"Elijah was concerned about his own standing in the legislature," Fontaine recalled recently. "He was quite anxious about the nomination process for (Rupertsland). He had heard rumours that there were others interested in challenging him for the nomination (in advance of the next election)."

Fontaine had to reassure him that the chiefs would have his back — both at the legislature and when the time came for him to be confirmed as the NDP candidate provincially.

"I told Elijah, ‘Don’t worry about that. We’ll look after that. The first order of business is Meech Lake, and we need you to take a stand,’" he said.

There was considerable opposition to the accord in Winnipeg and across the country. Many objected to its distinct society clause that was deemed to confer special status to Quebec. A national poll found only 45 per cent of Canadians supported it, 39 per cent were opposed while 16 per cent said they were unsure.

On June 12, 1990, 25 years ago next week, Gary Filmon’s Progressive Conservative minority government attempted to introduce a resolution to give Manitoba’s seal of approval to Meech.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs was holding a meeting a few blocks away. The chiefs and their supporters walked en masse down Broadway to take in the action in the legislature. When they got to the front doors of the Legislative Building, their way was blocked by security. A confrontation ensued as the chiefs pushed their way in. Sports jackets got ripped in the melee. But according to reports at the time, about 50 aboriginal leaders and supporters managed to get into the visitors’ gallery in time to witness history. Hundreds more gathered outside the building.

Harper’s lawyer, Gord Mackintosh — now Manitoba’s justice minister, but back then an attorney in private practice who knew the rules of the legislature inside out as its former deputy clerk — had noted that the government was proceeding with the Meech resolution without having given the House proper notice. To waive the required notice would require the unanimous consent of MLAs.

Phil Fontaine outside the Manitoba Legislature in 2015.


Phil Fontaine outside the Manitoba Legislature in 2015.

That set the stage for Harper to make history and become an indigenous hero, not just in Manitoba and Canada, but internationally. When the House Speaker asked for consent to proceed, Harper, holding an eagle feather, responded with a simple "no."

Afterwards, Harper, the chiefs and their supporters made a triumphant exit down the Legislative Building’s grand staircase. Local journalists and national news cameras recorded the drama, as the eyes of the nation were trained on the Manitoba capital.

Harper would have to repeat his refusal to allow the Meech debate to proceed several more times. With each passing day, it became less likely the province would meet the June 23 deadline to approve the accord.

The Mulroney government was not about to give up on Meech without a fight, however. The prime minister dispatched his close friend and cabinet minister Senator Lowell Murray to Winnipeg to try to move the process along.

Jack London — the AMC’s lawyer at the time and the person the chiefs assigned to filter all communication with the prime minister’s office so that the feds could not play divide and conquer within their ranks — arranged for Fontaine and others to meet with Murray in the boardroom of his Pitblado law firm office.

First Nations leaders had been promised their rights and aspirations would be addressed after Meech was passed. But they couldn’t understand why their constitutional concerns couldn’t be addressed at the same time as Quebec’s. Murray pressed them to defer their demands to serve a greater purpose. The chiefs politely heard the senator out and rejected the pitch, the tone of which reeked with "the arrogance of colonialism," London recalled recently.

When Mulroney’s trusted colleague failed to get the process moving, the prime minister felt compelled to get personally involved. Mulroney picked up the phone to talk to Fontaine. London arranged for the call to come to his home, where he and Fontaine would be on separate lines.

Mulroney dangled several promises before the Manitoba First Nations leader, including a royal commission to explore aboriginal complaints and identify historic wrongs. Fontaine replied that royal commission reports tended to collect dust on shelves. He said the First Nations’ bottom line was that Meech needed to be rejigged to address aboriginal concerns.

The conversation ended with Mulroney saying he was disappointed with the response and needed to consider what he had been told. As he rang off, the PM added that he was about to meet with Nelson Mandela, who had flown to Canada in a bid to drum up support for the aspirations of the black majority in South Africa. The irony of the moment was not lost on either Fontaine or London.

Meech soon died through a combination of procedural delays in the Manitoba legislature and the unwillingness by then Newfoundland premier Clyde Wells, observing the events in Winnipeg, to introduce a motion of his own.

