In November, 1981, when a major agreement on rewriting Canada’s Constitution was reached, Quebec Premier René Lévesque flew out of Ottawa aboard his F-27 government turboprop plane exhausted, embittered and near tears. The 10 other first ministers—in secret and without Lévesque present-had agreed on a formula for patriating the Constitution and entrenching a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But Lévesque’s government could not accept the terms—and as a result, Quebec was the only province not to sign the Constitution Act at a rain-soaked ceremony in Ottawa on April 17, 1982. In contrast to that bitter outcome, Premier Robert Bourassa and his officials last week left the historic Meech Lake negotiations smiling broadly—convinced that they had won a major victory in Quebec’s protracted battle for increased powers.
Declared Bourassa after the meeting: “Quebec is taking its role as a major partner in Confederation.”
Demands: Bourassa had set five conditions for rejoining the constitutional fold: a formal voice in Supreme Court appointments and on immigration policy; limits to federal spending powers in areas of provincial jurisdiction; a veto on constitutional amendments affecting the province; and recognition as a “distinct” society. The Meech Lake accord met those demands almost entirely.
But questions were immediately raised about the long-term implications of what Quebec had accepted. Hard-line nationalists in the province attacked the deal as a sellout that did not adequately protect Quebec’s language and culture. At the same time, some academics suggested that the agreement was dangerously vague in parts, and warned that its real impact will be clear only after years of interpretation by the courts.
Federal strategists in the constitutional talks had acknowledged that Quebec’s conditions were the minimum that Bourassa could sell to his province’s voters. Indeed, one senior aide to Senator Lowell Murray, federal minister of state
for federal-provincial relations, told Maclean’s before the conference began, “Bourassa had to go back with something significant on all five or he’d be blasted out of the national assembly.”
On three of the five conditions, Que-
bee appeared to get everything it asked for. A 10-year-old federal-provincial agreement giving Quebec power over selection of immigrants to the province is to be entrenched in the Constitution, as is the practice that three of the nine Supreme Court justices should be from Quebec. As well, last week’s accord will impose new limits on Ottawa’s power to establish programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction-something Bourassa called “an exceptional breakthrough.”
Gains: It was on the contentious issues of veto power and recognition of Quebec as a distinct society that Bourassa’s gains were less clear. The Meech Lake accord granted Quebec a veto over changes to federal institutions— the House of Commons, Senate and Supreme Court—but that veto was
also granted to the other provinces. Bourassa, however, insisted that this concession did not detract from his own province’s gains.
Recognition of Quebec as a distinct society—the only part of the agreement that applied only to Quebec-proved the toughest problem for the first ministers, and may yet prove the most difficult for Bourassa to defend at home. Some premiers and federal officials voiced concern about the possible legal impact of entrenching that phrase in the Constitution on such issues as language legislation. They also questioned whether a future, more nationalist, Quebec government might take advantage of it to give French greater priority over other languages. But other observers said that the provision was too vague to be of much value. Peter Leslie, director of the Institute for Intergovernmental Relations at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., told Maclean ’s that it would be up to the Supreme Court of Canada to determine the true significance of the distinct-society clause. Said Leslie: “This is \an invitation to the courts to g draw whatever inferences « they like over language £ policy.”
Smile: For his part, Parti Québécois Leader Pierre Marc Johnson denounced the accord as “a very good deal for English Canada.” He vowed that his opposition party would fight any move by Bourassa to have the agreement endorsed by Quebec’s national assembly. Said Johnson: “It is the future of Quebec that is at stake here.” But the arrangement negotiated by Bourassa seemed similar to the new PQ policy of “national affirmation.” Recently, Johnson has attempted to back away from his party’s failed separatist policies and has called for a gradual accumulation of powers for the province. In fact, Bourassa’s broad smile last week may have had as much to do with outflanking Johnson as it did with the precise content of the accord.
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.