The Constitution, Meech, Charlottetown, Referendum(s)
Part B: The Constitutional Crises of the late 80s and early 90s!

Questions to ask yourself:

What were the key changes in the Constitution Act 1982?  What did the Meech and Charlottetown Accords offer that was new and significant? 

How did our new Constitution change things in Canada?  Was it a people's constitution?  What role did the media play?  Is Canada a Federation of Nations?  What does the word 'distinct'  mean to you, to Québec, and to other groups?  What are our Canadian values!? 

Learning Intentions:

To describe the changes in the Constitution Act 1982.

To describe the elements of the Meech Lake Accord.

To describe the elements of the Charlottetown Accord.

To compare and contrast the two Accords. 

To judge the effects of constitutional negotiations and the 2nd referendum on sovereignty 

The Canada Act (A.K.A. The Constitution Act of 1982)

Review:  Constitutional Changes of the early 1980s
In the 70s and 80s, the Federal government in Ottawa saw the constitutional process as a way for Canada to acquire full sovereignty and to be independant from Britain.  And since the Federal government saw itself as the only "national" government it also "felt it was necessary to centralize powers even more" to further solidify our sovereignty.

As Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau "assembled a group of constitutional advisers. He also drafted a set of federal demands for new, centralized powers over the economy. He wanted what he called a 'people’s package' added to the Constitution; it would include a new Charter of Rights and Freedoms."  However, he also recognized the importance of getting Provincial support to patriate the Constitution. 

(Text source:  From a longer text on the Constitutional Crises of the 1980s page, by PR and from various sources.)
For more on the causes and evolution of the Constitution of 1982 and the early Crises of the 1980s ➦ 

Canada Act of 1982:  Of control and human (and group) rights

March 29, 1982. This was the day that the Canada Act replaced the BNA Act as our constitution.  Most importantly, this act created a new amending formula and removed the British Parliament’s amendment powers.  It reestablish and defined powers and the way some powers can be changed by the Federal government, while others needed a two-thirds majority of Provinces to be changed.

The Canada Act also affirmed many existing common-law rights, in the form of an official Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  The Charter not only clarified and codified rights,  but it "prevents the federal, provincial and territorial governments from infringing on Canadian rights and freedoms."  Similarly, it protects people "against the state".   This serves to protect minorities, and even new immigrants, from decisions of even "parliamentary majorities", giving the law and its interpretation by judges the final say as concerns human rights like, for example, freedom of expression, the right to work and live, the right to gender equality.

Note that certain rights pertained to larger groups.  For example, the rights of Indigenous peoples are expressed there.  The right to use Canada's official languages is included.  And related to this, rights are given to French and English minorities to an education in their province. 

(Text source:  Paul Rombough from various sources in our main document collection, especially

Indigenous Rights: Section 35 and plans to meet leaders

The second and fourth "parts" of the Constitution have to do with Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Rights, then referred to more commonly as Aboriginal* Rights to include First Nations, Inuit and Métis.  Indigenous groups fought to have their rights included in this new document, which in part two "recognizes and affirms ... existing aboriginal and treaty rights."

Part four of the Constitution basically obligued the Prime Minister and Premiers to meet ot discuss the rights of Indigenous peoples.

The First Ministers’ Conference of March 1983 led eventually to the Constitution Amendment Proclamation of1983, which changed section 35 to include land claims agreements as treaties.  In other words all Indigenous peoples would have the same rights as other Canadians to make the decisions about their lives and land.

There were three more conferences (1984, 1985, 1987). However the four national Aboriginal organizations and the Prime Ministers and Premiers could not come to an agreement on the meaning of section 35.  The main issue was whether people have the right to govern themselves. Some people though it an inherent right, while others saw it as something granted by the Crown (i.e. Federal) governments. In the end, section 35 was seen more of as an “empty box” that needed to be filled up with agreements still to be negotiated.

