Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Residents of Deux-Montagnes, a small community near Montreal, line up in front of a Charlottetown Accord polling station before the doors open in this Oct. 26, 1992 file photo. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
Residents of Deux-Montagnes, a small community near Montreal, line up in front of a Charlottetown Accord polling station before the doors open in this Oct. 26, 1992 file photo. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

From the archives: Canadian people send clear message to politicians by rejecting agreement Add to ...

Canada's people have put an end to constitution making by the politicians.

Two years of politics built the Aug. 28 Charlottetown agreement, and six weeks of populism killed it.

The national referendum on the constitutional accord quickly became a verdict on Canada's elected class as the votes were tallied last night.

More Related to this Story

Quebec's refusal sealed the fate of the accord - it had to be accepted in all parts of the country or it was doomed.

Outside Quebec, Nova Scotia surprised the country and said No to the deal, while the accord foundered in Ontario and in the West. It won strong approval only in Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

And although the leading No campaigners are not agreed on the country's destiny after the vote - in Quebec, it's a step to sovereignty; in the rest of Canada, it's a cry for a different kind of country - the political leaders have received one clear message.

"The public are obviously on a completely different wavelength than the great proportion of their elected representatives. It's a sad commentary on the representativeness of their representatives," Reform Party leader Preston Manning said.

Mr. Manning and the Bloc Quebecois are not agreed on the destiny of Canada, but they are agreed on what the people told their leaders yesterday.

"One of the immediate consequences of what's going on is a massive denial of the establishment and the political class of Canada," Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard said.

Mr. Manning did not speak to the separatists, but he did try to build common bond with unhappy federalists in Quebec. "I would like to say to discontented and discouraged federalists in Quebec that you are not alone; that there are all kinds of people that think there's a lot wrong with this federal system and want to fix it."

New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna said he saw the result as a sign that constitution making must stop in Canada.

"If we can't get this through with the requisite amount of support, I definitely believe that we should hold the Constitution in abeyance; stop talking about it, talk about the things that unite us. And let's hope somewhere down the road, with different personalities, a different mood in Canada, that we can effect change that will be more positively received."

The Charlottetown accord was anything but positively received. It was a sweeping deal and it was a stunning rejection. The result, so much a tug- of-war between the Yes and No forces, shows a deeply divided nation and a surprising undercurrent of anger in the country.

The death of the deal means No to native self-government, No to an equal and elected Senate, No to the reshuffling of powers in Canada and No to a new social and economic union. It also means No to distinct-society status for Quebec and No to the enshrinement of various equalities.

It was, quite simply, a No to the largest proposed overhaul of the Canadian federation.

"It's an evening of rejection," said Mary-Ellen Turpel, an Assembly of First Nations lawyer who was one of the architects of the deal.

She worries that it is back to Square 1 for everyone, especially native people. "The status quo is unacceptable to aboriginal people," she said.

Canada's reputation for mild-mannered tolerance was challenged - if not seriously undermined - by the past six weeks of the referendum campaign.

If nothing else, the debate showed that Canadians are an angry, frustrated people, weary of their politicians and not afraid to wear their bitterness on their sleeves.

The Constitution has come to be seen as the fiddle that the elites played while Canada burned. In turn, Canadians' most rampant intolerance was directed at politicians, especially the ones who campaigned the hardest for the Yes side.

A perfect snapshot of the disgruntled nation emerged yesterday at Toronto's SkyDome.

A warm glow of euphoria swept the stadium as thousands of cheering people celebrated the Toronto Blue Jays' victory at the World Series - the first championship for a Canadian-based team in the U.S. national sport.

But underneath all the warmth was a cold streak of anger that burst into the open when Ontario Premier Bob Rae and other politicians appeared before the crowd. The exuberant fans were there to display their happiness, but they were still angry enough to vent their hostility at their elected leaders.

How do the politicians piece together the future of the country amid all the resentment that is out there?

It will probably not be through constitutional talks. Even one week ago, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney acknowledged that it would be foolish to take another shot at recreating the Charlottetown accord.

"I cannot conceive - maybe somebody else can - of a set of circumstances where the dynamics of Charlottetown could be constructively recreated," he told The Globe and Mail last week. "I just can't. I think people would say to hell with it."

Not only the people would say "to hell with it." Politicians are also starting to show exasperation with their seemingly futile bids to appease the public.

In recent days, the large, federal Yes effort came to grips with the fact that the public was impossible to please. And in fact, some strategists on the Yes side believed that they had actually done more damage to their own credibility by trying too hard to meet the public's demands.

For instance, the first half of the campaign was dominated by angry demands for a legal text of the Charlottetown accord because a suspicious public just did not take the politicians' word about the contents of the deal. So the Yes forces supplied the text and inundated people with the information they said they needed.

The reaction? The public read the reply as an admission of guilt, an admission that information was indeed held back by the politicians. The Yes side was damned if it did and damned if it didn't.

This was a campaign in which the Yes side had to explain itself, not the deal. It was this force that drove the campaign. While the No side built up momentum, the Yes side was called on to explain why it lost the advantage it seemed to enjoy at the beginning of September.

All kinds of explanations have floated around for the fact that the campaign turned into such a tight and difficult race for the Yes side.

Here are just a few: The No side - perceived at the outset of the campaign as a political fringe - quickly moved to centre stage with the help of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and others placed a safe distance from the political fray. Mr. Trudeau is a former prime minister; Reform Party leader Preston Manning is an unelected politician; Judy Rebick, president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, has proclaimed herself an anti-politician. The No side reclaimed the territory of patriotism from the Yes side. It managed to portray itself as representing the people who were insulted by Mr. Mulroney when he talked about the "enemies of Canada" who were against the deal. Any enemy of Mr. Mulroney's, in these days of his raging unpopularity, is almost automatically perceived as a friend of the masses. The Yes side was slow off the mark in the ideological war, too busy with high-tech organization and logistics, and too confident about its ability to draw on the grassroots organization to pull Yes voters to the polls. The Yes side damned its cause with faint praise, arguing continually that the agreement was not perfect. Further, it could not seem to convince Canadians that a not-perfect deal was better than no deal at all. Polls showed that Canadians did not believe that a No vote would have adverse consequences; in response, the Yes strategy for the end of the campaign became obsessively single-minded about demonstrating that a No vote would have negative fallout.

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular