5 Reinventing Canada: National Unity and Canadian Identity in the Mulroney Years
Brian Mulroney continues to exist in the collective memory of many Canadians as a profoundly unpopular prime minister. The failure of the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord, and the recession in the early 1990s, together with the introduction of the hated Goods and Service Tax (GST) led to the collapse of the Progressive Conservatives in 1993, leaving the party with a meagre two seats in Parliament after the 1993 federal election. Examining the changes in the Mulroney government’s Throne Speeches and his Leaders’ Day Addresses allow us to understand the evolving ideas that the Mulroney government had about the Canadian identity and how to achieve national unity. The Throne Speeches allowed Mulroney to connect with the Canadian people and they revealed to the country the government’s wishes and goals for Canada. These speeches not only tell Canadians what the government planned to do, but they often defined and reinvented the Canadian identity. The government of Brian Mulroney largely achieved those objectives in the Throne Speeches. His speech in 1984 was centred on the idea of reinventing the Canadian identity and creating a new Canada. These reinventions, however, did not succeed in uniting Canada as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had hoped.
The Mulroney government broke the long-standing Liberal dominance over Canada when his party captured more than fifty-percent of the popular vote and an unprecedented 211 seats in Parliament in 1984.1 Mulroney crafted a coalition of Quebec nationalists, Eastern Tories, and Western economic and social conservatives within the Progressive Conservative party, and he convinced them that he was the person to lead his party to victory and replace the long-governing Liberals.2 When the Mulroney government came to power in 1984, they had inherited a Canada that faced a number of severe challenges. Canada’s disunity and fragmentation had heightened under the Government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, especially when the Canadian constitution was revised without the agreement of the Quebec Government and when Trudeau introduced the National Energy Policy. The divisions within the nation were reflected in the tensions between Western and Eastern Canada and between English and French-speaking Canadians. The Labour movement and Quebec separatists had been driven to revolt. In the Mulroney government’s eyes, Canada had to rebrand and reinvent itself, at home, and on the world stage.
Mulroney’s Speeches from the Throne
It was in the Throne Speech of 1984 that the Mulroney government first outlined their vision for the reinvention of the Canadian identity and the ways in which they would rebuild Canadian unity. This would be no easy task, as it would require fixing the deep divisions between all Canadians. However, the Mulroney government was committed to doing this through the reinvention that they had promised. Some of the first words of the 1984 Throne Speech reflected this promise to Canadians. The Mulroney government told Canadians through the Speech from the Throne read by the Governor General, the Right Honourable Jeanne Sauvé, that “this is the inauguration of a new parliament, let it also be the beginning of a new era of national reconciliation, economic renewal, and social justice.”3 In the eyes of the new government, Canada had to be united and it finally had to find its rightful place in the world.
Bringing Canadians together within one Canada meant that Canadians needed to feel that they were represented and that they, as individuals, had a part to play in the reinvention of Canada. The Mulroney government believed that, addressing this problem would be necessary for solving the east-west divide that Canada had struggled with for so long. In 1980, Pierre Trudeau and his Liberal party had won re-election as a majority government, but they had done so with only two seats east of the Ontario-Manitoba border. Mulroney saw those results as clear evidence of the lack of unity in Canada. In the 1984 Throne Speech, he pointed out that his Conservative party had already started the process of healing the fractious nation when he claimed, “For the first time in many years, all regions in the country are represented in a national government.”4 By bringing all Canadians and all sections of the nation into the government, Brian Mulroney hoped that many of the divisions among Canadians would be bridged.
Most importantly, the Throne Speech of 1984 addressed the destructive divisions between English and French Canadians. The Throne Speech first acknowledged the unique reality of Canada. To the Mulroney government, this meant defining Canada as a nation of distinct regional identities and regional economic strengths, each rooted in their own generations of history.5 The Speech then noted how each of these peoples have a distinct attachment to the idea of one Canada.6 Such a sentiment is more revealing than it might seem. Firstly, these lines reveal that Mulroney believed that Canadian national unity relies on the recognition and understanding of differences between the various provinces and regions of Canada. Secondly, he believed that the recognition of these differences, combined with the attachment to being Canadian, was crucial to the Canadian identity and to promoting national unity.