NDP MLA Elijah Harper (centre) refused to give his consent to allow the Manitoba Legislature to proceed with debate on the Meech Lake Accord.


NDP MLA Elijah Harper (centre) refused to give his consent to allow the Manitoba Legislature to proceed with debate on the Meech Lake Accord.

In defeating Meech, Elijah Harper, Phil Fontaine and other aboriginal leaders had flexed their newfound muscles in dealing with government.

"There was a sense of excitement... that I hadn’t sensed before, that I hadn’t witnessed before. It was quite a moment in time for us," Fontaine said.

"Elijah was and is a powerful symbol of what is possible if you take a stand on something that’s right and you do it respectfully and in the most humble way," he said of Harper, who would win re-election as MLA for Rupertsland later that year and go on to become Liberal member of Parliament for Churchill. He died in 2013.

Meanwhile, Fontaine emphasized that aboriginal leaders had no quarrel with Quebec in opposing Meech. In fact, they respected and supported its position.

"We recognized Quebec for its unique characteristics, language and culture. But we felt that if the country was prepared to recognized Quebec for all those good reasons, why wasn’t it possible to do the same for our people?"

-- Larry Kusch



Opposition to the Meech Lake Accord occurred outside the Manitoba legislature as well.

Senate issues still prevail

OTTAWA — Twenty-five years ago, the Meech Lake Accord was designed to bring Quebec back into the constitutional fold after that province rejected the 1981 Constitution of then prime minister Pierre Trudeau. It was also supposed to provide for the first time, powers to provinces to name members to the Canadian Senate.

25th anniversary at the Manitoba legislature

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On June 16, the province is hosting a celebration at the Manitoba Legislative Building to mark the day the late Elijah Harper said “No.”

The afternoon event will be held outside on the south lawn of the legislative grounds.

“We’ve going to have the main players from back in 1990 like Phil Fontaine and Ovide Mercredi,” Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson says. “We’re going to have a little celebration of our survival of indigenous peoples.

“We also want give people an opportunity to get to meet each other.”

The two-hour event will also feature light refreshments and traditional music and dancing.

“I also want to bring Elijah Harper’s three children to be acknowledged,” Robinson says. “It’s not every day we celebrate the anniversary of something so major. If you remember back to then this place was packed.”

In part, Meech Lake ushered in an era where the provinces had more input into the selection of senators, where the representation in the Senate was more even, where possibly even individual Canadians might get a say.

But Meech Lake failed and two and a half decades later, the Senate problems identified in its development remain top of mind when it comes to Canada’s government.

With unelected senators appointed for life, the upper chamber is seen as unaccountable to the Canadian people, a dumping ground for partisan-trained seals handed lavish expense accounts and six-figure salaries to vote as they are told.

These feelings have only grown in the last two years, as the Senate expense scandal has preoccupied the upper chamber and so far seen one Senator put on trial for fraud.

But even with animosity towards the Senate high, there are very few scholars, politicians or pundits who think another round of Constitutional reform on the Senate is in the cards any time soon.

"Anyone thinking that is going to happen is dreaming in technicolour," said Don Lenihan, a senior associate at Canada 2020, an independent political think tank in Ottawa.

Andrew Cohen, a journalist who covered the 1982 Constitution, Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord, thinks the conditions are possibly most right to have another Constitutional discussion about Senate reform, but there is just no political will to do so.

"It’s as if the reopening of the Constitution would be opening such a Pandora’s Box that we cannot even contemplate," said Cohen, who in 1990 wrote the book A Deal Undone: The Making and Breaking of the Meech Lake Accord.

The Meech Lake Accord didn’t lay out permanent fixes for the Senate, but it did put down the path to get there. Among its provisions were the requirement for senate reform to be on the agenda at the annual first ministers’ meetings the accord required. All provinces and the federal government would have to agree on future reforms to the Senate’s powers or the selection of senators.

And in the meantime, it would have given provinces an interim say in Senate appointments. If a vacancy opened up, the Prime Minister would choose a Senator from a list of names provided by each province.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said repeatedly nobody is clamouring for him to restart Constitutional talks.

But Cohen says it’s not as if people were rioting in the streets demanding Senate reform in 1987 either.

