Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reasons for the Charlottetown Accord's Failure

Failure at Charlottetown:

Why the Accord Broke Down

Ty Ludwig



At the centre of any political hurdle lies a battle between beliefs and values, often seen between conflicts of state and individual rights. These battles take form under different issues and the same held true with regards to constitutional reform. Constitutional reform in Canada began receiving more attention throughout the 1960s and 1970s until Pierre Trudeau brought the constitution to Canada in 1982. This process began earlier when Trudeau pledged to “patriate the Constitution, give it a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and an amendment formula” (Guy, 2001: 296). Trudeau went into negotiations with the different provinces over the specific details and came to an agreement with all of the provinces except for Quebec. As a result, Quebec did not sign the Constitution act, 1982 which paved the way for the attempted constitutional reforms in the 1980s and 1990s. The most important of these attempts were represented by the Meech Lake Accord, 1987 and the Charlottetown Accord, 1992. There were completely different sets of factors which doomed each accord, as the Meech Lake Accord was an agreement between Premiers and their individual provinces, while the Charlottetown Accord’s fate was decided in a national referendum. The fact remains, however, that both major pieces of constitutional legislation failed to garner national support for a variety of reasons.


To properly understand the failure of the Charlottetown Accord, several factors must first be considered. For one, the Meech Lake Accord and the impact of its failure must be analysed as it was the stepping stone toward the Charlottetown Accord and was entirely contained within the bounds of the 1992 accord (Burgess, 1993). Several factors surrounding the Charlottetown Accord must also be taken into consideration, such as the political figures in support and against it, as they all impact as to why the accord ultimately failed. The Accord itself must be analysed for reasons of failure as it contained many implications nationally and provincially. Finally, the method chosen to allow the accords passage, a national referendum, must also be analysed as this may have also contributed to the Charlottetown Accord’s ultimate demise. Undertaking thorough examination it will be shown that all of these factors played a different role in the failure of the Charlottetown Accord and, although varied in the degree to which they affected the outcome; it will be shown that the Accord was destined to failure from its very beginning, subsequent to the Meech Lake Accord’s failure, to its final gasp in the 1992 national referendum.

Meech Lake Accord, 1987

The Meech Lake Accord is often looked upon as a measure which came very close to becoming ratified. The Accord had a “three-year ratification window (which) was adopted and Parliament and eight legislatures ratified the Accord in fairly short order” (Johnston et al., 1996: 47). This meant that only two provinces failed to quickly usher in legislation approving of the Accord, which proved fatal as neither province ratified the Accord before the 1990 deadline. Negotiations between Mulroney and the Premiers of each province had proven, at first, to be successful. The Accord soon stumbled into major problems in the form of: Elijah Harper in Manitoba refusing support, Clyde Wells in Newfoundland first accepting the Accord then terminating his approval, and the destruction of the Conservative government in New Brunswick and subsequent disapproval by new Liberal Leader Frank McKenna. These problems, along with Quebec’s Liberal Premier Bourassa’s use of the notwithstanding clause to “...protect its sign legislation against the Charter...” “(e)licited a chorus of disapproval from English Canada that was a major factor in the defeat of Meech Lake” (Cairns, 1992: 122).

Elijah Harper refused to support the Accord based on the fact that there was no First Nations representation within its five major conditions and this proved to be one of the fatal strikes that Meech Lake would endure. Along with Harper’s refusal, one of the major reasons that the Accord failed had to do with Clyde Wells and his political manoeuvring. Wells initially supported the measure; however upon learning of Harper’s stand in the Manitoba Legislature, he withdrew his support and adjourned the Newfoundland legislature before a free vote could be held (Russell 1992: 75). Frank McKenna’s support was finally relinquished with twenty days left until the deadline for provincial ratification with an emergency meeting on the Meech Lake Accord. This meeting diffused the situation in New Brunswick but failed to garner the support of Clyde Wells in Newfoundland which spelt destruction for the Accord.

