The Meech Lake Accord
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 15 Feb 1990, p. 208-216
Bouchard, The Hon. Lucien, Speaker
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The speaker begins by recalling a stormy debate over the Maple Leaf flag 25 years ago and draws analogies to the current debate over the Meech Lake Accord. Both raise questions about Canada's identity. An event which forces us to consciously accept our differences. Placing the Meech Lake Accord in a political and historical context in order to be well understood. A detailed examination of the Accord and the debate surrounding it. The clause "distinct society" and the controversy surrounding it. Clarifying the debate. The consequences of a failure of Meech Lake. Assurances from the speaker about various improvements if the Accord is ratified. The need now for a collective act of faith in our common future.
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15 Feb 1990
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Full Text
The Hon. Lucien Bouchard Minister of the Environment
Chairman: Sarah Band, President


Honoured Guests, Head Table guests, Empire Club members, ladies and gentlemen.

When Arthur Kroeger spoke to the Empire Club "In Praise of Politicians", he used a phrase to describe them, which I will now use to describe the Meech Lake Accord. He said, "Politicians are far too well known, and far too little understood. ° I say Meech Lake is far too well known and far too little understood.

Close to 25 years ago the then Prime Minister went on a round of visits to the provincial capitals with a view to, "...proposing constitutional amendments". The Honourable Flora MacDonald called the visits, "...this rush of activity :' She should see us now. We have a Quebec delegation visiting Newfoundland, a Senator going to New Brunswick, the Ontario Premier in Quebec and the Prime Minister in Manitoba. And amendment proposals from Victoria to St John's" A "rush of activity" indeed.

And to what end? To ratify an accord hammered out at Meech Lake? Or something more. Perhaps to find "..a package of constitutional and political changes ..... a Canadian version of the Holy Grail." as Flora MacDonald described it. In this communication age, when we seem always to feel the need to tell all about everything, to everyone, we may need the wisdom of the nineteenth century, when Constitutions, as Napoleon said, should be,

"Short--and obscure."

Now let me introduce you to Lucien Bouchard. He is a member of Cabinet as Minister of the Environment. He is a member of four Cabinet committees, and Chairman of the Environmental Committee. He entered public service as Canada's Ambassador to France in 1985 and entered the Cabinet as Secretary of State two years ago. He is a lawyer who holds three degrees from Laval University.

I began this introduction by quoting the Deputy Minister of a federal department. I turn now to our Minister of the Environment to clear away some of the unclear air which surrounds Meech Lake.

Ladies and gentlemen please join me in welcoming The Honourable Lucien Bouchard.

Lucien Bouchard:

Madame Chairman, chers amis Torontois:

I want to thank you for your generous introduction and for your warm welcome to Toronto. Matters of national interest have been debated here since the turn of the century. With Canada's tendency to regularly stir up fundamental questions, the Empire Club, needless to say, was seldom idle. One such debate that comes to mind is the one that preceded the adoption of the Maple Leaf flag 25 years ago today. At the time, it set the entire country ablaze. The final stages of the parliamentary debate alone took a full month in the House of Commons, filled nearly 1000 pages of Hansard , saw some 150 MPS speak, and required closure to come to a head.

Today we wonder why there was such a debate. When you leave this lunch, if you're walking up Bay Street, or driving up University Avenue, you will see the Maple Leaf flying from nearly every office building in Toronto. You will not even think about it; for all Canadians, it is simply a given. I recall that stormy episode because, in some respects, it bears close resemblance to the debate on the Meech Lake Accord. Like the flag debate, it raises questions about Canada's identity. As it did in 1965, the controversy has forced us to consciously accept our differences. But, above all, in both cases, we have too often failed to stand back and ponder where it was taking us. What has been missing from this debate is perhaps a bit of logic, and certainly a lot of common sense. The Meech Lake

Accord has been much misrepresented and much misunderstood. Perhaps it needs to be placed in context to be well understood.

