Canadian News

Lament for a nation: the colony that can’t grow up

Ian Urquhart November 13 1978
Canadian News

Lament for a nation: the colony that can’t grow up

Ian Urquhart November 13 1978

Lament for a nation: the colony that can’t grow up

Canadian News

Ian Urquhart

It all started back in 1926. That was the year the British Imperial Conference, meeting in London, declared Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa to be equal in status with Great Britain itself. The next year, Ottawa summoned the provinces to a follow-up meeting to discuss ways to “patriate” the Canadian constitution, which was still an act of the British Parliament (the British North America Act) in spite of the declaration of the Imperial Conference. But the provinces and Ottawa could not agree on a formula for bringing the constitution to Canada. Last week, they tried again, the eighth such attempt since the 1927 failure. But they could agree to little more than to meet again, in February. Until then, at least, the constitution will remain in Britain and Canada will be, in the words of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, “the only country which, in a legal sense, is still a colony.”

For most Canadians, whose interest in the constitution is roughly on a par with their concern for Italian cabinet shuffles, the failure to agree on a simple thing like patriating the constitution must seem puzzling. But it is not patriation that has proven so contentious. Rather, it is the division of powers between Ottawa and the provinces. Provinces that want more power for themselves, notably Quebec and, latterly, Alberta, fear that if they agree to patriation they will lose their biggest bargaining chip. Alberta is also concerned that it would not have a veto over changes in a patriated constitution, as it assumes it has now with the BN A Act.

Despite these obstacles there was a moment on the morning of the second day of last week’s conference when agreement seemed possible. In the midst of a discussion over the division of powers, Trudeau sprang a sevenpoint plan on the premiers that won immediate approval. He proposed limiting federal powers in such areas as communications, family law and social security; and increasing provincial powers in the fields of resources and taxation. Eight of the 10 premiers were

delighted. “We got some real treats,” enthused B.C.’s Bill Bennett. “I sense a degree of flexibility that I haven’t seen before,” added Ontario’s Bill Davis. The only sour notes were struck by Quebec’s René Lévesque and Alberta’s Peter Lougheed, who is drawing closer to Lévesque’s separatist stance every day with his strident provincialism. Both men noted that parts of Trudeau’s plan had been offered before, during the last round of constitutional talks in 1968-71. But even they grudgingly conceded some change in Ottawa’s position. Said

Lévesque: “At last, something seems to be moving a little.”

But the hopes for agreement quickly began to fade that night as the premiers assembled at 24 Sussex Drive, where they were greeted by Trudeau’s estranged wife, Margaret, visiting her three children on Halloween. Over a dinner of roast lamb, Trudeau began sounding out the premiers on a package deal involving both his seven-point plan on the division of powers and patriation. The provinces reacted like a girl who has agreed to go steady only to find

Where the Fathers of Refederation stand Major shift Constitutional Constitutional Senate reform of power to right to eduBill of Rights provinces cation in French or English Pierre Trudeau No Yes Yes Yes Bill Bennett (B.C.) No No No Yes Allan Blakeney (Sask.) No Yes No Won’t say John Buchanan (N.S.) No Won’t say Maybe Maybe Bennett Campbell (P.E.I.) No Yes Yes No Bill Davis (Ont.) No Yes Yes Maybe Richard Hatfield (N.B.) No Yes Yes No René Lévesque (Que.) Yes No No No Peter Lougheed (Alta.) Yes No No No Sterling Lyon (Man.) No Yes No Maybe Frank Moores (Nfld.) No Yes Yes No

out her boy-friend has already set the wedding date.

Lévesque was the most vociferous opponent of Trudeau’s proposed package. He insisted the division of powers must come first, patriation later. Trudeau noted that such a timetable would mean asking the British Parliament to amend the constitution, a humiliating exercise. But Lévesque was adamant.

The dinner broke up after barely two hours, but the debate resumed the next morning in front of the television cameras at the conference. In a display of withering logic that was reminiscent of his televised debate with then-Quebec premier Daniel Johnson a decade earlier, Trudeau ridiculed Lévesque’s position. But Lévesque responded just as effectively with a barrage of quips and acid remarks. He accused Trudeau of issuing an “ultimatum” that he knew was unacceptable to Quebec. Replied Trudeau: “Mr. Lévesque is issuing the ultimatum. He is saying, ‘Unless you give me everything I want, I will not allow you to patriate the constitution.’ ” Trudeau then turned to the other premiers for support, but only New Brunswick’s Richard Hatfield came to the rescue, saying he found Quebec’s argument hard to understand. Saskatchewan’s Allan Blakeney and Davis of Ontario, two peacemakers whose lead is usually followed by the other provinces, both tried to dissuade Trudeau from making patriation a precondition for constitutional reform. Reacted Trudeau: “I’m a little puzzled. Since at least 1976, you [the premiers] have been attaching preconditions [of your own]... but you don’t like it when we have preconditions.”

