Blaming Trudeau for our troubles

Peter C. Newman September 28 1992

Blaming Trudeau for our troubles

Peter C. Newman September 28 1992

Blaming Trudeau for our troubles


Pierre Trudeau’s rallying cry has been that Canada is probably finished as a viable country anyway. So let’s party.


If there is one voice that deserves to be heard in the current referendum debate, it’s that of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. No politician is more directly responsible for this country’s extended constitutional agony over the past decade.

It was Trudeau who realized his professorial dreams by patriating the British North America Act from London, where it had been quietly reposing in a dusty drawer for 113 years, when he mounted his 1980 constitutional initiative. In that process, it was Trudeau who cast in concrete most of the amending conditions, such as unanimity and the threeyear waiting period that killed Meech Lake two years ago, triggering the current constitutional crisis.

During Trudeau’s lengthy stewardship, his main priority was to bring home our constitution and create a “new Canada,” within which talented Quebecers could take their rightful place. Trying to remedy the then-subservient status of the French language and culture across the country was the main reason he had entered active politics in the first place. It was his most cherished entry point into the publicpolicy field, and he often expressed the belief that without a vibrant Quebec,“Canada wouldn’t have any heart and Canadian life would cease.”

His crusade to persuade Quebecers that their best chance of surviving as an autonomous society was through a firm alliance with the larger powers of the Canadian nation proved to be the toughest challenge of his political life. Almost as difficult was his task of trying to convince English Canada that Quebec should be granted special consideration, because much of his original 1968 support, especially in Western Canada, was based on the widespread notion that he was the guy who would “put Quebec in its place.”

“Language rights” was the instrument Trudeau used to open up the the rest of the country to Quebec. In 1969, he hammered through the Official Languages Act, which per-

mitted Quebecers to speak French with federal officials wherever they lived. He appointed francophones to every major economic portfolio and proved conclusively that they were at least no worse than their anglophone counterparts.

His 1970 crackdown on the FLQ fanned the fires of Quebec nationalism, and six years later, René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois triumphed over Robert Bourassa’s discredited Liberals to claim power. In the referendum that followed in 1980, the feds won a 60-per-cent to 40-percent victory—based mainly on Trudeau’s promise that he would renew federalism in a way that would recognize Quebec’s aspirations. Now at last, he would enshrine language rights and his famous Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The document would finally sever Canada’s umbilical cord with Mother Britain.

It did. Through a series of intricate manoeuvres, Trudeau obtained the blessing of every province except Quebec, though in the process he had to agree to fatally weaken his own Charter by allowing fundamental rights to be suspended by the invoking of a “notwithstanding” clause. On April 17, 1982, in an elaborate ceremony on Parliament Hill, the Queen confirmed Canada’s status as a nation that was at

last fully independent But Quebec was still outside the loop.

When Brian Mulroney came along, he had no choice but to pledge that he would close the gap and “bring Quebec back into Canada’s constitutional family.” That proved to be the most frustrating aspect of the Tory mandate, splitting the country’s electorate and wasting the time and energy that might have gone into more useful pursuits.

At every step of the tortuous way, Mulrone/s constitutional initiatives have been sabotaged by the burden of his predecessor. Trudeau’s reaction has never wavered: instead of helping to bring about the nationwide constitution he himself promised, he has done his best to sabotage both the first and second versions of the Meech Lake accord. His attitude was expressed most succinctly during a March 30, 1988, Senate committee appearance, when he gave one of his magnificent shrugs and confessed: “I think we have to realize that Canada is not immortal; that if it is going to go, let it go with a bang not a whimper.” That has been his rallying cry—that Canada is probably finished as a viable country anyway. So let’s party.

Although he keeps attacking Meech’s distinct-society provisions, Trudeau did in fact agree to include in the Constitution’s preamble a reference to “the distinct character of Quebec society, centred in, though not confined to Quebec.” In 1979, he offered to allow the premiers to veto Parliament’s authority to launch programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction—a move that went well beyond the shared-cost arrangements in either the original Meech Lake arrangement or the current version of the deal.

Trudeau has been able to get away with his concerted attacks on the various initiatives undertaken since he left office, despite the fact that they have not been that radically different from what he offered. But these recent proposals have contained all of the constitutional changes in one hefty package, whereas Trudeau’s remarkably similar suggestions were dispersed among the many constitutional conferences he chaired while prime minister.

Probably his most harmful legacy was entrenchment of the “notwithstanding” clause, which allowed Bourassa to implement his 1988 language bill that caused so much understandable bitterness in English Canada. He later admitted that “the Charter is fundamentally flawed because of the override clause.”

Politics in Canada has always been the art of making the necessary possible. But that process requires for its success a political leader who can mix his genuine gift to inspire with a creative urge to heal. Trudeau always exercised much more of the former than the latter.

This is a time, if there ever was one, to forget partisan politics and to forego retroactive justification for former political mistakes. I only wish that a man with Trudeau’s shimmering intellect and gritty sense of resolution would cast his lot with Canada’s future instead of its past

Pierre Trudeau should be on the ramparts in this ultimate battle for the nation’s soul. He should be making history that’s fresh and inspiring, instead of trying to justify past struggles.