Meech Lake and the Long Shadow of Pierre Trudeau



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Aster, H. “Meech Lake and the Long Shadow of Pierre Trudeau.”
The New Federation 1.4 (1989): 14-17.
Meech Lake and the Long Shadow of Pierre Trudeau

by Howard Aster
Robertson Davies, in a wonderfully crafted essay entitled “Signing Away Canada’s Soul,” published in the January, 1989 issue of Harper’s Magazine, asks rhetorically, “Is Canada a country without a mythology?” He goes on to argue that “... after about four hundred years of history ... we are now in the uncomfortable position of having to discover, and in some measure to define, our national soul.”

The 1980s will be looked upon, with hindsight, as the decade of momentous decision in Canada. Three great recent events are now determining our ‘national soul’, as Davies calls it.

First, after more than fifty years of debate, discussion, and acrimony, we have patriated the Constitution and adopted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter effectively redefined the notion of citizenship in our society. It is now the concept of the individual, regardless of language, colour, race or whatever, which in both law and practice, is the building block of Canadian society. He or she is the carrier of rights and freedoms and can make claims, within the framework of the Charter, against the state and society.

This idea of individual rights is radical in many ways and, in the context of Canadian history, it is dramatically different from the traditional ‘tory’ interpretation of Canadian politics and society. Or legal system and many of our political institutions are still trying to apprehend and work out the consequences of this radically new, and quite American, definition of what it is to be a Canadian citizen.

It is worth noting that Pierre Trudeau had much, indeed an awful lot, to do with the coming into effect of the Charter and in defining the new notion of citizenship in Canada.

Second, it is clear that as of 1988, after a century of debate, the Canadian nation finally took the decisive steps towards free trade, thereby provoking a series of consequences which will be worked out over the next decade, if not longer. What is to be the fate of the ‘national soul’ of the people, the land and the nation of the northern half of North America? Or does it really make a difference? The Robertson Davies of this nation now forge their cultural activities in different circumstances than in the pre-1988, pre-free-trade era. What will become of the cultural expressions of this nation in the era of free-trade remains an open and vexing issue.

The third decision of the 1980s which has redefined our ‘national soul’ is the agreement, forged by Prime Minister Mulroney and the Premiers and known as the Meech Lake Accord. There is no doubt – among those who support Meech Lake and those who oppose it – that the Accord’s intent is to reshape the nature of Canadian federalism. And, by consequence, also to redefine the ‘national soul.’

On that eventful day of February 29, 1984, when Prime Minister Trudeau took his ‘walk in the snow’ and then announced he was withdrawing from political life, many Canadians believed his withdrawal would be complete. After all, Trudeau was retiring to Montreal, to his roots, to spend time with his children, to practice some law, and to engage, on occasion, in international travel, one of his great passions.

Nothing seemed to get him to pronounce himself – John Turner’s leadership of the Liberal Party, the collapse of his Party in the 1984 election, the evolution of East-West relations – until what appeared to be the failure of all opposition to Meech Lake.

What is interesting about Trudeau’s public arguments regarding the Meech Lake Accord is that the source of his opposition is profoundly theoretical as well as dramatically practical. Indeed, Trudeau comes to his views on Meech Lake from the same theoretical perspective from which he defined his positions on the political agenda of the nation through the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s.

In his March 30, 1988 testimony before the Senate, Trudeau defines his perspective succinctly. He argues that at the heart of the Canadian experience has been a debate about what constitutes the ‘national soul’ of Canada.

On the one side stands the view that Confederation is “... a compact between the provinces to set up a federal government.” This view gets clarified as a conception of politics where ‘the deal’ is all that counts. Where you have differing views, then you try to ‘cut’ the deal so that the contract is signed, sealed and delivered. The issue is not necessarily what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Rather, the essence of politics is the conclusion of a deal so that the next problem can be dealt with. One may revisit the former ‘deal’, but the signal of progress and process in politics, according to this view, is agreements, deals, and signing on the bottom line.

