Time to Bring Back the Charlottetown Accord

The Toronto Star reports that Steven Harper is looking at a way to limit the federal government's power to spend on provincial jurisdictions. Liberals are arguing over a potential "nation" clause in the Constitution .

The Charlottetown Accord was negotiated in the summer of 1992 at the Prime Minister's official cottage at Meech Lake. To avoid the moniker of Meech II, people called it the Harrington Lake negotiations. Harrington Lake is really more of a bay of Meech lake, so to drive home the difference, the accord was signed in Charlottetown and has ever since been known as the Charlottetown Accord.

I turned 18 in the Summer of 1992. I was a life guard that Summer. My pool season finished early so in August I did some replacement work at Meech Lake. I was working one day with a gorgeous blond and we talked about politics. She was English Canadian from the other side of the Ottawa River. Meech Lake is part of the Gatineau Park that encompasses much of the Gatineau Hills. The Gatineau River Valley below is not part of the park. Just the hills. Nearby towns in the valley like Chelsea and Wakefield had always had an English Speaking majority so was no surprise that most users of Meech Lake were English speaking. I don't even remember if my colleague spoke any French. I do remember that we spoke in English.

She said something that really shocked me. To her, Lord Durham, who wrote that Quebeckers should be assimilated, was correct. I had learned that Durham was the devil incarnate. To her, it was too bad that Quebec had not been assimilated.

Being in the Gatineau Hills, Meech Lake can be chilly in July, in August, there were few swimmers. At one point in our discussion, she looked around, all the people on the beach had left and we were life guarding our selves pro bono, well after the end of our shift.

We rushed to put away the equipment because, in addition to now working for free, she was late for a party over in Ottawa. She biked daily between Ottawa and Meech and man did it show. So it was very embarrassing when I dropped the life guard boat on my foot. It was even more embarrassing that I needed her help to get the boat off my foot. It hurt so bad that I had to take my sneaker off to make sure all my ten toes were still attached to my foot. I was relieved they were, but when I looked at my colleague, I realised there was no way I was going to be invited to this party she was late for.

The only positive of the foot incident was that I had an excuse for letting her peddle ahead without me. I was used to biking to work all Summer as well, but in the Ottawa Valley to my pool, not in the Gatineau Hills. Clearly, life guarding a pool or biking on flat ground is not a good way to stay in shape.

So it was with my soar foot, my bruised ego and the disbilief that there were English Canadians in Ottawa who wanted to assimilate French Canadians, that I biked back home to Hull. As I struggled up the first hill, I had plenty of time to ponder all this as five stretched limos zoomed past me.

I was a political junky then as much as I am today. I was disappointed that the significance of the event was taken away from Meech and sent over to Charlottetown, but that didn't stop me from voting in favour of the accord. My history teacher did his best to talk us out of voting in favour of it. But I knew the accord backwards and forwards and I was voting "Oui". Frankly, I was amazed the country was still together after the failure of Meech, the original. This surely was the last chance.

That referendum was the first time I ever voted. It was the first time I ever could vote as I'd just turned 18 a few months before. It seemed most of the good people were voting Yes (or Oui). Only losers like Preston Manning and Lucien Bouchard were voting against it. I knew evil people like the gorgeous lifeguard and my history teacher would be against it.

I was incredulous that the No side won. Young Quebec Liberals had been demanding a referendum on Quebec sovereignty only a few months earlier. Liberals!

Trudeau won. His vision of Canada, his Constitution. His Charter has proven more powerful than ever expected.

I hope it was Trudeau that won. Because some times I think it was that gorgeous life guard who might have won. She thought Lord Durham's message of assimilating Quebeckers was still valid. Maybe it was Preston Manning who won.He complained Ottawa was to bilingual. Maybe it was Lucien Bouchard that won. His inflammatory demagogary makes me cringe, even today.

Preston Manning encouraged Western Canadians to vote "no" in the Charlottetown Accord referendum because recognising Quebec as a distinct society "wasn't fair". Quebec wanted it for its language law because using the notwithstanding clause to allow the language law was embarrassing for people like Robert Bourassa, the then Premier of Quebec. And who knew what other laws could be challenged and ruled unconstitutional by the anglophone majority on the Supreme Court.

Three short years later I voted "Non", contrary to the vast majority of my University of Montreal colleagues, in the referendum on Quebec's independence from Canada.

At that point in my life, I had only lived in Quebec. In the 11 short years since Quebec's independence referendum, the Liberal government of Jean Chretien ran federal affairs like the Meech Lake Constitutional amendment had passed. Quebec gained control over immigration, opted out of man power training and even has its own parental leave program, opting out of the federal program.

In the last 11 years, I've spent most of my time outside Quebec. I'm happy to report that the evil life guard is in the minority. I've only been called a "frog" by an employer twice, and one of those times was in England. Still, I'm surprised by all the educated people who think that everybody in Quebec should speak English even thought they don't speak a word of French. I had a colleague with a masters degree who couldn't believe that a mechanic in Lévis couldn't speak any English. My colleague couldn't speak any French, but the mechanic in Lévis should, according to him, speak at least a bit of English.

