March 20 1989



March 20 1989

In order more fully to explore the passionate debate swirling around the Meech Lake constitutional accord, Maclean’s invited five prominent Canadians with a special knowledge of constitutional issues to take part in a roundtable discussion.


Richard Hatfield, former Conservative premier of New Brunswick, a signatory of the accord and a longtime champion of Quebec and francophone rights;

Bernard Roy, a Montreal lawyer who, as principal secretary to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at the time of the Meech Lake negotiations, was intimately involved in the process;

Jules-Pascal Venne, a Montreal political scientist who was an adviser on constitutional issues to Quebec’s Parti Québécois premiers Rene Levesque and Pierre Marc Johnson.


Sharon Carstairs, leader of the Liberal opposition in Manitoba and an outspoken campaigner against the agreement from the beginning;

Preston Manning, leader of the western-based Reform Party of Canada, which opposes official bilingualism and favors Senate reform and a stronger voice for westerners in national affairs.


Maclean’s: The debate over Meech Lake seems to have exacerbated the strains that have always existed in this country. What would be lost if we scrapped the accord?

Carstairs: Nothing. We were sold Meech Lake on the basis that it was to welcome Quebec into Confederation. I reject that argument—Quebec has always been in Confederation. Of course, if it made it possible for Quebec to sign the 1982 Constitution, it was worthwhile pursuing. But Meech Lake does not just affect Quebecers. It affects all Canadians. And I don’t happen to think that it is the end of the world if we decide to take a fresh new look at the Constitution because of a total lack of willingness to uncross any t’s or undot any i’s in the present agreement.

Hatfield: If there is no Meech Lake accord, in my view, that means that there will not be any significant constitutional reform, regardless of need. Yes, the argument has been made that Quebec is already legally within the Constitution. So are the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, but they don’t have an active role to play and they will not participate in constitutional reform at the first-minister level. To me, the substance of Meech Lake is the ‘distinct society’ clause, which recognizes and reaffirms a political fact, a sociological fact, a historical fact. If we don’t face up to that, the development of our country—socially, economically and constitutionally—will grind to a halt.

Roy: Mrs. Carstairs says that if Meech Lake is buried, the result will not be that dramatic. I must say that I disagree wholeheartedly. As a resident of Quebec, I concluded that this was our last chance—certainly for the next decade or so—to repair the harm that was done during the 1981-1982 constitutional negotiations when Quebec was left out in the cold. In Quebec, they called it ‘La Nuit des longues couteaux’— the night of the long knives. And then, when the premiers met in Edmonton in August of 1986, what was the major item on their agenda? To go all out in trying to strike a deal with Quebec. Now if this thing is going to collapse, you cannot be oblivious to the impact that it will have. If I was a supporter of independence in Quebec, I would say, ‘[Quebec Premier Robert] Bourassa presented minimal conditions, and even those conditions were not accepted.’ So I would be greatly disturbed if this thing did not go through. The fabric of this country would take a hell of a beating.

Venne: The attitude in English Canada is that if Meech Lake fails, it is not a catastrophe. But remember, the demands that Quebec is making now are the weakest demands it has ever made. Also, after the 1980 referendum [on sovereignty-association], a lot of English-Canadians thought that the nationalist, pro-independence movement in Quebec was dead. But the reality is exactly the opposite. There is a deep consensus in Quebec about Meech Lake. The nationalist movement transcends party politics, and I predict that it will get even stronger if we don’t have Meech Lake.

Manning: In the West, people feel that the whole discussion of the Constitution has been dominated by what has to be done to make Quebec feel at home. We don’t deny the legitimacy of that question, but it is not the only issue. One thing that westerners agree on is the need to reform the Senate as a means of getting more balance and fairness into national decision-making. So I think that the price of the West’s support for whatever Quebec wants ought to be support from Central Canada for whatever the West wants. The two should be linked. I also want to take issue with the suggestion that at the 1986 premiers’ conference in Edmonton, the premiers agreed that their priority was to get Quebec to the table. Well, to suggest that the substance of Meech Lake is the number 1 constitutional priority of the western provinces is a political fiction.

