The Canadian Constitution 30 years later

Charter of Rights and Freedom
Trudeau constitution
Prime Minister Trudeau & Queen Elisabeth

With the 30th anniversary of the enactment of the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution this week, we will all be subjected to an endless stream of media blather about the importance of this milestone in Canadian history (but not from the Harper government?!). And rightly so. As anyone who reads my weekly column can attest, I am as much a fan of this amazing document that guarantees our rights and freedoms as the next man. Seeing that, her majesty’s loyal opposition is faced with an onslaught of anti-constitutional measures from the bureaucracy of the Prime Minister’s office, it’s reassuring to know that the courts can and will challenge the power of the executive to transform this country into some sort of twisted ultra conservative version of its former awesome self.

But more interesting to constitutional law nerds, like me, is the untold story about what happened behind the scenes when the group of 8 premiers got together to hammer out a proposal. I say untold, because the actual events that led to the creation of our modern constitution, remain obscure to almost all of us, owing to a mixture of widely held misconceptions and historical revisionism from Pierre Trudeau and his right hand man, Jean Chretien, as well as the PQ premier (and secular saint) René Lévesque, who swore up and down, that he had been the victim of a conspiracy orchestrated by his provincial counterparts and his arch nemesis Trudeau.

There are two big myths surrounding the secretive negotiations between the premiers and the feds that took place in November of 1981:

1) The so called “night of long knives”(Nuit des couteaux longs)
2) The so called “kitchen accord

For anyone who doubts the soreness Quebecers (especially francophones) feel about never having ratified the 1982 constitution, I invite you to read the following quote, which I had the pleasure of hearing in person at last weekend’s constitutional conference in Montreal (Repatriment du constitution – 30 ans) which brought together a who’s who of legal and political scholars from various institutions, mostly from right here in la belle province.

Guy Laforest
Guy Laforest

At the final panel, esteemed political scientist from Laval University, Guy Laforest expressed the collective indignation of Quebec by accusing the group of 8 of, “Engaging in an operation that was a subtle, hypocritical, but nonetheless real, oppression of the society and people of Québec, by the state and the national majority of Canada (incidentally, this statement got the biggest applause of the night).”

Why so livid, you ask? Part of the answer, can be found in René Lévesque’s, then PQ premier, reaction to the events of November 4th. Lévesques maintained that during the night, the group of 7 premiers conspired with the federal government (Federal Justice Minister Jean Chretien, among others) to reach a deal that would deliberately exclude Quebec and then present them with a fait accompli. But that wasn’t Newfoundland Premier Brian Peckford’s recollection of that fateful night. To hear him tell it, not only was their no contact with Trudeau’s side, but every effort was made to contact Lévesque’s camp, though, for some mysterious reason, this failed. Jean Chretien’s alibi, for what it’s worth, seems to corroborate this. He claims that he was in bed with his wife (TMI) who can vouch for him, when the alleged betrayal of Lévesque was said to have occurred.

Kitchen Accord myth

If former PM Chretien is telling the truth about the conspiracy myth, it seems that he is being less than forthright when he claims the glory for having worked out the final version of the constitutional proposal in the ‘pantry’ (hence ‘kitchen accord’) of the Château Laurier hotel, the night before the deadline.

If tCharter of Rights and Freedomhere’s one thing that really boils the potatoes of the former Newfie Premier Peckford, who actually wrote much of the final proposal, it’s the notion that it was Trudeau’s gang that came up with it. He has made it his life’s work to set the record straight. It was he and three other premiers, as well as senior advisors from two other provincial delegations, who worked out the final proposal that would eventually become the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Though Quebec was not reached that night partly because their delegation insisted on staying in Hull, they had tried. The group didn’t bother contacting New Brunswick until the next day, but you won’t hear them crying foul over the outcome! There was apparently very little input from the feds in the finished product, let alone any communication with them the night they supposedly saved the day with their late night brainstorming. It seems that Chretien’s ego won’t allow him to admit that it was a relatively unknown Premier from the Rock who was the real hero in ‘82!

Correcting these myths might actually lead to the closure that this episode from our history desperately needs. Once we put the controversy of its birth to rest, perhaps then we can finally agree that the constitution itself and the rights it enshrines, are among the best the world has ever produced.

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