Ultimately, there were various severe consequences for not ratifying the Meech Lake Accord which factored into the failure of the Charlottetown Accord and these consequences proved quite different for Quebec than in the rest of Canada. The Accord dealt quite heavily with issues pertaining to Quebec, and Quebeckers developed “a sense of national rejection (that) was both widespread and deeply felt” (Vipond, 1993: 40). Due to this, support for separatism reached new highs (Dion, 1992: 86-88) and Quebec’s Liberal party commissioned the Allaire Report creating more demands if the province were to ever enter into the constitution (Guy, 2001: 300). The results for the rest of Canada were quite lax. Many believed that the government should focus on economic issues rather than dabble in constitutional changes, while others believed that the differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada were too great to be able to bring together through the constitution, and wondered if uniting Canada “was still worth the effort” (Watts, 1991: 170). Another consequence arose from the political stand Elijah Harper represented when he blocked the passage of the Meech Lake Accord in the Manitoba Legislature, which resulted in Aboriginal issues taking a much greater role in the Charlottetown Accord. These consequences all played major roles in how the next round of constitutional negotiations would develop and subsequently, fail.

The Charlottetown Accord, 1992

The Charlottetown Accord was a conglomeration of compromises by the many different parties involved in negotiating it. As Russell describes it, “the two years leading up to the Charlottetown Accord the public, through all kinds of committees and commissions, was consulted as never before” (1993: 35). After the Meech Lake Accord’s failure, Quebec Liberal premier Bourassa together with separatist leader Parizeau commissioned the Allaire Report laying out demands for Quebec to consider returning to constitutional reform bargaining. Basically, the report “wanted extensive decentralization of powers to Quebec, demanding exclusive control over twenty-two jurisdictions and recommending that the federal government act as a kind of clearing house for the provinces” (Guy, 2001: 300) . As well, another committee known as Belanger-Campeau Commission demanded the same decentralization of powers, along with a referendum to decide Quebec’s sovereignty. The Federal government countered with their own committee known as the Special Joint Committee on a Renewed Canada which reopened negotiations with Quebec and ultimately set the stage for the Charlottetown Accord.

Unlike the Meech Lake Accord, the Charlottetown Accord contained a whole host of Canada-wide constitutional issues, such as senate reform, aboriginal self-government, and Quebec as a distinct society. One of the major reasons the Accord ultimately failed was the disagreements between Quebec and the rest of Canada on both senate reform and the constitutional powers Quebeckers. Alan C. Cairns points out that a major flaw in the proposal was the fact that it watered down Quebec’s ambitions for decentralization and effectively involves the province to an even greater extent in national institutions. Many, including the Western Reform party, pointed out the fact that “Quebec’s greatest gains were in central institutions – the Supreme Court, the House of Commons, a double majority in the Senate with the Quebec members in effect nominated by the Quebec government, and a veto with other provinces on constitutional changes to central institutions” (Cairns, 1998: 38). Due to this, Quebec promptly voted against the measure (see Appendix A) and sent a clear message to the rest of Canada just as to how high their constitutional demands were.

At the same time, Western Canada resoundingly voted against the Charlottetown Accord and a major factor of this result lay in the concessions for a reformed senate. Western Canada had been negotiating for better regional representation and had looked to a “Triple E” senate as a solution. While provisions were made for senate reform, it was deemed by the Reform Party to be “the less-than-2-3 Senate” and did not appease the West as it did not “satisfy aspirations for the regional equality” (Noel, 1998: 75). Westerners had many problems with the concessions made in order to achieve a consensus such as granting the Provinces the choice to as to how to choose their senators, a consensus Quebec pushed for. The greatest, albeit symbolic, slight to the West lay in the equal representation they had pushed for and were suppose to receive in the senate. In actuality, “the boosts actually given were small and still left Alberta and British Columbia less well represented in the new House than in the old” (Johnston et al., 1996: 57). Combine this with the fact that the Senate would only hold a limited veto , thereby undermining it’s “effective” status (Lusztig, 1994: 763); it is not hard to make a connection between the concessions the Charlottetown Accord made and the vote results in British Columbia and Alberta (see Appendix A).

