Meech Lake Accord Dies

In 1990, Canadian leaders failed in an attempt to reform the Constitution of 1982 by incorporating Quebec.

Summary of Event

Constitutionally, much unfinished business faced Canada in the 1980’s. The nature of the country’s Senate had not been agreed upon. Fueled by sovereignist impulses, Quebec remained outside the 1982 constitution, and the province’s leaders demanded that specific conditions be met before Quebec would approve the document. Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney of the Progressive Conservative Party sought to break the long deadlock on these matters. Meech Lake Accord
Quebec sovereignist movement
[kw]Meech Lake Accord Dies (June 22, 1990)
[kw]Accord Dies, Meech Lake (June 22, 1990)
Meech Lake Accord
Quebec sovereignist movement
[g]North America;June 22, 1990: Meech Lake Accord Dies[07770]
[g]Canada;June 22, 1990: Meech Lake Accord Dies[07770]
[c]Government and politics;June 22, 1990: Meech Lake Accord Dies[07770]
Bourassa, Robert
Harper, Elijah
Mulroney, Brian
Parizeau, Jacques
Trudeau, Pierre
[p]Trudeau, Pierre;Meech Lake Accord
Wells, Clyde K.

On April 30, 1987, following ten hours of intense negotiations at Meech Lake, a resort in Quebec, Mulroney and the ten provincial premiers reached a unanimous agreement designed to bring Quebec into the constitution. Acting in the role of mediator, Mulroney was able to engineer a compromise that would enhance the power of all provinces. The belief that Quebec should be no more than equal to the other provinces was advanced by the leaders of Nova Scotia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. Quebec’s premier, Robert Bourassa, a Harvard-trained economist and advocate of federalism, eased tensions by indicating a willingness to be flexible. Agreement was made possible when Alberta’s premier, Donald Getty, Getty, Donald who wanted a powerful, elected Senate representing all the provinces equally, softened his demand that the issue of Senate reform be resolved before the Quebec question.

The key provision of the Meech Lake Accord was the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society within Canada. This was an important concession that would afford certain protections for Quebec’s francophone culture. The agreement also included other important provisions. Constitutional changes in federal institutions and provincial boundaries would require the unanimous consent of the federal government and the provinces. The federal government committed itself to addressing the Senate reform issue in the near future. The prime minister and provincial premiers would be required to meet at least twice annually, with one conference devoted to constitutional matters and the other to economic issues. Quebec was guaranteed three judges on the nine-member Canadian Supreme Court—this had been customary but now would be constitutionally entrenched. Supreme Court, Canada In most instances, the Parliament in Ottawa would be obligated to choose justices from among candidates proposed by provinces. Within quite broad limitations, any province would be allowed to opt out of federally funded programs under provincial jurisdiction. Quebec would not have to accept immigrants out of proportion to its percentage of the national population.

The Meech Lake Accord was to be final when ratified by Parliament, all ten provincial legislatures, and the premiers at a follow-up conference. A three-year deadline, expiring June 23, 1990, was set for the process.

The pact, characterized as a milestone in federal-provincial relations, was a triumph for Mulroney. Quebec’s premier described the pact as “a historic breakthrough for Quebec as a Canadian partner.” William Vander Zalm, Vander Zalm, William premier of British Columbia and a leading spokesman for western Canada, stated that the accord “changes the nature of the relationships and responsibilities of our national and provincial governments in a manner that bodes well for our collective future.”

Robert Bourassa.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Opposition to the Meech Lake Accord surfaced in various quarters. The leaders of the Parti Québécois, Parti Québécois a sovereignist political party, accused Bourassa of selling out Quebec. Bourassa’s Liberal Party had ousted the Parti Québécois from power in 1985. However, the Quebec public did not appear to share the outrage of the Parti Québécois. René Lévesque Lévesque, René —sovereignist, former Quebec premier, and former leader of the Parti Québécois—and former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who opposed Quebec’s demands, both declined to comment on the accord. Liberal Party leader John Napier Turner Turner, John Napier commented, “I have the feeling that Mr. Mulroney gave away too much to achieve that deal.” He criticized the idea of provinces choosing senators and Supreme Court justices, and he noted that he was worried about the ability of the federal government to initiate national programs if the provinces were able to opt out. Having not been invited to participate in the conference, Anthony Penikett, Penikett, Anthony leader of the Yukon territorial government, expressed opposition to the agreement because each province would have veto power over the Yukon’s aspirations of becoming a full province.

Numerous conferences were convened and studies were initiated to iron out difficulties with the pact, and eight provinces endorsed it. In 1989, however, Newfoundland elected a new premier, Liberal Clyde K. Wells, who had campaigned against the agreement. Under Wells, the Newfoundland House of Assembly voted to rescind its earlier approval of the Meech Lake Accord.

