Have spent a couple of days in Fredericton at a conference on the Charlottetown Accord.
It was good to see many friends who, like me, haven’t had much chance to reflect on where we were then, and where we’re going now, as a country.
A few key ideas and themes emerged. The first was expressed by former New Brunswick Deputy Minister Don Dennison – Charlottetown can’t be seen in isolation – it was in many ways the culmination of a thirty year long dialogue in the country, going back to the “Fulton Favreau Formula” for constitutional amendment, through many conferences, commissions, studies and debates on how to bring the constitution home, how to amend it, responding to the Quiet Revolution, entrenching a charter of rights, senate reform, aboriginal issues, and so many more.
I was an MP during the patriation debate, which I supported as amended, Meech Lake, which I endorsed as Leader of the Opposition in Ontario, and was at the table for the Charlottetown round, and many other first Ministers’ meetings.
We forget now the fall-out from the failure to complete the ratification of Meech. Support for Quebec independence jumped twenty five points in the polls, and yet the next round of constitutional discussion couldn’t just be about Quebec. The decision to broaden the discussion, and the table, was one I strongly supported. It meant the more inclusive process was messy, confused, hard to manage, and yet…it responded to very real demands to be part of the process.
The end result was an agreement reached by First Ministers and aboriginal leaders in Charlottetown in late August 1992 – it recognised Quebec’s distinctiveness, created an elected and equal Senate with a way to break a deadlock with the House of Commons, ensured a stronger social and economic union in the country while allowing for greater flexibility, and entrenched aboriginal self government with a timetable for negotiations.
A short few weeks later the Accord was defeated in a referendum, and Mr Chretien promised when he was elected a year later that he would not mention the word “constitution”.
Twenty years later we have a government whose leader has not met with the Premiers since 2008. Health tranfers are cut without consultation, as the federal government blithely states that it “respects provincial jurisdiction”. Mr Harper wants to create an elected Senate without consulting the Premiers, and Quebec prepares for more direct confrontations with the federal government. There are fitful discussions here and there about aboriginal self government, but very few agreements. The Harperites reject outright the idea of setting a timetable for agreements. Meanwhile, pipelines and resource developments are facing ever increasing opposition and litigation.
No doubt Charlottetown had its flaws. The process of ratification was rushed. The country was surprised by the breadth and extent of it. There were too many targets for those who wanted to stop it.
But it’s hard to say that this new approach of pretending there are no problems is the answer either. The issues raised twenty years ago are with us today, but we’ve lost the habit of a national conversation, as Joe Clark put it in a speech last night. And that’s not good, in fact it’s dangerous.
It will take a new government to share a vision about the future and discuss it with Canadians, with Premiers, with aboriginal leaders. Quebeckers, indeed all Canadians need inspiration about who we are and where we’re going, and that won’t come from Mr Harper and his party. It won’t come from a New Democratic Party which is still caught up in the politics of grievance and opposition. It will have to come from a Liberal Party ready to put its own divisions behind it, and ready to embrace a vision and practice of deep partnership and co-operation.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.