BY Jim Harding
In 1982 Canada repatriated its constitution and added the Charter of Rights. Quebec didn’t sign on, which some believed increased the threat of separation. In 1987 Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government tried to bring Quebec into the new constitution with the Meech Lake Accord. The Accord viewed Quebec as a “distinct society” and Canada as a country of two nations. In the interests of national unity all federal parties signed on. The Accord also needed support from all provinces.
Several vital issues were swept off the table and to raise these and jeopardize the Accord was treated as not caring about Canadian unity. Of greatest concern for me was what would happen to aboriginal rights in a constitution premised upon only two founding nations, the French and English. This would institutionalize a colonial view, not one that saw the treaties as fundamental to our country.
This wedge encouraged people to passively accept the all-party support without critically inquiring into the Accord. The wedge also went between mainstream political parties and the growing number of Canadians becoming more disillusioned with how the political system worked. A host of issues were at stake, including bias in first-past-the-post voting.
I attended an international development conference in Montreal during the campaign for and against Meech Lake. There were civil society and popular education groups from across the country; I represented the development education group, Regina Committee for World Development (RCWD). Several delegates raised questions about the implications of the Accord for aboriginal rights, women’s right and environmental protection. As the discussion continued more and more became opposed to the Accord.
Quebec’s groups tended to support Meech Lake because they thought it would bring French Canada fully into the constitution. Groups from outside Quebec started to think that the national question was marginalizing aboriginal and women’s rights inside Quebec. A serious fissure developed among popular education groups along Quebec/the rest of Canada lines.
The conflict over the Accord spawned both the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois. The wedge that started with Meech Lake was to change Canadian politics.
Some very strange bedfellows came together in grass-roots opposition to the Accord. Pierre Trudeau opposed the Accord. Preston Manning’s new Reform Party fought militantly against it. His fight linked together western Canadian alienation, social conservatism and the call for democratic reform. It gave a loud voice to those opposing bilingualism and biculturalism. The Accord ultimately lost the support of two provinces, Newfoundland and Manitoba. In Manitoba another Harper, NDP First Nations MLA Elijah Harper whom I had come to know through popular movement-building, used procedure to stop a vote on the Accord. The Accord went into the historical dustbin. The Mulroney government tried again, negotiating the Charlottetown Accord, but it too faced widespread opposition, from Trudeau and the Reform Party to the Bloc Quebecois and the PQ. It was defeated in a cross-Canadian referendum in 1992.
RISE OF REFORM
The Reform Party however, came out of this struggle leading the widely appealing call for more accountability and transparency in Canadian politics. It made its electoral breakthrough in 1993 when the Progressive Conservatives were pretty much decimated. Remember Kim Campbell? In 1997 the Reform Party became the official opposition. When it became the Alliance Party in 2000 it remained the official opposition.
The conservative rightwing started their campaign to overcome vote-splitting, which they argued had kept Liberals in power. It largely worked. Harper replaced Stockwell Day as Alliance Party leader in 2002; in 2003 the Progressive Conservatives were dishonourably disbanded and the new Conservative Party was formed. In 2006 and 2008 the Conservatives won a minority government and in 2011 they won their majority.
Wedge politics was central to this shift in power. The Meech Lake deal among all federal parties created the populist space for the much more rightwing conservatives to get a foothold in Canadian politics. With the aid of ongoing wedge issues, vote splitting was now occurring among Liberals, the NDP and the Greens. The new Conservatives could now hold power with only minority support. I was always puzzled that the other parties weren’t also calling for a more accountable and transparent politics. After Harper they are. In retrospect it was Manning’s shrewd genius that he was able to get such complete control of the narrative of democratic reform.
But Manning’s influence was short lived. Reform Party opposition to Meech Lake became a stepping stone for Harper. Most Reform-elected MPs were gone when Harper took power and besides Harper only five are still in parliament in 2015. It ‘s unquestionable after nine years of his rule that democratic reform was itself an ideological wedge to build a critical mass of voters; Harper’s government has probably been the least accountable and transparent in Canada’s history. More may yet come out in the Duffy trial.
Under Harper, issues that were such a lightning rod during the Meech Lake controversy have been treated opportunistically. Manning’s Reform Party proposed a constitutional amendment that recognized all provinces as equal. Once elected in 2006 Harper brought a motion to Parliament “That this House recognize that the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada’. Harper made it clear that Conservative MPs couldn’t oppose the motion or they would be expelled from caucus; it carried 255 to 16 out of 308 ridings. This is when Michael Chong left the Conservative Cabinet because he thought Harper was flirting with ethnic nationalism. He carried on working for parliamentary reform.
The political wedges used in Haper’s rise to power have not been about policy making but about getting and holding power. Wedge politics is the political methodology for keeping the majority of Canadian voters split so that it is possible to continue to rule with minority support.
Harper is already playing high stake wedge politics well before the 2015 federal election. He’s clearly willing to manipulate the same sentiments that were afire during the Meech Lake controversy. He was quick to attack a recent federal court decision allowing an immigrant woman to take the oath of citizenship while wearing a veil. Though such a ban would contravene Canada’s immigration law and as the Muslim Council of Canada pointed out, this practice only affects a tiny minority of women, Harper wanted to make the most of it.
He carefully selected his words to try to create another big wedge over Canadian identity. Harper is reported in the Feb. 16, 2015 theStar.com saying, “It is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family”. Notice how he uses “Canadian family” to imply sameness. He continues: “That is not the way we do things”, as though the way we do things or what we wear is actually homogenous, which it isn’t in our multicultural society. Then he continues: “This is a society that is transparent, open and where people are equal and I think we find that offensive”. In view of Harper’s extremely non-transparent form of government, this is a huge, hypocritical stretch. Also, we know that Harper does not support equality in any substantive sense. But these words are about creating wedges, Harper’s versions of “us and them”; they are not about describing the best about our country or how Harper actually does politics.
Most noteworthy, Harper was in Quebec when he made these remarks. He knows full well that support for the deposed Parti Quebecois’s controversial and clearly discriminatory Social Charter was much higher in Quebec, where he is trying to gain back some support. His inflammatory statement might just drive a small wedge in the nationalist vote that went to the NDP in 2011. Who knows, some of the more xenophobic voters might go conservative because of Harper’s remarks.
The Meech Lake Accord may not have passed in 1987, but under Harper’s rule the identity wedge politics that it spawned carries on.
Next time I’ll look at how Quebec continues to be used as a wedge.