COVER

REBIRTH OF A NATION

Robert Lewis April 26 1982
COVER

REBIRTH OF A NATION

Robert Lewis April 26 1982

The Queen called it “a defiant challenge to history.” Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau described it as “an act of defiance against the history of mankind.” For all that, Saturday, April 17, was a quintessentially Canadian day. There was poetry and pageantry, pride and patriotism, political potshots and petty patronage. Comedian Dave Broadfoot, in a refreshingly rare irreverency, observed that while Australia was built by former prisoners, “the men who colonized our country never got caught.” True to tradition, there were no shots fired in anger-only the 21-gun salute to a sovereign who reigned over the whole parade, even as the heavens opened at the magic hour. But despite downpour and disclaimers, after 115 fractious years, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II could fairly proclaim that the Constitution “is truly Canadian at last.”

It also was assailed and besmirched, which seemed inevitable, if hardly fitting. The government of Quebec denounced a process in which, said Vice-Premier Jacques-Yvan Morin, “we are being royally screwed.” Trudeau responded to the joust in French from the platform on Parliament Hill: “By definition, the silent majority does not make a lot of noise; it is content to make history.”

But Trudeau could have no answer for the gods. As he sat down with the Queen to sign the proclamation at 11:35 a.m. (EST) Saturday, the first drops of an eventual downpour spattered the hand-lettered parchment crafted from Manitoba flax. Errant droplets smudged the Queen’s red-lettered introductory protocol greeting and the black Mont Blanc ink signature of André Ouellet, the trouble-prone registrar general who affixed the Great Seal of Canada. Instead of a quick trip to the printer and distribution across the nation, the proclamation was dried out during the weekend under the watchful eye of calligrapher John Whitehead.

For 11-year-old Carmen Caloia, a Wolf Cub from Our Lady of Fatima’s 47th Pack, there was only a theory: “Maybe God didn’t want her to sign.”

And how Trudeau did. “After 50 years of discussion,” he said proudly, “we have finally decided to retrieve what is properly ours.” It is an imposing basket now legalized by a document called “these Presents.” The dominant item of the new Constitution Act 1982 is Trudeau’s treasured Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. U.S. President Ronald Reagan last week appropriately saluted Canada’s “common dedication to the principles of individual liberty.” Starting this week, the charter will launch the nation on an American-style pursuit of rights in the courts. 

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Among whereases and notwithstandings in the rest of the 60-section act, there are seeds for flowers—and for weeds. An amending formula that eluded politicians nine times since 1927 now permits constitutional changes in Canada with the approval of Parliament and seven provinces, representing 50 per cent of the population. But up to three legislatures can opt out, producing a scenario for the checkerboard Canada that Trudeau once lamented.

The upper house loses one, the provinces win two. Gone is the Senate’s veto over future constitutional amendments, conceivably even including one that would decree its own abolition. But for premiers, the principle of federal equalization payments is guaranteed and the power to manage resources is strengthened. For history-making symbolism, the act became official in English and French for the first time at one second after midnight last Saturday. And, conveniently for Trudeau, all of the signatures on the document, other than Elizabeth’s of course, were affixed by French-Canadians.

As Trudeau stressed last week, “the process of constitutional reform has not come to an end.” The new act, for example, guarantees that yet another federal-provincial conference must be held within 12 months to deal with native rights. Indian, Inuit and Métis leaders felt betrayed by the clause that entrenches “existing aboriginal and treaty rights” on the grounds that it sounded suspiciously like a further erosion of their claims to land and valuable resources. As a result, native people were strikingly absent from the patriation ritual. Instead, they staged protests around the country.

Walking elegantly through the fray was Elizabeth II, a 55-year-old veteran of 30 years on the throne, making her 10th visit to Canada. Adoring crowds pressed forward with bouquets during her 20-minute walkabout on Parliament Hill. There were shouts of, “Way to go, Bess,” and, “Yea, Queenie.” Even battle-scarred reporters, not a few republicans among them, lapsed into exuberance during a pre-patriation party for the press.

