The end of the Charlottetown accord still has an impact on Canadian politics
Thirty years ago, on Wednesday, Canadians had a rare chance to participate in democracy by voting in the country’s first and so far only constitutional referendum.
It was an attempt by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to succeed where Meech Lake had failed: to secure public approval for a package of amendments aimed at securing Quebec’s ratification of the Constitution and improving generally the health of national democracy.
Unlike previous constitutional negotiations, the Charlottetown Accord benefited from much more direct input from the public, particularly women and the Aboriginal population. Although constitutional changes generally only required the agreement of a majority of the provinces – which Mulroney already had – the Charlottetown Accord would be decided directly by voters.
The failure to pass the agreement is remarkable and deserves to be reconsidered with the help of three decades of hindsight.
The agreement had the support of all three major political parties in Canada, as well as all of the provincial premiers. Initially, there was support from women’s groups and indigenous organizations, as well as most of the media.
Among the amendments were recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, provisions for an « equal and elected » Senate, increased representation of Western Canada in Parliament, while guaranteeing a quarter of those seats to Quebec. Provisions for Aboriginal self-government and the removal of interprovincial trade barriers were also discussed.
Those opposed to the deal included the ultimate alliance of strange bedfellows that Canadian politics may never have seen, although this may just be a case where « the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau opposed the deal because it delegated too much power to the provinces and eliminated federal powers he considered sacrosanct. His unlikely allies included Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, Quebec separatists who felt their province did not have enough power, and Reform Party leader Preston Manning, who felt Quebec had too much.
It finally seemed like everyone found something in the Charlottetown accord they didn’t like. The referendum failed, Mulroney retired with some of the lowest approval ratings a prime minister had ever seen, and about a year after the failed referendum, Canadians swept to power the ardent federalist Jean Christian.
Two years later, he defeated Parizeau and Bouchard, holding the nation together by the slimmest of margins, even though his efforts to renew federalism would pave the way for the Reform takeover of conservatism in Canada. And while Pierre Trudeau responded to the first Quebec referendum by producing the Constitution and the Charter, Chrétien made no subsequent effort to reform the Constitution.
For more than a quarter of a century now, though the promise of reform has consistently played in the polls, politicians of all persuasions are committed only to repeating the linguistically suspect and patrician phrase with condescension « Canadians don’t want reopen the Constitution”.
It is so infuriating for Canadians to come up with a good idea for a solution, discover that the problem is much more complex than first imagined, and then misinterpret, seemingly forever, the dissatisfaction of citizens as proof that they should never have been consulted in the first place.
The fact that we are still arguing over many of the same issues, encountering many of the same problems, and offering similar solutions indicates that we have a lot of unfinished business to sort out.
The lesson from Charlottetown should have been that Canada needs more direct democracy and more public consultation too. Instead, Canadians got far less because they had the audacity to voice their displeasure and to torpedo the secret machinations of the political class.
Writing for Maclean’s a week before the vote was to be held, Peter C. Newman lamented that what Charlottetown had revealed was that Canadians were united in their distrust of institutions — the major political parties among them — and therefore , that they would insist that every decision be made by plebiscite.
He continues to be right about the first part of that sentiment, though I suspect it’s a consequence of people being denied the second.