Charlottetown Accord

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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.


The Statute of Westminster, 1931 granted Canada de jure independence from the United Kingdom. But Canada requested that the British North America Acts, the written portions of the Constitution of Canada, be exempted from the statute because the federal and provincial governments could not agree upon an amending formula for the Acts. Negotiations between Ottawa and the provinces were finally successful in 1981, allowing Canada to patriate its constitution by passing the Canada Act 1982, which included the Constitution Act 1982 and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and finally established an amending formula for the Canadian Constitution, without the assent of the National Assembly of Quebec.

Attempts to bring Quebec back into the constitutional framework resulted in the Meech Lake Accord, which failed when the provinces of Manitoba and Newfoundland were not able to ratify the document by the deadline established by it. This was followed by a resurgence in the Quebec sovereignty movement. Premier Robert Bourassa stated that a referendum would occur in 1992 on either a new constitutional agreement with Canada or sovereignty for Quebec, and citing his dignity, refused to again negotiate as one province.

The Quebec government set up the Allaire Committee and the Bélanger-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 concerns in Canada's other provinces. Former Prime Minister Joe Clark was appointed Minister of Constitutional Affairs, and was responsible for pulling together a new constitutional agreement.

Clark conducted a negotiation with the non-Quebec premiers on a new constitutional accord. While Quebec was not physically present, communications were done through a back channel. Broad agreement was made for the Meech Lake provisions to be included, a recognition of aboriginal self government, and wholesale Senate reform that allowed for equality of the provinces. A misunderstanding on the back channel regarding Quebec's position on the latter created an impression that the agreement would be acceptable by the National Assembly, and Clark announced that a consensus had been reached.

Mulroney, advised of the agreement while in Paris, was shocked and dismayed, as he believed the Senate arrangements would doom any agreement in Quebec. However, a refusal of the agreement would necessitate the resignation of the popular and influential Clark from Cabinet, crippling his already unpopular government. Mulroney decided to work with the agreement, and on August 28, 1992, the agreement known as the "Charlottetown Accord" was reached after intensive negotiations between 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 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.



The Charlottetown Accord attempted to resolve long-standing disputes around the division of powers between federal and provincial jurisdiction.

The Accord declared that forestry, mining, natural resources, and cultural policy would become provincial jurisdictions, with the federal government retaining jurisdiction over national cultural bodies such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board. Federal funding would also have been guaranteed for programs under provincial heads of power, such as medicare, limiting the federal government's authority to negotiate national standards in return for funding increases. The accord also required the federal and provincial governments to harmonize policy in 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.

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

Institutional Reform[edit]

The Accord proposed a number of major reforms to Federal institutions. The Supreme Court of Canada and its governing legislation were to be constitutionally entrenched, ending the ambiguity surrounding the inclusion of the Court in the Constitution Act, 1982, but not its governing statute.

The Canadian Senate would have been reformed, with senators to be elected either in a general election or by provincial legislatures at the discretion of the provinces. Six would be assigned for every province and one for each territory, with additional seats able to be created for Aboriginal voters. The enumerated powers of the Senate would be reduced, with the body's power to defeat legislation removed and replaced with suspensive vetoes and, in cases of deadlock, joint sittings between the Senate and the (much-larger) House of Commons. On matters related to francophone culture and language, passage of a bill would require a majority in the Senate as a whole and a majority of (self-declared) francophone senators.

Changes were also proposed for the House of Commons. Following the "equalization" of the Senate, the House's seat distribution would also be based more so on population than previously, with more seats allotted to Ontario and the Western provinces. Quebec was guaranteed never to be allotted less than one-quarter of the seats in the House.

Preamble/Enumerated Clauses[edit]

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.

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 referendum[edit]

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. Risking a greater perception of unfairness if only three provinces were able to vote, Prime Minister Mulroney decided to go with a national referendum. British Columbia and Alberta agreed to have its referendum overseen by Elections Canada, but Quebec opted to conduct its vote provincially. (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, as the Mulroney government itself left the answer ambiguous. The minimum standard was generally seen to have been a majority "Yes" vote in Quebec and a majority of voters in favour of "Yes" amongst the other nine provinces collectively.[1]

The campaign began with the accord popular across English Canada, with a statistical dead heat in Quebec.


The campaign saw an alignment of disparate 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. All three major party leaders traveled 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 effective disintegration of the Federal government. He hosted a press conference at a Montreal Chinese restaurant, "La Maison du Egg Roll", the transcript of which would be published and distributed in book form as "This Mess Deserves a 'No'."

Preston Manning's fledgling, western-based Reform Party battled the Accord in the West with the slogan, "KNOw More", opposing recognition of Quebec's "distinct society" and arguing that Senate reform did not go far enough.

The two Quebec sovereigntist parties, Lucien Bouchard's Bloc Québécois and Jacques Parizeau's Parti Québécois, both strongly opposed the Accord, as they believed it did not give Quebec enough powers.

Waning popularity[edit]

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 aspect of the lengthy accord with which they disagreed and the extreme unpopularity of Brian Mulroney in 1992. Canada was experiencing a deepening recession since the Meech Lake Accord process ended on June 23, 1990, and many saw a political elite obsessed with constitutional affairs to the detriment of the health of the economy. Early '90's Recession & BC

Mulroney was already deeply unpopular with Canadian voters, and was generally seen to have 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. Many voters, in fact, misinterpreted the action as a reference to the potential breakup of the country, with overtones of belligerence and intimidation.

The Accord was especially unpopular in Western provinces, where prominent figures 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 prominence 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. Despite a consensus victory by Bourassa in a television debate against Parizeau, the "Oui" campaign stalled at 45% in the polls.


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/Non: 54.3% Yes/Oui: 45.7%

Breakdown by province[edit]

Jurisdiction Yes No 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 Territory 43.7 56.3 70.0
Nation total 45.7 54.3 71.8


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] and 2007.

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 Meech. 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 his successor Kim Campbell were reduced to two seats in the worst defeat of a sitting government at the federal level. They were replaced in most Western ridings by the Reform Party and in Quebec by the Bloc Québécois, parties who had opposed the Accord. The NDP was cut down to only nine seats. The Liberals, despite their support for the accord, had a new leader in Jean Chrétien, who promised not to revisit constitutional issues during the campaign, and won a large majority in the new Parliament due to their near-sweep of Ontario.

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 2014 there have been no further attempts to resolve the status of Quebec through a formal constitutional process.


  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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