Note that "The term Aboriginal was introduced in the 1982 Canadian Constitution by your federal government as an ‘umbrella’ term to include First Nations, Inuit and Métis."  Source

(Text source:  Paul Rombough from various sources in our main document collection, especially

In Québec: Aboriginal Peoples of Quebec Task Force ...  to provide a forum ... to formulate constitutional positions, and to put forward these positions to the governments of Canada and Quebec.  

Photo by Marie-Anne Boulay and text above from Taqralik magazine via 

Of Equalization Payments and Populations:  Alberta was unhappy, NFLD still "gets squat" 

Comparable economies and wealth between provinces?  Well, at least to ensure comparable "levels of public service and taxation".  This was a goal of the Federal Government's equalization payment policy since the 1950s.  The Constitution of 1982 formally commited the Government of Canada to the principle of making equalization payments.

It sounds like a great idea, but there were always provinces that were unhappy about the arrangement.  Alberta resented getting less when was giving so much.  

Even recently, in the “Fighting for Fairness” campaign, transfer amounts were a hot topic in the Newfoundland and Labrador PC Party during the election there. [...] “Quebec gets $13 billion a year and we get squat” said the PC Leader Ches Crosbie in a campaign ad.

(Text source:  Paul Rombough from various sources in our main document collection here,
especially The Canadian Encyclopedia and also  A New Tool to Understand Equalization

Trudeau gives gifts to everyone, except Alberta, Duncan Macpherson  TORONTO STAR   “In Copyright – Non-commercial Use Permitted”

"Please elect my dad. Please."
PC Leader Ches Crosbie in a campaign ad 

But does NFLD really "get squat"?  Do Québeckers actually get more?

"Figure 10 shows the distribution of total equalization transfers among the provinces at two points in time. QC (royal blue) has always received more than 50 percent of the total transfers. AB has never received equalization transfers (no neon green). Until 2009 that was also true for ON (red)  [...]

"A second view of the size of equalization payments going to the provinces is in per capita terms, shown in Figure 11. The size of these transfers is significant for some provinces, up to $2,000 per capita for PE and NL, in turquoise blue and fuchsia pink respectively. [...] QC (in royal blue), though it accounts for over half of total equalization transfers, in per capita terms is relatively low ranging from $750 to $1,000 per capita."

Text and image source: Regional Inequality and Decentralized Governance: Canada’s Provinces, by  M. Rose Olfert, p. 213-214.   Images available here as Figure 10 and Figure 11 under license Creative Commons BY  

Competency 1 task: Describe changes in the Constitution

To describe the changes in the Constitution Act 1982, students can use the documents below and the strategies and tables in the following student task workbook: Task - Describe key changes in the Constitution Act 1982.  

The Meech Lake Accord

Québec reactions to Constitution, and a new Prime Minister's response

In 1982 Québec did not sign the new Constitution, mainly because the new amending formula removed its veto over future constitutional change, and also because the new Charter of Rights, which guaranteed minority language rights in all provinces, seemed to threaten their ability to justify Bill 101 which could be argued removed Anglophone language rights.  

In 1984, Brian Mulroney (a Conservative) came to power having promised to accommodate Québec's objections to the constitution. Mulroney soon began negotiations with Québec and its new leader Robert Bourassa, to find a deal that would be acceptable to all provinces.  

(Text source:  Paul Rombough from various sources in our main document collection,

Image source: Brian Mulroney and the Quebec unknown,  Duncan Macpherson. “In Copyright – Non-commercial Use Permitted”

Provincial Powers to be enhanced and confirmed

For the first time, provinces were to be given a say in who gets nominated to the Senate and the Supreme Court.   Similarly, the Accord required at least one First Ministers Conference each year to increase the chances they would be consulted on other matters.

Social programs like health care were always a provincial power, but they were often funded using federal funds, which many felt had strings attached to how they were to be used.  The Accord would allow provinces to opt out of federal funding for certain programs, as long as they provided their own equivalents.

Finally, past agreements regarding immigration made it a shared responsibility between provinces and the federal government since Confederation.  This shared aspect to immigration was to be finally given " constitutional status" in the Meech Lake accord, something Québec would have certainly demanded more than most provinces. 

