From 1968 to 1984, Canadian politics was dominated by Pierre Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party and four times Prime Minister. During his administrations, social welfare was increased, immigration liberalised and multiculturalism promoted. After his retirement in 1984, his party was eventually ousted by the Progressive Conservative Party (PCP) under Brian Mulroney, who promoted more stringent social policies, some privatisation and free trade.
Brian Mulroney was succeeded in 1993 by Kim Campbell, Canada’s first woman Prime Minister. Campbell and the Conservatives were crushingly defeated in the October 1993 elections, winning only two seats. The Liberal Party, led by Jean Chrétien, won 177 seats. Recently established parties, the Reform Party (52 seats) and Bloc Québécois (54), did well in the election.
In an early general election in June 1997, Chrétien and the Liberal Party retained power with a reduced majority, winning 155 seats. The Reform Party took 60 seats, Bloc Québécois 44. The PCP recovered to 20 seats and the New Democratic Party also won 20, up from nine in 1993. The elections exposed the increasing regionalisation of Canadian politics, with 101 of the Liberal seats being won in Ontario and the remainder in a few large cities. The Reform Party’s seats were almost exclusively in the west of the country.
The Canadian Alliance became the official opposition in the federal House of Commons in March 2000 when the Reform Party joined it.
The Parti Québécois (PQ) was founded in 1968, with a separatist programme. It came to power in Québec in 1976 and a referendum on Québec sovereignty was held in 1980 in which 60 per cent of Québec voters rejected secession. However, Québec did not approve the new Federal Constitution of 1982, and the issue remained unresolved.
A way forward was apparently found by the Meech Lake accord in 1987. Its main points were the recognition of Québec as a ‘distinct society’ and new provincial powers. However, Manitoba and Newfoundland failed to ratify the accord before the 1990 deadline and New Brunswick then halted its own ratification process. Many Québécois were antagonised by what they interpreted as a rejection of their interests, culture and language. Extensive public consultations on constitutional reform followed, culminating in the Charlottetown accord of 28 August 1992. Among other things, this accord recognised Québec as a distinct society and also recognised aboriginal rights to self-government within Canada. However, the Charlottetown Accord proposals were rejected in a national referendum in October 1992.
Despite the clear practical difficulties of secession, the PQ, winning the provincial elections of 1994, held a referendum on the separatist option on 30 October 1995. The result was a narrow defeat for the secessionists: a majority of less than one per cent voted to remain within the federation of Canada.
In August 1998 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that under both federal and international law Québec only had the right to secede with the agreement of both federal and seven of the ten provincial legislatures. However, it did stipulate that should a clear majority of the people of Québec vote to secede, then the federal and provincial governments should enter into negotiations with it in good faith.
In Québec’s provincial elections in November 1998, the vote was evenly divided between the PQ and the Liberals, although the PQ was returned with 75 of the 125 seats – but only 43 per cent of the votes cast. With voters divided, it seemed unlikely that the PQ would risk another referendum in the near future.
During 2000, the federal parliament passed legislation giving it the right to approve questions to be posed in future referendums on secession by individual provinces.