Finally, another factor contributing to the failure of the Charlottetown Accord can be attributed to the concessions, or lack thereof, made for Minority rights. The Reform party, claiming to represent Western Canada’s best interests, took a staunch position on a concession for Aboriginal self-governance. Along with the Reform party, British Columbia’s premier claimed that the Accord “does not do BC any favours” (Lusztig, 1994: 766) which led to many other prestigious Western politicians to take a stance against the Charlottetown Accord. One of the largest oversights of the Charlottetown Accord occurred through lack of representation for a large amount of different minority groups. While the list of those invited to take part in negotiating the Accord included four principle Aboriginal groups, it did not include any representation from the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). “The exclusion of NAC President Judy Rebick was considered a grave insult” proclaimed Michael Lusztig, causing the organization to proclaim that “the Accord created a hierarchy of rights in which women ranked behind groups such as linguistic minorities, Aboriginals and Quebeckers” (1994: 767). With such a large amount of concessions in favour of Aboriginal rights, one is led to believe that a great amount of support for the Charlottetown Accord would be seen amongst Aboriginals. As Vipond describes, “the Charlottetown Accord enshrined the ‘inherent right’ of aboriginal self-government, recognizing aboriginal governments as one of the three orders of government in the country.” This would mean that Aboriginals would be granted the ability “to safeguard and develop their languages, cultures, economies, identities, and traditions” (1993: 46). It should be noted that exactly how Aboriginal self-government would rule was left to be decided by the courts in five years time, from the signing of the Accord. Despite all of these provisions, “Elections Canada estimates that 62 percent of the Aboriginal community rejected the accord” (Lusztig, 2002: 124). This proved to be yet another fatal shortcoming contributing to the failure of the Charlottetown Accord.

The Negotiators, Campaigners, and Opposition

A third major piece to the Charlottetown Accord’s failure can be described by the groups which negotiated the actual Accord, those who campaigned for it, and those who opposed it. It is important to analyse the impact of each of these individual pieces as each played a role in the ultimate failure of the Charlottetown Accord. Michael Lusztig argued that the negotiation of the Accord was really about four conflicting groups, which he referred to as “mega constitutional” orientations (MCO’s) , building off of Russell’s increasingly familiar constitutional concepts (Lusztig, 1994; Russell, 1992). According to this model, there was a Quebec MCO, a Western MCO, a Trudeau MCO, and a Minoritarian MCO all represented at the bargaining floor during the negotiations of the Charlottetown Accord. Each MCO had its own unique agenda, often conflicting and even contradicting that of other MCO’s This new Accord had sixty new constitutional amendments, compared to the seven contained in Meech Lake, and seventeen members negotiating these amendments, as opposed to the eleven in the Meech Lake negotiations. With all of these conflicting groups fighting for their own best interests, the Charlottetown Accord was destined to fail from the beginning. As Lusztig notes, “there are at least four conflicting constitutional worldviews in Canada that cannot accommodate compromise” and because of this and a few other factors; “the constitutional process truly can be said to be in a state of paralysis” (2002: 128).

One of the most influential politicians of the time and the chief negotiator of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords was then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. One of the factors as to why Charlottetown ultimately failed has to do with both Mulroney’s popularity during the 1992 referendum, and his campaign in favour of the Accord. To put Mulroney’s popularity in context, it was only a few years removed from the Oka Crisis and the Free Trade Agreement was still not seen in a positive light (see Appendix B). As such, Reform Party Leader Preston Manning began to denounce the Charlottetown Accord as the “Mulroney deal.” Leduc and Pammett use extensive polling data to suggest that Mulroney’s popularity may have played a significant role in the failure of the Accord and claim that “his massive unpopularity cost (the YES campaign) heavily in terms of votes” (Leduc and Pammett, 1995: 31). Brian Mulroney also displayed several detrimental tactics throughout his campaign, “arrogantly suggest(ing) that only ‘enemies of Canada’ would oppose the agreement” (Leduc and Pammett, 1995: 9). These factors helped contribute to the demise of the Charlottetown Accord.