Roy: Preston, you seem to be implying that Bourassa so mesmerized his colleagues in Edmonton that he hoodwinked them.

Manning: No, the western guys were basically indifferent to Quebec’s demands.

Hatfield: I want to tell you that the statement out of Edmonton was a statement of ‘The premiers believe . . . ’ and, by the way, it was introduced by me. The fact is that all the premiers agreed was that the first priority was to deal with Quebec. Don’t tell me that people were bamboozled, because they were not.

Carstairs: But, to be fair, [Alberta Premier Donald] Getty walked into the Meech Lake negotiations saying that he was not going to leave until he got some movement on Senate reform. He said that very publicly and yet he did not achieve anything.

Hatfield: He got it on the agenda [of future constitutional conferences].

Carstairs: Yes, but the agreement says that, in future, changes to the Senate will require unanimous consent from the provinces and the federal government. That will make Senate reform virtually impossible.

Maclean’s: Mr. Manning, you seem to be saying that the West will go along with Quebec’s demands as long as the rest of Canada gives the West what it wants. Some people might describe that as horse-trading.

Manning: Yes. Now, when you get into details there will be qualifications. One thing that concerns westerners is the distinct society clause—there is a feeling that it could be used to override individual rights. We would like it clarified. But at a strategic level, I think we could accept some kind of trade-off between Quebec and the resource-producing regions.

Carstairs: I disagree that westerners want that kind of trade-off. I am not saying to Quebec, ‘Give me this, and I’ll give you that.’ That’s not how we make constitutions in this nation.

Manning: That is the only way we make constitutions.

Carstairs: I totally disagree. But if we look at the issues that are, I think, of concern to all Canadians who oppose the Meech Lake accord, there are some common elements. One is the distinct society clause. What does it mean? If it is simply a recognition of the historical fact of Quebec, I have no difficulty with it. But I think it goes much further than that. I believe the accord has, in fact, given Quebec additional powers which may well affect the rights of individuals living in Quebec, including women.

Hatfield: What powers?

Carstairs: Well, we don’t know what those powers are. And you don’t know what they are either, nor what they are not.

Venne: You talked about individual rights. I just want to say that I don’t think it is necessary for Canadian women to fight for the rights of women in Quebec. They are capable of fighting for their own rights. And Quebec has a charter of rights, which is cited everywhere as the most progressive charter in the country—even in the world.

Manning: Some people seem to think that we have to take Meech Lake exactly as it is, without any change, or nothing. From our perspective, I see the option as being some modification to Meech Lake to accommodate concerns about the accord and to recognize the constitutional changes that the West wants. That is the basis on which Meech Lake could be sold.

Roy: From the Quebec perspective, this brings a new element which has never been discussed. The purpose of Meech Lake was to bring Quebec into the Constitution. Other issues would be dealt with in a second round of negotiations.

Manning: But I suggest, Bernard, that the price of your getting what you want is having to put up with something you don’t want. That’s what being a Canadian has always meant to westerners, and I fail to see why it should be so repugnant to Quebec.

Hatfield: The history of Canada, prior to and after 1867, is riddled with the betrayal of Quebec. The most recent example was the 1980 referendum, when the federal government made a promise to Quebec of renewed federalism. Now the people of Canada are saying: ‘We’re not going to deliver on that promise. You trusted us, but before you get anything, you are going to have to promise us that you will give us what we want.’ If we do that, it will only confirm the fears that the people of Quebec have always had—the fears that their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents left with them.

Manning: But Richard, that is a Central Canadian view. The point is that Quebec does not have a monopoly on injustices. Other parts of the country feel that they have suffered profound injustices as well.

Hatfield: Frankly, I would rather see the Senate turned into a museum. But, in any event, you have a commitment in Meech Lake to proceed with Senate reform. Now you want to throw it away.

Manning: All the West sees is a token agreement. And I do not see why our demands should be so offensive to Quebec. You see, in a way the West has a love-hate relationship with Quebec. In the recent federal election, I ran against Joe Clark in Yellowhead. He tried at one meeting to bring up Meech Lake, and they started to boo him off the platform. So the error you are making is that you assume that if you can get 10 premiers to agree on something, they are carrying the judgment of their people.

