Oct. 26. On this day, 24 years ago, Canadians voted in a national referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, a constitutional reform that would rejig the federation, giving more power to the provinces.
The elites loved this pact. Virtually everyone from the smart set, all the highbrows, were in favour. The consensus included the major federal party leaders, the premiers, the media, the business community and the eggheads of academe. With that kind of support, the deal would surely pass. Surely the rabble would climb on board the big train. Surely they would clue in that it was best for Canada.
Didn't happen. The working stiffs rose up, said no. They voted down the accord in seven of 10 provinces, buried it in a day. Rarely have our elites been so spurned and humbled.
The accord was full of brain-hurting clauses the plebs didn't give a hoot about. Its sinking left a vivid example of how out of touch elites can get. It offered an illustration of how risky a national referendum can be. It stands as an example of how Canadians are disinclined to have the basics of their governing structure tampered with. Leave well enough alone.
What they cared about was an economy in deep recession, getting the Brian Mulroney government out of power, the Blue Jays' winning the World Series. The accord was rejected in the West, further fuelling the rise of the Reform Party. It was rejected in Quebec, further fuelling the rise of the Bloc Québécois. It hastened the collapse of the federal Progressive Conservative party.
The Charlottetown vote was a big yes to strong central government, a big no to Ottawa playing headwaiter to the provinces. From the outset, John A. Macdonald envisioned a muscular centre. Pierre Trudeau was so inclined. As he begins a battle with the provinces on carbon pricing and a health-care spending arrangement, Justin Trudeau could be so inclined as well.
He's now in a dispute over his solemn promise to change Canada's electoral system. His suggestion last week that he might not move ahead on that vow raised all kinds of hackles, as it should have. When in opposition, blame it on the unfair voting system and promise change. When in power, well, never mind, the voting system isn't so bad after all.
As Green Party leader Elizabeth May pointed out Monday, the first parliamentary committee to address electoral change met in 1921. There have been at least a dozen efforts at electoral reform since. Still nothing. Never enough public will.
That's the question facing Mr. Trudeau, who this week sounds more positive about moving ahead. Canadians, as polls show, are not terribly unhappy with the voting system. Why get into this? If so, don't risk a referendum. Too dangerous. Look at Charlottetown and other examples.
Liberal insiders say a consensus on a new voting formula emerging from all the different interest groups is unlikely. That will make moving ahead all the more difficult and could lead to them punting the issue to a second term, should they get one.
There's another problem. Maryam Monsef, the minister on the file, has credibility issues. The kerfuffle over her thinking she was born in Afghanistan as opposed to her real birthplace of Iran passed. But it has come to light that she travelled to Iran two years ago. This has raised questions. How, given the severe restrictions on Canadians getting into Iran, did she manage that? What was her status? Her department is being vague. It's got to be cleared up.
In Prince Edward Island, as so happens, a plebiscite on electoral reform is being held starting this weekend. There will be no less than five options of different voting systems on the ballot.
It's a non-binding referendum, which Wade MacLauchlan, the island's astute and popular premier, will use as a guide. Ottawa will be watching. In 2005, islanders were asked in a referendum if they wanted to switch to a proportional system. The number voting against was 92 per cent.