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Canada at the end of the 20th century


premier Jacques Parizeau
premier Jacques Parizeau

Brian Mulroney retired in 1993. He had become unpopular and was attacked for imposing new taxes, particularly the unpopular Goods and Services Tax, and for failing to reduce the deficit, solve economic problems, or end the constitutional crisis. His former allies among the Québec nationalists formed a new party, the Bloc Québécois, to work in federal politics for the independence of Québec. Alienated westerners turned to the Reform Party, a new conservative movement led by Preston Manning of Alberta. Mulroney’s successor, Kim Campbell, Canada’s first woman prime minister, was overwhelmingly defeated by the Liberals in the 1993 national election after just four months in office. Her Progressive Conservative Party, which had been a force in national politics since Confederation, won only two seats in the 295-seat House of Commons. The New Democratic Party, usually Canada’s third party, fared almost as badly, winning just nine seats.

Québécois Jean Chrétien, a veteran politician and former member of Trudeau’s governments, led the new Liberal Party government. The Liberals continued many of the Progressive Conservatives’ economic and social policies, including NAFTA, and, to the dismay of many of their supporters, sought to balance the federal budget rapidly.

Chrétien cut spending while maintaining tax rates and supported private rather than public enterprise as the key source of economic growth. Governments dedicated to free enterprise took power in Alberta in 1993 and in Ontario in 1995, and both cut government spending and taxation significantly. Chrétien’s government remained popular in its early years while its opposition was divided into a Québec bloc, a conservative western bloc, and mere fragments of the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democratic Party. Unemployment remained high, however. Chrétien’s failure to fulfill a promise to scrap Mulroney’s Goods and Services Tax damaged his reputation for honesty.

The country’s reputation as an international peacekeeper was marred by scandals over the behavior of Canadian troops in Bosnia and Somalia. Above all, the Chrétien government remained vulnerable to constitutional crisis as sentiment for sovereignty remained high in Québec.

In 1995 Québec premier Jacques Parizeau, a hard-line separatist, held the province’s second referendum on sovereignty. Even though there was widespread anger in Québec over the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, defeat was expected. However, Lucien Bouchard, the head of the Bloc Québécois, entered the campaign and revitalized it. Bouchard’s passionate speechmaking and his promise of undefined ties with Canada after achieving sovereignty gave the pro-sovereignty side a late surge. The referendum was rejected by the barest margin: Less than 1 percent divided the no votes (50.4 percent) from the yes votes (49.6 percent). Parizeau resigned, and Bouchard succeeded him as premier of Québec. Bouchard’s determination to continue the pursuit of sovereignty challenged Chrétien’s federal government, which had hoped that a clear victory in the referendum would enable it to focus on other issues. Québec’s own economic difficulties forced Bouchard to sideline the sovereignty issue, however.

Chrétien’s Liberal government
Chrétien’s Liberal government

Chrétien’s Liberal government was elected to a second term in June 1997, but it received a reduced share of the vote and won a bare majority of the 301 seats in the newly expanded House of Commons. The opposition remained divided. The Reform Party, with strong support in western Canada, became the official opposition. Its leader, Preston Manning, continued to advocate a much reduced federal government, greater provincial autonomy, and free-enterprise principles. The Bloc Québécois still held most of Québec’s seats. The Conservatives began to rebuild their popularity, and the NDP grew slightly. In October 1997 nine provincial premiers (all but Québec’s) proposed a new constitutional offer to Québec, known as the Calgary accord. With a separatist government still in power in Québec, however, Chrétien’s federal government preferred to emphasize economic issues.

A decade of spending cuts and taxation, coupled with prosperity and low interest rates, finally brought 20 years of federal budget deficits to an end, and persistently high unemployment rates began to fall slowly.

In 1998 Jean Charest, a popular young Québécois who had revived the federal Progressive Conservative Party, was persuaded to become leader of Québec’s provincial Liberal Party. The move made him leader of the federalist forces in Québec. Despite Charest’s efforts, in provincial elections held later that year the Parti Québécois was reelected as the dominant party in Québec, and Charest became the opposition leader. In 1998 the Supreme Court of Canada issued an important ruling on the legal status of any bid by Québec to secede from Canada. The court declared that Québec does not have the right of unilateral secession, meaning that secession must be agreed to by the federal government and therefore cannot occur simply at the will of the separatist government.

Jean Charest
Jean Charest

The ruling obligated the federal government to negotiate regarding secession if a clear majority of citizens in Québec voted to secede on a clear question of whether they wanted to secede. However, the ruling lacked a definition of what would constitute a clear majority or a clear question.

In an effort to clarify these issues the Chrétien government introduced the so-called clarity bill, which formally passed into law in June 2000. Under the law, negotiations may occur only if the federal House of Commons has determined that the referendum question was clear and that secession was supported by a clear majority. The law also specifies that secession may not occur until a constitutional amendment governing the process is negotiated and adopted. On April 1, 1999, a large region of the Northwest Territories officially became the separate territory of Nunavut, the first Canadian territory or province with a majority indigenous population. Paul Okalik, a young Inuit lawyer, became Nunavut’s first territorial premier. "Canada" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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