Newfoundland, Manitoba, and New Brunswick argued that the clause declaring Quebec to be a distinct society would give Quebec too much power and enable it to pass laws conflicting with the nation’s 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadian Those fears were strengthened in 1988, when Quebec overruled a Canadian Supreme Court decision striking down a law restricting the use of any language other than French on public signs. The holdout provinces also objected to what they saw as a failure to address the issues of Senate reform and minority rights. Following the adoption of a compromise designed to address some of these concerns, New Brunswick’s legislature voted unanimously to approve the accord. However, opposition remained strong in Manitoba and Newfoundland.

Manitoba, with its large population of indigenous Canadians, had sought the inclusion of a “Canada clause” that would have emphasized the entire nation’s multicultural characteristics. The Manitoba legislature’s sole Native member, Elijah Harper, sought to block passage of the accord, arguing that it ignored Native concerns. On June 22, Harper refused to give his consent to an extension of the legislature’s Meech Lake debate. Because an extension required unanimous approval, Harper’s move effectively killed the accord. Harper’s action was hailed by other Native Canadian leaders.

In Newfoundland, Wells canceled a scheduled vote on the accord, criticizing what he called the pressure tactics of Mulroney. Wells had been outraged to learn that Mulroney’s government had offered a plan to extend the approval deadline in Manitoba but not in Newfoundland. He argued that Mulroney was attempting to make his province a scapegoat for the accord’s failure. The Meech Lake Accord died on June 22, 1990, when Newfoundland and Manitoba failed to ratify the agreement.


The defeat of the accord was viewed as a major blow to Mulroney, who had twice been elected on promises to unite the country. Mulroney’s popularity plummeted. In a rare televised address, Mulroney acknowledged his disappointment but reaffirmed that “a truly united tolerant Canada endures and will eventually prevail.” The Liberal Party accused Mulroney of deliberately fostering a crisis atmosphere in the last days of the debate by delaying talks on a possible compromise in order to create last-minute pressure on the holdout provinces.

The failure of the Meech Lake Accord generated speculation about Quebec’s future and prompted a cautious response from Robert Bourassa, who repeatedly stressed that his government would take no action jeopardizing Quebec’s economy. Jacques Parizeau, leader of Parti Québécois, jubilantly described the crisis as “the moment of truth.” The Parti Québécois had been campaigning to hold a provincial referendum on “sovereignty association” for Quebec, which was generally understood to mean that Quebec would retain economic ties with Canada while gaining political independence. A similar referendum had failed in 1980, but more recent polls had found that nearly 60 percent of Quebecers favored political sovereignty.

Instead of regretting the accord’s failure, many Quebecers were elated by the outcome. The failure of the accord had fallen just one day before St. Jean-Baptiste Day, Quebec’s national holiday. Expressing their support for an independent Quebec, nationalists celebrated. Nearly 200,000 people turned out for a parade in Montreal, many of them waving Quebec’s fleur-de-lis flag and chanting, “Vive le Quebec libre” (Long live free Quebec). This was the first parade of its kind held in twenty years, following the discontinuation of such events after violent demonstrations took place in 1968 and 1969. Many in anglophone Canada also celebrated the failure of the Meech Lake Accord.

In a rare venture into Canadian politics, Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II Elizabeth II pleaded for unity among Canadians as Canada seemed on the verge of plunging headlong into a political crisis. A 1995 referendum for Quebec’s sovereignty very narrowly failed to win approval, but the issue remained alive and combustible in Canadian politics into the twenty-first century. Meech Lake Accord
Quebec sovereignist movement

Further Reading

  • Cohen, Andrew. A Deal Undone. Vancouver, B.C.: Douglas & McIntyre, 1990. Presents an in-depth look at the negotiations and politics surrounding the making and breaking of the Meech Lake Accord.
  • Coyne, Deborah. Roll of the Dice: Working with Clyde Wells During the Meech Lake Negotiations. Toronto: Lorimer, 1992. Examination of the Meech Lake Accord focuses on Clyde Wells and the politics of Newfoundland.
  • 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.
  • Mathews, Georges. Quiet Resolution: Quebec’s Challenge to Canada. Toronto: Summerhill, 1990. Presents Robert Bourassa’s comments on Quebec, Canadian politics, and Meech Lake.
  • Milne, David. The Canadian Constitution. Toronto: Lorimer, 1990. Reviews Canadian constitutional history through the 1980’s.
  • Monahan, Patrick. Meech Lake: The Inside Story. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. Presents a thorough overview of the accord and the politics that surrounded it.
  • Newman, Saul. Ethnoregional Conflict in Democracies: Mostly Ballots, Rarely Bullets. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Examination of ethnoregional movements in democracies includes extensive discussion of the case of Quebec and the Parti Québécois.
  • 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.

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Bloc Québécois Forms

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Canadian Parliament Passes the Clarity Act