(Text source:  Paul Rombough from various sources in our main document collection

Image source: The Meech by Aislin at Image source:  “In Copyright – Non-commercial Use Permitted”

Distinct Society clause

While on the one hand recognizing the English minority in Québec and the Francophone minorities in the rest of Canada, the 1987 Meech Lake Accord also proposed a distinct society clause for Québec be included in the constitution. Since this clause could be interpretted in many ways, the fear was that Québec could use it to bypass rules about minorities, in particular in relation to their language rights.  Québec ultimately agreed on a version of the clause "promising that ,the distinct society clause, would not derogate the Charter, providing protections for multicultural and aboriginal rights, and tighter language regarding restrictions on the federal spending power.” 

(Text source:  Paul Rombough from various sources in our main document collection here,
Espcially Distinct Society - Centre for Constitutional Studies  and )

Image Source: Meech Lake, by Artist Duncan Macpherson,TORONTO STAR, 1989 via   “In Copyright – Non-commercial Use Permitted”

Veto out for Quebec, replaced by the notion of unanimous consent

Previously Québec (and Ontario) could veto changes to the constitution, but the 1982 constitution " did not accord the province a veto over future constitutional change"...

One could say that many of Québec's demands were essentially "provincialized", since rights regarding immigration, the Senate and Supreme court, and opting out of programs were given to all provinces by Meech.  Similarly, "specialized matters (such as changes to the Senate and the creation of new provinces) would require the unanimous consent of Parliament and the provinces," which one could say gives a kind of veto to everyone, including Québec.  Even Réne Levesque had agreed with this, in favour of getting an opting out clause, but it didn't sit well with all Québeckers, some of whom still felt that "Quebec’s right to a veto is based on its special role within Confederation as the representative of one of two founding peoples."

(Text source:  Paul Rombough from various sources in our main document collection here,
Including Aboriginal Peoples and Constitutional Reform and Quebec's constitutional veto: the legal and historical context (BP-295E) )

Wells strongly opposed Meech Lake [...]  The veto clause, he argued, would make future constitutional amendments practically impossible.” (Source)

Source: Clyde and Brian.  By Aislin via   "In Copyright – Non-commercial Use Permitted"

Key opposition: Indigenous Groups felt Meech closed door on “Aboriginal Self-Government” possibilities

Unianimous consent from provincial legislatures was required for Meech to pass, however in Manitoba "Elijah Harper, the lone aboriginal MLA, recorded the only 'no' vote, and the following week, he opposed any circumvention of the rules of the legislation concerning hearings on the Accord."

Why was Elijah Harper objecting?  He was not alone.  There was strong opposition from Indigenous people throughout Canada, due to the Accord's ambiguities and imprecisions which they felt "stood in the way of constitutional recognition of aboriginal self-government".  They also disapproved of the "equally elusive distinct society concept". They felt, as they had in 1982, that "Recognition of Quebec as a "distinct society" ignores the reality that aboriginal peoples also form "distinct societies."

Indigenous peoples were also tired of being "continuously excluded from constitutional discussions, and a number of fruitless conferences on Aboriginal issues showed little progress and failed to address any of the valid concerns of Canada's Aboriginal people.'  Elijah Harper's 'no' in the Manitoba legislature was symbolic of the much greater rejection of the Accord by the country's Aboriginal peoples.”

(Text source:  Paul Rombough from various sources in our main document collection here,
Including quotes from  Aboriginal Peoples and Constitutional Reform  and Manitoba Law Journal and The Aboriginal Peoples of Canada )

Key opposition: Pierre Trudeau warns of end of "One Canada"

Aa majority of Canadians supported  Mulroney's Meech Lake agreement, even Liberal Party leader John Turner and New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent. However, former Prime Minister Trudeau attacked the Accord as a capitulation to provincialism and the end of any dream of "One Canada". He referred to Mulroney as a "weakling," the Premiers as "snivelers," and invoked Bourassa's previous reneging of the Victoria Charter as suggesting that the Accord would be the beginning of concessions to Quebec and provincial interests.