Maclean’s: Mrs. Carstairs, isn’t there a danger that in campaigning against Meech Lake you will attract support from people who simply want to pick a fight with Quebec?

Carstairs: I get letters like that and I can tell you that they are all answered very curtly to the effect that this is not a fight with Quebec. This is a fight about our future constitutional evolution. You know, 11 first ministers signed this thing, presumably because they believed in it, and yet none of them had the courage to go back to their provinces and sell it. They didn’t have the courage to do this through a wide-open public hearing process.

Roy: Sharon, you said that you were prepared to bury Meech Lake without even hearing from the public in Manitoba. How can you justify that given what you just said?

Carstairs: I said that I believed Meech Lake was dead after what had happened in the Manitoba election. I support public hearings but having lived through the controversy over francophone rights in Manitoba in 1983-1984 and seeing the antipathy toward the French-speaking people of this nation, I did not want to go through that again, night after night. Richard says that we have nothing to fear from the distinct society clause. Well, then, why not refer it to the Supreme Court of Canada—or amend the clause to say that nothing in it violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

Venne: I can understand why people in English Canada oppose the concept of a distinct society. You just have to remember what Pierre Trudeau said in 1967—that special status for Quebec was equivalent to separatism. But for myself, I don’t think that the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society will mean the end of Canada. The greatest menace to the future of Canada is not Quebec. It is the United States.

Manning: There’s an old quotation of Abraham Lincoln’s that’s appropriate to this. He said that if two people are prepared to talk together, the exact meaning of their words does not matter. But if they are determined to disagree, they will argue about every comma. That, to me, is the dilemma with this distinct society thing.

Hatfield: Look, the Constitution also refers to the supremacy of God. Well, why don’t we put in all kinds of qualifications about what the hell ‘God’ is? The reason is that it would reflect on the religious perceptions of Canadians. And why did we not in 1982 define what the phrase ‘free and democratic society’ means in the Constitution? Does it mean that I can go through the streets shooting women and children? The fact of the matter is that the only people in this country who can define what ‘distinct society’ means are the members of the Supreme Court of Canada. And they can only define what it means within a context, so a reference to the court at this stage would not be the right thing to do.

Manning: We are only saying that there should be a safeguard to ensure that the distinct society clause will not be used to run rampant over the rights of minorities in Quebec.

Maclean’s: A lot of English-Canadians seem to feel that Quebec’s new sign law, Bill 178, tramples on the rights of anglophones. Are anglophones losing patience with Quebec?

Roy: Oh, I guess this country will always harbor some extremists and bigots. But I still think that most Canadians are tolerant. They have heard enough constitutional bickering. They want to deal with this issue and get on with other things.

Carstairs: I couldn’t agree more with Richard when he talks about the injustices to French-speaking people in Canada. But I live in a province where two per cent of the population identify their home language as French. They want to live as francophones, but they are afraid of what the distinct society clause means to them. They believe that if Quebec is defined as a distinct society, Quebec will be French and the rest of Canada will be English.

Maclean’s: Meech Lake also gives greater spending powers to the provinces at the expense of the federal government. At the same time, we have just entered into a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Is there a danger that Canada’s regions will go their separate ways?

Manning: It depends on the will of the people to keep this country together. I happen to believe that there is an ebb and flow in the centralization and decentralization of power. We see it going one way and we start to panic. And then something will happen—an environmental catastrophe or perhaps a war—and the power sucks back into Ottawa in 30 days.

Carstairs: I would suggest that if individual provinces decide to opt out of national programs, there is not going to be any national political will in this country. Why should a national politician enunciate a national day care program or a pharmacare program or a guaranteed annual income program if the provinces are just going to grab the money and announce their own programs?

Manning: But surely it is not the existence of social programs that determines our commitment to Canada.

Carstairs: Oh, I think it is a whole series of national programs that makes people feel like Canadians. I was born and raised in Nova Scotia, lived in Ontario and then moved to Alberta. Now I live in Manitoba, married to someone who was born in Quebec. But all of us have experienced the network of social programs that gives us our identity as Canadians.