"There is a political cowardice that says if we have to open the constitution it’s impossible," he said.

Harper has spent the better part of his political career complaining about the unelected, unaccountable Senate. He tried to make some changes — term limits and advisory elections in each province — without reopening the Constitution. But in April 2014, the Supreme Court shut him down. It ruled abolishing the Senate would require unanimous consent of the federal government and all 10 provinces. Holding elections to choose senators, or imposing term limits would require what is commonly referred to as the 7/50 rule: the support of at least seven provinces representing a minimum of 50 per cent of the population.

With that ruling Harper threw in the towel.

"We know full well that there’s no consensus among the provinces, there’s no willingness to re-open the Canadian constitution," he said the day the court made its ruling.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has also slammed shut the door to constitutional talks.

"I believe that opening the Constitution to fix the Senate would disadvantage everybody," Trudeau said in June 2013. "We would have a fruitless round of negotiations that would end in acrimony, and distract from the very real challenges our country faces."

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has pledged to make abolishing the Senate a key part of his election campaign.


NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has pledged to make abolishing the Senate a key part of his election campaign.

The sole chance for constitutional talks of any kind may rest with NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who has pledged to make abolishing the Senate a key part of his election campaign this year. But while Mulcair has raised the subject with every premier he meets with, he has given no sense of how he thinks he might accomplish the goal. Would it be a referendum? Another Meech Lake-type accord that each provincial legislature votes on? Something entirely different?

Lenihan thinks revisiting constitutional reform in a manner like the Meech Lake Accord would end up with the same result.

The Atlantic provinces and Quebec will never agree to reduce their number of senators, for starters, says Lenihan. Which means abolishing the Senate is off the table in those provinces, as is any substantive talk of making it equal.

There are some who believe the Senate can be improved without touching the Constitution. Trudeau has proposed developing an advisory panel to vet possible Senators and produce a list of names for the Prime Minister to choose from. It would be a process much like judges are chosen now.

Lenihan thinks this may be the best option for moving on Senate reform without having to amend the Constitution. Many constitutional experts agree it can be done outside the Constitution.

Cohen said the fact the political will in the current government seems so lacking to do anything big is a shame. Everyone seems to agree the Senate needs fixing. There is a federalist government in Quebec and the sovereignty movement has lost most of its steam. The economy is doing OK. Polls show a large majority of Canadians want the Senate fixed.

"What is striking and a reflection of our time is the prime minister still says we are not going to touch it," says Cohen.

Maybe, he said, if Harper wins a majority government again later this year, he will start thinking more about his legacy, and things will change.

"They don’t build statues in parks of people for cutting your taxes," he said.

-- Mia Rabson


Within days of Meech's failure, the 78-day standoff between Mohawk Warriors and Canadian soldiers took hold in Oka, Que.

Meech failure kicked off 'Indian summer'

If Idle No More had a scrappy older brother, 1990’s ‘Indian Summer’ would be it.

Timeline: Canada’s Constitution

Click to Expand

November 5, 1981 — Ottawa and all provinces but Quebec agree to patriate the Constitution.

April 17, 1982 — Canada has its own Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

1987 — Prime Minister Brian Mulroney attempts to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold and, working with the provincial premiers at Meech Lake, negotiates five main modifications to the Canadian Constitution, including distinct society status for Quebec. The amendments required the consent of all the provinces and the federal government within three years.

June 12, 1990 — Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper, arguing that First Nations people had not been adequately consulted, blocked the vote to ratify the accord for the first time.

June 23, 1990 — The accord died after Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba refused to ratify.

1992 — Separatist sentiments rising, a second constitutional reform package is negotiated called the Charlottetown Accord. It contained many of the provisions found in the Meech Lake Accord, but required approval through national referendum.

October 26, 1992 — Canadians reject the Charlottetown Accord by slightly more than 54 per cent of the vote. In Manitoba, 61.6 per cent voted against the accord.

October 30, 1995 — Quebec narrowly rejects separation from Canada in a referendum spurred on by the failure to ensure Quebec’s place in the Constitution.

That historic summer started the moment Manitoba’s iconic MLA Elijah Harper clutched his eagle feather and helped kill the Meech Lake Accord in the province’s legislature.