Against this view of a ‘compact’ between signatories, or ‘making a deal’, lies another view. In Trudeau’s own words, “... during (the last) sixty years, federal governments were very active trying to create a national will, a sense of national identity which would lead Canadians to believe that Canada was more than the sum of the wills of the provinces, but that it had a will of its own – ‘une volonté générale’, as Rousseau said – or ‘un vouloir collectif’ is the less heathen way of explaining things. There is some national will which is more than the sum total of the provincial wills.”

Various Prime Ministers attempted in various ways to create this body of values to be shared by the Canadian people.

Trudeau then goes on to speak of “... a network of social security which would bind the people together ...” pioneered by Mackenzie King and St. Laurent. He also argues that “Mr. Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights was certainly a nomenclature of values which bound Canadians together in the sense that they shared certain basic beliefs ...” After Diefenbaker, this attempt to define the common value system was extended by Lester Pearson who, with the B and B Commission, sought ways of coming to grips with French-Canadian dissatisfaction. He did so not by creating dualism which “... by definition, is a division of people. Mr. Pearson was proposing bilingualism, which is a quality of individuals or institutions which tends to unite them rather than separate them.”

The next significant chapter in defining this ‘national will’ was forged by “... one of the more recent Prime Ministers (who) brought in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was entrenched in the Constitution, and which was meant to create a body of values and beliefs which not only united all Canadians in feeling they were one nation, but also, in a sense, set them above the governments of the provinces and the federal government itself. So, they have rights which no legislative body can abridge, therefore establishing the sovereignty of the Canadian people over all our institutions of government.”

The yardstick to measure and assess any fundamental political act in the nation is clearly established. Does it help define, clarify and enshrine a ‘body of values and beliefs,’ or does it try to strike a ‘deal’ between some conflicting wills without any hope of establishing the common values and beliefs?

This question is strangely reminiscent of a debate between Lockeans and Rousseauians: how to form and forge a nation? Does one do it by agreements, deals, and contracts, or does one define and enshrine a common will which establishes the basis of a unified ‘national soul?’

We should not be surprised that Trudeau took the occasion of the Meech Lake Accord to come forward, once again, with the clarification of this problem. Which way shall Canada go? What will be the nature of our ‘national soul?’ For, in fact, Trudeau has been deliberating publicly with his friends and colleagues – in Quebec at first in the 1950s, and then with all Canadians through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – on exactly these same problems.

There is a powerful consistency in Trudeau’s political thinking. For him, nationalism is an idea, perpetrated by an elite, the purpose of which is to ensure the defensive political posture of the people. It is an idea which was appropriate for the political history of the 19th century, but inappropriate for the 20th. The state is the instrument of political action for an entire nation which expresses and enacts the objectives of the ‘general will.’ It is not, and should never be, the instrument of political action of or for one particular sociological, or linguistic, or ethnic, or business interest or strata in society. All forms of nationalism are fundamentally defensive, and nationalists are reactionary creatures in politics. They define the public good simply in terms of the good of one particular ethnic, sociological or linguistic group. They are incapable of defining the ‘general will’ which seeks to capture the ‘national soul’ of a diversified people.

What is also inadequate, of all forms of nationalism and provincialism, is that they deny the genuine basis of political action – the individual. The individual is the fundamental, necessary foundation of political life – the individual, his or her rights and freedoms. For Trudeau, the state exists to serve the individual, not the reverse.

From this position emerges another critical quality of Trudeau’s position. There is always a tension between the individual and the state.

The state is an instrument of collective political action, the vehicle for the formulation and the pursuit of the collective good. But Trudeau is no simple, 17th century liberal! He views the state as a positive, creative instrument of human action and will. The problem in politics, always, is ensuring the appropriate balance between the sanctity of individual rights and the prerogatives lodged in the instrument whereby the public good is enacted, namely the state.

