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Charlottetown Accord

The Charlottetown Accord was a package of constitutional amendments, proposed by the Canadian federal and provincial governments in 1992. It was submitted to a public referendum in October of that year, and was defeated.

Table of contents
1 Background
2 The accord
3 The referendum
4 The aftermath


Until 1982 the British North America Act of 1867 served as the basis of Canada's constitution. As an act of the British Parliament, however, this left Canada in the anomalous position of being perhaps the only independent nation that had to petition another country's government to amend its own constitution. From the 1920s on, the British government was willing to relinquish this role, but the Canadian federal and provincial governments were unable to agree on a new amending formula. Various unsuccessful attempts were made to patriate the constitution. Most notable among these was the Victoria Charter of 1971.

In 1981 a round of negotiations led by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau reached an agreement which formed the basis of the Constitution Act of 1982. Although this agreement passed into law, augmenting the BNA Act as the constitution of the land, it was reached over the objections of Quebec premier René Lévesque, and the Quebec National Assembly refused to ratify the Constitution Act.

Canada's next prime minister, Brian Mulroney, was determined to succeed where Trudeau had failed, by reaching an agreement that would allow Quebec to ratify the Constitution. Led by Mulroney, the federal and provincial governments signed the Meech Lake Accord in 1987; however, when the 1990 deadline for ratification was reached, two provincial legislatures had not ratified the agreement, and thus it was defeated. This defeat, in turn, led to a resurgence in the Quebec sovereignty movement.

In the next two years the future of Quebec dominated the national agenda. The Quebec government set up the Allaire Committee and the Belanger-Campeau Committee to discuss Quebec's future inside or outside of Canada, and the federal government struck the Beaudoin-Edwards Committee and the Spicer Commission to find ways to resolve English Canada's concerns. Former Prime Minister Joe Clark was appointed Minister of Constitutional Affairs, and was responsible for pulling all of this together to forge a new constitutional agreement.

In 1992 the federal, provincial and territorial governments, along with representatives from the Assembly of First Nations, the Native Council of Canada, the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada and the Métis National Council, came to the agreement known as the Charlottetown Accord. All major political parties, with the exception of the Reform Party of Canada and the Bloc Québécois, supported the accord.

The accord

The Charlottetown Accord attempted to resolve long-standing disputes around the division of powers between federal and provincial jurisdiction. It provided for exclusive provincial jurisdiction over forestry, mining and other natural resources, and cultural policy. The federal government, however, would have retained jurisdiction over national cultural bodies such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board. The accord also required the federal and provincial governments to harmonize policy in areas such as telecommunications, labour development and training, regional development and immigration.

The federal power of reservation, under which the provincial lieutenant governor could refer a bill to the federal government for assent or refusal, would have been abolished, and the federal power of disallowance, under which the federal government could overrule a provincial law that had already been signed into law, would have been severely limited.

Federal spending authority would also have been subject to stricter controls. Canadian governments have often struck agreements under which the federal government, through transfer payments and transfers of taxation authority, would partially or fully fund programs such as medicare, social services, post-secondary education, etc., which otherwise would fall within areas of provincial jurisdiction. The federal government has typically attached conditions on this financing arrangement. The Charlottetown Accord would have guaranteed federal funding for such programs, severely limiting the federal government's authority to set out conditions for the provision of this funding.

The accord proposed a social charter to promote such objectives as health care, welfare, education, environmental protection and collective bargaining. It also proposed the elimination of barriers to the free flow of goods, services, labour and capital, and other provisions related to employment, standard of living and development among the provinces.

The accord also contained the "Canada Clause", which sought to codify the values that define the nature of the Canadian character. These values included egalitarianism, diversity, and the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society within Canada. Aboriginal self-government was approved in principle, but to permit further negotiations on the form it would take, there would have been a hiatus of three years before the concept was recognized in the courts.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the accord also proposed a number of institutional changes that would radically reshape the face of Canadian politics. For example, the composition and the appointment process for the Supreme Court of Canada were to be constitutionally entrenched. Although tradition has been that three of the nine Supreme Court justices must be from Quebec due to Quebec's use of a Napoleonic civil code rather than English common law, this has never been constitutionally mandated.

Senate reform would have been enacted, although falling short of the "triple-E" (equal, elected and effective) senate, long a demand of the western provinces. The accord allowed senators to be elected either in a general election, or by the provincial legislatures. However, the powers of the Senate were reduced, and on matters relating to culture and language, passage of a bill would require a double majority -- a majority in the Senate as a whole and a majority of francophone senators.

Changes were also proposed for the House of Commons. Following a redistribution, the number of seats in the House would have always increased, and it would have codified that a province could not have fewer seats than any other province with a smaller population. However, Quebec would have never been allotted less than one-quarter of all the seats in the House.

The accord formally institutionalized the federal/provincial/territorial consultative process, and allowed for Aboriginal inclusion in certain circumstances. It also increased the number of matters in the existing constitutional amending formula that required unanimous consent.

