Defeat of the Charlottetown Accord Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Canada’s constitutional crisis deepened when the electorate rejected an intensely negotiated package of reforms.

Summary of Event

The 1990 failure of the Meech Lake Accord Meech Lake Accord plunged Canada into a serious constitutional crisis. Political parties saw a great deal of turmoil. A Quebec-based reform party, the Bloc Québécois, Bloc Québécois was formed by defectors from the Progressive Conservative and Liberal parties. The leaders of western Canada forged links to face off against both Quebec and the federal government in Ottawa. Charlottetown Accord Canada;constitution Quebec sovereignist movement [kw]Defeat of the Charlottetown Accord (Oct. 26, 1992) [kw]Charlottetown Accord, Defeat of the (Oct. 26, 1992) [kw]Accord, Defeat of the Charlottetown (Oct. 26, 1992) Charlottetown Accord Canada;constitution Quebec sovereignist movement [g]North America;Oct. 26, 1992: Defeat of the Charlottetown Accord[08430] [g]Canada;Oct. 26, 1992: Defeat of the Charlottetown Accord[08430] [c]Government and politics;Oct. 26, 1992: Defeat of the Charlottetown Accord[08430] Mulroney, Brian Bourassa, Robert Trudeau, Pierre [p]Trudeau, Pierre;Charlottetown Accord Clark, Joe Parizeau, Jacques

On November 1, 1990, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney created a national commission to study the future of Canada. This move was criticized by Native Canadians, who were in the midst of a dispute with the government, and by Quebecers, who had established their own panel to examine the future. The leaders of French-speaking Quebec remained cool to federal efforts to proceed on constitutional and trade issues. Quebec premier Robert Bourassa introduced a Liberal Party plan for radical decentralization of the country. Meanwhile, Mulroney pleaded for unity. On September 24, 1991, Mulroney unveiled a series of constitutional reforms under the collective name of Shaping Canada’s Future Together. Shaping Canada’s FutureTogether These proposals came under immediate criticism, not only by the usual Quebecers and Native critics but also by those from the Canadian West who felt the reforms weakened their provinces’ economies.

Attitudes hardened throughout 1992, with Alberta premier Donald Getty Getty, Donald opposing policies of bilingualism while he and Newfoundland’s Clyde K. Wells Wells, Clyde K. pressed for a strong Senate based on provincial equality. Five conferences on constitutional reform attempted to hammer out the differences among provinces. Numerous plans were debated in a nationwide discussion on Canada’s future, and criticism arose throughout the country from Quebecers, Native Canadians, residents of the western provinces, and feminists who feared an undermining of the Canadian Bill of Rights. Hopes rose and fell as detailed debates revolved around such highly theoretical concepts as “asymmetrical federalism,” senatorial equality, and the exact nature of Quebec’s distinct society.

On August 27, 1992, Mulroney, the provincial premiers, territorial leaders, and representatives from four Native Canadian associations finally agreed unanimously on a constitutional reform package known as the Charlottetown Accord, named for the capital of Prince Edward Island, where it was signed. The accord’s provisions included the Canada Clause, a statement of principles on which the country was founded, which was to serve as a guide for the courts to interpret the constitution. It decreed that Quebec constituted “within Canada a distinct society,” with a French-speaking majority, a unique culture, and a civil-law tradition (in contrast to the common-law tradition prevailing elsewhere in Canada). The federal and provincial governments would be committed to the development of minority-language communities. The nation would be committed to respecting individual and collective human rights and freedoms. In the words of the document, “Canadians confirm the principle of the equality of the provinces at the same time as recognizing their diverse characteristics.”

An elected Senate with expanded powers was to be created to replace the appointed body that had been convened since 1982. Each province would be equally represented with six senators, and the territories would each have one senator. Additional seats were to be apportioned to indigenous peoples. The House of Commons, Canada’s lower house, would be expanded to reflect population distribution more closely. Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, and Alberta would gain seats. In recognition of its distinctiveness, Quebec would be guaranteed at least 25 percent of the seats.

The nine Supreme Court Supreme Court, Canada justices would be named by the federal government from lists submitted by the provinces, as opposed to the practice of being appointed at the sole discretion of the federal government. Three would always be from Quebec.

The accord provided constitutional recognition that indigenous peoples had “the inherent right of self-government within Canada.” Native Canadians Although there was no agreement on what that concept meant, it did not include the notion of separate sovereignty for indigenous peoples, who were to negotiate the details of the concept with federal and provincial governments. If the Native Canadians’ rights had not been defined after five years, the courts could issue a final determination.

The federal government would retain control of national entities, such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and unemployment insurance. Provincial governments would have exclusive jurisdiction over culture and job retraining programs. The federal government would withdraw completely, whenever provincial authorities requested, from forestry, mining, tourism, recreation, housing, and municipal and urban affairs. Provinces could negotiate administrative agreements with the federal government for increased control over immigration and regional development.

