CEMENT FOR A NATION
The brilliant rays of the midday sun angled through the high, vaulted windows of a former waiting room in the converted railway station and bathed the broad grin of Peter Lougheed, the impenetrable mask of Pierre Trudeau and the ominous scowl of René Lévesque. On a warm Nov. 5, a caravan of compromisers had at last pulled up to a platform —although it was not clear that they had arrived at their intended destination. After more than 90 hours of confusion, indecision and scheming in back rooms, and even a kitchen, they had a constitution that at last transcended the age of steam. They also had a formula for amending it, along with a charter of human rights—albeit one that had wilted in the heat of the dealmaking (see page 34).
No bells pealed and no crowds gathered joyously in a land where nationality was never defined by allegiance to the obscure British statute that, for 114 years, had served as the shaky basis for nationhood. The package did not reflect the ideals of Pierre Trudeau. Instead, the crisis-easing compromise was authored by three of Canada’s younger provinces—Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland. It was their burgeoning resource wealth and muscular defence of provincial sovereignty that had first provoked Trudeau to warn the nation it was being pulled apart. Appropriately, if unwittingly, it was Brian Peckford of Newfoundland who lent his name to the final accord, who touched the right chord when he allowed in his concluding statement: “This is, somewhat, Canada’s century.”
And then there was Quebec—isolated in “a position which has become traditional in the Canadian federal system in which it operates,” as Lévesque told the television cameras. Storming into a press conference, the premier ladled scorn on the “joyous outpourings” of his former allies. “Maybe second thoughts and further events will make them understand that this could have incalculable consequences,” he declared. Just how incalculable the Parti Québécois is now trying to gauge (page 33). Lévesque’s ministers quickly floated rumors of elections and referendums based on independence. But federal Justice Minister Jean Chrétien snorted at the threat. “It was Lévesque who agreed
to give up Quebec’s traditional veto last April, and now he was wrapping himself, Duplessis-like, in the fleur-de-lis of Quebec nationalism,” Chrétien mocked in an interview with Maclean's at week’s end. “Think of the [referendum] question [Lévesque would pose] T screwed myself at the conference—aren’t you mad?’ ”
Lévesque, in fact, was not entirely alone. Maclean’s has learned that Manitoba demanded—and won—an agreement allowing the legislature to vote on the crucial constitutional clause that commits English provinces to provide schools for francophone minorities. The Manitoba caveat was not part of the final text that was released to the press. But Premier Sterling Lyon insisted on the provision as he campaigned for re-election back in Manitoba. Chrétien concedes the deal consists of “8Vi»” provinces, not nine, and effectively puts “Lyon in bed with Lévesque.”
Lévesque made no reference to the Manitoba option as he issued his bitter closing statement. Instead, he reiterated his opposition to enshrining minority education rights. The other two reasons for his refusal did not carry the same emotional impact at home: mobility rights—
which would open Quebec’s doors to non-Quebeckers seeking scarce jobs—and financial compensation for opting out of future constitutional amendments. On those items, as on education rights,
Trudeau was intransigent.
Allowing provinces to opt out, he was convinced, would create a “checkerboard Canada,” with inequality guaranteed between rich and poor provinces.
Lévesque’s apparently wilful distortion of Ottawa’s position was not unique. Federal ministers and officials were among the worst offenders in trying to manipulate the media, and few premiers were immune to petty spotlight grabbing. Talks bogged down repeatedly as ministers and officials quibbled over minor details in order to display what they thought was their brilliance. After 16 months of skirmishing, the participants knew that there was nothing pretty or refined about making a constitution. The process proved as grubby as the most bitter labor negotiation. The four days of talks around the horseshoe-shaped table on the fifth floor of the government Conference Centre bore scant resemblance to the rarefied atmosphere depicted in the famous portrait of the Fathers of Confederation posing demurely around a table in 1864.
