A watershed 1987 Constitutional Agreement that by 1990 turned into the most prolonged unity crisis in Canadian history.
Meech is, physically speaking, a lake in the Gatineau Hills, near Ottawa, on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. It was at the federal government’s conference centre on the lake (a frequent site of retreats for Canadian cabinets and senior public servants through the years) that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the premiers of all of Canada’s provinces agreed to a sweeping set of changes to the Canadian Constitution.1 Chief among the changes – and the one to prove the most controversial – was the entrenchment in the Constitution of Quebec as a “Distinct Society” within Canada.
Over the following three years, through additional federal-provincial meetings, including a week of round-the clock first ministers sessions in Ottawa in 1989, the agreement become the subject of bitter, polarizing debate across Canada . Mulroney championed the Accord as a completing the work of the 1982 Constitutional Patriation, and a resolution of the long debate over Quebec’s place in Canada. The de facto leader of the Meech Lake Accord’s opponents was Mulroney’s predecessor, Pierre Trudeau, who saw the agreement as the abnegation of the undivided Canada that he and many Canadians held dear.2
As the debate raged over three years, support for the agreement dropped sharply. Specifically, changes of government in Manitoba and Newfoundland doomed the Accord, which required the support of all provincial legislatures to be adopted. The Meech Lake Accord died on June 24, 1990. This happened to coincide with Quebec’s National Holiday, St Jean Baptiste Day.
The failure of the Meech Lake Accord led to momentous events: the birth of the Bloc Quebecois, the first explicitly separatist party in the House of Commons; the 1992 Charlottetown Agreement, a desultory follow-up effort at constitutional change, that was subjected to the first ever Pan-Canada Constitutional Referendum in Canadian history (it was defeated); and the near-death 1995 Quebec Referendum.
When the term “Meech Lake” is invoked today (as in: “That will be another Meech…”), it is generally in reference to muddled, heedless, or inherently unpopular or endlessly complex constitutional reform efforts that may be doomed to failure. As such, the term has become shorthand for how NOT to change a constitution.