Although Mrs. Thatcher visited Canada several times, she didn’t accompany the Queen (with whom she was said to share a coolness) for the signing of the constitutional documents with Mr. Trudeau in an outdoor ceremony on Parliament Hill on April 17, 1982.
As British prime minister, her presence, although symbolic, was not essential because the political dickering was over by then. The constitutional authority belonged to the Queen. She performed her role with dignity and grace, although she did allow herself a small laugh when Mr. Chrétien muttered “ merde ” when the nib of the pen he was using broke and blotted the Royal Proclamation.
But there were other reasons why Mrs. Thatcher remained in London. She was the leader of a country at war. Although insignificant compared with the battles waged by Churchill four decades earlier, Mrs. Thatcher roused her countrymen to a patriotic fervour with her defence of the Falkland Islands. Britain had established sovereignty over the archipelago in the South Atlantic in 1833.
Argentina, ruled by a military junta, invaded and occupied the islands lying off Patagonia on April 2, 1982. Britain dispatched an armada, including the aircraft carrier Invincible, to retake the islands.
The conflict, which lasted 74 days, ended with Argentina’s surrender on June 14 and the re-establishment of the islands as a British Overseas Territory.
The Canadian leader who had the most ideologically harmonious yet politically rancorous relationship with Mrs. Thatcher was Brian Mulroney, Progressive Conservative prime minister from 1984 to 1993. In a statement yesterday he described Mrs. Thatcher as a “giant,” called her “the most transformative leader of her country” since Churchill, and praised the “crucial role” she had played in the “successful navigation of the end of the Cold War.”
Describing her as “an inspiration” to a generation of leaders, he said that the “Britain she took charge of in 1979 was a country burdened with illness, social and economic. By the time of her departure more than a decade later, Britain was a confident winner again.”
On one subject, however, the Canadian and British leaders were worlds apart: how to deal with apartheid in South Africa. Mr. Mulroney was a very young politico when prime minister John Diefenbaker took a vocal stand against apartheid at the Commonwealth Conference in London in March, 1961. Within months, South Africa left the Commonwealth and began its sorry existence as a pariah state.
Galvanized by Mr. Diefenbaker’s example, Mr. Mulroney was determined to take up the cause when he became prime minister. In July, 1985, Canada announced a list of economic and political sanctions against South Africa.
At the Commonwealth Conference in Nassau that September, Mr. Mulroney took it upon himself to persuade Mrs. Thatcher to toughen not only her own government’s position against South Africa but to join with other Commonwealth leaders in denouncing apartheid.
Mrs. Thatcher loathed apartheid, as she made clear to Mr. Mulroney, but she also abhorred economic sanctions and refused to think they could be effective. Before the Commonwealth meetings adjourned, she reluctantly agreed that a group of “eminent persons” drawn from member countries should visit African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela in prison and try to engage in a dialogue with South African president P.W. Botha.
Mr. Mulroney kept up the pressure with a new round of Canadian sanctions in June, 1986. He also maintained his personal campaign to dissuade Mrs. Thatcher from her beliefs that sanctions were “immoral” and that Mr. Mandela was a terrorist and a communist.
Before the Commonwealth Conference hosted by Canada in Vancouver the following year, Mr. Mulroney decided to make a proposal to strike a Commonwealth Committee of foreign ministers, under the chairmanship of Joe Clark, his foreign affairs minister.
Mrs. Thatcher, resolute in her intransigence against sanctions, accused Canada of rank hypocrisy. By way of retort, an emboldened Mr. Mulroney closed the meetings, as he records in Memoirs 1939-1993 , by saying, “Almost unanimously, we came to the conclusion that sanctions do work, that they shall continue to be applied, that they must be applied more intensively. That is the message which, with the exception of Great Britain, we send out from Vancouver.”