Attempts At Constitutional Change: Quebec and Canada

Posted on: 9th May 2023


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1. Attempts at constitutional change: Describe the many attempts by Quebec and Canada to change the framework of the Canadian nation between 1980 and 2000. Looking for explanations for 6 events during this period.

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Attempts At Constitutional Change: Quebec and Canada

Many attempts were made by Quebec and Canada to change the framework of the Canadian nation between 1980 and 2000. 6 major events occurred during this period; the Meech Lake Accord, the Charlottetown Accord, the 1995 Referendum on Quebec Sovereignty, Ontario's "Triple-E Senate" initiative, Alberta's Senatorial election of 1989, and the 2000 Clarity Act. The following paper will examine these events and their political, cultural and social contexts in a bid to understand what caused the failure of this process.  

The Meech Lake Accord

The Meech Lake Accord was proposed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as a method to gain support from the 11 provincial governments for patriating Canada's constitution from Britain. The Agreement proposed 3 major changes to the Constitution: 1) recognized Quebec as a "distinct society" in part of the Preamble, 2) granted the provinces accorded power over immigration matters and 3) changed the amending formula from requiring unanimous agreement of all 10 provincial governments to a majority of 7 or more (Basta 64). All premiers recognized that Meech Lake was a step in the right direction and gave their support. However, when Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells refused to sign supporting Meech Lake because of a change inserted by Manitoba, this derailed the whole process and caused additional delays. The Accord ultimately failed because the Quebec government withdrew their support in protest of a clause allowing individual provinces to opt out of recognized "distinct society" status. This lead to a resurgence of the Quebec separatist movement.

The Charlottetown Accord

2 years later, after extensive political manoeuvring and pressure from Western Canadians who saw Meech Lake as an affirmation of Quebec's special status, Mulroney and all 10 provincial Premiers signed the "Charlottetown Accord", a series of Constitutional amendments similar to Meech Lake. In addition to provisions repeated from Meech Lake, it outlined further powers for Quebec in the areas of language, culture and education. It also gave Newfoundland & Labrador different treatment than the rest of the provinces, which was derided for by other provincial Premiers and Quebec itself (Basta 65). The Charlottetown Accord also proposed a National referendum on the Constitution on October 26, 1992 [which would fail]. The Accord would also collapse on itself because of strong opposition from Quebec sovereigntists, who saw it as a step backward.

The 1995 Referendum on Quebec Sovereignty

In 1995, following on from both Meech Lake and Charlottetown, Quebec held a second sovereignty referendum after Premier Jacques Parizeau promised that a defeat would not be considered a "no" to Quebec sovereignty (Basta 65). This second referendum failed because of the massive NO side, which received over 49% in the vote [51.4% NO opposed to 48.6% YES]. Although many have argued that this was in fact another indication that only 30-40% of the population would actively support Quebec sovereignty, it is apparent that many voted NO for economic or other reasons. The referendum resulted in large numbers of Quebecers migrating to Western Canada, Alberta in particular. 

Ontario's "Triple-E Senate" initiative

Ontario's "Triple-E Senate" initiative was proposed by then Premier of Ontario Bob Rae as a method to redress perceived problems with Canadian Federalism. ERA advocated an elected, effective and equal senate that balanced the representation of the large and small provinces. Rae argued that the Senate was necessary to counterbalance legislation originating in the House of Commons, where Provinces were given unequal representation based on population size. In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that any change would require unanimous support from all Canadian 10 provinces (Pepall Chapter 12). The completely un-democratic nature of the Senate would never be changed and the Triple-E Senate idea was abandoned. This event showed how changes to the Constitution were impossible without direct approval from all of Canada's provinces. They would not agree to a change, so there was no option for reform.

Alberta's Senatorial election of 1989

In 1989, Alberta held an election for a single senator in order to demonstrate that they were not happy with the current appointment system and wished for a democratically elected senate (Pepall Chapter 12). When Prime Minister Brian Mulroney supported this suggestion, it became evident that changes would need to be made to the Constitution. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled that any change to the Senate would require a unanimous vote from all 10 provinces, and this idea was abandoned. These events also show that without consensus from all of Canada's provinces, Constitutional changes were impossible.

The 2000 Clarity Act

The 2000 Clarity Act was created to address the vagueness of the 1995 Referendum question, which asked "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?" As a result of the ambiguous language used, the Supreme Court ruled that this would not be considered as an official declaration of independence. This Act gives a number of options to provinces who disagree with the actions taken by the federal government. It allows for provinces to declare their will to remain part of Canada without outside intervention and force them to hold another referendum on the issue. 

The Clarity Act is a major Canadian law concerning the secession of provinces from Canada. It sets rules for both the federal government and a seceding provincial government to follow in dissolving their relationship with one another without outside interference. The Federal Government must recognize that there is a general will for independence if a province chooses to separate and the federal government cannot arbitrarily decide to keep them instead (Act). If a majority in any province decides that they wish to leave, the Federal Government must recognize this and negotiate terms with them directly. The Clarity Act states that it isn't up to the Federal Government to decide if another Province wants to secede because this would be against their right of self-determination. If a province wants to secede, only after the fact can government decide if this province was clear on how they voted. This Act means that Quebec would be allowed to separate from Canada as long as there is no doubt in the act of voting for it and given certain terms by the federal Government which must accurately reflect what people really wanted from the vote.


The Meech Lake Accord and The Charlottetown Accord were the two major attempts by the Federal and Provincial governments of Canada (and Quebec) to amend and change the current system of Constitutional Monarchy in exchange for a new structure that better reflects both the needs of today's modern society, as well as those of our future. However, both attempts were ultimately unsuccessful due to Quebec's withdrawing from the Accord and the Western Provinces' and Ontario's desire for more political power. Although they share a common story, these two documents show how Canada and its provinces have attempted to find solutions to problems without resorting to separatism or drastic changes in order to keep our system of government as similar as possible to the one we have grown accustomed to, while still respecting our differences and ensuring that all can co-exist.

Works Cited

Act, Clarity. "Statutes of Canada, 48–49 Elizabeth II." (2000).

Basta, Karlo. "The state between minority and majority nationalism: Decentralization, symbolic recognition, and secessionist crises in Spain and Canada." Publius: The Journal of Federalism 48.1 (2018): 51-75.

Pepall, John. Against reform. University of Toronto Press, 2018.

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