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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 1 May 1991 No. 2

The Media and the Meech Lake
Constitutional Accord
Les Medias et L'accord
Constitutionnel du Lac Meech

Editors/Les editeurs

James Winter, University of Windsor
Claude Martin, University of Montreal


A Message From the Journal Editors

In June 1990, Canadians witnessed what was represented as the tragic death of the Meech Lake Accord. For some, the failure of this Constitutional-amending process has played a crucial role in what they now see as the inevitable separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada, and possibly the demise of the country as a whole. For others the Meech Accord was simply a poor document, and its rejection represents a victory for democratic forces in the country. Both views are contained in these pages, but regardless of the interpretation you choose, the fact remains that Canada is in a period of crisis which reaches beyond the current economic recession, to threaten its very fabric as a nation.

The way in which the Meech Accord itself, and the actors and process surrounding it were reported by the media, is central to the current crisis. As David Taras states in his article, we must be cognisant for example, of "...the power of television to transform outcomes..." Indeed, the same could be said for the media role in the war in the Persian Gulf (which will be the subject of our next issue, to be guest-edited by Michael Morgan of the University of Massachussetts), and virtually all contemporary national and international events. As such, we hope that despite its Canadian focus, this issue will be illuminating in far more than a parochial sense.

For those unfamiliar with the historical context of the events described herein, a brief overview is in order.

Canada's recent political history has been dominated by the "Quebec question" (or from another point of view, Quebec's national question) of whither (predominantly French-speaking) Quebec's role vis a vis the rest of (largely English-speaking) Canada. This and related questions were complicated until 1982 by our dependence on Great Britain, specifically our reliance on the British North America Act, as our Constitution. This meant, for example, that the British Privy Council was the final arbiter in Canadian judicial appeals: an embarrassing state of affairs for a country which ostensibly gained its independence from Britain in 1867.

In 1982, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau revised, or "patriated" the Constitution, with the requisite approval of nine out of ten provinces, excluding Quebec. Quebec's decision not to endorse the new Constitution and accompanying Charter of Rights, although it became legal and binding on Quebec, was a sore point in federal- provincial relations, as well as between the English and French-speaking communities. 1987 marked the original signing of the Meech Lake Accord, by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the ten provincial premiers of that time. The accord met Quebec's conditions for its approval of the new Canadian Constitution of 1982, and was approved by the Quebec National Assembly. But although it was signed by the first ministers, the accord required that all provincial premiers have their individual legislative assemblies approve it within a three year period. The failure of even one province to do so would mean the accord's demise.

The deadline for approval by the provinces was June 23, 1990. As the date approached, it became clear that the required approval would not be granted. There were a host of complicating factors, not the least of which was the election of new governments in some of the provinces. This meant that three years after the original accord, some provincial premiers were not signatories to the agreement, and what's more, their governments did not approve of it. In Newfoundland, for example, the Liberal government of Clyde Wells replaced the Conservative government of Brian Peckford. Peckford had signed the Meech Accord, and his government approved it. But Wells rescinded the previous government's approval, and became the leading figure among what the media dubbed as the "holdout premiers." The others were Gary Filmon of Manitoba, and Frank McKenna of New Brunswick.

Less than three weeks before the June 23 deadline, Mulroney finally summoned the premiers to Ottawa for a marathon week-long negotiating session aimed at approving the accord. The event became a media circus which ultimately ended in failure.

This is the historical context, in skeletal outline. The current issue of EJC/REC addresses the role played by the media in the Meech fiasco and implicitly, in Canada's present constitutional crisis.

Three of the five papers in this volume originally were presented at a conference in Saskatoon, in November 1990, and subsequently were published as conference proceedings. These papers have been edited and updated, but remain largely intact. The articles by Winter and Alboim have been prepared expressly for this issue.

Indeed, this issue appears coincident with a media controversy swirling over the article by John Meisel. Meisel, a past chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), launches a stinging attack on Alboim, Ottawa bureau chief for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) TV. Meisel's charges were taken up by Peter Newman, writing for Maclean's magazine.1 Alboim has written a rejoinder herein, and Meisel declined further comment.

CBC radio's national affairs program, "Sunday Morning," drew a parallel between the current controversy and the infamous scandal over the CBC TV current affairs program, "This Hour Has Seven Days," from the mid 1960s. Seven Days, which pioneered TV current affairs programm- ing, was both extremely popular and controversial. It was cancelled by the CBC in 1966, amid charges of political interference by the Liberal government of Lester Pear- son.2 It is one of life's ironies that one of the people at the centre of the Seven Day's controversy, co-host Patrick Watson, is currently chairman-designate of the CBC.

James Winter and Claude Martin

1. Peter C. Newman, "Distorted images: the CBC on Meech Lake", "Maclean's", 6 May 1991, p. 36.

2. "Sunday Morning", CBC national radio, May 5, 1991. See also Eric Koch, "Inside Seven Days", Scarborough, Prentice-Hall, 1986.

Un message de la part des editeurs de la Revue

En juin 1990, les Canadiens ont ete temoins de ce qui a ete presente comme la fin tragique de l'Accord du Lac Meech. Pour certains, l'echec de cet tentative d'amendement de la Constitution signifie une inevitable separation du Quebec et meme l'eclatement du Canada. Pour d'autres, il ne s'agissait que d'un mauvais document et son rejet represente une victoire pour les forces democratiques. Ces deux points de vue sont presents dans ce numero. Mais quelle que soit l'interpretation retenue, le fait est que le Canada traverse une crise qui depasse la recession actuelle et qui menace son existence meme.