By the time the leaves changed, Canada had been gripped by a 78-day stand off near Oka, Que., by the Mohawk community of Kanesatake and nationwide protests born of years of frustration. Scholars now contend that summer, especially the Oka crisis, was a "flashpoint event" in Canadian history.

"It demonstrated that we could take a stand together and we could make a difference. We made history," said former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine of Meech’s defeat. "This was about having a very clear vision, knowing our place in Canada and (being) able to articulate very forcefully and clearly and respectfully the acceptance we were looking for from the rest of the country."

If Meech proved First Nations wouldn’t be ignored, University of Manitoba political scientist Kiera Ladner said the Oka crisis a few weeks later demonstrated the true cost of ignoring indigenous peoples.

But, a generation later, indigenous people are not much closer to any real form of sovereignty.

Nearly all the issues at play during the summer of 1990 — outstanding land claims, control over resource development on traditional lands, genuine national consultation and everyday poverty and racism — still remain. Any moves toward indigenous self-government have been piecemeal and local — the Nisga’a Treaty in British Columbia and the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation agreement last year in Manitoba, a handful of incremental Supreme Court decisions that stop short of saying First Nations have an inherent right to self-government, local initiatives such as the east-side land-use planning process in Manitoba or even the stalled devolution of child welfare.

In fact, First Nations would argue that, for every step forward, there are steps back. Take for example the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. And, as during the Meech era, there’s significant dissent among indigenous groups. In particular, the Assembly of First Nations and its leadership are often at odds with the grassroots, including many in the Idle No More movement.

The kinds of conflicts that erupted in 1990 still erupt, with little framework to resolve them on a national scale. The idea that mega-constitional meetings might be used as a venue to establish a new relationship between Canada and its first peoples doesn’t appear to be on anyone’s radar.

Meech’s defeat gave rise to the 1992 Charlottetown Accord, another attempt to resolve long-standing disputes over the division of federal and provincial powers. That deal was defeated in a national referendum, but the process that led up to it was very different. This time, aboriginal leaders were at the table when the deal was hammered out. The failed accord also contained a clause approving in principle the concept of aboriginal self-government, and defining it, however imperfectly.

Had it passed, Charlottetown would have been a step forward for indigenous self-government, said Ladner.

Instead, said Fontaine and Ovide Mercredi, another Manitoba-born giant of the era, aboriginal people have yet to be officially recognized as of one of Canada’s founding partners. The status quo of Canada’s two founding nations prevails, and First Nations constitutional issues largely remain about jurisdiction. Are they a federal "problem" or a provincial one?

Meech was about the future, not just resistance to exclusion, Ovide Mercredi says.


Meech was about the future, not just resistance to exclusion, Ovide Mercredi says.

"Meech was about the future, not just resistance to exclusion on our part," said Mercredi, who helped negotiate the Charlottetown Accord as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. "And the country fell asleep and the leaders of exclusion took over and a vision of a better Canada with indigenous people helping to perfect it has been buried once again in ignorance and shame."

Instead of endless constitutional debate, many indigenous leaders have turned their focus to documents that typically predate Canada’s collection of constitutional legislation — the treaties. Leaders such as Manitoba’s Derek Nepinak hold those documents as the basis for a modern relationship, but it’s often unclear what the treaties mean in a modern context. Treaty conflicts over land claims, promises for education and health services and resource development take years to resolve. Witness Kapyong Barracks, Winnipeg’s most visible relic of what several southern Manitoba First Nations say is a treaty promise unfulfilled.

In the meantime, defining exactly what self-government might mean remains largely the domain of academics. Is it the creation of a parallel system by individual nations, each with their own education, health, welfare and justice systems, and their own governments that exist, somehow, alongside Canada? Or, are First Nations a kind of third order of government similar to a province or a municipality? Or, since aboriginal peoples will always be Canadian, is it possible to create a common political culture, where indigenous values are embedded and enhanced?

While that debate takes place, largely beyond the public eye, Ladner and Fontaine note that indigenous people are focusing on economic power, and revitalizing their communities from within.

