Charlottetown Accord

Charlottetown Accord

The Charlottetown Accord (French: Accord de Charlottetown) was a package of proposed amendments to the Constitution of Canada, proposed by the Canadian federal and provincial governments in 1992. It was submitted to a public referendum on October 26 of that year, and was defeated.



Until 1982, the British North America Act, 1867 and later amendments served as the basis of Canada's constitution. As an act of the British Parliament, however, this left Canada in the anomalous position of having to petition another country's government to amend its own constitution. Since the Statute of Westminster 1931, the British government was willing to relinquish this role, but Canadian federal and provincial governments were unable to agree on a new amending formula. Various unsuccessful attempts were made to patriate the constitution. Notable among these was the Victoria Charter of 1971.

In 1981, a round of negotiations led by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau reached a patriation agreement that formed the basis of the Constitution Act of 1982. Although this agreement passed into law, augmenting the British North America Acts as the constitution of the land, it was reached over the objections of Quebec Premier René Lévesque, the liberals under the leadership of Claude Ryan, and the Quebec National Assembly refused to approve the amendment. However, the judges of the Supreme Court of Canada, the majority of them (7 out of 9) appointed by Trudeau (Bora Laskin, Robert Dickson, Jean Beetz, Willard Estey, William McIntyre, Bertha Wilson, Antonio Lamer), ruled in the Patriation Reference and the Quebec Veto Reference that neither Quebec nor any other province had a veto to prevent the federal government from petitioning the British Parliament to pass the Canada Act 1982, and that the new constitution applied to all provinces notwithstanding their disagreement.

Brian Mulroney defeated Trudeau's successor, John Turner, in the 1984 federal election and was determined to succeed where Trudeau had failed, by reaching an agreement that would allow Quebec to sanction 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, Manitoba and Newfoundland, 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 Bélanger-Campeau Committee to discuss Quebec's future inside or outside of Canada. 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.

On August 28, 1992, after intensive negotiations in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, the federal, provincial and territorial governments, and 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".

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 passed by a provincial legislature 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 would partially or fully fund programs (Medicare, social programs, etc.) that otherwise would fall within areas of provincial jurisdiction. The federal government has typically attached conditions on this financing arrangement to ensure minimum national standards. The Charlottetown Accord would have guaranteed federal funding for such programs, severely limiting the federal government's authority in these departments.

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 important, 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 the Supreme Court's constituting statute requires that three of its justices be from Quebec, due to Quebec's use of codified civil law rather than English common law, this has never been constitutionally mandated.

The Canadian Senate would have been reformed, although the proposed reform fell short of the "triple-E" (equal, elected and effective) Senate demanded by the western provinces. The accord allowed senators to be elected either in a general election, or by the provincial legislatures. Six would be assigned for every province and one for each territory, and provisions would be in place to permit the future creation of special seats for First Nations voters. However, the powers of the Senate were reduced, and on matters relating to francophone 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. Following the "equalization" of the Senate, the House's seat distribution would also be based more so on population than previously. 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.

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.

The impetus for a federal referendum came from the many complaints about the Meech Lake process, and how many claimed it was a backdoor negotiation for the future of the country. Mulroney decided to go with the referendum, against Joe Clark's advice. British Columbia and Alberta agreed to participate in the federal referendum, but Quebec opted to conduct its own separate vote. (For that reason, Quebecers "temporarily" living outside the province could have two votes, since they were enumerated to the voters' list based on federal rules, but people relatively new to Quebec could not vote at all because they had not established residency.)

The referendum's measure of success was an open question. Because all of the premiers had agreed to the deal, it could conceivably have passed without a referendum — however, Robert Bourassa's promise of a referendum in 1992 on a constitutional agreement or sovereignty meant one would be held in Quebec regardless. It is debated what measure of voter approval would have been necessary, as the Mulroney government itself left the question open to debate. The minimum standard would probably have been a majority in Quebec and a majority in the other provinces.[1]


The campaign saw an alignment of groups in support of the new amendments. The Progressive Conservatives, the Liberals, and the New Democratic Party supported the accord. First Nations groups endorsed it as did some 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 English Canada, with a statistical dead heat in Quebec. All three major party leaders travelled the country supporting the accord while large amounts of money were spent on pro-accord advertising. While many advocates of the accord acknowledged that it was a compromise and had many flaws, they also felt that without it the country would break apart.


The most important opponent of the accord was likely former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. In a piece first published in Maclean's, he argued that the accord meant the end of Canada and was the disintegration of the federal government. He would later grant an interview at a Montreal Chinese restaurant, "La Maison du Egg Roll", where he would deliver a powerful speech, arguing that "This mess deserves a 'no'." One of Trudeau's chief allies, Deborah Coyne, would lead a feminist crusade against the accord.

The No side was a smaller collection of groups. Preston Manning's fledgling, western-based Reform Party battled the accord in the West with the slogan, "KNOw More", opposing "distinct society" and arguing that Senate reform did not go far enough. Quebec sovereignists, Lucien Bouchard's Bloc Québécois and the provincial Parti Québécois led by Jacques Parizeau, were strongly opposed, as they believed it did not give Quebec enough powers (although Parizeau has admitted that for him nothing short of full independence would be acceptable.)