Roy: Let’s suppose that, contrary to my expectations, Quebec continues to be isolated. At the same time, business people in Quebec have acquired a confidence which is quite extraordinary—they’re very gung-ho about their ability to meet American competition head on. If I were a proponent of Quebec independence, I would tell my fellow Quebecers: ‘You see, we have been rebuffed again. We do not have to trade with English Canada—we have a greater affinity with the Americans.’ The argument that was used during the 1980 referendum—that if Quebec pulls out it would be strangled economically—will not have much weight 10 years from now.

Carstairs: I believe in a very strong national government. There is also no question in my mind that Quebec is a distinct society. The only limitation that I would ask for is that it should not be interpreted in such a way as to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Hatfield: You are suggesting, first of all, that the distinct society clause overrides the charter and that Quebec will use it to take away fundamental rights and freedoms. That is a pretty insulting charge based on no evidence.

Carstairs: You cannot prove to me that it does not apply.

Hatfield: I can’t prove to you that the world is round, either.

Venne: Let’s compare the situation of English Quebecers with the situation of French-Canadians in other provinces. Recently, the commissioner of official languages issued a study showing that 100 per cent of anglophone children in Quebec were being educated in English. Yet in the rest of Canada, only 50 per cent of francophone children were attending French schools. So what are we talking about here?

Hatfield: I do not think we should be worried about the loss of the right to post an outdoor commercial sign in English. If you want to fight a civil war over that issue, not many people will come to your side. But when you take away fundamental language rights—as was done in Manitoba for years and years—that terrifies me. And who spoke up against it? Nobody.

Manning: We are not searching for perfection. But when you start putting Meech Lake into this all-or-nothing context, people get their backs up. We have to search for some definition of Canada that is not fraught with conflict. In the West, defining the country as a meeting of two founding races just won’t sell. This sounds simplistic, but when my kid asks me, ‘What’s a Canadian?’ I tell him that Canada is the land between the United States and the North Pole, and Canadians are the guys that live there. My definition is independent of culture, language and race.

Carstairs: You raised the concept of Bill 178. Quebec has to teach us by example. If they don’t, the francophone minorities in other parts of the country will suffer. It is true that francophone education is not equally available in all French communities, but it gets better every year. And when Quebec introduced Bill 178, the response of Franco-Manitobans was, ‘Oh, we now have to fight even harder than we did before, because Quebec decided not to be there as an example for us.’ That is what I found regrettable about Bill 178.

Venne: As far as I am concerned, Bill 178 was not an extreme reaction. The big issue in Quebec right now—and it is linked with the language problem—is a feeling of demographic insecurity because of immigration and the low birthrate. When you look at it in that context, Bill 178 is a very modest solution. And if we cannot arrive at an agreement on Meech Lake that allows people in Quebec to feel more secure, we might see more radical measures in the future. For example, the PQ has called for a limit on the number of English-language radio and television stations.

Carstairs: Well, if Meech Lake is not amended, then obviously we will have to consider another round of negotiations in the future. But that really doesn’t change anything. Nothing changes if we don’t have Meech Lake.

Hatfield: Speaking personally, as a white Anglo-Saxon male Canadian, I don’t care whether the Constitution changes or not. It is not going to put any more money in my pocket. But for Canada, I think it is critical. If we fail now, I think the next generation of Canadians is going to hate us. And if you insist on clear, precise, exact definitions of every word in the Constitution, it is hopeless.

Carstairs: But surely people have to look at the agreement and decide whether it meets their vision of Canada. And if it doesn’t, they have to speak out.

Hatfield: What I am trying to impress upon you is that in political life in Canada you have to make compromises.

Carstairs: Richard, there are all kinds of things I don’t like about Meech Lake. I don’t like the appointment of judges; I don’t like the appointment of senators; I don’t like the immigration provision. But I can live with those things. There are three things I cannot live with: the lack of a definition for distinct society, the unanimous consent provision and the division of spending powers. Those represent, to me, a fundamental erosion of what it means to be a Canadian. And if in the future I lose an election on it, I will accept the judgment of the people.

Hatfield: You have to compromise.

Carstairs: I would suggest that the compromise can be made on the other side.

