The tragedy of Meech Lake's death

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National Post, Friday, April 11, 2008

Stephane Dion called it "the worst constitutional error in the history of Canada." He was speaking, at a 1995 university symposium, of Pierre Trudeau's "campaign against Meech." Five years previously, the Meech Lake Accord died because of Trudeau's opposition to it, and because premiers Clyde Wells of Newfoundland and Gary Filmon of Manitoba refused to put it to a vote in their legislatures.

"We'll never know for sure," Dion told Policy Options magazine in an interview last year, "but I'm confident that if Meech had passed ? I would be a university professor today, and [Quebec] would not have had the second referendum."

Unfortunately -- and, for Dion, unfairly -- he is the inheritor of a negative political legacy in Quebec, where the federal Liberals are seen to this day as the party that killed Meech, whose provisions included recognition of Quebec as "a distinct society within Canada." It is one of the enduring hits the Liberal brand has taken in Quebec, beginning with Trudeau's patriation of the Constitution in 1982 over Quebec's objections.

Nor can there be any doubt that the blow-back from the death of Meech was a factor in the near-death experience of the 1995 referendum. Anyone who was on the streets of Montreal in late October 1995 remembers the lingering sense of grievance. Payback was in the air.

And over what? Trudeau's relentless opposition to Meech, from its adoption in 1987 to its death in 1990, was based mainly on the recognition of Quebec as a "distinct society" for purposes of interpreting Canada's Constitution (including his Charter). Because Trudeau was the father of the Charter, and an orthodox federalist who had always fought any suggestion of special status for his home province of Quebec, his campaign against Meech had unique resonance in English-speaking Canada. As Bob Rae later observed, Trudeau legitimized opposition to Meech.

Trudeau's famous newspaper article of May, 1987, dripping with scorn for Brian Mulroney and the provincial premiers ("snivellers" who should be "sent packing") was a return to his intellectual origins as a pamphleteer at Cite Libre magazine (where he once dismissed Lester Pearson as "the defrocked prince of peace"). Previously, Mulroney had discussed the April 30, 1987, agreement in principle with Trudeau, and sent two senior officials, including Trudeau's own former speechwriter, Andre Burelle, to Montreal to brief him.

"Let me hear back from you," Mulroney told him on the phone. He never did. The night before the article was published, Mulroney met Trudeau at a social function in Toronto, and the former PM didn't give a word of warning of what was to come.

Trudeau's article ignited a firestorm within the Liberal party and across the country, and nearly caused Ontario's David Peterson to back away from the deal at the all-night Langevin Block meeting of June 2-3, 1987. Peterson was concerned the "distinct society" language would have a negative impact on English-language minority rights in Quebec.

"Does it?" Mulroney asked his two top constitutional advisers during a break in the middle of the night.

"No, sir," said Frank Iacobucci, then deputy minister of justice and later a justice of the Supreme Court.

"No, prime minister," said Roger Tasse, the government's outside counsel, who as deputy justice minister in 1982 held the pen on the Charter. "I wrote the Charter. Trudeau is wrong. Nothing here dilutes minority language rights."

In fact, the distinct-society language would have been interpreted in light of a duality clause that recognized English-language minorities in Quebec, and francophone minorities elsewhere in the country, as "fundamental characteristics of Canada."

Brian Dickson, then chief justice of the Supreme Court, later said the court would have had "no problem" with it. Beverley McLachlin, the current chief justice, has since echoed that view.

Mulroney's serious error, as he has acknowledged in his memoirs, may well have been that he didn't refer Meech to the Supreme Court to ask if Meech conveyed special status to Quebec.

If the answer had come back as a no, that would have been the end of it. Neither Trudeau, nor Wells, nor anyone else, would have had another word to say about it.

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