Source, more information, and other sources at Meech Lake Accord - Wikipedia 

Image source: A collage of several images available in CBC video Elijah Harper's vote of protest in 1990 | 

Pierre Trudeau images available via Getty images 1987 search 

Listen to more about Pierre Trudeau calling Mulroney a 'weakling' over Meech Lake at  

Image source: National Service of the RÉCIT, Social Universe domain. Licence: Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA).

June 22, 1990:  The Failure of the Meech Lake Accord

The Meech Lake Accord was signed in April 1987 by the premiers and the Prime Minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney. This agreement provided for certain changes to the Constitution in order to respond to Quebec's demands. The provinces had three years to pass the agreement in their respective legislatures. By the June 1990 deadline, Manitoba and Newfoundland had still not fulfilled this condition, which caused the agreement to fail. Opposition in these provinces stemmed from the fact that the privileges granted to Quebec were deemed to be excessive and that Indigenous peoples had not been consulted during the process.

Source: RECITUS via Ligne du temps, 1980 à nos jours and part of our version of that same timeline here.

Competency 1/2 task: Describe and Explain Meech

To describe and explain the elements of the Meech Lake Accord.

Students could examine appropriate documents in our main collection.  Using this guide and diagram-style organizer students could isolate key documents, summarize elements of the Meech Lake Accord, then explain them using the prompts available, while also referring to examples in the documents.

The Charlottetown  Accord of 1992

Charlottetown negotiations included Provinces and various Indigenous groups 

After Meech had failed the federal government held a series of five conferences to discuss new proposals for the future of Canada, its Constitution, and how it might bring Québec to sign.  A federal report called "A Renewed Canada" was produced.  

As before, the approval of each province was essential.  But just as important, it was now more than obvious that Canada's various First Peoples needed to be consulted and their concerns reflected in any future constitutional proposals.  Thus,  "The Assembly of First Nations, the Native Council of Canada (now the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples), the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada and the Métis National Council were also involved. 

(Text source:  Paul Rombough from various sources in our main document collection here,  

“During the constitutional negotiations that led to the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), under Ovide Mercredi, held to the principle that the Aboriginal right to self-government is "inherent" and has not been extinguished by Canadian law.” 
Source:   Canadian Encyclopedia.  

Several “bodies engaged” on the future of Confederation

“Following the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990, a series of deliberations took place on the future of Confederation both within and outside of Quebec.  There were four bodies empanelled to engage in these discussions – a parliamentary and an extra-parliamentary body within Quebec and a parliamentary and an extra-parliamentary body nationally."  

Text source:   Paul Rombough  from various sources in our main document collection here,

Image source:   Spicer Commission by Aislin , both under "In Copyright – Non-commercial Use Permitted"

Nationally, there were the Beaudoin-Edwards Committee and the Spicer Commission:

The Beaudoin-Edwards Committee was a Special Joint Committee of the House of Commons.  It examined the existing constitutional amending formula and recommend alternatives.  Hearing from academics, individuals, interest groups and political associations, it found that ... a further joint committee need to be created to consult with Canadians. It also recommended that the federal government adopt legislation requiring a national referendum on any proposed constitutional changes.  

The Spicer Commission, also known as Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future, was part of the Mulroney government's efforts to lay the groundwork for the Charlottetown Accord. The forum revealed deep divisions between Québec and the rest of Canada and made several recommendations, including Senate reform, recognition of Quebec's uniqueness, and recognition of Indigenous rights.  

Within Quebec there were the Bélanger-Campeau Commission, and the Allaire Committee (i.e. The Allaire Report):

In 1990, the 'Belanger-Campeau Commission' ... recommended that the National Assembly establish two committees to examine the question of Québec sovereignty ... It also recommended that a referendum on Québec sovereignty take place in 1992. 

The National Assembly modified the latter recommendation to provide that the referendum could be on either sovereignty or reformed federalism. These recommendations contributed to the Charlottetown Accord, which was rejected in simultaneous referenda in October 1992.