Waning popularity

As the campaign progressed, the accord steadily became less and less popular. This is often credited to much of the electorate finding at least some part of the lengthy accord with which they disagreed. 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.

Mulroney was already deeply unpopular with Canadian voters, who perceived him as arrogant, and he made a number of mistakes in the referendum campaign. Most famously, he referred to persons against the Accord as "enemies of Canada", and while speaking about the dangers of voting against the agreement in Sherbrooke, he ripped a piece of paper in half with a dramatic flourish to represent the historic gains for Quebec that would be threatened if the accord failed. This came to be regarded as one of the defining images of his tenure as prime minister, with many voters seeing overtones of belligerence and intimidation. Many voters, in fact, misinterpreted the action as a reference to the potential breakup of the country.

Many critics, especially those in the West, argued that the Accord was essentially a document created by the nation's elites to codify their vision of what Canada "should" be. B.C. broadcaster Rafe Mair gained national fame and notoriety by arguing that the accord represented an attempt to permanently cement Canada's power base in the Quebec-Ontario bloc at the expense of fast-growing, wealthy provinces like Alberta and British Columbia that were challenging its authority. To proponents of such beliefs, opposing the accord became portrayed as a campaign of grassroots activism against the interests of the powerful.

In Quebec, a tape featuring two bureaucrats saying that Bourassa had "caved" in negotiations was played on a radio station. Further undermining the "Yes" vote in Quebec was when British Columbia's Constitutional Affairs minister Moe Sihota, responding to Mair's comments, said that Bourassa had been "outgunned" in the discussions.


On October 26, 1992, two referendums, the Quebec government's referendum in Quebec, and the federal government's referendum in all other provinces and territories, were put to the voters.

Do you agree that the Constitution of Canada should be renewed on the basis of the agreement reached on August 28, 1992?
Acceptez-vous que la Constitution du Canada soit renouvelée sur la base de l'entente conclue le 28 août 1992?
No: 54.3% Yes: 45.7%

Breakdown by province

Province Yes No Voter turnout
Alberta 39.8 60.2 72.6
British Columbia 31.7 68.3 76.7
Manitoba 38.4 61.6 70.6
New Brunswick 61.8 38.2 72.2
Newfoundland 63.2 36.8 53.3
Nova Scotia 48.8 51.2 67.8
Ontario 50.1 49.9 71.9
Prince Edward Island 73.9 26.2 70.5
Quebec1 43.3 56.7 82.8
Saskatchewan 44.7 55.3 68.7
Northwest Territories 61.3 38.7 70.4
Yukon 43.7 50.4 70.0
Nation totals 49.6 50.4 '

CBC Television news reported the result with the words "The Charlottetown Accord is DOA: Dead on arrival."


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


The impact of the referendum caused the Canadian Press to label it the Canadian Newsmaker of the Year, an honour that usually goes to individual people. CBC claimed that this was the first time that the "country's newsrooms have selected a symbol instead of a specific person," which would be done again in 2006.[2]

Many thought, from a perspective favouring national unity, that the result given was probably the next-best result to the Accord passing: since both Quebec and English Canada rejected it, there really was not a fundamental disagreement as there was with the Meech Lake Accord. A division in the Quebec Liberal Party over the accord would bring former Liberal youth committee president Mario Dumont to form the Action démocratique du Québec in 1994.

Probably the biggest result of the referendum, however, was the effect of most of Canada's population voting against an agreement endorsed by every first minister and most other political groups. This stinging rebuke against the "political class" in Canada was a preview of things to come — in the federal election on October 25, 1993, a year less a day after the Charlottetown referendum, the Progressive Conservatives under new leader and prime minister Kim Campbell were reduced to two seats. They were replaced in most Western ridings by the Reform Party and in Quebec by the Bloc Québécois, the parties who had opposed the Accord. The NDP was also decimated, winning just nine seats, as the party's pro-Charlottetown stance alienated many Prairie voters who turned to Reform as the new party of Western protest. The Liberals, despite their support for the accord, had new leader in Jean Chrétien, who opposed it, and won a large majority in the new Parliament due to their near-sweep of Ontario. There, only a minority of the voters who had opposed the accord were willing to vote for the Reform Party.

One of the Accord's reforms dealing specifically with New Brunswick was successfully enacted in 1993 as section 16.1 of the Charter of Rights.[3]

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, several matters relating to the status of Quebec have been pursued through Parliament (e.g., the Clarity Act) or through intergovernmental agreements. In 2006 the House of Commons of Canada passed the Québécois nation motion, recognizing francophone Quebecers as a nation within a united Canada. As of 2011 there have been no further attempts to resolve the status of Quebec through a formal constitutional process, although former Quebec opposition leader Mario Dumont has stated his support for reopening the constitutional debate.


  1. ^ Discussed in "The Challenge of Direct Democracy", Richard Johnston, André Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil and Neil Nevitt
  2. ^, "'Canadian Soldier' voted 2006 Newsmaker," Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, December 25, 2006, URL accessed 16 February 2010.
  3. ^ Russell, Peter. Constitutional Odyssey, 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), p. 231.

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