For Trudeau, the great innovativeness in Canadian politics is this attempt to define a liberalism whereby Locke co-exists with Rousseau. Trudeau believed that it was possible, and the nature of that unique Canadian institution called federalism was the instrument whereby we could prove to ourselves and the world that it was achievable. Federalism, according to Trudeau’s presentation to the Senate, “... is a form of government where the exercise of sovereignty is divided into two levels of government so that each can legislate, tax and spend in areas of its jurisdiction concerning people within its territory.” But the key to a genuine federal system is the need to have a government where there is a possibility and obligation to define, and have the powers to enact, that which is common to all, the ‘general will’, those values which unite.

So, what is wrong with the Meech Lake Accord? Trudeau argues there are three things wrong with it. One, the Accord establishes the primacy of the ‘compact’ theory of the Canadian nationality, as opposed to the view which Trudeau espouses, namely the notion of the common will.

Two, according to Trudeau, the Accord “... transfers large amounts of power from the central government to the provinces.” That in itself is not necessarily wrong, but by doing so it effectively cripples the ability of the national government to define projects, policies and programmes which give fact to the ‘national soul.’ Those great innovations of the last sixty years that gave fact and character to the national will, such as the social security network, the Bill of Rights, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; all of these will be practically impossible to achieve in the future. The balance between the national will and the provincial wills has been tilted massively by the Accord in the direction of the provincial wills.

“With Meech Lake, there is no national will left. Any province can opt out of a constitutional amendment transferring power to the federal government and get full compensation. But then, more importantly, ... any province has a veto; any province can prevent a constitutional amendment wanted by nine other provinces and the federal government on all federal institutions of government – the Senate, the House of Commons, the Supreme Court and the Territories.”

Finally, Trudeau argues, the Accord establishes new ground for the role of Quebec in Canada. The ‘distinct society’ clause ruptures forever the possibilities of forging a general will encompassing all parts of Canada equally. Quebec will always be able to proclaim itself ‘distinct’ from the national system of values and beliefs.

In a lucid examination of the Meech Lake Accord, in Canada: The State of the Federation, 1987-88, David Milne refers to two branches of French-Canadian nationalism and asks “whether Canada will move increasingly toward the Bourassa-Trudeau vision of a single bilingual nation (Trudeau acknowledged his indebtedness to the vision of ‘the great Henri Bourassa’), or step-by-step towards two distinct societies.

So, why was the deal at Meech Lake struck? And why the hurry? The argument was the need to undo the flaw of the November 5, 1981 agreement whereby nine provinces agreed to patriation, the amending formula and the Charter. But Quebec did not sign. The core of Meech Lake was to craft a ‘deal’ whereby Quebec could sign up.

Trudeau argues that despite the fact that Quebec had not signed in 1981, Canada still exists. He asserts that what is more important than ‘signing up’ is the content of the agreement. It is the vision behind the deal that counts, not the ‘deal’ itself. After all, we have always lived with the symptoms of constitutional change. Indeed, it is our national obsession. But it is in constitutional debates that we define our ‘national soul.’

Those who support the Accord assert that it was the best that could be had at the time. It is vital now to ensure the smooth passage of the agreement through all provincial legislatures by June 1990 and, then, after enacted, a second look at the Accord will ‘fix’ it.

A number of factors have now made the fate of the Meech Lake Accord tenuous. First, two of the three national political parties will have new leaders within a year or two – the continuing support for the Accord by all three national parties is far from certain. Second, it is far from certain that all the provinces will, indeed, pass the Accord through their provincial legislatures before mid-1990. Third, there appears to be a growing sentiment in the nation that Quebec got too much out of the federal government over the past five years anyway. So what if Meech Lake founders? It really does not make that much difference to the nation as a whole.

There is no doubt that the political pressure and the temperature over Meech Lake will rise over the next twelve months as the deadline approaches. But equally, there is no doubt that the debate about what Davies and Trudeau think is the unfulfilled conundrum of the Canadian nationality, our ‘national soul’, will also increase in tempo.

