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Hardening of Separatism: Meech, Charlottetown and the 1995 Referendum

In 1984 the Progressive Conservative party won the federal election and its leader, Brian Mulroney became Prime Minister. Part of Mulroney's pre-election strategy was to promise Quebec a deal that would bring that province into the constitution. Quebec had refused to sign the agreement patriating the constitution in 1982 and felt that its leader, René Lévesque, had been betrayed in the negotiations. A number of Quebec nationalists, including Lucien Bouchard, supported Mulroney's election bid on the basis of this promise and the Conservative's sweep in Quebec helped win them the election.

Meech Lake

Mulroney's first proposal for Quebec was the Meech Lake Accord. This began as a series of meetings between Mulroney and the provincial premiers starting in 1986. Quebec put forth its five conditions and other premiers used the opportunity to suggest increased powers for their jurisdictions as well. After some heated marathon meetings in 1987 an agreement was reached which would, among other things, give Quebec "distinct society" status within the constitution and reform the Senate to make it more representative of regional interests.

The principles agreed upon in the Meech Lake Accord had to be officially signed by all 10 provinces and the federal government before they could be added to the constitution as an amendment. There was a three-year time limit for this process. During that time, as circumstances changed and opposing voices grew louder, the original optimism that peace with Quebec had finally been achieved faded away.

New premiers in Manitoba and New Brunswick refused to sign the accord. Clyde Wells in Newfoundland, a reluctant signee to begin with, withdrew his approval and put it to the Newfoundland legislature to decide if it would support Meech. Some women's groups objected because they worried that "distinct society" status could override their protection under the Charter of Rights. Others objected that the Meech Accord was too decentralizing and would "Balkanize" the country (that old debate over federal versus provincial powers). Some Canadians objected just on the basis that the fate of the country shouldn't be determined by eleven white males sitting around a boardroom table.

The final blow came in June 1990 just as the time limit for ratification of the accord drew near. Elijah Harper, a Cree Indian in the Manitoba legislature, used parliamentary procedure to delay the Manitoba vote until the deadline had passed. Harper represented broad native opposition to the Meech Lake Accord. Native people felt they had been left out of the debate entirely and that the accord ignored their rights and all the issues that concerned them like land claims and native self-government.

When the Meech Lake Accord died, Bouchard and the Quebec nationalists abandoned Mulroney and set up a new party, the Bloc Québécois. Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa assigned Michel Bélanger and Jean Campeau to head a commission on Quebec's future strategy. They presented the rest of Canada with a deadline - October 1992 - to make Quebec another offer or face a referendum on separation.

The Charlottetown Agreement

Mulroney's next attempt was the Charlottetown Agreement. He tried to overcome charges that these things were being determined by a small governing elite by sending people around the country to consult public opinion. The resulting document would then be presented for a nation-wide vote or plebiscite. There would be no more agreements behind closed doors.

While the amendments proposed in the final Charlottetown document had the crucial support of groups that had opposed Meech, like the Assembly of First Nations, it failed to win the approval of the Canadian people who were by now quite cynical about the whole process.

A deciding factor could have been the widespread unpopularity of the Mulroney government. By 1992, the Free Trade Agreement, the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the still uncontrolled debt and deficit problem, suspicions of corruption and dishonesty all contributed to the public's growing dislike of the government. When the next election came, the Progressive Conservative party, one of the two oldest traditional parties in Canadian politics, was reduced to two members.

With both the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Agreement shot down, those Quebeckers with a separatist agenda gained momentum. The Parti Québécois won the next provincial election promising a referendum on Quebec's future within Canada. On October 30, 1995, Canada came closer than it ever had to splitting up. While the federal government, now under Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien, assumed the separatists would lose the referendum in Quebec, they didn't foresee the switch in leadership halfway through the campaign which almost tipped the vote in favour of separation. The perhaps-too-honest Jacques Parizeau was replaced by the charismatic Lucien Bouchard as leader of the "Yes" campaign and its flagging prospects began to turn around. By October 30th, the "Yes" and "No" sides were almost neck and neck. The outcome was a narrow majority win for federalism.

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