On the other side of the debate, there was a healthy opposition to the Accord. Pierre Trudeau and Preston Manning both played a small role in the factors which contributed to the Charlottetown Accord’s failure. Trudeau’s popularity did not play as significant a factor as it did during the negotiations of the Meech Lake Accord, however his campaigning against the Charlottetown Accord proved to be quite successful. Trudeau made several passionate speeches and wrote widely read articles based on the Accord and generally ran a fairly successful NO campaign. As an illustration of his impact on the Charlottetown Accord, Citizens notes: “within days of his (Trudeau’s) speech urging the rejection of the Accord, the ‘yes’ vote dropped by 20 points outside Quebec” (Gidengil et al., 2004: 79). Preston Manning was the champion of the NO vote in the West, coming out hard on such issues as the Senate, Quebec’s constitutional powers as written in the Charlottetown Accord, while he “appealed to anti-government sentiment” (LeDuc and Pammett, 1995: 10). Manning’s referral to the Accord as the “Mulroney deal” ultimately whittled away the YES vote and contributed to the ultimate failure of the Charlottetown Accord.

Political Culture

There are several different factors under the heading of political culture which were reasons as to the failure of the Charlottetown Accord. This is the section that is most hotly disputed among political scholars, taking positions based on observations and analysis of the Charlottetown Accord vote. Several key issues emerge, such as the elitist positioning, emerging political ideology, and even based off referendums in general. There are many competing views on the political behaviour which brought down the Accord, such as Nelson Wiseman’s regions theory. He believes that these cleavages are regional, and argues that the Accord failed because the PQ and the Reform party took advantage of the situation and exploited these regional differences to unite their respective regions to vote against both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords (2007: 266). Lusztig believes that the main reason for failure was due to mass input/legitimization and the ultimate failure of any measure within these combines (1994: 771). Peach argues that it is really all about the relationship between the public and politician and the intergovernmental relationships of the time which were fatal to the Accord (2004). The three main factors which demand the most attention are the reliability of referendums, the regional debate, and the relationship between the mass public and the elites.

Regionalism is a large section of political behaviour that is still quite contentious and open for debate. Some scholars, such as Simeon and Elkins (1974) and Wiseman (2007), believe that provincial regionalism is the major factor when analysing voter trends across Canada. Others agree that regional issues are most prevalent but use different regions, such as Henderson (2004). Finally, some believe that the entire debate over regionalism in Canada has been overstated and does not play a major role in voter’s decisions (see Clarke et al. 2001 for more details). When investigating the cause of the 1992 Charlottetown Accord’s failure, it is impossible not to not the impact of regional political parties, such as the Reform party and the PQ. Regionalism played a major role in the undoing of the Accord as these two parties united their respective regions and brought the vote out heavily in favour of the NO side, of which both were campaigning for. Lusztig describes the “emergence... of a distinct Western MCO” as proving that “successful constitutional bargaining (is) more difficult to achieve” (1994: 770). This Western MCO was politicised by the Reform party of Canada, who held a strong Western bias. They began by only running candidates in Western Canada and campaigned on a slogan of “the West wants in,” clearly representing a western regional cleavage which was demonstrated in the polls from British Columbia and Alberta following the Charlottetown Accord.

On the other side of Canada, the Bloc Quebecois and the Partis Quebecois had their impact on the Accord in Quebec. While the Partis Quebecois were not in power during the Charlottetown Accord, they had begun to gain some momentum. The BQ’s aim became “not to restructure the Canadian federation but to break it up” (Russell, 1993: 36). The BQ only ran candidates in Quebec and in 1993, became the official opposition party of Canada. Lucien Bouchard was the leader of the party in 1992 and campaigned strongly against the Accord. Regionalism could also be observed in the Maritimes as the majority of the provinces voted in favour of the Charlottetown Accord. Regionalism played a significant role in the downfall of the Accord as shown by the referendum results, however, referendums themselves have been called into question as to their reliability.

