Bruce Yaccato is a journalist and author, and is currently Executive Editor of WordsPerfect Communications.

“A la prochaine”

Premier Rene Levesque, in a haze of tears and cigarette smoke, ended his emotional speech conceding the defeat of the Quebec’s separatist forces in Canada’s 1980 referendum with that phrase, til next time, til we meet again. Partly as consolation to the dedicated, devastated supporters of the Yes to independence movement. Partly as threat to the victorious Federalists.

Could he have had any idea how clairvoyant that remark would be?

At the time anyone who suggested the political stars were already aligning to make another, even closer, yet more bitter referendum inevitable would have been thought on unauthorised leave from an asylum.

Specifics were missing but promises were made to revisit, renew, revitalise, (etc.) the federation to pacify a large and unhappy political entity within. Up to here, Quebec and Scotland could be used interchangeably.

But what followed in Canada was a constitutional train wreck that tore the country apart. The Charge of the Federalist Light Brigade.

The well-meaning, even noble attempts to deliver new arrangements and prerogatives unleashed a tsunami of discord and division, region turning on region, governments toppling, protest parties leaping onto the national scene, an entrenched old party with the largest-ever Parliamentary majority in history was completely destroyed, reigniting separatist sentiment to the absurd point the independentiste Bloc Quebecois became Her majesty’s Official Opposition in Ottawa. It became one of the most wretched decades in Canadian political history.

An initial round of constitutional reform under Pierre Trudeau produced the impressive results of patriating the British North America Act from Westminster where it had remained a testament to political impotence since Confederation and a Charter of Rights which has become a touchstone of Canadian society. But it came at the huge of cost of not just the exclusion of Quebec but its abject public humiliation. In a tactical maneuver that even Machiavelli scarcely dreamed of, Ottawa and the nine other provinces feigned a deal with Quebec, only to conclude a secret pact together in an episode which in Quebec is still called ‘The Night of the Long Knives’.

Unintended consequences one and two: inflamed nationalist sentiment in French Canada; and a soon to be electorally fatal breach in the historic Liberal bastion in Quebec, which had been virtually a wholly-owned subsidiary for nearly a century.

A few years later, with the magnanimity that comes with a massive majority government, Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney extended an olive branch to the federalist Premier Robert Bourassa, to bring Quebec into the ratified Constitutional family and heal the wound. What could go wrong?

Meech Lake is a beautiful enclave 40 kilometres from Parliament Hill. A nice little beach where Ottawa families picnic and teens go to hang out, sneak beers and party gently in the Canadian way.

It was also the site of the rural retreat where the negotiations began. The Meech Lake Accord would be botched and drag on painfully for years. It remains the Canadian version of the Schleswig-Holstein Issue, which Lord Palmerston famously described as “so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.”

Just the mention of it now will propel Canadians of a certain age to crawl across broken glass to reach the remote and change the channel to anything. It’s very much a post-traumatic disorder from the mind-numbing tedium of the endless negotiations, tantrums, threats that trundled across the nightly news. An epidemic of concussions ensued as viewers pitched forward in sudden Meech-induced comas, smashing foreheads into coffee tables.

Yes, it was ambitious and in retrospect surprisingly substantive. It made a generous offer of more provincial input in areas previously the sole prerogatives of the central government, including some jurisdiction over immigration and appointments to the Supreme Court. It would have been an historic decentralisation (or devolution, if you will) of power.

But it was doomed from the start over the two-word demand from Quebec to be recognised as a “Distinct Society”. The outrage spread like wildfire across English Canada and First Nations who felt just as distinct as Quebec, if not more so, and were frankly fed up with Quebec as the spoiled child of Confederation, always stamping its feet and holding its breath to wheedle more power and money from a spineless Federal Government in Ottawa.

Far from advancing the cause of reconciliation, Meech Lake was the engine of the worst alienation the country had experienced since WW2. lists the following synonyms for bitter: “acrimonious, virulent, angry, rancorous, spiteful, vicious, vitriolic, savage, ferocious, hate-filled, venomous, poisonous, acrid, nasty, ill-natured”

That pretty much describes the poisonous effect Meech had on the body politic.

As the clock literally ran out on ratification, the fallout began immediately and shattered the political landscape. Unintended consequences 3-7:

Mr. Mulroney’s artfully-maintained Conservative coalition of western Tories and Quebec nationalists fractured.  The Quebecois champion Lucien Bouchard quit the party in angry disgust to lead the Bloc Quebecois who in turn would ride Francophone anger to enough seats to form the Official Opposition. The Progressive Conservatives which won a record 211 seats in 1984 would be destroyed, winning just 2 seats in 1992 – largely, though not entirely, because of the ill-will generated by Meech.

With government obsessed with the National Unity crisis, budgets would be allowed to bloat to a scale which would bring the terrible reckoning a decade later.

And all the acrimony and chaos led to another referendum (a process that came to be called the Neverendum) in 1995 that was infinitely, terrifyingly closer than before.

So what are the lessons for the UK?

  1. The hard part hasn’t even started
  2. Post-referendum negotiations are hair-trigger Improvised Explosive Devices
  3. Someone in Downing Street should be studying the Canadian precedent
  4. It’s all right there in Machiavelli’s The Prince, Chapter 6:  “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, or more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in an introduction of a new order of things.”
  5. Caveat Suffragator

Yours truly,

The Senior Dominion