Constitutional Ghosts

Halloween, apparently now lasting for weeks, is supposed to recognize a brief rising of the dead from their graves. This year, some of us are bound to hear the moaning and rattling of chains of two particularly gruesome corpses: the Meech Lake Accord, proclaimed a quarter of a century ago in 1987, and its more quickly extinguished successor, the proposed Charlottetown Accord, slain by a failed national referendum, held exactly twenty years before this October 26. Both creatures owed their brief lives to Brian Mulroney, manufactured during his two Conservative majority governments from 1984 to 1992. Sickly at best, each took fatal blows from the opposition of Pierre Trudeau, who demonstrated that, with no remaining political office at all, he retained as much clout on constitutional issues as Mulroney did as sitting Prime Minister. The decaying remains continue to haunt us still.

The constitutional upheavals of 1982-95 came about mainly because of the large political changes in Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s, especially the winning of a majority provincial government by the Parti Que’be’cois in 1976, and its own failed ‘sovereignty-association’ 1980 referendum. The conduct of the provincial Liberals, returned to power from 1985 to 1994, was also an important factor. But the whole story was shaped above all by the personal character and ambitious of Trudeau and Mulroney. By the 1980s, Trudeau was already something of a Canadian national institution, even to those who were not fond of him or his policies. He had been in power uninterruptedly from 1968 to 1979, those years including his use of the War Measures Act to deal with the 1970 FLQ crisis. The Joe-Clark-led Conservatives had defeated him in 1979, but had won only a minority government, which soon fell and brought back Trudeau from 1980 to 1984. He began those final years with his successful fight against the 1980 Quebec referendum, in which he had included a vague promise that he would soon provide a new Canadian constitution. He also turned sharply to the left, but the nationalist economic policies he introduced crashed badly on the double-digit interest rates of the early 1980s.

That brought Mulroney, newly chosen by the Conservatives to replace the ineffectual Joe Clark, to majority power in 1984. His most powerful argument at the 1983 Conservative leadership convention was that he was the man who could remedy the longtime weakness of his party in Quebec. By that time, Trudeau had carried out the ‘patriation’ of the constitution from the last powers held by the British Privy Council, combining that with the federal-provincial negotiations that led to the Constitutional Act of 1982. Trudeau gained the support of nine of the provinces, but the Act and its attended Charter of Rights and Freedoms was rejected by Rene’ Le’vesque, and also by the Quebec Liberals. However, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that neither Quebec nor any other province had the power to veto the patriation, or to claim that they were not bound by the new constitution.

In his 1984 landslide election victory, Mulroney indeed ‘delivered’ Quebec, filling its seats with conservative nationalists, including his then close friend and adviser, Lucien Bouchard. But few Canadians in other provinces, who voted largely against the Liberal economic record, had much idea what Mulroney had meant in his promise of constitutional ‘reconciliation’. Trudeau’s own 1980 promise to Quebec had actually led, in the 1982 Act, to a reduction of previous provincial powers; Mulroney was aiming at some kind of undoing of Trudeau’s handiwork. Three years later, Mulroney used all his considerable negotiating skills to gain the temporary agreement of all ten provinces, including Bourassa’s Quebec, and even the now John-Turner-led opposition Liberals, to his 1987 Meech Lake Accord, ambiguously recognizing Quebec as a ‘distinct society’.

New provincial Liberal governments in New Brunswick and Newfoundland soon showed that they did not with to preserve this fragile harmony, Manitoba was also discontented. Anglo Quebec, fearing its fate as part of the ‘distinct society’ also rebelled; while the 1989 provincial election gave another term to the Bourassa Liberals, four predominantly anglo seats abandoned them for the upstart Equality Party. Mulroney tried, sometimes in crude and bullying fashion, to steamroller over all these disparate problems. But when Trudeau subjected the agreement to an elegant and merciless assault in both the French and English press, that gave heart to the Newfoundland Liberal premier, Clyde Wells, and to an unbending native member of the Manitoba legislature, Elijah Harper, and they killed Meech Lake dead in June of 1990..

Much sound and fury followed for the next five years. The mercurial Lucien Bouchard, given major input in crafting Meech Lake, greeted its failure by resigning from the Conservative Party, taking with him a group of followers to form the Bloc Que’be’cois. Bourassa created the huge Be’langer-Campeau Committee, which included Jacques Parizeau and other PQ Members, Bouchard, and representatives of muncipalities, unions, and other groups. This mouutain laboured for a year and brought forth two mice: a smaller ‘Expert Committee to Consider the Implications of Sovereignty’, and another less lively one to consider new constitutional offers. Not much came of either. Mulroney, by then so personally unpopular that he pushed Joe Clark to the fore for new negotiations, cobbled together another accord at Charlottetown. But this time ratification depended on a national referendum, which not only failed in Quebec itself, but also in most other Canadian provinces. In the 1993 federal election, the Conservatives, now led by Kim Campbell, were almost annihilated, replaced by the Bloc in Quebec and the new Reform Party in Western Canada. The PQ under Jacques Parizeau won the 1994 Quebec election, and Parizeau tried yet another provincial ‘sovereignty’ referendum, but again narrowly failed to win a majority, despite drawing on the assistance of the much more personally popular Lucien Bouchard, who then replaced Parizeau as PQ Premier.

Both Trudeau and Mulroney were dealing with a singularly difficult province at a singularly difficult time, but they did a lot themselves to make both the time difficult. They are bound to be regarded as men who made a desert we now call peace. Both put the country at risk with ambitious gambles. Trudeau advanced his own centralist vision with so contemptuous a disregard for provincial nationalist emotions as to help revive quasi-separatist politics he once claimed to have vanquished. But Mulroney managed to be worse, using bungling attempts to use the separatist threat as a club to batter both recalcitrant provincial Canadian politicians and the wider public into accepting first Meech and then Charlottetown out of simple fear.

Mulroney simply could not demonstrate the supreme intellectual self-confidence and clarity of purpose that Pierre Trudeau could. Rather than successfully making the case for the traditionally more decentralized Conservative vision of Canada, he sounded more like a hired Quebec advocate than a Canadian Prime Minister. Trudeau was respected even by many Canadians who were not fond of him personally and did not at all like his political ideas. Mulroney was nearly the exact opposite, much better-liked by his own political rank and file, and much better at maintaining amiable relations with professional politicians generally than Trudeau. But overestimating the value of the professionals’ concord.

Much closer to the business world in which he had served as an executive, Mulroney was highly effective in leading the fight for the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S., winning his second majority government with that fight in 1988. But even his political supporters never saw him as an intellectually commanding small-c conservative alternative to Trudeau’s small-l left-liberalism. Worse, he did not seem to realize this, never seeing that a lawyer’s negotiating triumph with the politicians was an inadequate basis on which to redefine a nation. Trudeau, lofty authoritarianism and all, had an instinctive grasp of mass politics in the mass media age, which he continued to exploit without elected office. He could always provide at least the illusion that he commanded events; Mulroney never gave a similar impression, looking more like a man who had tried to set up a conjuring trick, only to have his stage apparatus collapse, with rabbits and doves fleeing in all directions. In the process, he had done more than any Quebec provincial politician to persuade the Quebec public that they had some large legitimate grievance against Canada, and he had helped demolish the once large reservoir of goodwill in the rest of the country toward this province. Now that the federal Liberals appear to be putting their hopes in Justin Trudeau, he may be tempted to propose another grand national reconstruction in the manner of his father, and it is conceivable that some successor to Stephen Harper will respond with a revived version of what Mulroney failed to do. Bad idea. Better to allow the ghosts out only on Halloween.

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