Reopening the Constitution?

Reopening the Constitution?

UPDATED June 2, 2017 11:09amET

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard has launched an effort to reopen the Constitution, with the goal of seeing his province formally sign on after 35 years.

His government says the effort revolves around the principles negotiated 30 years ago in the failed Meech Lake Accord, including:

  • Recognition of the Québec nation;
  • Respect for Québec’s areas of jurisdiction;
  • Autonomy;
  • Flexibility and asymmetry;
  • Cooperation and administrative agreements;
  • Shared institutions.

Here is Couillard speaking Thursday afternoon in Quebec City (French-language only):

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters this morning he remains opposed to re-opening the Constitution.

Federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, though, supports the plan:

Here’s how Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall reacted on Twitter today:

Click to watch Couillard’s full news conference. Read a summary of the Quebec government’s discussion paper below, or browse the full document.

Summary: Policy on Québec Affirmation and Canadian Relations


Here’s a look at how we reached this point, with some key constitutional moments since Confederation.


The British North America Act passes through the British Parliament, creating the Dominion of Canada.


Canada achieves its own representation within the British Empire delegation to the Paris Peace Conference following the First World War. Canada signed the Treaty of Versailles along with the other British Dominions and later sat in the League of Nations. Canadians had automatically gone to war in 1914 with the British Empire.


An Imperial Conference results in the Balfour Report, which defines British dominions as autonomous communities.


The Statute of Westminster confirms Canada’s legislative autonomy, though the power to amend the constitution continues to reside with the United Kingdom. But Canadian politicians could not agree on a suitable amending formula. at conferences in 1927 and this year. Amendments to the BNA Act still needed a formal vote in British Parliament.


John Diefenbaker’s government passes a Bill of Rights. It is not entrenched in the constitution, however, and only applies to federal jurisdiction.


The Victoria Conference gives hope to an agreement between Ottawa and the provinces. Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, however, rejects the plan.


Two first ministers’ conferences end in failure, following meetings in 1975 and 1976.


A May referendum on Quebec sovereignty wins only 40.4-per-cent support.

Later that year, Justice Minister Jean Chrétien kicks off debate on unilateral patriation of the Canadian Constitution on Oct. 6:


The Supreme Court rules that Ottawa has the legal right to push forward alone on patriation, but historical convention requires substantial consent from the provinces.

A constitutional conference takes place in Ottawa in early November. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, supported by Ontario and New Brunswick, has to contend with the “Gang of Eight” of premiers who oppose patriation without their consent.

The so-called “kitchen accord” between Attorney General Jean Chrétien and his Ontario and Saskatchewan counterparts (Roy McMurtry and Roy Romanow) leads to agreement on the “notwithstanding clause” in exchange for the premiers dropping their demand to “opt out” of federal programs and receive equivalent funding. Quebec Premier René Lévesque refuses to sign the accord.

On Nov.5, Trudeau addresses the House of Commons after reaching the agreement. Opposition Leader Joe Clark and NDP Leader Ed Broadbent respond to the prime minister’s speech:

On Nov. 20, Chrétien, Clark, and Broadbent take part in the debate on the final resolution concerning patriation:

Here is how the federal government described those tense days in “The Constitution and You,” a pamphlet designed to inform Canadians about patriation:

“It wasn’t easy. Along the way, we were subjected to long and often angry debate .. the 11 first ministers resumed bargaining in early November of 1981, and in our uniquely Canadian way the breakthrough came with the kind of consensus that had eluded our leaders for more than half a century. The constitutional impasse was at last broken. Canada was finally able to complete the process of gaining full independence that had begun nearly 115 years ago.”


The Canadian Constitution formally comes home on April 17, 1982. Canada finally acquires full national sovereignty and the ability to amend the country’s most fundamental laws without the say or approval of the British Parliament at Westminster.

Trudeau calls it “not the completion of our task, but the renewal of our hope. Not so much an ending, but a fresh beginning.”

Queen Elizabeth travels to Ottawa to sign the Constitution Act, severing Canada’s legislative link to Great Britain. Patriation was one aspect of the new constitution; the other was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — a protected set of rights and freedoms that went beyond previous legislative measures.

The Queen signs a proclamation to bring the Constitution Act into force. It incorporates the BNA Act and adds several items, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an amending formula, the equalization principle, and greater provincial control over natural resources.


The Meech Lake Accord fails after a multi-year process. The measures included recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society” and a constitutional veto for the provinces. Aboriginal groups protested that they were left out of the negotiations.


Canadian voters reject the Charlottetown Accord in a national referendum.


The “NO” side narrowly wins a Quebec referendum on independence from Canada:


The House of Commons passes a motion by a vote of 265 to 16: That this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Michael Chong resigns from cabinet in opposition to the motion.

Watch CPAC’s full coverage from that historic day:


The opposition Parti Québécois calls for a provincial constitution that would “set forth the fundamental values of the Quebec nation, establish Quebec citizenship, present its national symbols, enshrine human rights and freedoms and fundamental linguistic rights, and describe Quebec’s parliamentary, government and judicial institutions.”


Philippe Couillard wins the Quebec Liberal leadership and says the province must take the initiative on constitutional reconciliation. On the campaign trail one year later, Couillard said he would not initiate constitutional talks if premier.

-Andrew Thomson

Top Photo: Queen Elizabeth II signs Canada’s constitutional proclamation in Ottawa on April 17, 1982 as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looks on. THE CANADIAN PRESS