Canada in the 1990s

By | December 25, 2021

The economic recession and the Québec issue were the testing ground for Canadian federal governments in the 1990s. The first, questioning the welfare state and the Canadian model of immigration society; the second radicalizes the opposition between the concept of citizenship and the concept of cultural belonging, to the point of prejudicing the very idea of ​​a federal state applied to the multicultural reality of Canada.

The immediate precedents of the Québec question, as it was affirmed during the decade, were summarized in the refusal to ratify the Federal Constitution of 1982 (thus recognizing only the provincial one, since each province of the Canadian state has its own constitutional charter), and in the failure of the Meech Lake deal initiated by Conservative government chief B. Mulroney in 1987. This agreement originated from the need to include Québec within the new constitutional framework, giving it however the status of a ‘distinct company’ with specific rights to protect the French language and culture. However, this not only implied the recognition of community rights that came into conflict with individual rights protected by the liberal-democratic state model based on the concept of citizenship, but also welcomed the ‘diversity’ of a community and the need to protect this diversity, at the expense of the ‘diversity’ of other Canadian ‘nations’ such as the Inuit and Amerindian minorities. Having met with opposition from the English-speaking provinces of Manitoba and Newfoundland.

After the failure of the Meech Lake agreement, further negotiations were initiated which led to a new constitutional reform program developed in Charlottetown, in August 1992, by B. Mulroney and the premieres of the ten provinces. Under it, the provincial governments would have enjoyed greater powers especially in the cultural sphere, the indigenous peoples were recognized the right to self-government and Québec was granted a fixed quota equal to a quarter of the seats in the federal lower house and three judges on nine in the Canadian Supreme Court (i.e. the body responsible for protecting the Constitution, appointed by the federal government and therefore with an English-speaking majority). The package of constitutional reforms was then subjected to a popular referendum in theBut it was rejected by 54, 4 % against the result which showed, among other things, the relative weakness of the traditional political parties.

Conservatives and liberals, in fact, had promoted the referendum at the federal level (but with defections among the provincial leaders), while it was opposed by local political formations, such as the Parti Québéçois (PQ), the Bloc Québéçois (BQ) born in 1990 on the initiative of some conservative deputies from Québec and openly secessionist, and the Anglophone Reform Party, of a conservative and liberal mold, essentially opposed to any concession to Québec. For Canada democracy and rights, please check

The negative outcome of the referendum further diminished the consensus around the Mulroney government, already compromised by the persistence of the difficult economic situation, the high unemployment rate (between 11 and 15 % depending on the provinces) and the introduction of unpopular measures such as a tax on goods and services. Furthermore, the active support offered by the Liberal Party to the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was to come into force on January 1, 1994., alienated him from that substantial part of public opinion which in the establishment of a free trade area between the United States, Canada and Mexico saw the imposition of a model not only economic but also American cultural, damaging to Canadian identity, to how problematic the latter could be.

In these situations Mulroney decided to leave the leadership of the party and the executive to K. Campbell in June 1993, pending the general elections scheduled for the month of October. These recorded the return to government of the Liberal Party with J. Chrétien, who had set up his electoral campaign on major economic issues, such as reducing unemployment through a public works policy and cuts in military spending. The most significant datum of the consultations (even more than the collapse of the Conservative Party which kept only two seats), however, was the clear affirmation of the BQ, which with its 54 seats became the official opposition party.

With the ratification of NAFTA by the ruling Liberal Party (initially opposed to the agreement), the Canadian political scene continued to be dominated by the question of Québec, where in September 1994 the PQ, led by J. Parizeau, won the provincial elections thus proposing, with the federal support of the BQ, a popular referendum on the secession of Québec from the Canadian state.

The referendum initiative, endorsed by the provincial parliament, opened a series of political and legal questions relating to the eventual victory of the secessionists. First, the federal constitution did not provide for the secession of a province from the body of the federal state through a unilateral declaration of sovereignty. Furthermore, the role that the new state would have assumed in the context of international organizations and treaties (NATO and NAFTA in the first place) appeared very doubtful and relations with the rest of the Anglophone concessions in economic and commercial matters to the secessionist province. Finally, Québec’s share of the Anglophone and indigenous population would hardly have accepted the new sovereign state,

The referendum took place on 30 October and saw the defeat of the secessionists who obtained the 49, 4 % of the votes against 50, 6 % of opposites (with a gap of just 50. 000 votes). Following this Parizeau resigned as leader of the PQ and as premier of the province of Québec and was replaced by L. Bouchard, former founding leader of the BQ.

During 1996 the federal government concentrated its efforts on reducing the public deficit, containing inflation and reducing unemployment, which however remained high, while the reduction in social spending contributed to increasing the inequality of wealth. Faced with the problem of constitutional reform, the government did not take any significant initiatives, although it moved towards an intransigent line of conduct in the event of a new referendum and therefore denying Québec the right to any unilaterally proclaimed secession. In foreign policy, the Chrétien government opposed, with the support of Mexico, the Helms-Burton law of March 1996 with which the US tried to prevent foreign companies from investing in Cuba on assets nationalized by the Castro regime.

The federal elections of June 2, 1997 confirmed the trend towards fragmentation and an ever clearer separation between the provincial and federal levels of political organizations. Chrétien’s liberals retained the majority, but dropped from 177 deputies to 155 (out of 301 in the lower house), of which 103 concentrated in Ontario, followed by the Reform Party (RP) with 60 seats (eight more than in the 1993 elections) of which only one outside the western provinces. The decline in the BQ was significant, winning 44 seats (concentrated in the province of Québec alone), or 10 fewer than in previous elections.

In April 1999, Canada redesigned its internal borders with the formation of a new autonomous territory, Nunavut, previously part of the Yukon, which was placed under Inuit administration under the December agreements. 1991 between representatives of the federal government and Inuit communities. The reform responds to the needs of a population that has long been demanding a return to its traditional economic activities; in fact, starting from the 1960s, the expansion of the oil and gas extraction industry had violently transformed the life habits and the cultural identity of the Inuit.

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