Prime Minister Brian Mulroney presided over the marathon bargaining session that led to last week's constitutional agreement. In the following article, written for Maclean’s, the Prime Minister gives his own account of that sometimestense day and night.
We met for almost 20 consecutive hours, from mid-
morning of one day to the dawn of the next.
We were 11 Canadians, from diverse backgrounds, from different political parties and different regions of Canada. Around that oval table, in the fourth-floor boardroom of the Langevin Block, all the partners of Canada were trying to finalize a new deal for Canada.
When we came into office, we had an opportunity, as any new government would, to give the country a fresh start. We’ve tried to do that in a number of areas of economic, social and foreign policy.
Healing: But the constitutional issue was so important because it defined the terms of our living together, of our future together as Canadians. And Canadians knew it was a time for healing in this land.
But the challenge was difficult. We were trying to accommodate Quebec’s agenda and that of the other re-
gions, within the national interest, and in a manner consistent with the responsibilities of the national government.
So it was difficult, as we all suspected it might be. It’s one thing to achieve agreement in principle, as we were able to do at Meech Lake. It’s quite another to reach final agreement on a legal text, representing the commitment of 11 governments.
And the Meech Lake agreement stimulated a tremendous degree of public interest, not just in Quebec, where the constitutional issue has always been a public-policy priority, but right across the country. The Meech
Lake accord came under close scrutiny, as it should have, since what we’re talking about here is the Canadian social contract. So there was a strong desire among us to improve the accord in a number of areas, and I think the final text reflects those improvements.
Key: I’m not going to pretend that there weren’t a couple of moments there when I wondered if we could sustain the agreement. We had real problems on a couple of points—Quebec’s distinct society and the spending power provisions—where we had to isolate the outstanding issues and accommodate different concerns.
The key question was whether the po-
litical will was still there. And when it counted, it was. All the premiers came through, not only for their own provinces but for the country.
The other premiers knew that Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa needed some substantial assurances on the distinct society, and we all wanted to recognize minority language rights guarantees within that framework. So there was accommodation of Mr. Bourassa’s view. Ontario Premier David Peterson had some concerns as well, that were appreciated around the table, and we were able to put in some important language on aboriginal rights and the multicultural aspect of Canada.
Clear: That was shortly after midnight, and by then we’d already been at it for 14 hours. People were getting pretty tired, but by then I had made it quite clear that we were going to go on until we either got an agreement, or didn’t.
But we still had to finalize the spending power, and that proved to be a tough one, too. On this question, the other premiers needed a signal from Mr. Bourassa, and at about two o’clock we started to get some movement.
On the question of opting out with compensation from new sharedcost programs in areas
of exclusive provincial jurisdiction, many first ministers expressed a preference for a wording on the federal government’s right to establish programs in this area: compensation to be paid to provinces that establish programs compatible with the national objectives.
Premiers Howard Pawley [of Manitoba] and Peterson, for example, expressed special concerns in this area. had stated clearly in the House that the federal government’s right to establish such programs was unchallenged and that the wording should reflect that. This was done and accepted by all and should provide provinces
with the necessary flexibility in designing programs.
At that point it was nearly four in the morning. I called for one last break to give them all a chance to think it over, and then we went round the table one last time. When the crunch came, everybody was with us.
The first ministers had all been both eloquent and vigilant in defending their views and promoting Canada’s well-being. There had been tension and toughness, but also good humor and a sense of compromise. In the end I think we were all too tired to be elated about it, but we knew we had done a good day’s work for Canada.
Sacrifice: Resolving the issue of Quebec’s signature on our Constitution was one of the reasons I went into public life four years ago, and why some people, at considerable personal sacrifice, agreed to come to Ottawa with me. I didn’t know whether we would succeed, but I knew we had to try. I also knew we had to keep expectations to a realistic level while we were establishing the principles and the process.
I outlined the principles of my undertaking and strategy quite clearly in the Sept-Iles speech in the 1984 election campaign. Mr.
Bourassa did likewise in the 1985 Quebec campaign. He came forward with five proposals that accommodated Quebec’s constitutional agenda, but were all discussible from the perspective of the federal government and the other provinces.
Then it was up to the premiers to decide if they wanted to deal with this issue first before moving to other areas such as Senate reform. They did so at Edmonton last summer, and that finally brought the 11 first ministers to Meech Lake on April 30.
So this has been a long, challenging business. But because it was such a delicate matter, it had to be carried out with the greatest care. Canada could not afford another constitutional failure.
Since 1982, we have been witnessing the slow but measurable emergence of two Canadas—one representing those who had accepted the Constitution,
and the other those who had not. This unfortunate situation could, with the passage of time, have had damaging consequences for our country. The Meech Lake accord means there is now one Canada—strong and united.
So what kind of country are we talking about here? First of all, the kind of
Canada that keeps its promises. On May 14, 1980, in his famous speech at the Paul Sauvé Arena in Montreal, the then-prime minister of Canada committed the government of Canada, in the most solemn terms, to “take action to renew the Constitution.”
Springtime: That was six days before Quebec said yes to Canada in the referendum. Now, seven years later, in another springtime of hope for our country, the rest of Canada has finally said yes to Quebec—on terms and conditions that strengthen Canada and inspire support in all provinces and regions.
This agreement is about fairness and balance. It’s about achieving a stronger, united country by recognizing our diversity, by rejoicing in it rather than by demeaning it.
On the streets of Baie Comeau, no-
body asked whether you were Catholic or Protestant, French or English. And so my strongest impression of Canada has always been of a tolerant society.
The final accord very much reflects that. Our approach is one of consensus rather than conflict, not because it is the easy way but because it is the right way, and because it corresponds to the way Canadians see themselves and the country.
When you lift these constitutional amendments off the page, when you strip them of the legal jargon, they will have the practical effect of bringing Canadians together—in the Supreme Court nominating process, in the Senate appointment process, in the spending power process.
Equal: As a matter of form, governments will be seeking to accommodate their differences rather than aggravating them. And all provinces will be equal in this exercise.
And the amendments are very much in our Canadian constitutional tradition of balancing collective rights with individual rights. We are not a melting pot but a nation of strong and dio verse cultural heritages. You see that in the distinct-society clause, acknowledging the simple reality of Quebec while protecting our linguistic minorities throughout
Canada. It’s the same spirit that motivated the language on aboriginal rights and multiculturalism.
This entire agreement derives from the Canadian experience, which reconciles legitimate interests within one strong and united Canada. That’s what last week’s first ministers’ meeting was about. When it was finally over, I think it was about 20 past five in the morning. I went down to my office to take a few minutes before going out to meet the media. All the people on our team were there. They had done a great job and I wanted to thank them.
It was getting light out. And someone in the room said, “It really is the beginning of a new day.” So then we went down and out the Elgin Street door to meet with those people who had been waiting all those hours for any word.^
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