The issues under discussion in the present constitutional debate go back many years. Quebec's distinct society can be traced to the Québec Act of 1774, nearly a hundred years before Confederation; discussion of Senate reform began in 1867 and has been going on ever since. The debate between supporters of greater provincial autonomy and those who believe in a more centralized federation has also been going on since 1867. And there are other issues: the quest of the aboriginal people for recognition; gender equality; the place for Canadians of multicultural heritage in the definition of the fundamental character of the country; and the impact of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on our traditional approach to civil liberties.
The present round of constitutional discussion must be understood in the context of what happened in the province of Quebec on May 20, 1980. A referendum was held on the question of whether the Quebec government should be given a mandate to negotiate sovereignty association. During the referendum debate the people of Quebec were promised constitutional reform if they voted NO. The federal victory was widely celebrated across Canada and led to constitutional discussions between Ottawa and the provinces over the precise nature of the changes.
The culmination of this process was the patriation of the Canadian Constitution from Westminster in 1982 and adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and of a new amending formula. After extensive debate, every province except Quebec endorsed the 1982 constitutional change. Quebec did not agree with the process and maintained that substantial changes to the Canadian Constitution had been made without its consent. As a result, Quebec refused to participate in constitutional conferences except as an observer and would not vote on amendments such as those dealing with the rights of the aboriginal people.
This position has no legal effect since the Constitution was patriated legally and the Constitution Act, 1982 applies to Quebec despite its disagreement. But the political consequences are very real.
Following the 1985 election a new government took office in Quebec. In contrast to the twentytwo conditions of its predecessor it agreed to support the constitutional reform of 1982 if five conditions could be accommodated in its place. These were:
In August 1986 the 27th Annual Premiers Conference took place in Edmonton. At that time the Premiers unanimously agreed "that their top constitutional priority is to embark immediately upon a federalprovincial process, using Quebec's five proposals as a basis for discussion, to bring about Quebec's full and active participation in the Canadian federation. There was a consensus among the Premiers that then they will pursue further constitutional discussions on matters raised by some provinces which will include, amongst other items, Senate reform, fisheries, property rights, etc." This subsequently became known as the Edmonton Declaration.
It should be noted that the process of aboriginal constitutional conferences started in 1983 and concluded in March 1987 without an agreement. Thus the process of these aboriginal constitutional conferences had not been completed successfully at the time of the Edmonton Declaration.
Between August 1986 and April 1987 intensive discussion took place among ministers and officials on Quebec's proposals. At a meeting at Meech Lake, on April 30, 1987 the First Ministers worked out an agreement in principle on Quebec's five proposals. Officials were directed to draft a legal document to incorporate the agreement. On June 2 and 3, the First Ministers met at the Langevin Building in Ottawa and reached agreement on the precise wording of the Accord. On June 23, 1987 the Quebec National Assembly became the first legislature to approve the Meech Lake Accord which, as set out in Section 39(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982, triggered the three year period for ratification.
During the course of our hearings witness after witness, even those most critical of the Meech Lake Accord expressed support for Canadian unity and the need to make Canada's second most populous province an active participant in federalprovincial negotiations and a participating member of the Canadian constitutional family. There was general agreement that Quebec's five proposals were reasonable for that purpose.
Last HTML revision: 7 February 1997.
William F. Maton