The symbols of the 1981 round were hotel rooms with unmade beds and overflowing ashtrays, takeout Chinese dinners and chance meetings in restaurants. And the dominant symbol was fear. Fear of being the first to break from the “Gang of Eight” dissident premiers; fear of being left out of a deal; fear of the humiliation of lobbying in London; fear of fighting a referendum on the charter; fear of the status quo; fear of changing it. As late as last Wednesday night, most of the key players believed the meeting was breaking up. Out of the depths of that near-tragedy, the midnight of
the nation, a deal began to emerge, “an honorable bargain,” as Trudeau said. But as the sun was setting on Wednesday, no one thought that bargain was even remotely possible.
The rights charter lay at the epicentre of the crisis. For Trudeau, it was a centralizing force, “taking away from the federal and provincial governments the right to violate the rights of citizens.” For the Gang of Eight it was much more ominous. It would take authority from the provinces and give it to federally appointed judges.
Under the unanimity rule that had paralysed constitutional change in the past, Ottawa could not impose the charter without the consent of all provinces. But Trudeau’s tactic was to move with the consent of just two provinces—Ontario and New Brunswick—and demand that the charter be enacted in the British Parliament, which still has technical authority to alter the British North America Act when
requested by Ottawa. Then Britain would patriate the package—constitution and
When the eight dissenting provinces appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, the justices ruled that Trudeau’s gambit was technically legal, but against all constitutional convention. As the crisis summit convened on Monday, Nov. 2, the dissenting premiers recited passages from the court’s Sept. 28 decision to bolster their position. The charter would mean a “different Canada.” For his part, Lougheed charged that Trudeau’s centralist views were the “wrong interpretation” of Canada, and he warned of “tragic” consequences. Not one of the Eight suggested any compromise on the charter and, as the premiers moved to their closed meetings, debate focused mainly on the amending formula. There again, Trudeau’s vision I of Canada was challenged reJpeatedly. He favored the soÜ called Victoria formula, which the 10 provinces nearly bought in 1971. Under that proposal, changes in the constitution required the consent of a majority of people in each of the four regions—the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario and the West. At that point even Angus MacLean of Prince Edward Island dug in his heels.
Even among the smaller provinces, Lougheed’s arguments against “two categories of provinces” had generated a new militancy through the 1970s. Instead, the Eight favored their own “Vancouver formula,” in which change required the consent of any seven provinces with 50 per cent of the country’s population. There would be no veto for Ontario and Quebec. In addition, their formula permitted a province to “opt out” of any change that affected provincial rights, and that was the price for Quebec’s dropping its veto. For Lévesque, it proved to be a tactical blunder.
The repeated jousting between Trudeau and Lévesque spilled into the Tuesday meeting. So bitter was their feuding that Trudeau had to leave at one stage to cool down. When he returned he found that B.C.’s Bill Bennett—acting as chairman of the premiers—had adjourned the meeting. During the break, Trudeau conferred with his principal ally, Ontar-
io’s William Davis. Davis informed him that he was going to make a compromise proposal; he would consider accepting the Eight’s Vancouver formula if the dissidents would adopt the charter. The effect of the initiative on the Eight was impressive. There was a 30-second silence before Allan Blakeney of Saskatchewan finally stuttered: “Ah, I think I can
live with a small charter____” John Buchanan of Nova Scotia
agreed with Blakeney. So did Bennett. Trudeau reserved his opinion and asked the premiers to consider over lunch what parts of the charter they could accept.
Their response led to more disruption. Bennett met Trudeau and Davis in the prime minister’s convention centre office, bringing with him a hawk (Lougheed) and a dove (Buchanan). The Eight could agree on only a gutted charter containing the most basic elements, such as the right to vote. They proposed to study the rest. “You must be kidding,” snapped Trudeau. Then he turned on Bennett and told him to “stop screwing around.” As Chrétien remembers, Trudeau also made use of the occasion to try to “shame” the three premiers out of their allegiance to Lévesque.
Bennett by now was no longer even pretending to be the chairman of the Eight, a role that had exhausted him during the six weeks since the Supreme Court decision. He made up his mind that he would back Trudeau’s demands for entrenched minority education rights, and he told the Gang of Eight of his decision the next morning at breakfast. It was the first departure from the common front, but Bennett believed no deal was possible without the education clause. He told his officials of his talk with Trudeau a month earlier at 24 Sussex. “Language is the essence of my existence,” Trudeau had said. “You have to give it to me.”