While Mulroney’s vision of Canada recognized the differences and diversities that existed across Canada, it also had a number of core, perhaps romanticized ideas about what it meant to be Canadian. This sentiment was captured in the words read by the Governor General when she said, “My government is committed to ensuring that the equality of the two official languages, so vital to our national character and identity is respected in fact as it is in law.”7 While not directly referenced in the 1984 Throne Speech, one can see that the ideas that were realized later in the Meech Lake Accord were embodied in the 1984 Throne Speech, as it stressed what Mulroney believed to be essential to his Canadian narrative. The Throne Speech proclaimed that a new consensus had to be reflected in the laws of Canada. Moreover, Canada would, he maintained, continue to face issues of disunity as long as Quebec refused to consent to the constitutional changes that had been achieved by the nine, predominantly English-speaking provinces and the federal government in 1982.8 In the Throne Speech, Mulroney promised a new constitutional accord that would mend the destructive divisions between English and French-speaking Canadians. Those distinct linguistic and cultural differences are what the Mulroney government believed made Canada unique, and he hoped to capitalize on such distinctly Canadian differences to create a new national identity.
The Throne Speech of 1984 not only promised the reform and greater recognition of bilingualism but also of federalism itself that had made Canada possible in 1867. The Speech noted, “A priority goal of my ministers will be to breathe a new spirit into Federalism, and restore the faith and trust of all Canadians in the effectiveness of our system of government.”9 Mulroney’s goal was to harmonize the relations between the federal and provincial governments, to ensure respect for their respective powers, and end unnecessary and costly duplication. The Speech promoted the importance of cooperative federalism to national unity, stating, “National unity also demands that the two levels of government cooperate in supporting official language minorities, and in fostering the rich multicultural character of Canada.”10
National reconciliation was also needed in Canada’s economic life, Mulroney believed.11 During the Trudeau era, the federal and provincial governments had quarrelled endlessly over jurisdiction, particularly of natural resources, and Mulroney believed those confrontations were detrimental to the economic well-being of Canada. To the Mulroney government, the country’s economic health would only recover if the federal government recognized that the provinces could manage many economic matters, such as those concerning the oil and gas sector, to promote economic growth. Once that occurred, national unity might be restored, and the Canadian identity strengthened.
The public response to the Throne Speech of 1984 was generally positive. The Globe and Mail noted that the tone of the speech was one of civility. Words such as reconciliation and consensus-building were used frequently. The Globe and Mail specifically noted that such rhetoric sets the tone for the kind of national unity the Mulroney government hoped to achieve during their time in office.12 The newspapers did note, however, how vague the speech was. They interestingly commented that in the 1984 Throne Speech the Mulroney government starkly focused more on what the Canadian government should do, rather than what it will do.13 In many ways, the Mulroney’s first Throne Speech was aspirational in nature.
The Meech Lake Accord, negotiated in 1987, is one of the most useful examples when examining how the rhetoric of the Mulroney government, and as seen one primary way in which the Throne Speech of 1984, was translated into action. The Meech Lake Accord represented Mulroney’s attempt at repairing the deep divisions between English and French-speaking Canadians. Reforming the Constitution that Trudeau had enacted in 1982 was seen to be of the utmost importance in rebuilding Canadian unity and for recognizing in the Constitution diversity as the basis of the Canadian identity. To that end, the Mulroney government believed that reform of the Constitution Act, 1982 was essential.14
However, reforming the Constitution Act, 1982 would only be possible if Mulroney and the provincial premiers accepted the conditions that Robert Bourassa, the Premier of Quebec, put forth.15 These conditions were significant and deeply unpopular amongst many English-speaking Canadians. Primarily, the conditions demanded that Quebec be recognized as a distinct society, and that Quebec’s right to a veto over future constitutional changes be recognized.16 Such demands were deeply unpopular, especially as many English Canadians shared Pierre Trudeau’s view of “across-the-board” equality of all Canadians under the constitution.
