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Friday, June 21, 2024

Canada's Political and Economic Challenges in the Late 20th Century

Canada is the world’s second-largest country in terms of geographic area and possesses a vast wealth of raw materials. Although much of its territory especially in the north is unsuitable for habitation, Canada is also one of the world’s most highly developed countries. In general, Canadians enjoy a relatively high standard of living and a quality of life envied by many people around the world. Nonetheless, Canada confronted difficult political and economic challenges during the late 1900s.

Led by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s Liberal Party controlled the government throughout the 1970s. Trudeau was committed to preserving Canada’s federal union, and he emphasized constitutional issues during his years in office. A recession led many Canadians to call for significant economic reform in the early 1980s. In 1984 the Progressive Conservative Party won a general election. To improve the economy, the new government under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney pursued the privatization of various industries, the deregulation of business, and reform of the tax structure. But if economic problems had led to the rise of the Conservative Party in the 1980s, they contributed to its downfall in the 1990s.

A deepening recession in the early 1990s contributed to a major shake-up in Canadian politics. Facing a crisis of confidence, the Conservatives decided to replace Mulroney as their party leader. They chose Kim Campbell to take his place, and she became

Canada’s first woman prime minister in mid-1993. Within a few months, however, the Conservatives suffered catastrophic defeat in a general election. The Liberal Party won control of the government for the first time since 1984. In late 1993, Jean Chretien, who was the leader of the Liberal Party, took office as prime minister.

Chretien faced many of the same problems that had confronted his predecessors. Many Canadians called for constitutional reform at the federal level. French Canadian separatism and relations with the United States were two of the most important issues.

Separatism. Although the majority of Canadians are of English-speaking descent, people of many cultural backgrounds make Canada their home. Native Americans make up one important segment of Canada’s population. Many immigrants have come to Canada from South and East Asia as well as from Europe. In one of Canada’s 12 provinces, Quebec, French-speaking Canadians form the majority of the population. Approximately 80 percent of Quebec’s inhabitants claim French as their first language.

Throughout Canada’s history, Quebec’s French- speaking population has struggled to preserve its distinctiveness, both in its language and in its French- based traditions. During the 1960s a separatist movement gained strength among the French-speaking population of Quebec. French Canadians sought special recognition for their language and heritage. They also demanded a greater role in both provincial and national government and protections against discrimination. French Canadians gained a notable victory in 1969 with the passage of the Official Languages Act. This act made both French and English official languages of Canada.

Many French Canadians remained unsatisfied, however. The Parti Quebecois favored the complete separation of Quebec from Canada. In 1976 it won control of the provincial government. Four years later, in 1980, it held a referendum on separation, but the people of Quebec voted by a majority of 60 percent to remain a part of Canada. Nonetheless, French Canadian demands for special status for Quebec persisted through the 1980s and into the 1990s.

In 1987, Canadian leaders met at the resort of Meech Lake. There they agreed to accept Quebec as a “distinct society” within Canada. Had Parliament and all of Canada’s provincial legislatures ratified the Meech Lake Accord by 1990, it would have become part of the Canadian constitution. Many Canadians, however, believed that the accord gave too much power to Quebec. The agreement failed to win the unanimous endorsement necessary for implementation.

The failure of the Meech Lake Accord reinvigorated separatist sentiments. In 1995 the issue of separation for Quebec was once again put to a referendum. Once again the separatists lost but only by the narrowest margin. Quebec remained part of Canada, but with 49.4 percent of the vote in favor of separation, the issue was far from settled.

Relations with the United States. Most Canadians live within several hundred miles of the border with the United States. This border is the longest undefended international frontier in the world. Indeed, relations between Canada and the United States have become very close during the 1900s. As the century drew to a close, the flow of trade across the Canadian- U.S. border remained the heaviest bilateral trade traffic in the world.

Despite the general friendliness between the two countries, however, Canada and the United States have experienced periodic friction. Disputes over fishing rights in the Atlantic and the Pacific continued to occasionally afflict their relations into the 1990s. By far the greatest strains have resulted from Canada’s uneasiness over American involvement in its economy.

Many Canadians were especially unsure about free trade. They voiced particular concern after the announcement of the United States-Canada Free Trade Agreement in 1988. The agreement proposed to eliminate almost all tariff barriers between Canada and the United States. Opponents feared that the agreement would reduce Canada to the status of an economic colony of the United States. The debate over free trade grew even more heated in the early 1990s, when the possibility of adding Mexico to the 1988 agreement was raised just as the Canadian economy went into a major recession. In the end, however, Canada joined with the United States and Mexico in 1992 to sign the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. This agreement went into effect on January 1, 1994


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