We tend to forget, alas, that what won the victory for Prime Minister Mulroney and the Conservative Party in the last election was not economic management, or whatever, but the overwhelming popularity of both free trade and Meech Lake in Quebec. Is this the trump card that Mr. Parizeauand the Parti Quebecois are waiting for? It is important to remember that the force of nationalism in Quebec is not spent. As Daniel Latouche argued in a recent issue of The New Federation, one should expect the nationalist fervor in Quebec to emerge again, very forcefully!

The Canadian soul is indeed a conundrum. Through political actions we give it a face and a character. Making a constitution is not simply making a deal. It is defining, slowly, carefully, and painfully, the fate of our next generation. Open debate, not foreclosing discussion, is desperately needed.


Howard Aster is Associate Professor of Political Science at McMaster University in Hamilton.
La Pensée Politique de Pierre Trudeau

Pierre Elliott Trudeau a beaucoup écrit avant d’entrer en politique et de devenir premier ministre. Dans I’avant-propos de son livre sur le fédéralisme et la société canadienne-française, publié en 1967, il a livré certaines réflexions. En voici quelques extraits.

Arrivé a 1’age d’homme, je me rendis compte que les modes idéologiques étaient le véritable ennemi de la liberty. Or, dans 1’ordre politique, les idées reçues ne sont pas seulement un carcan pour 1’esprit, elles sont le germe même de 1’erreur. Lorsqu’une idéologie politique devient universellement accréditée chez les élites, lorsque les « définisseurs de situation » 1’embrassent et la vénèrent, c’est le signe: il est plus que temps pour les hommes libres de la combattre. Car la liberté politique est essentiellement forte d’équilibre et de mesure. Des qu’une tendance se fit excessive, elle constitue une menace.

Le plus ancien problème de la philosophie politique, même si ce n’est pas le seul, c’est de justifier 1’autorite sans pour autant détruire 1’indépendance de la personne humaine. Comment réconcilier 1’individu et la société? Le désir d’être seul et le besoin de vivre en groupe? L’amour de la liberté et la nécessite de 1’ordre, ... ? Or ce que la philosophie a pu nous dire de plus utile sur ce problème, c’est qu’il faut se tenir à égale distance des deux termes de 1’alternative. Trop d’autorité, ou trop peu, et c’en est fait de la liberté.

En ce sens, on peut dire qu’il n’existe pas de vérité absolue en politique. Les idéologies les meilleures étant nées d’époques précises pour combattre des excès donnés, deviennent les pires si elles survivent au besoin qui leur a donné naissance. Et c’est une constante de 1’histoire que les plus grands réformateurs sont tôt ou tard trahis par leurs disciples trop fidèles. Quand une reforme jouit d’une popularité trop universelle, il y a bien des chances qu’elle soit passée a 1’état de réaction, et c’est le propre de l’homme libre de la contrecarrer.



Le propos de la science politique étant de rechercher et de définir les conditions du progrès dans les sociétés évoluées, cette discipline affiche une prédilection pour les institutions qui garantissent la liberté sans détruire 1’ordre. C’est en quoi le parlementarisme et le fédéralisme 1’intéressent tant. Le premier, parce qu’il rend indépendants l’un a l’autre les différents organes du pouvoir, et attribue un rôle capital a 1’opposition. Le second, parce qu’il divise l’exercice de la souveraineté entre les divers ordres de gouvernement, et ne décerne à aucun d’eux les pleins pouvoirs sur les citoyens. Fait notoire, 1’expression classique de ces deux systèmes se trouve chez des penseurs français: Montesquieu observant le parlementarisme britannique, Tocqueville décrivant la démocratie américaine. (Comme la constitution canadienne a réuni, – et pour la première fois de l’Histoire, – les qualités des deux systèmes, il est un peu paradoxal que les «penseurs » canadiens-français aient tant de mal à en voir les mérites.)

La théorie des contrepoids, que les deux susnommés avaient perçue avec tant de justesse, a toujours eu mon adhésion totale. Car elle traduit dans la pratique cette notion d’équilibre qui est inséparable de la liberté dans le domaine des idées. Elle inscrit dans le fonctionnement même des institutions politiques le correctif de 1’abus et de 1’exces.


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