Canada nearly broke apart two years ago. On October 30, 1995, Quebec in a referendum called by the province’s ruling
separatist party came within a whisker (roughly 50,000 votes) of declaring its sovereignty. The events leading up to this
referendum go back over a generation. But one of its immediate causes occurred almost to the day three years earlier
In 1992, on October 26, Canada conducted a national plebiscite seeking its citizens’ approval to amend the country’s
constitution. Roughly three-fourths of Canada’s registered voters trooped to the polls to show whether or not they supported
an agreement negotiated the previous August in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, the birthplace of the Canadian
confederation. This referendum, the first of its kind in Canada, concluded the fifth round in a series of events and crises that
Peter Russell (1993) calls Canada’s "mega constitutional politics" and which started thirty years earlier with Quebec’s "Quiet
Revolution" and the emergence of Quebec separatism.
In many respects the Charlottetown Accord approached a virtual "refounding" of Canada’s constitutional arrangements and
understandings. It was a comprehensive agreement running to 20 pages in length, with six chapters of detailed, technical, often
vague language. Four fundamental proposals lay at the heart of the Accord, however. Quebec would be given special status
under the constitution as a "distinct society" and it was guaranteed no less than 25 percent of the seats in the House of
Commons. Canada’s appointed, patronage-laden Senate would become an elected body with equal representation by
province. And, lastly, the Accord extended the right of self-government to Canada’s native peoples.
When the agreement was announced in August, pollsters found public support for it across Canada with the exception of
Quebec where the gap between supporters and opponents was sufficiently narrow to encourage optimism about the eventual
outcome. These early indications of success were important since the government had declared the Accord would only go into
effect if it received majorities in all ten provinces. A senior advisor to then Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, is reported to have
said "the referendum seemed like a formality" at the time (Noel 1994, 72). Optimism about Quebec and expectations of
favorable reactions in the other provinces ultimately proved misplaced.
On referendum day, 55 percent of Canada’s voters rejected the Charlottetown Accord. Only the lightly populated Maritime
Provinces voted "yes" by substantial margins. In vote-rich Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, the Accord squeaked
by with only 50.1 percent of the vote. The ballots in favor of constitutional change from these provinces could not offset the
overwhelming numbers of "no" votes cast in the rest of Canada. Voters in the western provinces, particularly those in British
Columbia, were deadset against the changes. The Accord fared no better among aboriginal voters. And, despite earlier hopes,
Quebec’s voters turned thumbs down on the agreement. The irony is that the four key elements in the Charlottetown Accord
were designed to meet the demands of Western Canadians, aboriginals, and, of course, Quebec.
What went wrong? Why, after what was seemed to be a promising start, did the Charlottetown agreement fail? More
specifically, what prompted Canadian voters to turn their backs on an accord that emerged after extensive public consultation,
parliamentary hearings, and intensive negotiations between Canada’s political leaders? Even more puzzling is the fact that the
process and content of the Charlottetown Accord supposedly reflected the lessons learned from the debacle of the Meech
Lake attempt at constitutional change in 1990 to meet Quebec’s demands.
THE CHALLENGE OF DIRECT DEMOCRACY explores the dynamics of how Canadians decided to vote yes or no. It is
not a book like Monahan’s (1991) insider account of the ill-fated Meech Lake Accord. Nor is it a post-mortem about the
political conundrums and constitutional puzzles built into the Charlottetown Accord and what the Accord’s failure portends for
Canada’s future; other books explore these matters (e.g., Cook 1994; McRoberts and Monahan 1993; Peacock 1996).
These books probably hold more appeal to judicial scholars, for what Johnston, Blais, Gidengil, and Nevitte provide is a rich,
detailed, statistical inquiry into the voting behavior of Canadians in the 1992 plebiscite. It would be a mistake for scholars of
constitutional politics to ignore this book, however. It is not be a book they will consult often, but what it says about how voters
make up their minds in referendums is critically important to theories of "republican constitutionalism" (Ackerman 1991;
The Charlottetown plebiscite offers a real world approximation of democratic deliberation. Noel (1994) suggests that
democratic deliberation occurs when the outcome is uncertain, opinion actually changes, and conceptions of justice and not
merely personal and group interests influence voters’ choices. Johnston and his colleagues offer evidence that each of these
conditions existed in 1992 referendum. Voting intentions changed over the course of the campaign and the reasons for these
shifts also changed.
At first, for example, voters’ preferences hinged on their views of the major components of the Charlottetown Accord and the
reasons the Accord’s proponents gave for supporting it. As the campaign unfolded, however, other factors emerged that
altered voting intentions, such as former prime minister Trudeau’s opposition to the Accord. While attitudes about Quebec in
the rest of Canada, feelings about the country’s political elite, and reactions to the onset of a deep recession shaped voters’
intentions, questions of justice, particularly ideas of equality, also entered their calculus.
In particular, Johnston and his colleagues argue that voters in the rest of Canada rejected the Accord because Quebec’s
"distinct society" status and guarantee of at least 25 percent of the seats in Commons clashed with notions of individual and
provincial equality. And while most Canadians supported the right of aboriginal self-government in the abstract, they expressed
populist, majoritarian preferences to conceptions of minority rights undergirding the constitutional claim. Equally important to the
deliberative model is the finding that information mattered. Knowing more about the Accord increased support for it
independent of other factors. Information also cut through social distinctions so that, as Johnston and his colleagues (284) put it,
"Knowing more actively changed voters’ calculus by taking them out of the group and into a larger forum."
The 1992 Charlottetown Referendum may signal that a "dualist" constitutional regime (Ackermam 1991) is emerging in Canada.
In this kind of regime constitutional change occurs through both the quotidian lawmaking of political elites and through moments
of "higher lawmaking" by the public in the selection of alternatives or the ratification of decisions that formally were left in the
hands of the political elite to settle. A trajectory of increasing public involvement in Canada’s constitutional politics can be
traced from the failure of federal and provincial ministers in the 1960s to agree on an amending formula for the constitution
through the sequence of rounds in constitutional politics leading to the Charlottetown Referendum.
A dualist regime represents a change in Canadian politics of considerable magnitude. Canada’s politics has traditionally featured
deference to authority and elite accommodation; both of these features seem to be waning (Nevitte 1996; Newman 1996) as
Canadians become more conscious of their rights and a pluralism of conflicting values develops (Sniderman et al 1996). The
importance of the findings in THE CHALLENGE OF DIRECT DEMOCRACY is that despite whatever limits referendums
may have in correcting deep-seated political problems, significant numbers of voters in Canada’s first constitutional plebiscite
acted as responsible citizens in deliberating on how to cast their ballots on a proposal that would have reshaped governance
and power in their country.
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