The reaction, after more than nine hours of sometimes heated debate, was at once spontaneous and unanimous. While other first ministers and aides beamed, Quebec’s Robert Bourassa clasped Brian Mulroney in a hearty handshake. Then, as Mulroney prepared to leave the closed-door meeting on constitutional reform with the country’s 10 provincial premiers last week, the Prime Minister suddenly looked around the room, smiled and declared, “Now, gentlemen, we can go out there and tell Canadians their federation works.” With that, the premiers burst into applause. After meeting for half an hour with their respective delegations, Mulroney and the premiers returned to their second-storey meeting room at the federal govern-
ment’s retreat at Meech Lake, Que., to announce their potentially history-making decision. Said Mulroney: “An agreement in principle supported by all first ministers has been achieved.”
Partner: With that agreement, which is to be formally signed within several weeks at another first ministers’ meeting, Mulroney and the premiers stand prepared to alter the way in which some of the country’s most important institutions operate. The most dramatic change is that Quebec, which had refused to join the 1981 constitutional accord, agreed to sign the Constitution in return for concessions from Ottawa and the other provinces. That agreement, declared Premier Robert Bourassa, means that Quebec is “on the verge of becoming a full partner in the federation.”
The province won recognition of its controversial demand that the constitution formally recognize it as a distinct society within Canada.
But while the April 30 meeting overlooking the lake was called specifically to discuss Quebec’s constitutional demands, all provinces will gain increased guarantees of their powers in several areas. Among the most important: newly defined rights of consultation in appointments to the Senate and Supreme Court; greater power over immigration policy; and the right of each province to opt out of future shared-cost programs, with full financial compensation. The provinces also won a promise from Mulroney to discuss further constitutional changes, including Senate reform, by the end of 1988. Said Newfoundland
Premier Brian Peckford: “It is, no question, an historic breakthrough. A new kind of tone and tenor, constitutionally and otherwise, has been set in the way Canada is going to go in the future.”
In fact, the agreement was quickly criticized by some constitutional experts and politicians who said that the federal government had given too much power to the provinces. Said Stephen Scott, a professor of constitutional law at Montreal’s McGill University: “I am biting my fingernails as to the long-term implications of the concessions made to the provinces. This deal marks a major decentralization of power within an already decentralized state.” Other experts disagreed. Said Jennifer Smith, professor of political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax: “The symbolics may be greater than the reality.” Trap: Both Liberal Leader John Turner and New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broadbent—after shaking hands with Mulroney on the floor of the Commons—offered cautious endorsements of the agreement. Said Turner: “The Prime Minister seems to have accommodated many provincial concerns. We will want to know from him what
the federal government got in return.” Declared Broadbent: “I hope when we see the fine print, our initial genuine pleasure will be sustained.”
And on the other side of the issue, Quebecers who favor sovereignty for their province voiced strong opposition to the agreement, saying that it did not give Quebec enough powers (page 11). Said Pierre de Bellefeuille, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister who is now a leader of the pro-sovereignty Parti Indépendantiste: “It is a trap for Quebec. The act of signing the Canada bill goes against the only option for Quebec: independence.” And officials in the Yukon and Northwest Territories said that the pact would make it almost impossible for them to join Confederation.
Deal: But much of last week’s response was muted by near-universal surprise that any form of agreement had been achieved. Indeed, many provincial officials acknowledged that they arrived at Meech Lake last Thursday believing that there was little chance for success. Said Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Gil Rémillard, a selfdescribed pessimist before the meeting: “At times, it just seemed as though there were too many different opinions to ever be able to come to a consensus.” Declared Peckford, who had been regarded as an opponent of several of Quebec’s demands: “Going in, I thought our chances for a deal were limited. But once we got there, there was an extraordinary spirit. We just discovered we had an atmosphere where we really wanted to make a deal.”
Creating that atmosphere was not easy. In the 10 days before the meeting, Mulroney telephoned all the premiers to solicit their views. He reached Prince Edward Island Premier Joe Ghiz, whom Mulroney regarded as an important potential ally, on April 25—the Saturday night before the meetingwhile Ghiz was attending a Liberal fund-raising dinner in St. Joachim’s Church hall in Vernon River, P.E.I. Said Ghiz:
“The Prime Minister said he was sorry to bother me at home. I told him I was not at home but in the kitchen with 30 wornen. Then I told him I had studied the proposal and I was very much on board.”
And unlike the 1981 negotiations, when representatives of the pro-independence PQ government stayed across the Ottawa River in Hull—out of touch
with other delegations—Bourassa deliberately had his four-member Quebec delegation, led by Rémillard and senior adviser Jean-Claude Rivest, stay at the more accessible Château Laurier in downtown Ottawa. From there, the two men worked throughout Wednesday evening and into early Thursday morning, telephoning other provincial officials to discuss Quebec’s conditions for signing the Constitution. For his part, Bourassa made lengthy telephone calls to Alberta’s Don Getty, who was regarded as a major opponent of Quebec’s demand for a veto over constitutional change, and held three separate talks with Ontario Premier David Peterson.