The Queen allowed that she was “sad” that Quebec was out of the deal. She professed puzzlement about Canada’s chronic inability to come to terms with constitutional change—a Cormmonwealth exception in that the power of amendment has resided with the British Parliament since the Statute of Westminster in 1931. With a whimsical gleam, the Queen noted that whenever she met Canadian sailors, inevitably they were from the Prairies—as if to suggest a yearning for the high seas.

Sailing ships were much on her mind as her second son, Prince Andrew, continued toward an unknown fate in the Falklands aboard the aircraft carrier Invincible. In one of the minor ironies that besets even royalty, Andrew had just finished Arctic manoeuvres when the voyage into wintry south Atlantic seas forced the crew to unpack their cold-weather gear again.

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, arrived a day after his wife and, presenting awards in his name to 100 outdoorsy youths, he plunged into a theme close to Trudeau’s heart: “There comes a point in everyone’s life when people make their own decisions.” Stressing interdependence, the Duke went on: “This idea that you can do your own thing and ‘the hell with the rest of the community’—that doesn’t work.” Later, when an inquiring reporter confessed that she felt “a bit like a bird of prey” in his presence, the Duke retorted, “Surely not any more than usual.”

With his party at a five-year low in the latest Gallup Poll, Trudeau wisely opted to float in Britannia’s wake. But during a private chat with Toronto Liberal friends before the televised command gala Friday night, the PM was in a chipper, self-confident mood. When Toronto businessman Johnny Lombardi remarked that he was looking fit, Trudeau tugged at his tuxedo lapels and quipped, “Well, it’s not the suit.” When Lombardi commented on the PM’s constitutional coup, Trudeau replied, “I don’t know what I’ll do for next year.”

Conceivably, despite protestations to the contrary, it may be a swan song. The conviction that they cannot win again with Trudeau as leader pervaded the Liberal legions invited to Ottawa for various patriation-patronage bashes. At the same time, party elders from east and west report that, largely, the Constitution generates indifference among people oppressed by high inflation and interest rates. In contrast, Trudeau can reflect on the realization of a lifelong dream. “He stuck with it when many others would have quit,” said former NDP leader Tommy Douglas in a rare Opposition tribute. “Today the Canadian people owe him a real debt of gratitude for what he’s done.”

Photo Gallery: Queen Elizabeth II: 23 visits to Canada in 23 photos

Trudeau, of course, had plenty of help—from Jean Chrétien and Jean Wadds to women and the handicapped. Joe Clark forced the issue out into the open and, before the television cameras, citizens of all stripes made their pitch for a stronger charter. The Supreme Court—the nine justices sat out proclamation because they will hear Quebec’s challenge in June—sent Trudeau back to the bargaining table.

Whether proclamation is “a fresh beginning,” as Trudeau asserted Saturday, remains to be seen. Beyond court challenges and political warfare in Quebec, the question of whether the act will really become an agent for positive change remains.

At Woodroffe Public School in Ottawa last week, there seemed little doubt. Principal Dick Zadow handed out government-supplied flags and decals, and 400 kids sang O Canada in both official languages before plunging gleefully into an oversized cake with a frosted maple leaf. Wow, rejoiced one Grade 6 student, we are free. At École Pierre Laporte in Trudeau’s own Mount Royal riding that day, it was a different tale. “There’s nothing happening,” said Vice-Principal Gerald Janelle. “It’s not St. Jean Baptiste Day.”

The gulf between the Woodroffe and Laporte schools is the kind of regrettable dichotomy between founding peoples that first drew Trudeau to Ottawa in 1965. He saw a new constitution as the vehicle that would transport English and French to a new state of harmony and mutual respect. With the Constitution now in force, the true test of the vision will not come in the courts but in the hearts and minds of men and women who are boys and girls today. The two solitudes, alas, were entrenched too long ago to be bridged by words on parchment.