I'm not so sure, as I once was, that Quebec's language law is such a bad idea. At least two cities in Eastern Ontario, Clarence-Rockland and Casselman, have made bilingual signs mandatory for businesses. And frankly, there are way to many businesses here in Edmundston that have signs in English only, despite the fact that 95% of the population of the county has French as a first language. Businesses on the west island of Montreal often have signs in French only, even though the local population speaks English and bilingual signs are allowed as long as the French is bigger. Businesses are lazy. They go Coca-Cola and treat the world like a homogeneous group. At one point in time the island of Montreal was considered English, so businesses put up signs in English. Now it is part of French Quebec, so they put up signs in French only. No nuance.

Small businesses are worse. Many signs here in Edmunsdston are bilingual. You have to be bilingual to read them. They don't make sense unless you understand both languages! According to the 2001 census, 63% of the population say they can understand English and French. That is one of the highest levels in the country. But that still leave 37% of the population who say they don't understand one of English or French. You would think that businesses would recognise that a good chunk of the local population, never mind locals in nearby Quebec or Maine, can't understand their signs. There is a language law for food labels. Why can't there be one for signs that respects the constitution?

Obviously, to encourage bilingual signs, cities should allow them to be twice as big. But no city in Canada has such a by-law because they are all afraid of a constitutional challenge. In fact, many people, including myself, assumed Clarence-Rockland and Casselmen's new by-laws, and the new Ontario law that "allow" them, would have been challenged. But no court challenge yet.

What brought on the by-law in Clarence-Rockland was the new super sized Canadian Tire. The City went to a lot of trouble to accommodate the new store: official plan amendment, re-zoning, new road, new swer and water line, etc... Getting a Canadian Tire was big. One less reason to venture into Ottawa. And what did the franchise owner do? He posted a big sign saying "Grand Opening", in English only. English only. 85% of the population of Clarence-Rockland has French as a first language. The concentration is even higher up the road, presumably part of the customer base.

The owner says he didn't know! The City Council reacted. From then on, people would know that Clarence-Rockland wasn't in French Quebec and it wasn't in English Ontario. People would know that it was a French City in an English province. The vast majority of the population supported the idea. Those who didn't were mostly English speaking and they had a hard time justifying their opposition to the mostly French speaking population.

All this legislative accommodation had me thinking that maybe Trudeau won in 92 after all. That maybe his Constitution was the best option.

Then came Gerard Kennedy. Then came his supporters. Kennedy wants national standards for education. I don't know about you, but I'm quite happy with my education. I've used what I learned by working in three provinces and I haven't noticed any shortfalls yet. I'm not sure what the advantages of national education standards would be. I really don't. Based on Kennedy's French, Manitoba isn't doing to good at teaching French as a second language. But I'm not sure national standards would do any good, even in that subject.

What if the people who think everybody in Quebec should be bilingual so they don't have to learn French, get into power in Ottawa. Worse, what about that life guard I worked with when I was 18, the one who still thinks Lord Durham was right, that Quebeckers should be assimilated, what if she gets into power in Ottawa.

Belinda Stronach thought she could be Prime Minister of Canada without speaking French. So did Preston Manning, the man who voted no to Charlottown, who though Ottawa was too bilingual.

Maybe Trudeau didn't win the 1992 referendum. Maybe it was Lucien Bouchard and Preston Manning that won.

I say it was a tie. Time for a tiebreaker.

I recently took a look at the Charlottetown Accord. Still looks good. A compromise document for most people, but I don't think we could get a better one today. Canadians of 1992 were wrong to say no. Let's give Canadians of 2006 a chance to say yes.


Lookout Mountain said...

National standards would help to tell whether a 80% in high school in Alberta is the same as in BC. I was told by a UBC recruiter that they added 5% to the averages of applicants from Alberta.

We could make sure that coming into first year university in another province, that you knew the same stuff.

Also, you can teach a unifying history, and have everyone taught it. Whats wrong with that?

National standards might force Alberta to be a little less right wing, how could that be a bad thing?

Anonymous said...

Leave Alberta the way it is! We will do things our way, not what some asshole bureaucrats in Ottawa want.

As for Charlottetown it will never pass in Western Canada, so reintroduce it if you like but in the end you will say goodbye to either Western Canada or Quebec. Make your choice.

Loraine Lamontagne said...

The results by provinces of the referendum on Charlottetown were interesting. While many embraced it enthusiastically, Quebec turned it down as squarely as Alberta and I think you are quite right at pointing a figure at emotional, angry rhetoric politics. These play a major role in political life. Manning and Bouchard were and remain masters of the style of politics which reminds me of Ian Paisley?s. I still question myself often about what would bring a human being to throw a balloon filled with urine on to a Catholic little girl on her way to school. I don?t want to see this in my country, ever (again). Here for an insight on Quebec Civic nationalism and French-Canadians from Denise Bombardier in Le Devoir yesterday. http://www.ledevoir.com/2006/11/11/122635.html

As for the Constition, I think we should always remember, and write and say, the Charter of Rights AND FREEDOMS. Never omit the freedoms. That is what I, for one, hold dear.

Loraine Lamontagne said...

I meant pointing a finger....


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