To understand what is happening now, one has to go back -to the 1982 patriation, and to remember that, while joy and pride swept English Canada, Quebecers felt humiliation and bereavement, the day the new Constitution was signed on the lawn of Parliament. We felt that it was not our Constitution being signed, that we had said "no" to this arrangement concluded without us, and therefore against us. We felt that, even though that document was legally valid because it had been approved by Parliament and confirmed by the Supreme Court, it was not politically valid. A constitution is the expression of a nation's fundamental values, values that unite and fire all the vital forces of a country. The 1982 Constitution, which was imposed on Quebec, is not such a document.

This was an event of paramount importance for the understanding of what was to come. Through the trials and tribulations of 115 years of life together, Quebecers had never felt the Confederation Pact, the cornerstone of our country and the sum of the two founding peoples' commitments to one another, could be in danger. They had just shown their own attachment to Confederation by voting "no" to the question asked in the referendum. Even at their most distrustful, Quebecers had never imagined the 1867 agreement could be altered without their consent. Hence, their painful impression of a breach of trust, of an attack on the integrity of the national bond. The descendants of Sir Georges-Etienne Cartier did not expect that from the descendants of Sir John A. Macdonald. Perceived as deceit by Quebec, the patriation of 1982 introduced some kind of time bomb in the political dynamics of this country.

In 1983, the Conservative Party elected a new leader in the person of Brian Mulroney. The reason why Quebecers voted for him is that he made them a fundamental promise. In Septlies, on August 6, 1984, Brian Mulroney pledged to renew the bond of the two peoples of Canada with honour and dignity.

He assembled a national reconciliation government. He , attracted to it men and women from all parts of Canada: the Prairies, the Atlantic region, Ontario and Quebec. Their mandate and their goals were clear: to mend the wounds, to reopen the dialogue, to bridge differences. Obviously, the priority was to bring Quebec back to the fold. Mr. Robert Bourassa then made the five conditions of Quebec's return to the constitutional family part of his election platform so that he could be considered to have been given a direct mandate to reopen talks with Ottawa on that basis. It is in this context that talks began in the fall of 1986 and went on through the winter. On April 30, 1987, in one of those rare moments of grace in the life of a nation, the heads of the 11 governments agreed in principle to what has become known as the Meech Lake Accord. A month later, convened once again in Ottawa, the first ministers signed the final text of the Accord at the end of a marathon session. The Meech Lake Accord, therefore, is far from having been improvised, as its opponents have claimed. It is the sum of nearly three years of hard-nosed negotiations between men of good will. Does it buy peace by giving in to all of Quebec's demands and favouring Quebec at the expense of other provinces? Time does not allow an exhaustive analysis of every clause of the agreement. But I would like to address the worst criticisms directed at the Accord.

On matters contained in Section 42 of the Act of 1982, such as the mode of selection of senators and the creation of new provinces, the Meech Lake Accord favours unanimity, rather than the majority rule--often referred to as the 7/50 rule. Thus, what might have been Quebec's exclusive right of veto is extended to all the provinces. Premier Clyde Wells, of Newfoundland, fears the unanimity rule will make it difficult, if not impossible, to reform the Senate. I find that quite puzzling, since his own Senate reform proposal would require unanimity to be implemented.

An argument commonly used by opponents of the Meech Lake Accord is that it will lead to a decentralization that will seriously cripple the federal government. But this does not hold up, since the federal-provincial division of powers is in no way altered by the Accord. True, the argument is generally invoked by people who dream of a unitary state, contrary to our historic, geographic and sociological reality. Those who call for an elected and equal Senate competing with the House of Commons, on the other hand, can hardly cry about the weakening of the central government.

