Canada's Next Last Chance

September 27, 1992

Canada is threatened with dissolution if voters in that country do not approve on Oct. 26 -- in each of 10 provinces -- a constitutional revision agreed to by the federal and provincial prime ministers and native leaders in August. Were the Canadian rule of unanimity applied here, the United States could not have ratified or amended the Constitution and would not now exist.

Canada is reeling from rejection in 1990 of the Meech Lake accord for constitutional revision after it was ratified by eight of 10 provinces representing more than eight-tenths of the voters. Unanimous approval was required. A legislator espousing Indian rights prevented Manitoba's parliamentary vote and the premier of Newfoundland never put the issue before his legislature. The two thwarted the will of the national majority. They should not have had that power.

The U.S. Constitution of 1787 said it would come into force when nine of 13 states acting through conventions approved. In the event, eleven did. The U.S. Constitution is difficult to amend, but not impossible. Three-fourths of the states must approve, not all.

The Meech Lake accord was a way of assuaging Quebec aspirations for its distinct society that the rest of Canada could accept. The new accord has gone further to appease the smallest provinces, by creating a meaningful upper house of Parliament. Indians and Eskimos get the right of self-government, Quebec gets one-fourth of House of Commons seats and a pledge is given to end internal trade barriers. Interest groups favoring federal guarantees -- including feminists, the disabled, gays, leftists and rightists -- have objected along with Quebec separatists.

The details don't much matter. Most Canadians would find fault with any accord, but most Canadians want Canada to exist and consider that more important than any constitutional imperfections. Most Quebecers want Canada to exist in some fashion, and many English-speaking Canadians doubt its viability without Quebec. There is little doubt the referendum will show a substantial nationwide majority in favor.

While the referendum is legally nonbinding, each of 10 legislatures must pass the accord or it fails. Each will interpret the referendum as it sees fit. Federal Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark says that "as a practical matter," the accord needs a popular majority in each province to survive. That is scary.

There is powerful sentiment against the accord in Quebec and in the West. But the Canadian tradition respects minorities. Canadians ought to quit pretending that Canada is Yugoslavia. If Canadians don't adopt some constitution soon, no one outside of Canada will understand or sympathize.

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