Hatfield: Suppose I asked you to do a complete turnabout. What would happen to you in Manitoba, and in your own party, if you came out and said that Meech Lake should be approved as it is within the next 24 hours?

Carstairs: I would probably lose all credibility I ever had. But, you know, the reason I opposed Meech Lake was not that I saw it as a great political opportunity for me. It is simply not the direction I want this nation to go.

Roy: No one is suggesting that you are doing it to get political mileage. But having said that, I still think that we are faced with some brutal facts. We are playing a game of chicken if we assume that if Meech Lake fails, Quebec will keep quiet and stay in its corner.

Maclean’s: Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau has said that if Meech Lake is ratified, the concept of a single, bilingual Canada is dead. Is he right?

Hatfield: The idea that it is the responsibility of federal politicians to promote and preserve the minority language of French is a myth. It is a responsibility of the provinces. But this notion that somehow we can legislate acceptance of a bilingual Canada is not realistic any more than we can legislate a higher standard of Christian morality in this country.

Manning: The current federal official-languages policy is on shaky ground in the West. It does not make sense. It is not that we are anti-French or anti-Quebec. But there are communities in Alberta where the historic relationship between English and French was far better before the imposition of official bilingualism. People who used to co-operate now are at each other’s throats.

Carstairs: I disagree. I think we have made incredible strides in understanding and where we see it most is among young people. We can see it in the demand for more bilingual schools.

Hatfield: Preston, suppose I’m a unilingual, French-speaking person from Rimouski and I am on my way up in the Royal Bank of Canada. I have a wife and three children, all in school, and I’m moved to a small town in Alberta. Do you think I should forfeit my rights?

Manning: No, and I don’t think you will.

Hatfield: Do you believe your children have a right to any job whatsoever, regardless of what language they speak? Should they have a right to a job in the federal civil service?

Manning: Well, I am not as strong on rights, but I think they should have an opportunity. But if you go out into some of the rural communities in the West you will hear all sorts of complaints about the federal policy. I heard about one young girl who went through a bilingual education, applied to be the secretary at the local RCMP detachment and got passed over in favor of a francophone. It turned out the RCMP didn’t want a bilingual person—they wanted a francophone. Now, is it right or not? We get a hundred stories like that a month.

Roy: Preston, I looked at some of the advertisements that ran in your party’s newsletter [Reformer] last year when the debate on amendments to the Official Languages Act was in full flight. I was appalled by what I considered to be misleading statements about the impact that the legislation would have. In my opinion, those ads were designed to inflame passions, to stir up people’s emotions. You say that your party is not anti-French, and I take your word for it. But to my mind, that material came very close to being anti-French propaganda.

Manning: All kinds of extreme statements are made at our meetings, and some people criticize me for providing a forum for those views. Manitoba is one of the worst places in the West—the vehemence just boils over at those rural meetings. But I am more worried about the continuous suppression of the views of people who disagree with the official languages policy. Until you get this stuff vented, you can’t begin to deal with the misperceptions.

Hatfield: It is not just a western problem. There are English-speaking people in Montreal who complain loudly that they can’t get a job in Quebec City. There are French-speaking people in New Brunswick who claim that because of their language they can’t get a job in Fredericton. There’s a lot of truth to that, and we should attack it.

Manning: Yes, but there is a double standard. A guy from Quebec can stand up and fire his language at an MP and that is considered a legitimate affirmation of duality in Canada. But when a western guy tries to do the same thing he gets castigated by the national media as a racist.

Carstairs: There is also a double standard when an Alberta MLA who stands up in the legislature and tries to ask a question in French is ordered to speak English. That happened in 1987.

Roy: Yes, and when the news of that gets carried in Quebec, it helps to maintain the image of westerners as a bunch of rednecks.

Carstairs: I think it is imperative for the education system to keep stressing to young people that there is linguistic duality in this country—and if they are going to fully participate then they have to consider French language training as essential as mathematics. For those who are French-speaking at home, it is equally imperative that they learn English.

Manning: It comes back to communications.

Roy: Yes, and the mere fact that we are able to have a freewheeling exchange like this, with our own opinions and perceptions, I think says something about this country.