But the Meech clause that is the most fiercely criticized is the one that deals with Quebec's "distinct society". To be sure, nobody really disputes the fact that Quebec forms a distinct society within Canada. What is objected to is that it be the only province so described in the Constitution. There is a fear also that it may lead the courts to attribute special powers to Quebec to fortify what differentiates it from the rest of Canada. Oddly enough, what makes Quebec a unique, distinct society in the existing Constitution is not primarily its French language and culture. What makes it different and unique--and was already formally recognized more than two centuries ago by the British colonial ruler--is its civil law tradition. The distinct character of Quebec has been the cornerstone of our political traditions and constitutional law since the Quebec Act of 1774. The British North America Act of 1867 contained a number of special provisions dealing with Quebec. In Section 93, it recognized the religious character of Quebec schools. No other province has such constitutional dispositions. In Section 133, it recognizes French and English as the languages of the courts and the legislature.

In addition to enshrining Quebec's unquestionably distinct character at Meech Lake, the 11 first ministers recognized this and the linguistic duality of Canada as essential attributes of our national identity. By asserting both characteristics, albeit in an interpretive clause, they elevated them from mere sociological realities to fundamental values of our society., The Meech Lake Accord thus helps complete the description of the Canadian personality begun in the Constitution Act of 1982 which recognized basic individual rights, native rights, the multicultural make-up of the Canadian society, and the importance of reducing regional disparities.

Interpretive clauses cannot be equated with new powers or a new division of powers. The Meech Lake Accord even specifies that neither clause in any way modifies the powers of the two levels of government. But they add new meaning to the Canadian reality and affirm Quebec's place within it. Because the Meech Lake Accord recognizes the fact that Quebec forms a distinct society within Canada, it is claimed that it threatens the rights of Quebec anglophones. Nothing can be further from the truth! The distinct society provision is linked with the one that asserts Canada's linguistic duality and clearly refers to Quebec's English-speaking minority, as well as French-speaking minorities in other provinces. Meech assigns to Quebec a duty to protect its linguistic duality while promoting its distinct character.

Some opponents of Meech have also attacked the extension of the opting-out provisions. Section 40, it should be recalled, allowed provinces to opt out of a constitutional amendment transferring provincial powers to the federal government in educational or cultural matters, and receive full financial compensation. This provision, claim opponents of the Meech Lake Accord, may weaken the federal government, even prevent it from playing its "national" role when the welfare of Canadians requires its intervention.

What should be the limits of the federal government's intervention then? Are the opponents of the Meech Lake Accord, without saying it in so many words, attempting to change the division of powers between the federal government and the provinces, or even transfer to the central government responsibilities that are now strictly provincial?

The signatories of the Meech Lake Accord did not embark on this course because they had agreed to restrict themselves to what was needed to bring Quebec back to the fold, and no more. This is why they made sure to state clearly that Section 7 did not extend the powers of the federal government nor of the provinces. In March 1988, Prime Minister Trudeau, who certainly could not be accused of being partial to Quebec, told the Senate's plenary committee that he had offered such a clause to Premier René Lévesque in 1981, but was turned down.

But to clarify the debate, it is not enough to put it into perspective. One must also correct wrong interpretations which, presented as heartfelt truths, distort the analysis and lead to regrettable attitudes. For instance, we hear more and more that Premier Bourassa's inflexibility blocks any solution and prevents the search for a compromise. In actual fact, most of the opponents to the Accord in Quebec criticize its shortcomings. The agreement achieved at Meech Lake is the ultimate compromise, the result of a long, arduous process throughout which Quebec never ceased to make concessions.

Another misconception stems from the alarmist descriptions of the treatment of the English-speaking minority in Quebec. They end up projecting an image of intolerance in Quebec. A good many reactions, brought about by Bill 178 for instance, might be more qualified if they took into account the fact that our English-speaking friends in Quebec have access to services in their own language, have a well-endowed network of cultural and educational institutions (universities, colleges and schools of every level) not to mention first-class hospitals, communications media, television networks, radio stations, newspapers, and the like. Sometimes, one would love to be able to read in Quebec's English-language newspapers an objective comparison of the treatment anglophones receive there and that of French-speaking minorities outside Quebec. It should also be stressed here that the English language is not threatened as the French language is.

