When he stood up in the National Assembly to comment on the demise of the Meech Lake Accord in June 1990, then-Quebec premier Robert Bourassa could not have imagined that two decades later, one of his successors would be negotiating the social transfer for health care one-on-one with the prime minister of the day.
Nor could Bourassa have predicted that Quebec would spread its international wings to stake out positions independent and, sometimes, different from the federal government on issues as wide ranging as trade and climate change . . . and that the other premiers would follow suit.
The risk that the accord negotiated by Brian Mulroney at Meech Lake would neuter future federal governments was uppermost in the arguments of its vocal opponents, with the defence of provincial equality coming a close second.
Two decades later, it seems that in winning the battle, the Meech detractors lost the war.
Not only did the demise of the accord not prevent power from shifting from Ottawa to the provinces but the notion of provincial equality accelerated the movement.
The most famous "foe" of the Meech Lake Accord was Pierre Trudeau. It seemed at the time that he had once again inspired the Liberal Party to rally behind his leadership, and the Party would remain opposed to the provisions of the Meech Lake Accord. What actually happened?
Over the second half of Jean Chrétien’s tenure, billions of federal surplus revenues were transferred to the provinces and/or spent on tax cuts. With that money went the federal capacity of initiate a top-down expansion of Canada’s social infrastructure..
In Chrétien’s wake, Paul Martin negotiated separate child-care funding agreements with each province. In the name of asymmetrical federalism, he offered Quebec different modalities in the 2004 Health Accord
The federal government genuinely cut spending, and reduced its own role in various areas of public policy. The provinces gained responsibility, often with federal agreement.
What all did Meech provide for?
The accord was negotiated at a meeting between Mulroney and provincial premiers at Willson House at Meech Lake in the Gatineau Hills in 1987.
It identified five main modifications to the Canadian constitution:
a recognition of Quebec as a "distinct society"
a constitutional veto for Quebec and the other provinces
increased provincial powers with respect to immigration
extension and regulation of the right for a reasonable financial compensation to any province that chooses to opt out of any future federal programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction
provincial input in appointing senators and Supreme Court judges
The deal-breaker at the time seemed to be "Quebec as a distinct society." What happened?
After the 1995 Quebec referendum, the federal government under Jean Chrétien did endorse recognition of Quebec's distinct society. That recognition asked institutions of government "to take note of this recognition and be guided in their conduct accordingly." The term is still absent from the Constitution.
(This was a motion passed by the House of Commons).
In November 2006, the House passed another motion, this time introduced by Stephen Harper, reading "That this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada."
In 1996, the First Ministers of Canada, again with Chrétien in the lead, adopted the Social Union Framework in order to move away from unilateral federal action on health and social policy.