After the Eight met on Tuesday afternoon, Blakeney was convinced that the summit was leaving the rails in a hurry. He and his attorney general, Roy Romanow, dejectedly went out to dinner at Mamma Teresa’s, an Italian restaurant favored by Ottawa’s ruling class. Bennett had also reserved a table there—by chance next to Ontario’s Davis, his attorney general, Roy McMurtry, and his intergovernmental affairs minister, Tom Wells. Bennett never showed up, but when Blakeney’s crew did, Davis invited them to sit down. Compromise positions were kicked around the table and after dinner Romanow joined his pal McMurtry back at the Ontario rooms in the Four Seasons Hotel. Blakeney had his lawyers work all night drafting a proposal for the next day.
That compromise was all dressed up with no place to go. Lévesque blasted Blakeney for breaking the common front
by proposing elements of a charter. The Ontario proposal was already dead, after Trudeau and his officials had publicly distorted it to mean a “straight-up swap”—his charter for the gang’s amending formula. Minutes after chastizing Blakeney, Lévesque made the fatal error of breaking with the Eight himself. Trudeau proposed that two formulas be given “to the people” to decide. He would do the same with the charter. Then he, “or my successor,” could fight out both in referendums. Lévesque lunged at the idea. For the first time, Lougheed stirred. Would the referendum be counted by region or province, he asked Lévesque. By region—the four of them—Lévesque retorted. Lougheed steamed.
The sight of Lévesque before the cameras at noon embracing the referendum plan had a “salutary effect” on other members of the Eight, officials now agree. So unexpected was the break that Lévesque’s closest ally in the group, Sterling Lyon, did not believe it when he was told by reporters back in Manitoba.
The referendum seemed less alluring to Lévesque after he learned the rules of the charter referendum proposal after
lunch. It was a somewhat silly document that would have allowed Trudeau to implement his original charter in two years if agreement on the referendum could not be reached in all 10 legislatures. After glancing at it, an official wrote one word—“Hatfield”—on the paper and passed it to his premier. New Brunswick’s Richard Hatfield had been the staunchest supporter of the original charter and might be counted on to ensure its survival.
Gloom settled over the horseshoe. Trudeau tried to keep up a discussion on the referendum but he refused to be pinned down to details. One official remembers him glancing repeatedly at his watch, as if counting the minutes until he could dismiss all of them. Some premiers sensed the end was near and gave what Blakeney later called “good-bye speeches.” Trudeau and Lévesque again traded their visions of the country, one nation or two. Blakeney said after the meeting that it seemed as if Trudeau was paving the way to London with the referendum, trying to “constitutionalize” the charter.
When they broke at 5 p.m. for coffee, Chrétien signalled Romanow. To avoid suspicion among the others they edged into an adjoining kitchen instead of leaving the room through the front door. Both knew that failure was imminent. Over coffee that morning they had listed four possible options on a scrap of yellow paper. Romanow pulled it out again and Chrétien stabbed his finger at the third. “I think I
can sell the boss on that,” he said. Romanow started to list its details on a note pad. Vancouver formula? “Okay,” Chrétien said. Charter of rights with the override on the second half? “Okay.” Opting out on minority education rights? “Never.” Chrétien took the paper from Romanow and started to leave. Romanow grabbed it back, wanting written proof to show Blakeney. McMurtry joined them, and Romanow laboriously scrawled out two more copies.
So hopelessly bitter had the wrangling become that no one premier was trusted by all the others. But there were lines of communication. Blakeney could talk to Davis, and Davis to Trudeau. Blakeney could also talk to Lougheed, and Lougheed to Peckford and Lyon. In his red-carpeted suite in the Chateau Laurier, Blakeney convened with MacLean, Peckford and Buchanan. Next door were officials from B.C., Newfoundland, Saskatchewan and Alberta. It was Peter Meekison, Alberta’s deputy minister of federal affairs, who was the key. Lougheed had turned in early, as usual, but he had authorized Meekison to seek a deal.
