Last week, in the lead-up to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s meeting with first nations, Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, told The Globe and Mail he’d be asking Mr. Harper to schedule a conference of first ministers to explicitly spell out the constitutional rights of indigenous peoples. However, at their meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Harper gave no indication he’d be any more interested in discussing that issue than the Senate or Quebec.
As anyone who followed the Meech Lake saga will appreciate, Chief Nepinak’s demand was not without some irony. For was it not a Manitoba native legislator who held up a feather and killed the accord designed to reconcile Quebec with Canada’s Constitution?
At the time, Elijah Harper, too, demanded a constitutional conference to deal with aboriginal rights. And he was not mollified when it was pointed out that there had already been four since the Constitution was patriated, or that premiers had agreed unanimously in 1986 to deal with Quebec’s demands alone. For their part, leaders of the Assembly of First Nations could not be convinced by government representatives that a successful Quebec round would lead to further constitutional discussions, including on aboriginal rights.
To be sure, it’s unfair to single out aboriginal Canadians in the death of the Meech Lake accord. Back then, Alberta Senate reformers, too, refused to accept the agenda constraints of a Quebec round, though that had been agreed to under the chairmanship of their premier, Don Getty. And campaigners such as Senator Bert Brown (as he is today) rejected the notion that his long-sought objective would be easier to secure once the Quebec issue had been resolved.
Today, 20 years after the national referendum in which Canadians rejected the Charlottetown accord – an accord that addressed all constitutional demands simultaneously – no government appears eager to repeat the experience. Today, even a powerful Prime Minister atop a majority government is stymied in one of his key priorities, and Mr. Harper is having to pursue an elected Senate through the back door. Moreover, his institutional tinkering has started serious people talking about electing and then appointing future governors-general by way of a similar process, effectively doing away with the monarchy.
During the long Meech Lake saga, three predictions were made about Canada’s future insofar as the Constitution was concerned.
In his appearance before a Senate committee where he denounced the accord, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau stated that Meech Lake was unnecessary, as Canada had a Constitution that would last 1,000 years.
In contrast, Brian Mulroney – in a vain attempt to persuade Manitoba and Newfoundland to ratify the accord – predicted that on the night of a future referendum, Canadians would look back and regret not having resolved the problem of Quebec’s constitutional isolation at a reasonable price.
For his part, Jean Chrétien – who played a key role in killing the accord – said it would be no big deal if Meech Lake failed. It was like getting stuck in the snow, he said, you go forward and you go back and eventually you get unstuck.
So far, we know that Mr. Chrétien was wrong.
And although it’s too early to say whether Mr. Trudeau’s or Mr. Mulroney’s prediction will prove more prescient, one thing is sure: Proposals and demands for constitutional reform will continue to build up, leaving Canadians to work around a constitution that effectively cannot be amended.