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Meech Lake at 20: The memory hasn't faded

The Meech Lake accord died 20 years ago today, but the anniversary is not a cause for much celebration across Canada.

The memories of the failed constitutional talks are raw among those who lived through them, and some of the emotions felt in 1990 - anger, outrage, disappointment - are not far from the surface.

There are still Canadians who hope to see Quebec embrace and be accepted in the Canadian Constitution, and others ready to put up another fight to avoid new constitutional talks.

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No Canadian politician is promising to reopen the Constitution in a bid to get Quebec's signature on the document, which the Trudeau government repatriated in 1982. But that doesn't mean the memory of Meech Lake has faded as new Canadians were born or immigrated.

In most countries, the Constitution is a source of unity. Here, it's a source of divisions. Benoît Pelletier, law professor and former Liberal minister

Many federalists, especially in Quebec, worry that if the province's linguistic and cultural preoccupations are not addressed, the province will some day have a third referendum on sovereignty.

Benoît Pelletier, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa and former Liberal minister in the Charest government, said the country must stop treating the Constitution as "taboo."

"In most countries, the Constitution is a source of unity. Here, it's a source of divisions," Prof. Pelletier said, calling for new discussions on the issue. "Quebeckers want to be Canadians, but they want to feel greater respect for what they are within Canada."

The Meech Lake accord was an attempt by government of Brian Mulroney to get Quebec to sign the Constitution. The deal reached with the provincial premiers would have enshrined the province's status as a distinct society. It died when Manitoba and Newfoundland failed to ratify it by the deadline of June 23, 1990.

The same forces that opposed it feel the country has already spoken against constitutional talks on Quebec.

"Meech built up a level of frustration in people, who felt no one was listening to them, especially here out West," said Art Hanger, a former Calgary police officer who became a Reform MP in 1993 and sat in Ottawa until 2008. "If it came up to the forefront again ... there would be resistance against that."

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Separatist leaders like Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois are banking on that. Mr. Duceppe entered the House of Commons after winning a by-election in August, 1990, shortly after the death of Meech Lake. Mr. Duceppe argues that reforming Canadian federalism is impossible, and that Quebeckers' only choice is between the status quo and sovereignty.

"Not only will constitutional change not happen tomorrow," he said, "it will never happen."

Pollster Jean-Marc Léger, who remembers seeing support for sovereignty at 69 per cent in Quebec after the death of Meech Lake, said the typical federalist is growing older, while younger Quebeckers are ripe for the picking by the separatist forces.

Still, such views are not sparking fears.

Ravi Hira, a Vancouver lawyer, vividly remembers June 23, 1990. He was never comfortable with Meech Lake, because he didn't like idea of giving special recognition to Quebec. He came to Canada in the late 1960s and his view of Canada was shaped by Pierre Trudeau's liberalism, the repatriation of the Constitution and the Charter of Rights.

"I found it hard to understand why Quebec didn't want to part of that process," he said.

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Today, he doubts separatism remains a threat, given demographic changes in the province.

"I think immigration to Canada since the demise of Meech makes it such that separation is more and more unlikely," Mr. Hira said. "They have settled in Quebec because it is part of Canada."

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More

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