The Meech Lake accord died because of two words its opponents misconstrued to mean the end of Canada as they knew it. To them, recognizing in the Constitution that Quebec formed a "distinct society" within Canada meant throwing the province's minorities under the bus.
Twenty-five years after Meech's undignified death, few Canadians outside Quebec seem to regret its demise. English-Canadians have largely signed on to Pierre Trudeau's interpretation of the agreement, negotiated by his successor Brian Mulroney and 10 premiers in 1987, as a "total bungle" that would "render the Canadian state totally impotent" and "governed by eunuchs."
"For those Canadians who dreamed of the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] as a new beginning for Canada, where everyone would be on an equal footing and where citizenship would be finally founded on a set of commonly shared values, there is to be nothing left but tears," Mr. Trudeau wrote in the 1987 essay that essentially sealed Meech's unhappy fate three years later.
The former Liberal prime minister, who patriated the Constitution and added the Charter in 1982, practised what Mr. Mulroney called "the warring brand of federalism." He would not cede an inch, especially if meant tacitly acknowledging the imperfections in his own oeuvre.
The debate that followed Mr. Trudeau's intervention largely succeeded in characterizing Meech as a break with Canadian constitutional tradition rather than an evolutionary step in the federation. The distinct society clause was cast as a Trojan horse that would create two classes of citizens, allow Quebec to run roughshod over individual rights and further balkanize the country.
But while Meech's specific language was new, the reality it sought to reflect was not. Recognizing Quebec's distinctness was not some knee-jerk move to appease nationalists in the province, but the acknowledgment of a historic fact that had informed every constitutional convention since Confederation. Canada, like it or not, only came to exist through compromise.
The tension between "sectionalist" and "centralist" forces was a common theme in the early days of the federation. It was at the centre of the debate over the creation of the Supreme Court of Canada in 1875, when some members of Parliament opposed guaranteeing Quebec a minimum number of seats on the top court. But they were outliers.
David Mills, an Ontario Liberal MP, told the House of Commons that he "deprecated sectionalism as much as any honourable gentleman," but since "Quebec had an entirely different system of jurisprudence … it was only reasonable that she should have the security that a portion of the court would understand the system of law it would be called on to administer."
Sir John A. Macdonald, then the leader of the opposition, agreed and said there was no reason to oppose an amendment to the bill guaranteeing Quebec representation on the court "unless it would be to avoid exciting sensitiveness (sic) in the other provinces."
The Supreme Court Act, we learned in the court's 2014 decision to reject the nomination of Justice Marc Nadon to its ranks, was effectively written into the Constitution with its patriation. The 1982 Constitution Act, the court said, "reflected the understanding that the court's essential features formed part of the Constitution of Canada." Hence, Quebec's distinctness was recognized in the Constitution before Meech came along, and on Mr. Trudeau's watch to boot.
Supreme Court decisions since 1982 have consistently taken Quebec's unique circumstances into account in applying the Charter, allowing that the province has a legitimate interest, within certain limits, in protecting the French language. In its decisions, the court has repeatedly recognized Quebec's de facto distinct status, without the Canada as we know it going to pot.
"Recognizing the distinct society doesn't put individual rights to the side," University of Ottawa law professor Sébastien Grammond recently noted in La Presse. "It simply allows the courts to explicitly take into account the protection of Quebec's identity in the normal weighting of individual rights and the pursuit of collective interests."
If you believe any restriction on English signs or schools is an unacceptable violation of individual rights, then you might seek to reopen the Constitution to give the Supreme Court more explicit marching orders. But if you consider the court's interpretation of what "distinct society" means in practice to be a reasonable accommodation in a country founded on that principle, you'll probably agree that Mr. Trudeau's histrionics were just that.