My summer vacation along Lake Superior’s western shore into Canada took place just before the anniversary of a milestone, although it was marked by no celebrations or remembrances, and nobody I saw on mv quick stay in Thunder Bay showed any sign of acknowledging it. The anniversary was not the subject of conversation in the lounge of the Valhalla Hotel, but the effects of what happened on June 23, 1990, are by now deeply etched into the Canadian soil and psyche. For on that day, the Meech Lake Accord died.

As a gift to his supporters in Quebec, Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney negotiated a constitutional deal with the ten provincial premiers that redefined the federal relationship between Ottawa and the rest of Canada, specifically with the old New- France colony. Such deal-cutting was a time-honored tradition in Canadian politics. This one would have largely undone the work of former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who in 1982 had added a Bill of Rights-style Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the old British-style constitution, creating the multicultural Canada he sought over the opposition of many Quebecers.

The premiers and the prime minister, a.k.a. “the 11 men in suits,” arrived in limousines at a resort on Meech Lake in Quebec’s Gatineau hills. They forged an agreement that only a zealous centralist could oppose. The Meech Lake Accord granted Quebec control over immigration, and the other provinces could negotiate for the same power; Quebec’s three judges on the nine-member Supreme Court would become a permanent constitutional fixture; the central government would compensate any province that opted out of future national programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction; and any further constitutional reforms would have to receive the unanimous consent of both Ottawa and the provinces. That’s devolution. Can you imagine any American president negotiating this kind of deal with the states?

If Meech Lake consisted of only the items mentioned above, it would have been approved quickly, and Canada would still be out of sight and out of mind. But there was just one sticking point: French Quebec insisted on being called a “distinct society.” While most believed that this language was symbolic, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa claimed that it would change the way the constitution would be interpreted in Quebec’s courts. But English Canadians objected to what appeared to be an attempt by Quebec to obtain special status for its citizens.

“Distinct society” was a phrase strong enough to defeat the Meech Lake proposal. It was die sore thumb, a red cape to the English Canadian bull, unleashing an ugly wave of anti-Quebec, anti-French, and, inevitably and subtly, anti-Catholic feeling among the Anglo-Protestant Canadians. Can you imagine a similar reaction if Hispanic legislators from California or New Mexico declared their states or populations to be a distinct society?

For years, the onslaught of American culture and Third World immigration has weakened the Anglo-Canadian identity. If Canadians are simply Americans who don’t know any better, then what is the purpose of their nation? What is the meaning of being a Canadian? Why would a Canadian rock group, The Guess Who, sing “American woman — stay away from me”? And why should Canada try to keep Quebec in the federation?

Since Quebecers could be a distinct society, other ethnic groups in Canada decided that they wanted to be recognized as distinct societies—especially the Cree Indians. The Meech Lake Accord had been passed in every provincial legislature but Manitoba. (Newfoundland later rescinded its approval.) A Cree Indian deputy named Elijah Harper opposed Meech Lake for its lack of attention to the nation’s indigenous population. Day after day, he refused to give the unanimous consent necessary to allow the introduction of the accord into the legislature, sometimes by lifting a single eagle feather. The deadline for passage came and went: Meech Lake is dead; long live Meech Lake.

The political repercussions were profound: The ruling Progressive Conservative Party was torn asunder; Westerners abandoned the Conservatives to join what was then a fringe Western party called Reform, quickly making it Canada’s second-largest federal party. All ten of the premiers who signed Meech Lake are now out of politics. When Mulroney proposed revisions to the accord to help get it passed, Lucien Bouchard, an environmental minister in his government, bolted and formed the separatist Bloc Quebecois. They were joined by pro- Meech Liberal Quebecers after party leader and former Prime Minister John Turner was defeated by anti-Meech Liberals led by Trudeau (who came out of retirement to denounce the accord) and his protégé, Jean Chrétien, who won the Liberal leadership battle the very day Meech Lake died, eventually becoming prime minister himself.

“I did what I had to,” Mulroney told Maclean’s. Besides forging a deal that fractured the country, the Progressive Conservatives bankrupted the treasury with their profligate ways, eventually removing themselves to their Atlantic provincial redoubts. Many Quebecers who were not inclined toward independence closed ranks behind the Bloc Quebecois, feeling they had enough of Anglo double crosses and abuse. Thanks to Meech Lake, Quebec came within a hairsbreadth of taking its place among the nations of the world in a referendum on secession in 1995.