Source: Belanger-Campeau - Centre for Constitutional Studies 

Image source: The Bélanger-Campeau Commission and the Canadian Unity Committee, by Aislin. 1990 “In Copyright – Non-commercial Use Permitted” 

The committee headed by Jean Allaire ... eventually produced, “A Québec free to choose: report of the Constitutional Committee of the Québec Liberal Party (better known as the Allaire Report).  It was a party policy adopted in March 1991, then removed in August 1992. This policy proposed a vast decentralization of federal powers and significant autonomy for the Quebec state. [...] The report called on the government to recover legislative responsibilities from the federal state in 22 areas. This recommendation surpassed that of the Meech Lake Accord, which called only for immigration matters to be handed to the Quebec government.

Text source summarized by Paul Rombough, with sentences slightly rearranged from source: Dupuis, S. (2021). Allaire Report. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

Image source: Canadian Reactions to Jean Allaire Report.  By Aislin. '91 Montreal The Gazette via  “In Copyright – Non-commercial Use Permitted “ 

Division of Powers:  Forests, Mining, and Cultural Control

The Charlottetown Accord gave the Provinces jurisdiction over forestry, mining and some other areas, and urged the Feds and the Provinces to harmonize common services like telecommunications, labour and training, regional development, and immigration, with the provinces getting control over most cultural affairs, except for the CBC and the National Film Board.

The Accord would have changed centralizing features in the Constitution, such as Disallowance which had given the Federal government the power to dismiss any provincial act within one year, based on whether it was to the “Advantage of Canada” or not.

Source and more information:  Charlottetown Accord - Centre for Constitutional Studies
Images at right of the poet and singer Richard Desjardins (McCord) and of one of his two documentaries on forestry and mining.(NFB)

Image source: Image source: Canadian values - Wikipedia by Moxy under s BY-SA 4.0 license.

Québec a Distinct Society:   The “Canada Clause”

 One somewhat ironic and arguably contradictory feature of the Charlottetown Accord was the so-called “Canada Clause".  It defined the nature of the Canadian character and our values. But one of those values was the recognition that Quebec as a distinct society within Canada.  Diversity and egalitarianism were also declared Canadian values.

The clause in the Charlottetown Accord's preamble regarding Québec's distinct nature was meant, like in Meech, to be an interpretative clause, intended to help courts make discissions on constitutional disputes.  However, many feared the clause would have made courts hesitant to declare laws only in Québec, regarding language rights for example, as being in conflict with Charter freedoms.

Source::  Paul Rombough paraphrasing  Charlottetown Accord at  and also  Distinct Society - Centre for Constitutional Studies 

Leaders all support Charlottetown, but ...

The premiers of the ten provinces, the leaders of the two territories and principal Indigenous leaders met with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to agree on a constitutional reform for Canada.  This was called the Charlottetown Accord.  However, now a national referendum was required for constitutional decisions to be made, first according to the three western provinces, then with Mulroney agreeing to a national referendum for others.  Quebec oversaw its own referendum process on the agreement.

Pierre Trudeau and Elijah Harper both blast this Accord.

Trudeau spoke out, in a key article published in both the Macleans and La Presse magazines.  He said that our existing constitution already allowed for Québec to be distinct, but he worries that the need to have it written out specifically for Quebec is because it also recognizes the collective rights of other communities, of Indigenous peoples, of women, etc.  Québec's move to have a provincial right of distinctiveness could mean that province  (or any province) could use that power to overrule individual rights.  

The changes in the Charlottetown Accord also pleased many Indigenous leaders.  The Canada Clause ensured the Charter would be interpreted in a manner consistent” with the first peoples having the right to promote their language, culture and traditions.   They would have representation in the Senate.  And amendments would follow recognizing the inherent right of self-government within Canada.  Though many leaders participated in Accord talks, Elijah Harper called for a boycott of the referendum, declaring that Charlottetown was ambiguous and that he was not able to "to trust" that all the leaders would ever be able to work things out. 

