When Pierre Trudeau initiated efforts to patriate the Constitution in 1980, he had no stronger ally than William Davis, the premier of Ontario. The two men had stood side by side on most national unity issues during Davis’s 14-year reign, which ended in 1985.
Since then, Davis, 63, has practised law with a blue-ribbon Bay Street firm and has spoken only infrequently on public issues. But in this essay, written for Maclean’s, Davis spells out in detail his reasons for believing that Canadians should vote “yes” in the Oct. 26 referendum—and breaks his alliance with Trudeau. The result: an impassioned plea to build a new Canada, based on the Charlottetown accord.
When Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada, federalism as we know it went through a great period of challenge. While we agreed on many things and did so despite our partisan differences, I was always troubled by his dismissive sense with respect to Quebec’s legitimate aspirations.
And for many in the West, the imposition of the National Energy Program in 1980 represented a significantly unfair use of central power to strip taxpayers of legitimate rights to benefits from resources. True or not, this perception produced a measure of enmity and bad blood which persists in a viral form today.
It was cold comfort to many in the West at the time that responsible business and political forces elsewhere in the country, including Quebec, felt uncomfortable. Yet, I put differences aside to work with the then-Prime Minister, for whom I retain some affection yet, to patriate the Constitution.
It is true that between 1968 and 1979 the growth of separatism in Quebec and concurrent enmity in the West was at its peak. Trudeau’s approach was a marked departure from the commitment to co-operative federalism of his Liberal predecessor, Prime Minister Lester Pearson. In some respects, it also differed from the approach of all prime ministers before and all prime ministers since.
Flawed: I participated in the 1981-1982 patriation exercise and agreed with the conclusion. But I also agreed that the constitutional arrangement was fundamentally flawed without Quebec’s endorsement and that serious efforts to obtain that would have to be undertaken as soon as a federalist government was elected in Quebec.
The election of the [Robert] Bourassa government in 1985 and the negotiation of the Meech Lake accord could have resolved matters in 1987.1 was dismayed that Trudeau and his followers said “no” to Meech just as today they say “no” to the Charlottetown agreement. While I approve of many elements of the 1982 agreement such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I do not believe that the 1982 agreement is perfect as it stands. Nor do I believe that the subsequent climate of serenity (exhaustion?) would have prevailed forever, had not Prime Minister Brian Mulroney been elected in 1984 and stirred up the pot.
This questionable revisionism advanced by Trudeau is contradicted by statements by his two closest advisers: On Sept. 26, 1983, Michael Pitfield, former clerk of the Privy | Council, subsequently appointed to the Senate by Trudeau, g told The Globe and Mail: “We won the referendum, we said f we would give Quebec a new deal and we have not delivered a 8 new deal. If we don’t move soon, they’re going to reconsoli£ date into a nationalist vein.”
And on Dec. 4, 1984, Jean Chrétien, Trudeau’s former justice minister, told Le Devoir that “The new Conservative
Those who would reach out today to embrace a new tomorrow should not be discouraged by the prejudices of the past
prime minister has a unique opportunity to succeed there where Trudeau failed.”
Chrétien spoke of “the historic opportunity presently offered to Mulroney to correct the grievances for which Quebec will always blame Ottawa if they are not dealt with,” and Chrétien urged the Prime Minister “to attack [this problem] now.”
My ministers and I were proud to work with Trudeau in 1982 and with Chrétien. Chrétien’s support of the Charlottetown agreement is a tribute to his own commitment to Canada. In fact, Pitfield and Chrétien were right then, as Mulroney was right both with Meech and the Charlottetown agreement.
I certainly hope that Trudeau will not always be unable to endorse his successor’s achievements.
The old kitchen-table battles in Quebec between nationalists and Liberal intelligentsia may still form the prism
through which some see the present constitutional opportunity. For me and for hundreds of thousands of people in Ontario and the West, the real issues are more pragmatic in one sense and more global in another. Pragmatic because they afford us an opportunity, finally, to redress historic problems with the structure of federalism by ensuring the West not only equal representation in the Senate, but a Senate that will have real influence and real power (because it is elected) in a fashion that has not been the case since the beginning of Confederation.
It is pragmatic because it allows us to work together on important priorities like economic union and aboriginal self-government with a clear statement of principle and commitment that remains fundamental to the economic best interests of every Canadian.
Distinct: The more global part of the present opportunity for us is the ability to reach out and embrace the legitimate aspirations of our fellow citizens in Quebec in a fashion that recognizes their important role, their distinct role in protecting the French language and culture within the Canadian family here on the North American continent.
The present Charlottetown agreement is a historic step ahead for people of all affiliations across Canada who believe in a society that is open, socially just, free, entrepreneurial and based on a genuine effort at sharing responsibility in a balanced and reasonable democracy.
This does represent a view of the country not advanced when Trudeau was prime minister. He has the right to his view as did his generation of Liberals. Those Liberals, New Democrats, Conservatives and others who now serve in elective office, and those whom they represent, also have the right to their view, a view more contemporary and responsive to the real exigencies of national unity, fairness and co-operative federalism in today’s Canada.
Everyone in public life, including former prime ministers and former premiers, must at some point be prepared to set aside pride of authorship.
What is most important is that those who would reach out today to
I was always troubled by Trudeau’s dismissive sense with respect to Quebec’s legitimate aspirations
embrace a new tomorrow and shape a fresh beginning not be discouraged by the prejudices of the past, the biases of a different approach, which while legitimate in the broad context of open and democratic debate, cannot but represent a smaller view of Canada, a colonial view of the West and a condescending view in the extreme of the legitimate cultural concerns of the people of Quebec.
Faith, common trust, co-operation, open-mindedness and conciliation—these are the instruments of national reconstruction and preservation for all Canadians of the highest quality of life in the world.
Intellectual intolerance is a relic of a different time, a different place; it has as little to do with meeting legitimate concerns as it does with the genuine prospects and opportunities for Canadians as a whole.
A “yes” decision is more important than ever.
“Yes” would be a signal to investors, to the consumer, to the international financial community, to Canadians at home and abroad that we have reached that level of maturity that has eluded us in the past—and that the future within the context of a broad Canadian federation is assured.
The cost of “no”? Well, who knows.
At the very least a vote for “no” could mean economic uncertainty, foreign exchange difficulties, a continuing sidelining of the economic agenda that all Canadians want to see their governments attack with fervor and commitment, a dilution of our national will and a clear and troubling signal to the world that as a nation we have not gotten our act together.
A “no” vote would be a signal to people abroad and a signal to Canadians at home. A signal to our children. A very weak basis indeed upon which to build our future.
Theoretical arguments have their place in any democracy and should not be treated with disrespect. But the stakes this time are very high. Canadians across the country must not allow the biases of a long-gone era to sideline the main chance we now all share. □
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