The accord’s opponents were numerous. Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau denounced what he saw as Quebec’s unduly large role. Even more scathing in their criticisms, western Canadians tended to oppose the accord because they did not favor concessions to Quebec, whereas Quebecers opposed the accord because they thought it did not deliver them enough concessions. Native Canadians, women’s groups, and others also had their doubts.

On October 26, 1992, Canadian voters overwhelmingly defeated the accord. Ending an often divisive national campaign, a majority of voters in the provinces of Quebec, Nova Scotia, Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Yukon Territory voted no to the question, “Do you agree that the Constitution of Canada should be renewed on the basis of the agreement reached on August 28, 1992?” The yes side won in Ontario, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, and the Northwest Territories. Nationwide, the no side outpolled the yes side 54.4 percent to 44.6 percent, with a 74.9 percent turnout of eligible voters. The referendum was technically a nonbinding guide for the ten provincial assemblies, all of which needed to grant approval for formal ratification of the accord. A no vote in any one province had been widely viewed as all that would be necessary to kill the accord.

Significance

Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark offered a bleak assessment of what the no vote meant: “We thought after two decades of failure, the failure of six rounds of constitutional discussions, we had found in the Charlottetown Accord a way to resolve these deep and dividing problems in Canada, or begin their resolution. . . . It’s clear tonight that that solution has not been accepted. What’s not clear tonight is what solution might be available to us.” A few hours after the rejection of the accord had become evident, Prime Minister Mulroney declared, “The Charlottetown agreement is history.” Canadians and their governments should now set aside the constitutional issue, he said, and concentrate on fostering “strong and durable economic renewal.”

On October 26, Jacques Parizeau, leader of the sovereignist Parti Québécois, told supporters in Montreal that Quebec’s rejection of the accord “said what we didn’t want—the next time we will say what we want. Québécois are a people, they are a nation, and very soon they will be a country.” Parizeau had made clear during the referendum campaign that if the Parti Québécois won the next provincial election in Quebec, he would call for a referendum on independence. He argued that the nationwide no vote on the accord had effectively been a plea to abandon efforts to revise the constitution. He insisted that the only options remaining for Quebec were sovereignty or a vastly revised federal arrangement.

The leader of the Bloc Québécois, Lucien Bouchard, Bouchard, Lucien offered a different appraisal of the options facing Quebec. Bouchard reasoned, “There were two roads for Québécois before the referendum—profoundly renewed federalism and sovereignty. These two options must now find a convergence.” Robert Bourassa, Quebec’s Liberal premier who had led the yes campaign in that province, pointed to the results of two polls indicating that most Quebecers preferred to remain part of the Canadian confederation and reiterated his party’s goal to “build Quebec within Canada,” saying that federalism would “advance the cause of Quebec.”

Many Canadians voted no on the Charlottetown Accord to vent their anger against the political and business establishment in general and the Progressive Conservative Party and Mulroney in particular. The most significant victim of the accord’s failure was Brian Mulroney. Facing growing pressure to step down, given the implicit “no confidence” nature of the referendum, he resigned as the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and as prime minister on February 24, 1993, after a frustrating decade-long campaign for Canadian unity, during which the country’s worst recession raged. Charlottetown Accord Canada;constitution Quebec sovereignist movement

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hurley, James Ross. The Canadian Constitutional Debate: Fron the Death of the Meech Lake Accord of 1987 to the 1992 Referendum. Ottawa: Privy Council Office, 1994. Presents a thorough examination of Canadian constitutional history during the period covered.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McMenemy, John. The Language of Canadian Politics: A Guide to Important Terms and Concepts. 3d ed. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001. Collection of more than five hundred brief essays on a wide range of topics related to the Canadian system of government, Canadian political history, Canadian laws and legal history, and more.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McRoberts, Kenneth, and Patrick Monahan, eds. The Charlottetown Accord, the Referendum, and the Future of Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993. Collection of papers presented at a conference provides an excellent examination of the negotiations and politics surrounding the Charlottetown Accord and its subsequent failure to be approved by the Canadian electorate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, David E., Peter MacKinnon, and John C. Courtney, eds. After Meech Lake: Lessons for the Future. Saskatoon, Sask.: Fifth House, 1991. Collection of essays examines the possibilities facing Canada following the 1990 failure of the Meech Lake Accord.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sutherland, Kate. Referendum Round-Table. Edmonton, Alta.: Centre for Constitutional Studies, 1992. Informative monograph provides analysis of the Charlottetown Accord.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vipond, Robert. Liberty and Community: Canadian Federalism and the Failure of the Constitution. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. Examines the inability of Canadians to agree on constitutional reforms.

Canada’s Constitution Act

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms Is Enacted

Mulroney Era Begins in Canada

Meech Lake Accord Dies

Bloc Québécois Forms

Chrétien Takes Charge in Canada

Canadian Parliament Passes the Clarity Act

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