In the years since Meech, aboriginal people have made great strides in the business world, said Fontaine, who now operates his own consulting firm and is a special advisor to the Royal Bank of Canada. There are 40,000 businesses owned and managed by aboriginal people in Canada, he said. More indigenous people are graduating from high school and universities than ever before. They’re being appointed as judges, university presidents and getting elected to office in greater numbers.

And, noted Ladner, the new generation of indigenous activists are looking at rebuilding from the inside, beyond the constraints of Indian Act rules or endless negotiations with government over funding or control. That includes creating their own economic development opportunities such as urban reserves.

"There’s a different political goal than just constitutional change because there a recognition that Canada will never give over the power," said Ladner. "Political activities are about rebuilding nations... There’s a ‘just do it’ approach."

— Mary Agnes Welch, with files from Larry Kusch



Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Eric Robinson and Minister of Justice Gord Mackintosh, while not MLAs at the time, were active behind the scenes during the Meech drama.

Reflecting on where we are now

A quarter-century ago, Eric Robinson was a gofer.

He was president of the Winnipeg Aboriginal Council in June 1990 and was involved behind the scenes in organizing indigenous opposition to the Meech Lake Accord in the Manitoba legislature.

"I was a working with the leaders at the time, but I was just kind of gofer in those days," Manitoba’s deputy premier says. "I was in a little bit of the dialogue that was going on."

Robinson, who’s also the minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs and responsible for Manitoba Hydro, said 25 years later, Canada’s aboriginal people still have a lot of work to do to build a relationship with the rest of Canada.

The 2005 Kelowna Accord somewhat improved the relationship of aboriginal people and the federal government, as did the Supreme Court of Canada’s affirmation that aboriginal people must be consulted on proposed development on traditional lands. The more recent work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on the legacy of residential schools also budged the barometer.

But Robinson says more needs to happen.

"It’s my hope that relations can be further built between First Nations and other aboriginal groups and non-aboriginal Canada to evolve to a place of mutual respect and equality," he says. "I know we talk a lot about that in a modern day sense, but it really hasn’t happened.

"The discussion is superficial for the most part."

Robinson says to change that, Ottawa has to host a first minister’s meeting on issues endemic to indigenous people after the October federal election.

"We have to have every province and every territory and the five major national (aboriginal) organizations to talk about these issues," he said. "We continue to deal with the inequity of First Nations and other aboriginal people in Canada with the remainder of Canadians."

Those issues include poverty, lack of proper housing and sanitation, health care, child welfare, the retention of aboriginal languages and culture, and murdered and missing aboriginal women.

Elijah Harper in 1990, saluting supporters.


Elijah Harper in 1990, saluting supporters.

"There is much more that the public is not aware of," Robinson says. "I think the premiers should be calling on the federal government to do more, and I think that all the federal parties that want to lead this country, ought to make a commitment to bringing everyone together and have a discussion on how we move forward on these issues without having money and costs dominate the discussion."

That roundtable also has to deal with how First Nations can share in development projects from hydro dams to mining to anything else.

"There has to be a first-minister’s meeting chaired by the prime minister of this country, whomever that is after the next federal election, in order for us to move forward. It’s almost a peace-making process in my view. We’ve got to have a process that doesn’t pay lip-service to aboriginal people on a lot of the issues we’ve been dealing with post-Meech Lake."

Justice Minister Gord Mackintosh, who was an assistant to Elijah Harper during the Meech Lake debate, said despite the high threshold for constitutional change outlined by the Supreme Court a year ago, it is time to seriously look at abolishing the problem-plagued Senate.

"The Senate isn’t just a dud — it’s a national disgrace," Mackintosh said. "It’s a $93-million-a-year loser that we’re reminded of daily."

The Manitoba government passed a resolution in 2013 urging the federal government to begin consultations with the provinces to abolish the Senate.

Mackintosh also said with the recent NDP win in Alberta and growing support for federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, the window for Senate reform might come sooner than later.

"I think never in the history of the country has the case for Senate abolition been so strong," he said referring to the spending scandals of suspended Senators Mike Duffy and Pam Wallin. "Whether that could result in a constitutional amendment remains to be seen, but it certainly could result in significant movement toward abolition in perhaps in other ways such as funding restrictions or freezing appointments."

-- Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.