Still, provincial representatives were near-unanimous in crediting Mulroney with playing the major role. Said Quebec’s Rivest: “Mulroney did his job in a marvellous, marvellous way that was appreciated by everyone.” In fact, the Prime Minister employed many of the same negotiating techniques that he honed some two decades ago as a successful labor lawyer in Montreal. Said one Mulroney adviser: “Brian did what he has always done when he really wanted to cut a deal: he locked the big guys in one room where no one else could hear them, and threw out everybody else, so no one wasted time posturing.” Indeed, Mulroney kept his own team of advisers to a minimum, relying on Senator Lowell Murray, his minister of state for federal-provincial relations, principal secretary Bernard Roy, federal-provincial relations secretary Norman Spector, Quebec Senator Arthur Tremblay, a noted constitutional expert, and deputy justice minister Frank Iacobucci.
Sweep: In preparing for the meeting, Mulroney decided to follow what aides called his “domino strategy.” Explained one assistant: “You try to knock off agreement on a couple of points early and see if the goodwill momentum keeps going long enough to sweep everything else along with it.” Mulroney also told aides that he planned to do everything possible to avoid isolating any premier in an argument against his peers, saying, “You lose one guy on one thing and you have lost everything.” To build consensus, Mulroney then arranged the agenda so that the least controversial points were discussed early in the day.
In fact, the first major stumbling
block did not arise until after almost five hours of discussion. After settling into a second-floor meeting room in Willson House, the building frequently used for federal cabinet meetings, the premiers, Mulroney and two notetakers ate a light lunch while they worked. They reached early agreement on Quebec’s demand for joint control of immigration-something the province already has under the terms of a 1977 agreement between Ottawa and Quebec.
Under the new agreement, Quebec
will have a constitutionally entrenched right to participate in selection of immigrants coming to the province and will receive a guaranteed percentage of immigrants to Canada. The first ministers also agreed with little discussion to entrench the province’s right to have three Quebec judges appointed to the Supreme Court and to give all provinces the right to submit lists of candidates for federal government judicial appointments. Finally, with surprising ease, the leaders reached agreement on the crucial question of the right of individual provinces to opt out of national programs in which they share costs with Ottawa. Federal officials later cited two crucial concessions from the provinces as the key to Mulroney’s agreement on this point: the opting-out policy will not apply to existing programs, such as medicare; and any province that opts out of a national
program must agree to establish a similar provincial service. As long as the provincial program met federal standards, Ottawa would help pay for it.
By the time those issues had been dealt with, most participants said that they felt an agreement was within reach. Said Peckford later: “We had moved far enough to know we were going to come up with something.” Shortly before a planned 6:30 p.m. break for dinner, the premiers began discussing what Bourassa said he regarded as the key to
the talks: his demand that Quebec be described in the Constitution as a “distinct society.” Other premiers, including Getty, had publicly opposed anything that would suggest any difference in status among the provinces. But said one official: “If there is no give on this, then we will have to leave.”
Deadlock: As they approached the dinner break, Bourassa made a lengthy plea for including the phrase. Said Bourassa: “I told them this is part of what we need to feel full Canadians, and Quebecers very much want to feel they are full Canadians.” Still, federal officials said that they regarded the break as crucial. Said one Mulroney adviser: “We were afraid that when they got away from each other, in the middle of their advisers and suggestions, the chemistry that had been established would be lost.”
In the end it was Getty, perhaps the least likely mediator, who helped break a deadlock that developed over an acceptable amending formula. When the premiers were unable to find a solution, Getty suggested that they deal with the issue of Senate reform. Until such reform was achieved, he told the group, Ottawa should follow the example of the agreement on Supreme Court appointments and name new senators from lists of candidates provided by the provinces. That breakthrough, a senior official said later, gave the premiers the impetus to tackle the veto issue.
The premiers finally agreed to a new formula requiring unanimous approval of the provinces for reforms to such federal institutions as the Senate and the House of Commons. Quebec won its veto—but so did every other province, regardless of size or political power. At the same time, the first ministers agreed to discuss Senate reform within a year of ratification of the new accord, and to include discussion of rights over fisheries—another constitutional problem—at the same meeting.
History: After the dinner break, it took Mulroney and the premiers less than 75 minutes to produce the final form of their “agreement in principle.” At 9:45 p.m., after congratulating the premiers, Mulroney left the meeting room and went to his third-floor office, where he met with Roy, Spector, Iacobucci, Tremblay and Murray. After making a short statement to reporters, y Mulroney and Roy returned to 24 Sussex Drive for a private celebration and a series of telephone calls to friends and cabinet ministers. Said one friend: “He was very happy, but very, very low-key. He was feeling a sense of history.”
Both federal and provincial officials cautioned that hurdles remain before final ratification of the changes—and amendments to the 1982 Constitutional Act, which probably would not take place before next fall. As one senior federal official warned: “We have to remember that no one has actually signed anything yet.” But after a string of political problems in recent months, the agreement clearly buoyed the spirits of Mulroney and other Conservatives. More importantly, it also moved him within near-certain grasp of one of his most cherished objectives—bringing Quebec fully into Confederation. “Every great constitutionalist has tried, but it is Brian who has done it,” said L. Ian MacDonald, Mulroney’s biographer and speech writer. “If he gets this through, it will be an achievement no one can ever deny him.” It will also be a legacy all Canadians will live with for years to come.
-ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH with MICHAEL ROSE in Ottawa and correspondents’ reports
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.