Au centre de cette crise, on retrouve la facon dont les medias ont rendu compte de l'Accord, des positions des acteurs et du processus lui-meme. Comme David Taras le souligne dans son article, nous devons reconnaitre, par exemple, le pouvoir qu'a la television d'influencer ces processus. D'ailleurs, on pourrait dire la meme chose sur le role des medias lors de la guerre du Golfe Persique (le theme de notre prochain numero sous la responsabilite de Michael Morgan de l'Universite du Massachussetts) et, en general, lors d'evenements importants d'envergure nationale ou internationale. Nous esperons donc que ce numero presente un interet qui depasse le cas canadien. Pour les lecteurs qui ne sont pas familiers avec le contexte historique des evenements que nous evoquons, voici un bref resume de la situation.

L'histoire recente du Canada a ete dominee par la question du Quebec (ou, d'un autre point de vue, par la question nationale, celle du Quebec). Il s'agit ici du rapport entre le Quebec majoritairement francophone et le reste du Canada, majoritairement anglophone. Jusqu'en 1982, le probleme etait rendu plus complexe par le fait que la Constitution du Canada etait une loi britannique, l'Acte de l'Amerique du Nord britannique. Ceci signifiait, par exemple, que le Conseil prive de Londres etait la derniere instance d'appel d'une decision judiciaire canadienne, un embarras pour un pays qui avait formellement gagne son independance en 1867.

En 1982, le Premier Ministre Pierre E. Trudeau modifie ou "rapatrie" la Constitution avec l'accord de neuf des dix provinces, excluant le Quebec. Ce refus du Quebec d'approuver la nouvelle Constitution et la Charte des droits qui l'accompagnait marque un moment douloureux dans les relations federales-provinciales et dans les rapports entre les communautes francophone et anglophone. La Constitution et la Charte ont quand meme force de loi au Quebec. En 1987, le Premier Ministre Brian Mulroney et les dix Premiers Ministres provinciaux signent l'Accord du Lac Meech. L'Accord comprenait l'acceptation des conditions posees par le Quebec pour adherer a la Constitution de 1982. L'Assemblee Nationale du Quebec a, par la suite, approuve l'Accord. L'Accord signe par les premiers Ministres provinciaux devait cependant etre approuve par chaque parlement provincial, et ce, dans un delai de trois ans. Le refus d'une province signifiait le rejet de l'Accord. La date limite pour l'approbation etait le 23 juin 1990. Comme on s'en approchait, il devint clair qu'on se dirigeait vers un echec. Une serie de facteurs vinrent compliquer le processus, En particulier, il y a eu des changements de gouvernement dans certaines provinces et les nouveaux Premiers Ministres n'etaient plus ceux qui avaient signe l'Accord. Pire, leurs gouvernements n'approuvaient plus l'Accord. A Terre-Neuve par exemple, le gouvernement du liberal Clyde Wells remplace le gouvernement conservateur de Brian Peckford. Wells ignore la signature de Peckford et rejette l'Accord. Il devient ainsi la figure de proue parmi les Premiers Ministres qui refusent l'Accord, ceux que les medias nomment les "holdout premiers". Le groupe compte aussi Gary Filmon du Manitoba et Frank McKenna du Nouveau-Brunswick.

Moins de trois semaines avant la date limite du 23 juin, Mulroney convoque les Premiers Ministres a Ottawa pour un marathon de negociation d'une semaine en vue d'approuver l'Accord. L'evenement tourna au cirque mediatique et aboutit a un echec.

Voila donc le contexte historique sommairement presente. Ce numero d'EJC/REC analyse le role des medias dans ce fiasco et, implicitement, dans la crise constitutionnelle actuelle au Canada.

Trois des cinq articles presentes ici l'ont d'abord ete a une conference a Saskatoon en novembre 1990 et ont ete publies dans les actes de la conference. Ces articles ont ete revises et remis a jour mais sans changement majeur. Les articles de Winter et d'Alboim ont ete ecrits pour ce numero. Ce numero parait au moment ou la controverse fait rage autour de l'article de John Meisel. Meisel, un ancien president du Conseil de la radiodiffusion et des telecommunications canadiennes (CRTC), attaque vivement Alboim, chef du bureau de la television anglophone de Radio-Canada (CBC) a Ottawa Les accusations de Meisel ont ete reprises par Peter Newman dans le magazine Maclean's.1 Alboim a ecrit une reponse pour ce numero alors que Meisel s'abstient de tout autre commentaire.

L'emission d'affaires publiques de la radio anglophone de Radio- Canada "Sunday Morning" etablit un parallele entre cette controverse et le scandale qui atteint l'emission d'affaires publiques "This Hour Has Seven Days" au milieu des annees 1960. "Seven Days" etait une emission innovatrice tres populaire et controversee. Elle a ete mise au rancart par la CBC en 1966 alors que des accusations d'ingerence politique ont ete dirigees vers le gouvernement liberal de Lester Pearson.2 On pourra sourire en notant que l'animateur de "Seven Days" Patrick Watson, alors au coeur du debat, est aujourd'hui designe comme le futur president de Radio-Canada.

James Winter et Claude Martin

1. Peter C. Newman, "Distorted images: the CBC on Meech Lake", "Maclean's", 6 mai 1991, p. 36.

2. "Sunday Morning", reseau national anglophone de Radio- Canada, 5 mai 1991. Voir aussi Eric Koch, "Inside Seven Days", Scarborough, Prentice-Hall, 1986.

Copyright 1991
Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.