The Fight of a Lifetime

The Constitution started with Quebec and ended with Canada

Robert Sheppard October 9 2000

The Fight of a Lifetime

The Constitution started with Quebec and ended with Canada

Robert Sheppard October 9 2000
It was the fight of his life, the upshot of what one biographer would later call Pierre Trudeau’s “magnificent obsession.” But to achieve what he did in the spring of 1982—patriation of the Constitution from Britain after 51 years of fruitless attempts, and with a wide-ranging Charter of Rights and Freedoms that entrenched his cherished goal of linguistic guarantees for French and English-Canadians—required something more than obsession. It took political ruthlessness, a willingness to turn the country almost on its ear.

Was this all about Quebec? Well, yes—and no. It started that way, of course. Trudeau was, after all, a product of the political and intellectual ferment there in the late 1950s and early 1960s, an upheaval that divided Quebec’s best and brightest into bitterly opposed camps. Although he was an eager participant in some of the early causes, such as the wrenching strikes of asbestos and Radio-Canada workers, Trudeau would have no truck with the nationalists of Quebec. He saw Quebec nationalism, as he did Maurice Duplessis’s repressive postwar regime, as backward and valuing the state above the individual. For Trudeau—“Citizen of the world,” said the badge he tacked to his door at Harvard in 1945—this was definitely not the road to be traveled. What he wanted was a Canada and a Quebec constructed more in his own image: bilingual and bicultural, and above all else, with the freedom to choose. For Trudeau, language was a right, like free speech and individual choice—one of the “counterweights,” as he called them in his early essays, to the power of the state.

Achieving these objectives would not be easy. And for Trudeau, his combative personality would set the tone. He was, after all, the rookie justice minister in Lester Pearson’s government who made his mark by knocking heads publicly with Quebec premier Daniel Johnson in early 1968 at a federal-provincial conference. He was the fledgling Liberal leader who won the country’s respect later that year by sitting, unflinching, in the review stand of Montreal’s St-Jean Baptiste Day parade while bottles thrown by separatist supporters shattered around him. He was the prime minister who invoked the War Measures Act in 1970 and refused to negotiate with terrorists—the strongman who kept his head while others panicked.

By the time of the first Quebec referendum on sovereignty in May, 1980, the Trudeau legend—French Power in Ottawa, standing up to nationalists in Quebec—was complete. For the first time, the country had a French-Canadian prime minister who was enormously popular in his home province (the federal Liberals had just won 74 of 75 seats in the 1980 election and would go on to win the referendum campaign three months later by 60 per cent to 40 per cent) and willing to take on a Quebec government in a high-stakes game of political poker. Five prime ministers before him had tried and failed to budge the stone sled of constitutional reform. Trudeau himself had spent the best part of 12 years trying to cajole agreement from the provinces. And now he was facing growing demands for more powers from the West, where burgeoning oil revenues were also fueling provincial ambitions.

Trudeau’s home province had consistently refused to accept patriation, let alone linguistic guarantees that might affect education (a provincial jurisdiction) until its demands for greater autonomy were met. And language was proving to be a flash point. Language riots in the suburbs of Montreal contributed hugely to Bourassa’s defeat by René Lévesque in 1976, and led directly to the Parti Québécois’ Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language and the antithesis of everything Trudeau held sacred. And in Lévesque, Trudeau would confront a leader who was not only a fierce adversary but one who represented the nationalist flip side of the Québécois coin.

The two men could not have been more different. Judging by his electoral success in the province, Trudeau was widely admired. He was the man who could dance on the broader Canadian and world stages and allow Quebecers to bask in his cosmopolitan glory. But Lévesque was the one they loved. A rumpled, rubber ball of a man, a former war correspondent who came to host one of the most popular TV shows in the province, Lévesque was just as engaging as Trudeau. But he also seemed to embody all of the sometimes frustrating, sometimes endearing insecurities of a people struggling to find their place in the sea of Anglo North America.

The two men had been butting heads since the early 1960s, when Lévesque was a popular, reform-minded minister in Jean Lesage’s Liberal government and Trudeau a sardonic law professor and a member of Lévesques informal circle of advisers. Lévesque was one of only a handful of prominent Quebecers who opposed Trudeau’s implementation of the War Measures Act. He paid a price for it at the polls three years later when his upstart PQ was nearly wiped out by Bourassa’s Liberals. But by 1979, when Joe Clark’s Tories surprised the federal Liberals and won a minority government, Lévesque thought he would have the last laugh. With Trudeau sidelined, Lévesque called his long-awaited referendum on sovereignty-association for the spring of 1980. But Clark’s government self-destructed after only nine months in power, allowing Trudeau’s Liberals to come roaring back with the enthusiasm of the born-again.

In typical Trudeau fashion, he took the referendum battle right to the enemy’s heartland, the Paul Sauvé Arena in east-end Montreal, where Lévesque had celebrated his 1976 election victory, and pledged to change the constitutional order to accommodate Quebec. “Even I was impressed at the time,” allowed the PQ’s veteran strategist Claude Morin. But this was to be more than a strict Quebec-Ottawa round. The rejuvenated Liberal government took on the West and the growing autonomy of premiers like Alberta’s Peter Lougheed by creating the despised National Energy Program. It cut back on transfer payments to the provinces—to howls of protest. Trudeau also hinted that, in the area of constitutional reform, Ottawa might go it alone. And after a desultory meeting of first ministers in September, 1980, he made good on his threat to try to patriate the Constitution unilaterally with a charter of rights—including the minority language rights that were certain to antagonize the West.