One wonders if we are not somehow skirting reality. While one of the world's mightiest empires is crumbling, while the Soviet Union is doing away with State communism, while a wind of freedom and democracy is sweeping the planet, while the Berlin wall is tumbling down, while the big powers are meeting this week in Ottawa to discuss German reunification, while a strong, united Europe is looming on the horizon, while Nelson Mandela is finally freed, while the world is rebuilding all around us, what are we doing in Canada? We are fighting about whether such or such a term should be included in such or such a paragraph of the constitution, rather than another. Rather than preparing to meet the new technological challenges, concentrating our energies on conquering new markets in the fields that are opening up, and coordinating our creative efforts in a true national movement, we are confining ourselves to introspection.

While the others envy our space and our environmental heritage, extol our tolerance and the wealth of our cultures, while they expect us to assume a prominent role in the search for peace, the affirmation of democratic values and the promotion of the environment, are we going to go on for a long time yet listening to our own heart, refusing the heritage of the past and the fruits of a promising tomorrow? To question the pact between the two founding peoples and condemn Quebec to constitutional isolation is to turn our back on history and fail our mission.

How would future historians be able to explain the failure of an agreement signed by the Prime Minister and the ten provincial premiers, approved in Parliament by all three national political parties and then ratified by the legislatures of eight provinces representing 93 percent of the country's population?

Is it conceivable that English Canada would slam the door a second time in Quebec's face at a time when, willing and eager to pursue our common dream, Quebec is extending its hand? How can we pull the debate out of the surrealistic sphere in which it has been set? What is to be hoped for is that Canada will be able to effect a prompt return to reality. Should we start thinking about the consequences of a failure of Meech Lake? Such speculations are certain to draw charges of blackmail and panic-mongering. I can assure you, though, that if the Accord is ratified, Canada will experience an improved investment climate, job creation, and we will be able to move forward, undistracted, on so many substantive and pressing issues. What we need now is a collective act of faith in our common future. Meech Lake provides us with the best possible way to turn a page and open a new chapter of cooperation and economic development that respects environmental imperatives.

Environmental improvement and protection represents not just an issue that can unite all peoples for a common good; it offers extraordinary technological and business opportunities that have already led to the creation of a $3billion industry in Canada alone. This is one of the challenges we have to take on together.

Economic success depends less and less on natural resources--until now the key to our prosperity--and more and more on added value, technology and competitiveness. The future belongs to those who can surpass themselves, to the convergence of enthusiasms, in other words to those who have made peace with themselves. There can be no reconciliation without tolerance and without acceptance of the other, of what differentiates it and guarantees its survival. That is nothing new for us, in Canada and in Quebec. It is on such values that our forefathers built the country.

In the end, what we are called upon to do is merely to be true to ourselves. I cannot believe that Canada will be the country of missed opportunities. Common sense and reason, as in the flag debate, will no doubt prevail before it is too late. Thank you.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by John Tory, Partner, Tory Tory DesLauriers and Bennington and a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.

Footnote to history:

On May 22, 1990, Lucien Bouchard resigned from Cabinet and became part of the Bloc Quebecois.

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The Meech Lake Accord

The speaker begins by recalling a stormy debate over the Maple Leaf flag 25 years ago and draws analogies to the current debate over the Meech Lake Accord. Both raise questions about Canada's identity. An event which forces us to consciously accept our differences. Placing the Meech Lake Accord in a political and historical context in order to be well understood. A detailed examination of the Accord and the debate surrounding it. The clause "distinct society" and the controversy surrounding it. Clarifying the debate. The consequences of a failure of Meech Lake. Assurances from the speaker about various improvements if the Accord is ratified. The need now for a collective act of faith in our common future.