Jeffrey S. Rosenthal

(Published in Outreach Connection, Issue #620, October 14, 2005, pp. 8-9)

(Dr. Rosenthal is a professor in the Department of Statistics at the University of Toronto. His book Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities is being published by HarperCollins Canada.)

Probability theory is a beautiful branch of mathematics, replete with both elegant theory and important applications to many other subjects. And yet, fifteen years ago a casual, off-hand reference to probabilities nearly destroyed my country.

In the spring of 1990, Canada was at a crossroads. The Meech Lake Accord constitutional amendment was about to expire. If it was ratified by all ten provinces, then Quebec would accept Canada's constitution, and the risk of secession would be over, perhaps forever. But if the accord failed, the cycle of threats, division, and sovereignty referenda that had so damaged Canada's national character would return.

The accord had been initiated in 1987, to great fanfare and unanimous provincial consent. But three years later, newly elected governments in New Brunswick, Manitoba, and Newfoundland were reconsidering their support. If their signatures did not appear by June 22, 1990, then the deal would be nullified, causing anger in Quebec and instability everywhere. A few weeks of negotiations was about to determine the nation's fate.

In this tense environment, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called a First Ministers' conference, as a last-ditch attempt to reach unanimity. From June 3 through 9, 1990, the Prime Minister and ten provincial premiers met in private, with Canadians glued to the nightly press conferences, desperate for any hints about the country's future.

Finally, on June 9, a deal was announced. New Brunswick passed the Meech Lake Accord six days later. Manitoba began the process to do the same. Newfoundland scheduled a free vote of its legislature for the week following. Victory seemed within reach.

And then it all came apart. What happened? Mulroney casually referred to the timing of the First Ministers' conference as "the day I'm going to roll all the dice".

When I read Mulroney's words (published without comment in the Globe and Mail on June 12), I immediately sensed trouble. Dice are, in fact, an appropriate metaphor for the uncertainties involved in any negotiation. But as a specialist in probability theory, I knew that Canadians have strong feelings about randomness. We appreciate uncertainty's entertainment value when playing cards, betting on horses, watching movies, pulling slot machine levers, reading mystery novels, or buying lottery tickets. But we are outraged by our lack of control when our furnace suddenly breaks down, or it rains unexpectedly, or we get stuck in traffic, or terrorists attack, or a loved one is stricken with disease. Or, indeed, when our nation's affairs appear to proceed randomly, without any overall plan.

Mulroney's dice metaphor was widely quoted, and quickly became a focal point for Canadians' anger at the entire constitutional amendment process. Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells declared, "It gives the impression that we're being manipulated". Sharon Carstairs, then leader of the opposition in Manitoba's minority government, recalled (in a later interview for Steve Paikin's book The Life) that after reading Mulroney's words, "You have no idea how incensed I was. At that point, I was prepared to do anything to make sure [the Meech Lake Accord] didn't get through the Manitoba legislature."

In the end, the Meech Lake Accord was not ratified. Mulroney was forced to admit (in an interview with CBC's The Journal on June 30) that his "dice" metaphor had contributed to the accord's failure, and that he "could have chosen better words" to express himself. To this day many recall the Meech Lake Accord as Mulroney's misguided effort to "roll the dice".

The failure of the accord significantly altered Canada's future. Quebecers were furious. Lucien Bouchard broke with Mulroney, declared his support for sovereignty, and emerged as a major Quebec hero. He quickly founded the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which dominates federal politics in Quebec to this day. He promoted the Yes side in the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum, in which Quebec's secession from Canada -- ending the country as we know it -- came within 0.6% percent of victory. Following the referendum, Bouchard became premier of Quebec. His threats of further referenda guided all Canadian political decisions for years -- including inspiring the now-infamous sponsorship program in which hundreds of millions of dollars of federal government money were apparently misspent. Arguably, none of these events would have occurred had Mulroney not happened to mention dice.

Other politicians have learned their lesson. In the 2004 Canadian election, on the subject of reforming Canada's medical system, Prime Minister Paul Martin didn't blandly promise to meet with the premiers, have some negotiations, and wait and see what emerged (although that's precisely what he did). He didn't nervously promise to roll the dice (although, figuratively speaking, dice were indeed rolled). Rather, he confidently promised to "fix health care for a generation" -- because he knew that when it comes to the nation's business, Canadians want certainties, not probabilities.

Of course, there are many reasons why the Meech Lake Accord failed. Mulroney's personal unpopularity played a role, as did legitimate concerns about special treatment for Quebec, and discomfort that the deal had been negotiated in secret. But the "dice" metaphor was an important factor too. It nearly destroyed Canada, simply by serving as a reminder of, well, the randomness of the entire political process.

-- Jeffrey Rosenthal (contact me)