Quebec premier René Lévesque had refused to agree to the constitutional arrangements of 1982, so, in 1987, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the 10 provincial premiers met to work out refinements to those arrangements that would satisfy Quebec. They drafted an accord that proposed, among other things, to recognize Quebec as "a distinct society" and to propose a new formula for amending the Constitution Act, 1982. The Meech Lake Accord, however, failed to include any reference to Aboriginal rights. Across Canada, opposition to various points in the accord began to emerge from many groups, but it was an Aboriginal politician who pronounced its death sentence. Elijah Harper stood gravely on the floor of the Manitoba Legislature early in the summer of 1990 and, holding an eagle feather, uttered a simple "no" to a procedural motion. Harper's action ensured that the province could not approve the accord before the required deadline. Meech Lake was dead.
The rejection of the Meech Lake Accord precipitated an outburst of nationalist sentiment in Quebec, so the Canadian government went back to work to find another possible compromise. In 1992, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's constitutional point man, Joe Clark, worked with the provincial premiers and Canada's four main national Aboriginal organizations to come up with a proposal that became known as the Charlottetown Accord. Part of the agreement required that this accord be put to Canadians in a national referendum.
The Charlottetown Accord can be interpreted as the first time in Canadian history that Aboriginal peoples were offered a tentative invitation to join Confederation as distinct political constituencies. To underline the idea that Aboriginal governments were based on the principle of the inherent rights of Aboriginal peoples rather than on the basis of some delegated authority, the accord recognized that Aboriginal governments constitute one of three orders of Canadian government. This recognition was qualified with the restriction that all of the acts of Aboriginal governments would have to conform to the provisions of the constitution that vested responsibility for "peace, order and good government" in the authority of the dominion's Parliament.
In the national referendum, a majority of voters in every province except Ontario rejected the constitutional proposal. The document received its highest level of endorsement among the Inuit. Among those Registered Indians whose verdict was counted, the outcome was about 60 per cent against. The rejection of the Charlottetown Accord by a majority of those Indian voters who chose to register their opinion on the document, represented a major defeat for the AFN. The vote demonstrated that a very broad gap separated federally sanctioned and funded Aboriginal organizations at the national level from their grassroots constituency. The outcome also suggested that the legacy of distrust and pessimism among First Nations peoples is so deep-seated and so long-standing that much will be required to build a constituency in Indian Country based on trust and hope in the regenerative powers of Canadian federalism. As Wesley George asserted at a conference in Edmonton in the spring of 1992 on behalf of the Southeast Treaty 4 Tribal Council, "We believe we will never realize our full potential within Canada if we become part of the Canadian Federation."