Source::  Paul Rombough paraphrasing  various sources here in our main document collection

Referendum fails on the Charlottetown Accord

Following the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, the federal government wanted to find a solution to the constitutional impasse. In August 1992, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, provincial and territorial leaders, and Indigenous representatives agreed on a proposed new constitutional agreement. The Charlottetown Accord included the conditions set by Quebec in the Meech Lake Accord and responded to some of the criticisms expressed by Indigenous peoples. However, in order to be implemented, the accord was put to a vote by the Canadian population through a referendum. The Charlottetown Accord was rejected by 56.7% in Quebec and 54.3% in Canada as a whole.

Source: RECITUS via Ligne du temps, 1980 à nos jours and part of our version of that same timeline here.

Image source: National Service of the RÉCIT, Social Universe domain. Licence: Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA). 

Competency 1 task:  Describe and Explain Charlottetown

Use a table and an illustration to collect notes to help you describe and explain the elements of the Charlottetown Accord.   

Click here to view the table document in our main document collection.   |   Click here for a larger version in a new window.

Interpretative Competency 2 task:  Compare and contrast the Accords!

To compare and contrast Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, begin by brainstorming types of differences

Then note details for each of these points to allow for a comparison of the two proposals.  A modified Compare This That and Aspects_too by LEARN could be used here. 

The Québec Referendum of 1995

Quebec alienated:  Another Referendum on Sovereignty in 1995

In the early 1990s, the failure of Charlottetown and the bitter debates over Québec's distinct society help bring the Parti Quebecois back to power, this time under Jacques Parizeau.  He had promised the referendum in his campaign for 1995.  As part of the strategy to move the process forward, Bill 1 was drafted and debated in the National Assembly, as a "legal pretext for declaring independence".  Bill 1 or An Act respecting the future of Québec" (Loi sur l’avenir du Québec), included a declaration of sovereignty in its preamble and reference to an agreement of 12 June 1995 between all the Québec party leaders of the time.

On  October 30th, 1995 the referendum was held, and it featured the largest voter turnout in Quebec's history (93.52%).  The question read:

"Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership …"

Source::  Paul Rombough paraphrasing  various sources here in our main document collection 

Source: We love you - Pas cette fois-ci j'ai mal à la tête!, by Serge Chapleau, via under “In Copyright – Non-commercial Use Permitted” 

Unity Rally:  Canadians arrive to urge Québec to stay

"Days before the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty, the Quebec Business Council on the Environment called for a rally as a focal point for federalist voters. Minister of Fisheries Brian Tobin called on Canadians outside Quebec to join in this last event of the No campaign. On October 27, the event snowballed into a large demonstration, filling Place du Canada in downtown Montréal with an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 people from all over Canada. It was one of the largest political rallies in Canadian history. Many accused the organizers of unlawful campaign expenditures, which led to Quebec’s chief electoral officer investigating charges of overspending."  

Source: Unity rally | Canadian Museum of History 

Interpretative Competency 2 task: 
Judge the effects of constitutional negotiations and the 2nd referendum on sovereignty. 

Read through various documents and texts on the 2nd referendum on sovereignty in Québec in 1995, here in our main document collection.

Choose a newspaper that would have existed at the time in a city in Québec or even in another province!  Write an editorial for that paper and directed at its audience,  that describes the situation in Québec and/or another region of Canada in the early to mid-1990s.  

Explain briefly the history of the various constitutional crises and accords.  Then detail what happened in the 1995 referendum.  

End with a conclusion as to what effect(s) that referendum had, while also specifying which aspects of society were affected (i.e. economy, political, social, cultural, etc.)

Main Document collection:

Our main document collection is already available here.  Feel free to browse resources we have compiled so far!

The Constitution - Meech-Etc

Padlet of Curated sites:

For convenience and counting purposes, we are also creating a Padlet of many of the resources and sites we are visiting.  Text sources are at left, while media sources are at right.  Open here, in a very large window, to view all the resources!