Recalling 'a good day' for Canada

25 years ago, the mood high for a deal, the first ministers agreed to the Meech Lake Accord. It was a 'historic breakthrough'

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Coming out of the Langevin Block on the morning of April 30, 1987, I ran into former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, who was in Ottawa on business.

"This is a very doable deal," Lougheed said of the meeting the prime minister had called for that day with the premiers on the constitution at Meech Lake. Lougheed had been consulted by both Brian Mulroney and his own successor, Don Getty. He knew the contents of the federal proposal, and he saw it as a low-cost deal for obtaining the signature of Quebec, which was missing on the 1982 Constitution Act (patriated with a Charter of Rights, over the objections of Quebec).

Mulroney also consulted another important former Conservative, Bill Davis of Ontario, who like Lougheed had been at the table in the 1981 round. "Lougheed and Davis both took the view that a final round was needed to bring in Quebec," he later said. "That was their sense of it."

"I don't think we'll get a deal," Mulroney told me at the time. As he later said: "It was only there, at Meech Lake, that the dynamic enabled us to do what we did."

There was something about the sylvan setting, a very Canadian place in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec, that somehow created a good feeling in the upstairs room at Willson House. There was also the fact that the first ministers were meeting alone, without officials and without advisers, except for two note-takers.

And finally, there was a lot of good will around the table toward Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa. They recognized the risks he was taking in reopening the constitutional file, and the price of failure in Quebec.

Getty and Ontario's David Peterson were especially in Bourassa's corner. As chairman of the Premiers' Conference, Getty was the author of the 1986 Edmonton declaration saying a Quebec round was needed to address a fivepoint agenda put forward by Bourassa's government. As for Peterson, he liked to say: "You can't run the country without Ontario and Quebec, it's that simple." And he saw it as three-way partnership, or as he called it, "Brian, Robert and me."

At one point, Bourassa had to get up and leave the room to take a call from his finance minister, Gérard-D. Lévesque. "I have a budget leak," he said.

His colleagues knew immediately what that meant, that he might have to leave the meeting and fly back to Quebec. They wouldn't have been surprised if he'd set it up himself, as a pretext for leaving without walking out.

I was standing a few feet away from Bourassa as he spoke to Lévesque. Since the leak was broadcast on the supper-hour news, he noted, the markets were closed, and budget secrecy intact. He told Lévesque to simply table the budget that evening and returned to the meeting.

That was the moment the other premiers realized he was serious about making a deal. There were five items on the Quebec agenda: entrenching its three seats on the Supreme Court, constitutionalizing an existing immigration accord, limits to federal spending power, Quebec as a distinct society within Canada, and a veto in the amending formula (which all provinces already had, in that it required unanimity to change it).

To which Mulroney added a sixth point: pending Senate reform, appointments to the upper body of Parliament would be made from lists provided by the provinces. This was an incentive to the western provinces, where there was strong support for an elected Senate.

At mid-evening, Mulroney called a break. Officials huddled at the bottom of the staircase wanted to know what their bosses were up to.

"This is the dangerous moment," quipped New Brunswick's Richard Hatfield, a veteran of all the constitutional wars since the early 1970s. "Get these people out of here."

But the mood and momentum for a deal held, and there was a sense of history being made in the room.

"You're holding a bit of history in your hands," Bourassa told the Quebec press corps when the media were admitted around 10 o'clock that night. Several of them asked him to autograph the communiqué announcing the details of the deal.

One of the reasons they got Meech was that they ran it under the radar. Once the interest groups and opponents were jolted awake, the dynamic changed. As the all night meeting at the Langevin proved only a month later, it was one thing to get a deal in principle, quite another to agree on a legal text.

And the three-year ratification period for Meech proved that time can be a big enemy in politics. Ratified by eight legislatures, Meech died in June 1990 when Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells cancelled a scheduled vote in his province on the pretext that it had been blocked on procedural grounds in Manitoba. It was a suicide pact between Wells and Manitoba's Gary Filmon.

On Monday, 25 years to the day, the Globe and Mail ran a picture of Mulroney and a smiling group of premiers at Meech Lake. "I'd completely forgotten about that," recalled Mulroney. "Twentyfive years ago today."

Many of us who were there, as privileged witnesses to history, have often wondered how things might have turned out differently for Quebec and Canada if Meech hadn't died.

But that night, as I handed Mulroney his statement, there was a sense the first ministers had made a historic breakthrough.

"This has been a good day for Canada," he began. And so it was.

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