Two decades later, it is difficult to recall the intensity of that period. But for nearly 18 long months, from the emotion-ridden sovereignty referendum to the patriation agreement in November, 1981—with an angry Quebec on the sidelines—the battle raged with a fierceness that only the fight over conscription in 1942 and, later, free trade in 1988, would match. Court challenges were mounted. Only two provinces, Ontario and New Brunswick, backed Ottawa’s initiative. The charter of rights was created by a special parliamentary committee—the first to have its hearings televised—in an extraordinary conclave of one-up-manship and partisan bickering. By the time the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on the legality of the unilateral initiative— it was legal, the court found, but broke with convention, a serious rebuke to Trudeau—the country was exhausted. Only Trudeau seemed calm as he convened what he called “the one last time” constitutional conference for Nov. 2, 1981. It almost lived up to its billing.

For three days, the two sides offered up only half-hearted compromises. The dissident premiers in the so-called Gang of Eight provinces showed some cracks—Saskatchewan’s Allan Blakeney, especially, tried to hold out an olive branch to Trudeau. But the coalition seemed to be holding. In fact, on the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 4, after the third day of steadily deteriorating talks, Lévesque sat in his Hull, Que., hotel room, sipping cognac with close colleagues, confident that he had beaten back all the federal initiatives.

Little did Lévesque know that across the river in Ottawa’s Château Laurier Hotel the three most westerly provinces and Newfoundland were cobbling together one final offer. Nor did he realize that, earlier in the day, his flirtation with Trudeau’s suggestion of a referendum to decide the fate of the charter had driven a wedge through the dissident coalition. The premiers were fighting arrogance and abuse of process—but did not want to take on the popular charter of rights. The next morning, Lévesque came face-to-face with the sweaty opportunism of Canadian politics—and with the slightly messy reality that was to become Pierre Trudeau’s Canada. “We have a new proposal, René,” Newfoundland’s Brian Peckford announced laconically at the regular breakfast meeting of the Gang of Eight. “It’s there by your plate.”

It is tempting to say that the formal arrangement reached later that day was a classic Canadian compromise. The dissident provinces, with the exception of Quebec, would accept Trudeau’s charter of rights (with a few modifications). Trudeau, in turn, would incorporate their preferred amending formula. But that interpretation would not take into account Trudeau’s exercise of an enormous amount of raw prime ministerial willpower. He outfoxed Lévesque by challenging him mano a mano, playing on their long-standing rivalry. He out-manoeuvred the West by daring its premiers to be the populists they claimed they were and accept the Charter of Rights and freedoms, language guarantees and all, on the grounds that it reflected the desires of the people. And he left a legacy that is still being debated.

Quebec’s anger at being left behind by its allies—“It’s the Canadian way,” Lévesque hissed that fateful morning, “to abandon Quebec at the moment of crisis”—has reverberated through the decades: Meech Lake, the Charlottetown accord, Lucien Bouchard’s sovereignty referendum of 1995. The West’s appetite for reform, and its resolve to never again be taken for granted, is unabated. Add to those the welter of new charter-inspired rights and challenges that Canadian courts are constantly grappling with. All of these are part of Trudeau’s legacy. They may not have been the counterweights he once wrote about with such enthusiasm. But they have become the true counterweights in the Canada of today, competing passions that propel a society forward and keep it in check at the same time, passions that he fanned with so much style and perhaps even purpose.

No time for ‘weak-kneed people’

Just after 8 o’clock on Monday, Oct. 5, 1970, a brilliant fall morning in Montreal, four members of the so-called Liberation Cell of the front de libération du Québec abducted British trade commissioner James Cross from his home. In exchange for Cross’s release, the men made seven demands, among them: $500,000 in gold bullion and the release of 23 “political prisoners”—fellow FLQ members in jail for terrorist acts. This was to be the first real test of Canada’s new prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, at 50, just two years on the job, and, equally important, of his 37-year-old Quebec counterpart, Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa. The Quebec government wanted to appease the kidnappers by releasing at least some prisoners, but Trudeau convinced Bourassa to offer only safe passage out of the country. Within an hour of the announcement of that offer, on Saturday Oct. 10, provincial labor minister Pierre Laporte was kidnapped while playing touch football outside his home on Montreal’s South Shore by members of another FLQ cell.

The kidnappings sparked the implementation of the federal War Measures Act, which sent the police and army into the streets of Montreal to arrest, interrogate and detain more than 400 separatist sympathizers. Two days after its proclamation, Laporte was dead, strangled with his own gold neck chain and stuffed into the trunk of an old car. His murder sparked revulsion against political terrorism in Quebec and across the country. Laporte’s murderers were eventually found and convicted. Cross’s abductors gave up in December, releasing him and going into exile in Cuba and later France; some of them eventually returned to Quebec. The October Crisis transformed Pierre Trudeau, cementing his reputation for all time as a tough leader who would not back down. “All I can say is, ‘go on and bleed,’ ” he told a CBC reporter in a famous interview on Parliament Hill in the midst of the crisis. “But it is more important to keep law and order in society than to be worried about weak-kneed people.”—R.S.


‘I am trying to put Quebec in its place—and the place of Quebec is in Canada’Trudeau, in Montreal on June 24,1968, the day before winning his first majority

The Canadian whole is more than the sum of its provinces’Trudeau, to a Senate-Commons committee studying the Meech bake accord, Aug. 27,1987

‘In Quebec, people are moved too often by passion and too little by intelligence’Trudeau, in the late 1950s