Across Confederation Square, on the 17th floor of the Four Seasons, Davis and his officials sat waiting amid debris from that morning’s breakfast. Davis had taped a speech after the meetings, his delivery, as usual, flat as Muzak. But to his staff, he seemed agitated. Along with the others, he had thought that Trudeau was committed to a referendum now, and he had indicated that he would—reluctantly—support that move. But Blakeney seemed to suggest that a consensus could be reached with at least six provinces.
Should Trudeau persist in his referendum plan, it was Davis who would have to sway him—with the threat of Ontario backing the premiers’ emerging agreement. No one—not even Chrétien—knew how the prime minister would react.
Davis waited distractedly for the phone call from Trudeau that he expected at 11 p.m.
Chrétien had kept in touch with Ontario through Wells and McMurtry.
When he met Trudeau that evening at nine o’clock he said there seemed to be “six or seven” provinces behind the new deal. At the time there were only four committed to it. Trudeau shook his head doubtfully and said he would sleep on it.
The referendum was still on his mind.
In Blakeney’s suite they decided to put Peckford’s name on the document. His proposal, bearing a strong likeness to the kitchen compromise, had never been tabled. Peckford had the added credibility of being a hawk and a Tory. Blakeney kept in touch with Davis, who was still uncertain exactly how many premiers had lined up behind the deal. When Trudeau finally called, Davis left his smoke-filled operations centre to speak to him alone from his bedroom phone. No outsider knows if Davis had to issue his ultimatum, but when he returned his officials found his mood much improved. About 90 minutes later, at 1:30, Romanow’s assistant, Aydon Charlton, was roused from his bed and sent over to the Four Seasons with the final draft. At two, Davis and Blakeney confirmed they had a deal.
Lougheed rose as usual at six, went jogging and then gave his seal of approval. Then he telephoned Lyon to say that if he was not on board, then he was alone with Lévesque. Lyon jumped. Chrétien awoke from his troubled sleep at 5:30 and waited an hour before calling Romanow to get the count. Knowing Trudeau was not an early riser, he waited until 7:45 before calling his boss with the news: “I’ve got eight or nine,” he announced. Still unconvinced,
Trudeau retorted, “We’ll see at the meeting.”
When Lévesque arrived at the Eight’s final breakfast, late as usual, he found he had been cut adrift. Lougheed had replaced Bennett as chairman. As Trudeau gavelled the meeting to order, Lévesque tried one last time to promote the referendum. Trudeau did not bite and Peckford began to unfold the proposal that bore his name.
Speaking last, Trudeau said he had problems with the fiscal compensation clause. Peckford agreed to remove it. Trudeau didn’t like the override clause but said he could accept it with a “sunset clause” that would force legislatures to reenact laws using the override every five years. They agreed. Trudeau tried briefly to reinstate native rights in the charter, but extracted only a promise to reconsider them as soon as possible. A deal had been struck. Everyone but Lévesque signed the English version after the coffee break, then began making their way downstairs to sign the French one.
Red-eyed, their hair tousled, Meekison and his Saskatchewan counterpart, Howard Leeson, accepted the handshakes of most of the ministers as the entourage straggled down. Peckford gravitated immediately to a television camera and
told a live audience of “the proposals I worked out last night . . .” With no spark in his voice, Trudeau led off the final speeches: “We have a charter. It is not the charter.. . .” And, as if to call into question the spirit of the entire four days, he promised to be brief, “because I realize that we are all anxious to attend to other business.”
The turning point for Trudeau had been the meeting with Chrétien, when his pragmatic justice minister had made it clear that if he truly wanted to put his charter of human rights beyond the reach of political tampering he would have to risk losing it all in a referendum. “When you’ve gót a deal, it’s over,” Chrétien rationalized a day later. “You have certainty.”
It was, in the end, an uncomfortable compromise. Already some argue it was Canada at its best. Others say it was Canada at its worst. It was a legacy suited to a prime minister capable of coping with both.
With files from John Hay, Robert Lewis, Peter Carlyle-Gordge, Michael Clugston, Richard Doyen, Dale Eisler, Malcolm Gray, Thomas Hopkins, Randolph Joyce, Jane O'Hara, Bill Sass, David Thomas and Kennedy Wells.