The argument spilled over into the private lunch that had been arranged for the premiers and Trudeau to discuss

the wording of the communiqué to be issued by the conference. Over a cold fish plate, the dispute soon spread from the division of powers and patriation to other issues, such as the inclusion of a bill of rights and language rights in a new constitution. The 11 men even began haggling over whether the communiqué should say that constitutional reform is both “urgent” and “important” or just one or the other. Finally, an exasperated Trudeau stopped pressing for agreement on a large package and settled for a thin, two-page communiqué that set a date for the next meeting and empowered a committee of federal and provincial ministers to search for agreement where Trudeau and the premiers could find none.

Afterward Trudeau and some of the premiers were upset with the judgment of the press that the conference had failed. Snapped Hatfield: “What did you expect? For the Queen to be here herself to hand out the constitution?” Added Trudeau: “I’m happy with the progress we’ve made. We really didn’t feel it would be useful to try to nail down every comma and semicolon of what we said in the last few days.”

In fact, however, the original communiqué, drafted by federal officials and obtained by Maclean's, did attempt to detail specific areas of agreement between Trudeau and the premiers. Over 10 pages, it spelled out Trudeau’s sevenpoint program for a new division of powers, suggested a method of entrenching a bill of rights and language rights in tne constitution, set out targets for reforming the Senate and the Supreme Court, and singled out nine areas where federal and provincial jurisdictions overlap for immediate attention. On the touchy issue of patriation, the draft communique stated:

“The first ministers agreed in principle that patriation of the constitution, with an appropriate procedure for amendment, is a desirable goal and should be pursued urgently.” Noted Alberta’s Lougheed: “The draft tried to record things that didn’t happen.”

Despite the scrapping of the draft communiqué, the conference was not a complete disaster from Ottawa’s point of view. Trudeau did succeed in portraying himself as a man ready to make a deal rather than, as some provincial premiers and federal Conservative leader Joe Clark have charged, a staunch defender of the status quo. With skilful questioning and prodding during the conference, he also broke down the image of the provinces as a team united against Ottawa. It soon became apparent there are more divisions among the provinces on the various constitutional issues than there are factions in the Middle East (see chart). Henceforth it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the premiers to lay all the blame on Trudeau for lack of progress in constitutional talks.

Finally, Trudeau succeeded in smoking out Lévesque, who had intended to keep his head down at the conference without actually agreeing to any proposal that might undercut his bid for independence. Lévesque could not resist responding when Trudeau talked of patriation. It was, however, the Quebec premier’s only slip at the conference. Acknowledged Trudeau: “He played his role and he played it well: it’s to preventfederalism from working.”

Some premiers and the federal Conservatives argue that, faced with Lévesque’s intransigence on the matter of patriation, Trudeau should give in and agree on a package that involves only the division of powers in time for the

referendum in Quebec. Says Flora MacDonald, the Conservatives’ constitutional critic: “He’s got to decide

whether or not he wants to provide some real ammunition to the federalists in Quebec before the referendum. He defeats his own argument [against separation] unless he’s prepared to move now on the division of powers.” MacDonald suggests Trudeau is allowing his personal pride to cloud his judgment on the issue of patriation.

Trudeau addressed that suggestion in a post-conference interview last week with CTV’s Craig Oliver. Said the prime minister: “People seem to think that it’s something I need very badly—to bring the constitution home. I don’t need it any more than you do, Craig. I just think it’s a good thing for Canada. In all this conference, just about everything I did was either limiting the federal powers or giving them up, not for something in exchange for the federal government, but something in exchange for the Canadian people.”

If the next constitutional conference in February fails to agree on patriation, Trudeau may decide to bring it back anyway, without unanimous consent but with the support of a majority of provinces. To legitimize the process, he may also ask the public to vote on the question in a referendum. Indeed, a bill giving the government the power to hold referendums on such questions has already been introduced in Parliament, and Trudeau made several references to “letting the people decide” during last week’s conference.

First, however, the people will have to decide to give the Trudeau government another mandate, a prospect that looks increasingly unlikely as the pollsters report their findings (see box below). There have been suggestions Trudeau could turn the election itself into a referendum by campaigning for a mandate to hold Canada together if the February constitutional conference fails to reach agreement. But Trudeau’s close advisers are telling him that this approach would not work because Canadians are more concerned about the economy than the constitution. The only alternative to losing may be resignation before the next election. Trudeau was asked about this in the CTV interview:

“Are you going to quit?”

“Well, I’m going to quit pretty soon. Stop asking me questions.”

“Are you going to stay with it, for the rest of the winter, into the federal election?”

“Of course I will.”

“For sure?”

“Why would I give myself the trouble of setting up a conference, which is going to report in February, if I didn’t think I’d be around for it?”