See the full text of the Charlottetown Accord for more details.

The referendum

Unlike the Meech Lake Accord, the Charlottetown Accord's ratification process provided for a national referendum. Three provinces--British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec--had recently passed legislation requiring that constitutional amendments be submitted to a public referendum. As well, Quebec premier Robert Bourassa had pledged, contingent on the results of the Charlottetown negotiations, to hold a referendum that year on either Quebec independence or a new constitutional agreement. British Columbia and Alberta agreed to participate in the federal referendum, but Quebec opted to conduct its own separate vote.

The accord had to be approved not only by a majority of voters nationally, but also by a majority of voters in each province. If it failed in just one province, the accord would not pass.

The campaign

The campaign saw an unprecendented alignment of groups in support of the new constitution. The Liberal and NDP parties both supported the accord. First Nations groups endorsed it as did women's groups and business leaders. All ten provincial premiers supported it. In the English media, almost all opinion pieces were in favour. The campaign began with the accord popular across Canada. Still all three major party leaders travelled the country supporting the accord while vast sums of money were spend on pro-accord advertising. While many advocates of the accord aknowledged that it was a compromise and had many flaws, they also felt that without it the country would break apart.

The No side was a motely collection of different groups. Quebec separatists, Lucien Bouchard's Bloc Québécois and the provincial Parti Québécois lead by Jacques Parizeau, were strongly opposed as it did not give Quebec enough powers. The fledgling, western-based Reform Party lead by Preston Manning battled the accord in the West, opposing the acknowledgement of Quebec as a distinct society and arguing that Senate reform did not go far enough. The most important opponent of the accord was probably former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. In a piece first published in Maclean's Magazine he argued that the accord meant the end of Canada and was the disintegration of the federal government.

As the campaign progressed the accord steadily got less and less popular. This is often accredited to much of the electorate finding certain aspects that they disagreed with. It is also closely connected to the extreme unpopularity of Brian Mulroney in 1992 and to the nation's general antipathy towards the constitutional debates.


Thus, on October 26, 1992, two referenda (the Quebec government's referendum in Quebec, and the federal government's referendum in all other provinces and territories) were put to the people.

The question:

Do you agree that the Constitution of Canada should be renewed on the basis of the agreement reached on August 28, 1992?

The results:

Province YesNoVoter Turnout
Nova Scotia48.851.267.8
Prince Edward Island73.926.170.5
New Brunswick61.838.272.2
Quebec [1]43.356.782.8
British Columbia31.768.376.7
Northwest Territories61.338.770.4
Federal Totals45.754.371.8

[1] Quebec's results were tabulated by the Directeur général des élections du Québec, not by the federal Chief Electoral Officer as in other provinces.

The aftermath

With the Charlottetown Accord defeated, the Constitution Act, 1982, remains unratified by the Quebec National Assembly. As of 2003, no further attempts to negotiate an agreement have been made.

Mulroney, already deeply unpopular with Canadian voters who perceived him as arrogant and out of touch with the public, had made a number of mistakes in the referendum campaign. Most famously, while speaking about the dangers of voting against an agreement that might represent Quebec's last opportunity to have its traditional demands met within Confederation, he ripped a piece of paper in half with a dramatic flourish. This came to be regarded as one of the defining images of his tenure as Prime Minister, with many voters seeing overtones of belligerence, intimidation and American-style image politics. As well, following the Accord's defeat, he was criticized for calling the process "a roll of the dice", which voters interpreted as meaning that he was gambling with the country's future.

By February of 1993, Mulroney announced his retirement as leader of the Progressive Conservatives and as Prime Minister. In June, the leadership--and the Prime Minister's office--was won by Kim Campbell, who ultimately proved unable to distance herself from the public's anger at Mulroney. On October 25, 1993, a year less a day after the Charlottetown referendum, the Conservatives were decimated in the federal election. Their base was splintered, defecting in Ontario to the Liberals, in Quebec to the separatist Bloc Québécois and in the West to the Reform Party, leaving the Conservatives with just two members of Parliament.

The Quebec independence movement, in turn, was fortified by the results. In 1993, Quebec Liberal Party youth committee president Mario Dumont, who had campaigned against Charlottetown, quit to form the Action démocratique du Québec. Although the ADQ has never elected more than five members to the Quebec National Assembly, it has become a significant force in Quebec politics.

In 1994, Bourassa stepped down as premier of Quebec and was replaced by Daniel Johnson, Jr, who lost the election that year to the separatist Parti Québécois, led by Jacques Parizeau. On October 30, 1995 the PQ government held a referendum on sovereignty. The Yes campaign, led by Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard, was only narrowly defeated (50.6 per cent No to 49.4 per cent Yes.) Dumont and the ADQ campaigned on the Yes side in this referendum, although in subsequent election campaigns he promised a ten-year moratorium on sovereignty referenda.