Canada's Meech Lake accord, intended to bring Quebec under the Canadian constitution as a distinct society, is dead.
That was the word from Sen. Lowell Murray, the Canadian minister forfederal-provincial affairs, Friday night when he emerged from an emergency meeting of the national Cabinet. He said Prime Minister Brian Mulroney would give Canadians the official verdict today in a national television address.
The Murray announcement followed an unusual day of last-minute proposals, including a plan to refer the whole matter to Canada's Supreme Court, which would have delayed a resolution of the matter for as much as six months. Tonight was to have been the deadline for all provinces to approve the accord.
"(Newfoundland) Premier (Clyde) Wells' decision to break his commitment and not hold a vote . . . has dashed the one remaining hope to have Meech Lake succeed," Murray said.
June 9, at the end of an unprecedented week-long meeting between Mulroney and his provincial counterparts, 9, Wells, Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon and New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna had agreed to introduce the accord and a companion resolution in their provincial legislatures. It passed in New Brunswick, but ran into procedural trouble in Manitoba. Wells had planned a vote Friday in the Newfoundland legislature, but changed his
mind after Murray held out a chance that today's deadline could be extended.
Friday afternoon Murray said the federal government would refer the deadline to the Supreme Court once the measure passed in Newfoundland. Under the constitution, an amendment must pass within three years after passage by the first legislature. Quebec adopted the Meech Lake accord June 23, 1987. A delay presumably would have allowed Manitoba to resolve the procedural problems and pass the accord.
But Wells argued that if the deadline could be extended for Manitoba, it also should be extended for Newfoundland and adjourned Newfoundland's legislature without a vote.
Shortly afterward, Murray emerged from a four-hour Cabinet meeting in Ottawa and declared that Meech Lake was dead.
The accord, written in May and June 1987, was designed to entice Quebec to sign Canada's constitution. It would have recognized the mostly French-speaking province as a distinct society and transferred some powers from the federal government to the provinces. After Mulroney and his 10 provincial counterparts agreed to the accord in 1987, three provincial governments changed hands and opposed the accord.
Under pressure from the federal government, New Brunswick passed the accord, and Manitoba's political leaders had agreed to support it. But attempts to push it through the legislature were thwarted by Elijah Harper, an Indian who demanded that the accord also recognize Indians as a distinct society.
In Quebec City Friday night, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa conceded that the accord was dead.
"On the political level, we have to note that the Meech Lake accord has not been ratified. The resolution of Quebec that was adopted three years ago no longer has any legal existence," he said.
Fears have arisen that Quebec would push for separation from Canada if the accord failed. In a recent poll, 57 percent of Quebeckers support a sovereignty association with the rest of Canada, similar to the relations among countries in the European Community.
"English Canada must clearly understand," Bourassa warned. "Quebec is today and forever a distinct society capable of assuming its own development and destiny."
Wells, who stressed that questioning the accord should never be considered anti-Quebec or anti-French, said the principles should provide the basis for beginning negotiations again.
"The legitimate concerns (of Quebec) have not been properly and appropriately met, so let's not just give up," he said.
Wells, in an angry speech to the Newfoundland House of Assembly, accused the federal government of manipulating the Meech Lake debate and putting pressure on Newfoundland to approve the accord.
"We're not prepared to be manipulated any longer," Wells said. "We're not prepared to sell our souls."
The failure to approve the accord raises unsettling questions about the nation's political and economic stability.
Although Quebec sovereignty will not come quickly -- if at all -- Mulroney predicted the effect of Meech Lake's demise will be national political turmoil, cutting the value of the Canadian dollar, increasing interest rates, discouraging foreign investment and weakening consumer confidence.
Audrey McLaughlin, the leader of the New Democratic Party, said she is worried about the future of the country and said Mulroney should "seriously consider" stepping down.