Gary Levy is Editor of the
Canadian Parliamentary Review
In the October 26, 1992 referendum
a majority of Canadians in both Quebec and the rest of the country voted
against a package of constitutional proposals worked out by the First Ministers
and representatives of four aboriginal associations. Given Canadian history we
can count on future constitutional discussions at some time in the future but
the October 26 vote marks an end to a decade old debate.
The Government and National
Assembly of Quebec have steadfastly objected to the Canada Act 1982 which
includes a Charter of Rights and a new procedure for amending the constitution.
Quebec argued that it would only accept these changes in return for certain
other guarantees. Both Brian Mulroney in 1984 and Robert Bourassa in 1985 were
elected, in part, to find a compromise acceptable to Quebec.
In 1987 after several meetings of
officials a number of amendments were agreed to by the First Ministers. Under
the 1982 amending formula amendments must be ratified by the legislatures and
before long the Meech Lake Accord was under attack both for the absence of
consultation that preceded it and the refusal of governments to consider
changes to the substance. While many legislatures proceeded with ratification,
elections were held in several provinces. In three cases the government was
defeated and the new Premiers pressed for changes to the Accord.
In April 1990 a Special Committee
chaired by Jean Charest was established to consider a compromise proposed by
the Premier of New Brunswick. Shortly after its report was presented the First
Ministers met to consider ways to resolve the impasse. A conditional agreement
was signed and New Brunswick proceeded to ratify the Accord. In Manitoba the
minority Conservative Government was unable to get unanimous agreement to
proceed with ratification before the June 23, 1990 deadline. Debate in the
Newfoundland House of Assembly was also adjourned without a vote.
Following the demise of the Meech
Lake Accord Premier Bourassa announced he would not participate in any further
multilateral constitutional negotiations. He established a committee on the
political and constitutional future of Quebec which recommended that a referendum
be held no later than the fall of 1992 on either independence or on any new
offers brought forth by the other First Ministers. It also proposed a creation
of two committees, one to examine possible offers and the other to look into
the consequences of sovereignty for Quebec.
The federal government responded to
the defeat of the Meech Lake Accord with a discussion paper on constitutional
reform, a Special Joint Committee on Constitutional Amendments (Beaudoin-Edwards),
a Citizens Forum on the Constitution (chaired by Keith Spicer) and appointment
of a new Minister, Joe Clark, with special responsibility for constitutional
In September 1991 the federal
government tabled proposals for constitutional reform which were referred to
another special committee, this one chaired by Dorothy Dobbie and Claude
Castonguay (later replaced by Gérard Beaudoin). The Committee reported on
February 28, 1992 after hearing numerous witnesses and taking into account the
proceedings of five special constitutional conferences organized in January and
Constitutional committees were also
established in every province and in some cases there were also provincial
constitutional conferences. From March to July 1992 a series of meetings by
federal and provincial ministers as well as aboriginal representatives resulted
in an agreement on a new constitutional package on July 7, 1992. The government
of Quebec, which had still not participated in the multilateral negotiations,
rejected this agreement but accepted it as the basis for returning to the
discussions. As a result in August a new Accord was negotiated by all leaders
who also agreed to put the proposals to a referendum.
No one can foresee the future but
if there is a constitutional debate in the next decade it will likely be very
different in nature. Instead of debating endlessly what happened in 1982 or who
is to blame or what kind of reparations must be made, perhaps we will recognize
that we cannot change history. If the question is whether French and English
want to continue living together in the present constitutional structure then
that should be the debate. If the issue is whether particular institutions and
processes can be made to work better then specific amendments should be put
forth by those who believe they have a better solution. Unless and until
Canadians learn some lessons from the last decade we appear destined to chase
our constitutional tails.
The intricacies of Canada's
constitutional debate have been the subject of articles and interviews in the Review
by legislators and former legislators such as Robert Bourassa, Clyde Wells,
Jacques Parizeau, Jean Charest, James Horsman, Senator Arthur Tremblay, John
Fraser, Ronald Duhamel, Richard Nerysoo, Glen Clark, Arthur Donahoe, Claude
Dauphin, Guy Bélanger, Keith Goulet, and Allan Blakeney, as well as by some non
elected experts including John Holtby, F.L. Morton, Errol Mendes, Alan Cairns,
Christopher Dunn, Henry Srebrnik, and others.
To turn the page on this decade of
constitutional turmoil we present an assessment of the October 26 referendum by
three academic observers of constitutional politics, Pierre Coulombe, Roger
Gibbins and David Thomas.