Although the Meech Lake Accord failed to be ratified by all of the provinces and failed to bridge the divide with Quebec over constitutional matters, it did show that the Mulroney government could bring some agreement among the provincial premiers. At the 1986 the Annual Premiers’ Conference, it had been unanimously agreed that the top constitutional priority would be to use Quebec’s proposals “as a basis for discussion, to bring about Quebec’s full and active participation in the Canadian Federation.”17 Doing so was one way in which the Progressive Conservatives made good on their promises of cooperative federalism. The Meech Lake Accord was explicitly designed to address the conditions that Quebec had declared essential to its participation in constitutional reform.18 Through the Accord, the Mulroney government had tried to rebuild national unity with the inclusion of Quebec in the reinvention of the Canadian identity.
It is important to note that the Meech Lake Accord did not unite English and French Canadians; it only made the divisions more pronounced. Many in Quebec were angered by the failure and so were many English-speaking Canadians. Despite his hopes of national reconciliation, Brian Mulroney left office in 1993 with the nation as divided as it was when he became prime minister. In fact, the ideas of Quebec separatism was more robust than when he came to power some nine years earlier.19 In many ways, the failure of the Meech Lake Accord to fix national unity through constitutional reform is mirrored by Pierre Trudeau’s attempt to fix national unity through the constitution as well. Mulroney would attempt constitutional reform a second time in 1992 through the Charlottetown Accord, but it, too, resulted in furthering the destructive divide between English and French Canadians as well as with Indigenous Peoples. Although the Charlottetown Accord represented many of the ideals proclaimed in Mulroney’s 1984 and 1991 Throne Speeches, it too, proved a failure because it appeased neither French nor English-speaking Canadians.20
The final throne speech of the Mulroney government took place in May of 1991. By then, the rhetoric of these speeches had shifted. The differences between the 1984 Throne Speech and 1991’s Throne Speech reflected a Canada that was still profoundly disunited. The 1991 Throne Speech focused on proposals that were to be given to Canadians, which would address the three major concerns facing Canadians: unity, prosperity, and government responsiveness.21
The 1991 Throne Speech placed a greater emphasis than earlier Throne Speeches on internationalism and its importance to Canada’s health and well-being and to Canadian national unity. Again, similar to the 1984 Throne Speech, the Mulroney government noted that Canada’s role in the world is integral to the Canadian identity. Like earlier prime ministers, Mulroney proclaimed that, “Around the world, Canada is respected in the constructive role we play in global affairs.”22 The greater emphasis on internationalism in this speech reflects the Mulroney government’s push for further free trade policies with the United States and Mexico, which built upon the 1988 free trade agreement that Mulroney had negotiated with the US.
Still, the Throne Speech continued its desperation in the strong words it used to exclaim the need for national unity. The language was striking as the Mulroney government seemed to beg Canadians in their plea for national unity. “To realize our great promise,” the Speech remarked, “we must rebuild Canadian unity, and overcome the acrimony, apathy, and incomprehension that currently undermine it”.23 This plea followed the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, and a significant portion of the Throne Speech was dedicated to addressing the need for English-French reconciliation in the name of national unity. The Mulroney government returned to the rhetoric of 1984, but with a greater sense of urgency.24 As they had done in the 1984 Throne Speech, they again tied national identity to unity, claiming, “A constitution should unite a nation. Canadians across this country should be able to see themselves, and their hopes and admirations mirrored in the constitution. It is the one document that all Canadians should refer to with pride. That is not presently the case in Canada”.25 No task was more critical to the Mulroney government than making the constitution an accurate reflection of who Canadians were.26
The importance of foreign policy to the national identity that the Mulroney government touted in the Throne Speech was reinforced by the way that the Mulroney government attempted to present Canada on the world stage.27 It was determined to make Canada an important global player in a way that the Liberals had not been able to do so under Prime Minister Trudeau.28 One of the most significant examples of that role was Mulroney government’s success at negotiating the Free Trade Agreement, with the U.S and Mexico’s inclusion in the trade agreement to later create NAFTA.29 To the Mulroney government, keeping and building good relations with Washington, especially, directly correlated with what they claimed was an essential element of the economic renewal of Canada outlined in their 1984 and 1991 Throne Speeches.
