The Meaning of Meech: Reasonable Limits on Self-Determination

By Simren Sandhu

The Meaning of Meech is a decisive, and somewhat provocative departure from the works of human rights legend John Peters Humphrey. During Canada’s era of constitutional debate and revisionism, Humphrey adds his influential voice to the delicate subject of Quebec’s proposed status as a ‘distinct society’ within Confederation. Humphrey’s view on the Meech Lake Accord and Quebec nationalism reveals the right to self-determination to be a complex area even for the father of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Through concise legal and political explanation, it’s effortless to see why Humphrey believed Meech Lake would compromise the integrity of Canada as a nation. In many ways, his defiant stance against Quebec’s claim as a distinct society echoes the ‘reasonable limits’ placed on rights enshrined in the repatriated constitution of Canada.

Humphrey’s statement is significant in the most basic sense because, as an international figure, historians often portray his ideals and perspectives on global affairs without examining the positions he took on domestic affairs. To Humphrey, bestowing Quebec with the right as a ‘distinct society’ is ultimately the “death of Canadian nationhood”, regardless of a Quebec nationalist’s intent to leave or remain in Canada.  He explains that such an affirmation would lead Quebec politicians to exploit its meaning on matters of federal-provincial power sharing, and Quebec’s ability to opt out of federal programs. In addition to redefining the divisions of power, Humphrey warns that a Quebec so far removed from the Canadian federation would still have federal members of Parliament and the executive would still originate from a province which was, for all intents and purposes, an independent nation. He compares such an arrangement to Canada having voting rights over United States policy, simply because the two are neighbours in trade and geography.

As a sentiment, Humphrey’s opposition to the Quebec provisions in Meech Lake Accord represents the inherent conflict between self-determination and group unity. Humphrey was a champion of individual rights before group rights.[1] In 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada declared that the people of Canada, from sea to sea, wielded the right to asses their place in the Canadian federation.[2] However, from Humphrey’s perspective, the question is whether this right is more just an abused provision that harms the common good. As he notes, “separatist blackmail” and “agreeing to reorganize Canada” as a response would lead to the aforementioned  democratic deficit and the end of Confederation as it was then known. The  first section of the Constitution Act of Canada, it is clearly stated that the rights and freedoms found within are guaranteed “only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”[3] In practice, the reasonable limits clause has been used in courts to determine whether a certain right or freedom is worth overriding for the ‘good of society.’ Humphrey’s conclusions are akin to the application of reasonable limits on self-rule, on the grounds that it would harm the entire country at large.

The Meech Lake Accord was the Government of Canada’s attempt to bring Quebec into the Constitutional fold. The province never signed on to Pierre Trudeau’s early plans to repatriate the Canadian constitution, as the two sides could not reach an agreement on language rights.[4] Regardless, Trudeau followed through with his plan with the support of all premiers except the Parti Québécois’ Réne Lévesque. Quebec nationalists viewed the repatriation as an act of bad faith, but Humphrey insists the so-called betrayal was the provinces “thinking like Canadians”[5] and coming to a fair  compromise. It is crucial to view Humphrey’s warning in the context of another equally, if not more, important issue:  distinct society recognition. The Aboriginal peoples of Canada were not meaningfully consulted in the Meech Lake talks, yet the focus of the Accord was on accommodating the wishes of a unique group within the Canadian mosaic. Despite all efforts, Meech Lake ultimately failed at the hands of one man, Elijah Harper, who stood rebelliously in the legislature of Manitoba and opposed the Meech Lake Accord in the belief that First Nations people were excluded from the equation.[6] While there is no definitive answer, one cannot help but wonder if Humphrey would maintain the same opposition to a distinct society recognition when interpreting the case of First Nations people.

International law expert and human rights figure John Peters Humphrey will forever be remembered as the indispensable scribe of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nevertheless, the steadfast convictions he had when it came to his home country shed light on his perception on sovereignty and the right to autonomy as a concept.  The Meaning of Meech conveyed his objection to a ‘distinct society’ clause as an appeasement to Quebec nationalists, while leaving unanswered questions as to if the same logic would apply to Aboriginal rights.


[1] John Hobbins, “John Humphrey and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” in HIST 370 Lectures (Montreal: McGill University, 2016).

[2] Reference Re Secession of Quebec, 2 SCR, 217 (1998).

[3] Canada., The Constitution Act, 1982 (Ottawa, Ont.: Government of Canada, 1982).

[4] Frédéric Bastien, The Battle of London: Trudeau, Thatcher, and the Fight for Canada’s Constitutio (Toronto: Dundurn, 2013), 286.

[5] Humphrey, “The Meaning of Meech,” 12.

[6] Gloria Galloway, “Elijah Harper, First Nations Leader Who Brought Down Meech Lake, Dies at 64,” The Globe and Mail 2013.

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