An embarrassing week of leaks, with promise of bloodshed ahead
His truths and consequences
An embarrassing week of leaks, with promise of bloodshed ahead
It was one of the most ignominious moments Pierre Trudeau has ever endured in public. Caught in his own contradictions, he rose in the Commons last week and admitted to what he blandly called “lack of candor” in his earlier account of a crucial constitutional talk with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Inside 10 Downing Street last June, Trudeau now says, he told Thatcher he would push his plans for a new constitution with or without provincial consent; and he warned her that Quebec, for one, would likely oppose any patriation bill to be sought from Westminster. Right after that meeting, however, he told reporters the possibility of provincial dissent had never been raised. Explained Trudeau last week: “I put my customary brave front on by saying that the package was so good that the provinces would agree, that I was a Liberal, I was optimistic and I was confident that this whole thing would go through. This is what I told the press.” It was perhaps an understandable untruth for a prime minister then facing a summer of hard bargaining with the provinces. But the episode can only have aggravated Britain’s official discomfort at being low-
ered slowly but surely into Canada’s constitutional caldron.
Whitehall’s screams, in fact, could be heard in a week-long stream of leaks in London and Ottawa—all of which were joyfully exploited by Joe Clark and the Conservatives. The London leaks bore the usual marks of authorization from very high levels in the British government; those from Ottawa bespoke a Canadian unhappy with events. But their gist was similar in all cases: British cabinet members have grown increasingly worried that the resolution yet to be passed by the Canadian Parliament will prove awkwardly contentious in the British Parliament. Sir Anthony Kershaw, chairman of the British Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, made his case last week while visiting Edmonton on a trip financed by the city’s Chamber of Commerce. “It is clear that the role of the British Parliament is as guardian of the federal nature of the Canadian constitution,” said the Old Etonian. That is an argument that sticks in Trudeau’s craw and maybe other Canadians’. “It is not for the Brit-
ish frontor back-benchers to judge whether what the Canadian government and Parliament is doing is right or not,” declared the PM. “It is for the Canadian people to judge what we are doing.”
Whetted by Trudeau’s confession of non-candor, the Tories lunged for more: did Ottawa mislead the British to think the constitutional package would not contain a charter of rights? Did Francis Pym, now Thatcher’s House leader, tell Ottawa that Westminster won’t handle the Canadian bill until it has been upheld in the Supreme Court of Canada? Trudeau’s reply to both: no, although Pym did tell Canadian ministers that the court cases add to the “appalling difficulties” the issue raises at Westminster. Throughout, Trudeau and his ministers have insisted that Thatcher shares their view of the constitutional necessities: that the British government must receive a joint resolution of the Canadian Parliament and move it through its own Parliament without asking whether the provinces support it.
The week’s oddest event began when New Democrat MP Ian Waddell complained that, though a lawyer, he “was shocked” to be lobbied by Britain’s high commissioner in Ottawa, Sir John Ford. External Affairs Minister Mark MacGuigan told the House he had heard the same stories, which flushed Sir John into a news conference. In a manner either elegant or supercilious, Sir John said he had merely acquainted Waddell with the facts: “It would be a very great mistake to assume the British Parliament would immediately do exactly what they were asked to do” by the Canadian Parliament. Despite Thatcher’s majority in Parliament, she could not guarantee passage of a bill. It was a tutorial that did not impress Justice Minister Jean Chrétien: “The age of being taught from England is passed.” Dismissing British back-benchers as busybodies, Chretien asserted: “They have to pass it—it’s as simple as that.” Meanwhile, last-try constitutional bargaining between Ottawa and Regina
was petering out. Keen for support from at least one western premier, Trudeau had already agreed to changes wanted by Saskatchewan’s Allan Blakeney and tendered by New Democrat Ed Broadbent. Passed last week by the constitution committee, those give provinces power to levy indirect taxes on, and manage, resources, and give them some say over interprovincial trade in resources. But Blakeney was holding out for more: some share in the overriding federal control of international trade, and a scheme permitting a number of provinces to trigger a referendum to amend the constitution in the future—a power that resolution limits to the feds. A secret meeting in Toronto between Energy Minister Marc Lalonde and Saskatchewan Attorney-General Roy Romanow offered enough hope for Romanow, his deputy and a senior federal official to fly to Honolulu Jan. 25 to put a compromise to Blakeney, who was drawn from his out-island vacation.The premier remained dissatisfied but gave no final answer. By the end of that week Trudeau was disgusted: “Blakeney—he never knows. He never will know,” the PM muttered. The deal was off. NDPers
said Blakeney had to heed western resentment of the Trudeau plan; one federal official bitterly concluded that “the premier lost his nerve.”
Almost unnoticed during all that was the exhausting progress of the constitution committee, which was to report its amended resolution back to the Commons and Senate this week. Even before starting clause-by-clause study of the package last month, the members had officially clocked 93 hours, 10 minutes and four seconds hearing witnesses since Nov. 17. It was not fruitless—the government itself brought in about 50 amendments, though it rejected even more from the opposition. Among the changes: aboriginal rights were affirmed for the first time; wording in the charter of rights was tightened in line with recommendations from various rights groups; and New Brunswick’s status as a bilingual province like Manitoba and Quebec was entrenched. The government hung back from imposing French-language rights on the courts and legislature of Ontario because Pre-
mier William Davis objected; instead, what Tory MP David Crombie calls “the waiting chair amendment” was adopted, permitting any province to make itself bilingual. To secure Senate support, Chrétien restored its veto over future constitutional amendments—a “cynical sellout,” said New Democrat Svend Robinson. Having lost a 3 to 2 decision in the Manitoba Court of Appeal, the provinces challenging Ottawa will be contesting the package in the Supreme Court. But it will undergo fierce pummelling in Parliament first, then go to Westminster, where Kershaw predicts bloody debate. By rights, if this is a mature country, any blood to be spilled should be spilled in Ottawa, not London.
With files from Dale Eisler in Regina, Wayne Skene in Edmonton and Ian Mather in London.
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