The Liberals dominated Canadian politics in the 1990’s not because anyone particularly liked their policies or the gaffe-prone and hideous Chretien, but because the opposition fragmented along regional lines: Reform in the West, the Progressive Conservatives in the far East, and the Bloc Quebecois in you-know-where. The situation was so bad that the Bloc was actually the official opposition party after Chrétien’s first election victory in 1993. Such a vacuum could not last.

Meech Lake was the end of an era. The implosion of the Tories meant the collapse of Canada’s British-style politics. Vulnerable to all the trends and fads that come across the border, Canadian politics is increasingly Americanized. No longer do Canadians march to church basements to listen to politicians speak. Everything now depends on television. The parties employ American consultants (John McCain’s guru, Mike Murphy, works for Ontario’s Conservatives) and are almost mirror images of those across the border. The New Democratic Party is Canada’s Greens; the Liberals, the Democrats; the Bloc Quebecois is a separatist party with no counterpart in the United States; and the discredited Progressive Conservatives, led by former Prime Minister Joe Clark, flop like dying fish on a Newfoundland beach.

Mulroney may have destroyed the Progressive Conservatives, but he did incubate their successors. Clearing away the Tory deadwood were the (gasp!) neoconservatives. Those youngsters (David Frum, for example), who grew up during the 1980’s and took seriously everything that Mulroney, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher had to say, have risen to power. They are the brains behind the new opposition party, the Canadian-Reform Alliance Party, or CRAP. Since the Reform Party could never break out of its Western stronghold, it merged with the neocons running the Ontario government of Premier Mike Harris.

CRAP aims to become the Republican Party of Canada. The old Reform Party was very much like the old COP: anti-tax. Western in outlook, pro-development of natural resources, pro-gun, pro-death penalty, pro-family values, pro-decentralization. Now that the neocons are joining up, CRAP is becoming like the current Republicans. Its deputies in Ottawa criticized the Liberals for taking the perks of office, then voted with the Liberals to enrich their pension plans. CRAP leadership candidate Tom Long was criticized by party rivals for claiming to have signed up 6,000 new CRAP voters in the remote Caspe region of Quebec, which had been a Bloc stronghold until Long and his buddies showed up to hand out ten-dollar bills in every tavern along the Bais des Chalures. Even Mike Harris, the Newt Gingrich of Canada and Long’s mentor, has become bogged down in scandal, from the infamous E. coli outbreak (which caused 14 deaths) and coverup in a water-treatment plant to the cozy ties between Harris and real-estate developers looking to transform Ontario into a Canadian version of Arizona. The newspapers and magazines say CRAP is the fastest growing party in Canada: At 19 percent in the polls, it is now only 30 points behind the governing Liberals. But there’s plenty of room to grow.

Even with a strong lead and facing a fractured opposition, the Liberals fear that they may hold a minority government in 2001. Some Canadians are fed up with the political song-and-dance; like their American counterparts, they are taking to the streets. With their Chomsky readers in their backpacks and flowers on their Birkenstocks, young protesters disrupted a meeting of the Organization of American States in a reflection of Seattle’s WTO protests. But the limit to such politics was revealed when members of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, a union-backed homeless organization (which, like many homeless groups, is run by a person living in a house), tried to storm the provincial legislature. They clashed with police, threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, and stabbed police horses while being arrested. There’s no truth to the rumor that Premier Harris was inside the building smiling and laughing, his electoral coalition secure.

Meanwhile, the 800-pound gorilla, Quebec secession, remains asleep —for now. An improved economy has kept the Parti Quebecois quiet, waiting for its chance to hold another referendum. Ottawa says that it will define the question next time and will recognize independence only if a clear majority votes for it. Brave words for a nation whose army is only twice the size of the 8,000 Tamil Tiger guerrillas allegedly hiding in Toronto. Is Prime Minister Chretien prepared to go to war to save the union? Never underestimate a globalist: After all, his government supported NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia.

Secession is scratched in both sides of the North American mirror. In the early 1990’s, secessionist groups worked for independence for Staten Island, Upstate New York, Northern California, Montana, the American Northwest, western Kansas and Nebraska, and the Lake Superior region. Massive immigration is fueling Hispanic nationalist groups in the American Southwest, and the more the memory of the Confederacy is attacked, the more Southerners look to the League of the South. None of these movements have disappeared simply because of the “greatest economic expansion in U.S. history.”

Meech Lake supporters insist that, if the accord had passed, Canada would have had constitutional peace for 30 years. But even so, the Parti Quebecois would still exist. Poverty is not the cause of secessionist forces. The fuel that creates these groups—arrogance, insensitivity, bigotry, and elitism—still bums.