Many find it easy to blame factors which are most obvious for the failure of the Charlottetown Accord. When examined, however, the very construct for portraying the public’s opinion of the entire Accord may be called into question. The purpose of a referendum is to get the publics opinion on a certain issue, usually because it is of large consequences to the country. Referendums are not supposed to be reflective of any other factor than the question being asked in them and voters are supposed to be well educated on the subject of the referendum. This simply did not happen. One of the major factors which interfered with referendum results was the popularity of Brian Mulroney, which has already been discussed in this paper. The general public opinion of Mulroney was reaching all time lows and the 1992 referendum opened a door for those who were really discontent with him to send a message through. There are plenty of other factors which affected the referendum results that did not have to do with Mulroney. Gidengil et al. argue that the least well informed people of the 1992 referendum only made modest gains of knowledge from the campaigning, and those who were well informed could usually tell where a political figure, such as Trudeau, stood on the issue. As such, “the fact that the least informed only made small gains in knowledge casts doubt on the optimistic assumption that referendums provide an ‘instrument of civic education’” (2004: 64). These low informed voters usually end up voting according to their feelings, and as a result “feelings do not make up for ideas, and poorly informed voters make much less consistent choices than well-informed voters do” (Johnston et al., 1996: 282). Many of these “feelings” were swayed toward the NO side as a result of several negative polls in the few days leading up to the referendum. This would mean that many of those poorly informed voters did not actually make the decision that best reflected their own values and beliefs. The process involved with a referendum provided yet another reason as to why the Charlottetown Accord failed.

Another factor stemming off of public perception was that of political “elitism” which was supposed to have been defeated with the Meech Lake Accord. Political elitism was considered a factor as to why the original constitutional amendment failed as it was largely perceived that the first ministers conferred together and drafted the amendment without any public input (Stein, 1997: 315-321). The negotiators of the Charlottetown Accord realized this and as a result, “the federal and provincial governments sought ways to avoid some of the more blatant shortcomings of that earlier negotiation process” (Stein, 1997: 324). Nonetheless, there was still a large public perception that the entire Accord was drafted by governmental elites and the will of the people was generally ignored throughout the process. A strong example of this can be seen in the headline “The Prime Minister scoffed yesterday at demands that Canadians be allowed to see the full legal text of the proposed constitutional amendments before they vote in the referendum,” (The Globe and Mail, September 30, 1992) which severely damaged the YES supporters attempts to distant the Charlottetown Accord from the failures of the Meech Lake Accord. In the article, Mulroney suggests that voters would not understand the legal text of the Charlottetown Accord and therefore portrayed a position that the mass public should put its trust into the political elite. This proved fatal to the Accord, as voters on the referendum day “were allowed to indulge themselves in negativism that was partly tribal, partly (perhaps self-indulgently) anti-elite” (Johnston et al., 1996: 285). Johnston reiterates this position, explaining that “any proposal that makes it through the ministerial processes... is likely to fail with the people” (1993, 48). It was this sort of negativism within the political culture that played a contributing role into the failure of the Charlottetown Accord.


The Charlottetown accord was an extremely complex constitutional amendment which had more reasons of failure than can be written about in a single paper. Major factors and issues can be pointed out as overarching causes for the failure of the Charlottetown Accord. First, the Meech Lake Accord and its own failures were examined and shown to have negatively impacted the Accord’s negotiations and forced the creation of concessions which were too controversial to survive a referendum. Second, tying into failures of the Meech Lake Accord, certain proposals and measures contained with the Charlottetown Accord were highly divisive within Canada. Such proposals as: the recognition of Aboriginal self-government, Quebec as a distinct society, and compromises on the senate which were poorly taken by Western leaders, all factored into the Accord’s failure. Third, again tying into the previous point, several key figures played a role in the demise of the Charlottetown Accord. Figures such as Prime Minister (of the time) Brian Mulroney, whose national popularity was terribly low, brought down the Accord, to the glee of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Reform party leader Preston Manning. Finally, when observed from a theoretical point of view, there were several political behaviours observed across Canada which contributed to the Accord’s failure. The political cleavage of regionalism of the time worked against the referendum, as the separatists in Quebec and the alienated Western Canada united in a resounding NO vote. Along with this, there are questions as to the use of a referendum to portray the mass public’s collective opinion. This system has been shown to be inherently flawed when dealing with such a complex piece of legislation and thus undermined the YES vote on referendum day. Finally, the culture of negativity towards the political elite, partly fuelled by the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and pointed comments made by influential political supporters of the Charlottetown Accord, ultimately played a role in its demise.

Appendix A – 1992 Referendum results by province

% YES % NO


ALBERTA 39.7 60.1


MANITOBA 38.0 61.6

ONTARIO 49.8 49.6

QUEBEC 42.4 55.4


NOVA SCOTIA 48.5 51.1



YUKON 43.3 56.1




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