Canada’s internationalism under the Mulroney government was not just directed at the United States, however. The Canadian values that the Mulroney government hoped to promote were tested in the 1980s as sanctions were placed upon South Africa for the repeal of their Apartheid laws. Although the sanctions were condemned by British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and the United States, Mulroney held firm in his promotion of the importance of sanctions to force change.30 In this way, Canada’s internationalism would be its own. Although the Mulroney government maintained positive relations with the United States, they recognized, too, that part of the Canadian identity involved being outwardly aggressive to promote Canadian values. This meant supporting the rights of marginalized people across the world, not only in Canada, and standing up to the Americans when necessary.
The Mulroney government was engaged in a pursuit that has been followed by every Canadian government and ever Prime Minister since Confederation and that was the search for a Canadian identity that united Canadians. Achieving that goal, as Mulroney discovered, has been the great Canadian dilemma. It is also one of the most elusive and slippery ideas that Canadians and their political leaders have always grappled with. The task of uniting Canadians under a single national identity is an arduous one. It can be said that the Mulroney government failed to find the Canadian identity as so many others had as well. This is, however, not a criticism of Brian Mulroney as Prime Minister nor of the Mulroney government. Grappling with ideas about Canadian identity has always been complicated. It has been challenging for all Prime Ministers to find a cohesive identity that all Canadians can latch on to. Perhaps a crucial, defining aspect of the Canadian identity is the eternal search for identity by Canadians.
The rhetoric that the Mulroney government used to reinvent the Canadian identity was in stark contrast to that used by the Pierre Trudeau government. Although unsuccessful, the Mulroney government imagined a Canada that was united by its differences and through its diversity. To be different was, in essence, to be Canadian. As such, minority rights needed to be protected, and Mulroney believed to promote and embrace this integral element of the nation is what it means to be Canadian. Once difference and diversity were accepted, Mulroney believed, national unity would follow. If Canada could only recognize and protect minority rights it would be a united country. Canada’s place on the world stage also needed to reflect the Canadian identity and foreign espouse must Canadian values. That is what the Mulroney government wanted for Canada on the world stage. The Canadian identity, to Prime Minister Mulroney was inherently outward and had to be presented to the international community as the way to build for the future in an increasingly multicultural world. Although the Mulroney government had some considerable success internationally as well as within Canada, it had failed to reinvent a Canadian identity that could be included in Canada’s Constitution but it had created a new Canada, especially, economically, that define Canada well into the future.
Blake, Raymond. Transforming the Nation: Canada and Brian Mulroney. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2007.
Cohen, Andrew. A Deal Undone: The Making and Breaking of the Meech Lake Accord. Toronto: Douglas & MacIntyre. 1990.
CPAC.CA. House of Commons Debates – November 5, 1984. Video. Accessed December 2. https://www.cpac.ca/en/programs/house-of-commons/episodes/90005427/. 2020.
C-SPAN.ORG. Canadian Throne Speech. Video. Accessed December 1. https://www.c-span.org/video/?17954-1/canadian-throne-speech#! 2020.
Fen Osler Hampson, Master of Persuasion: Brian Mulroney’s Global Legacy. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2018.
McRoberts, Kenneth, and Patrick Monahan. The Charlottetown Accord, the Referendum, and the Future of Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1993.
The Globe and Mail, “A Civil Tone Is Set”, 1984.