As we mark the 30th anniversary of the patriation of the Constitution and the advent of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, much is being overlooked. With respect to people’s rights and jurisprudence, patriation was a seminal event. It was a seminal event in other, less salubrious respects, as well.
With its exclusion of Quebec, the patriation exercise set in motion a fracturing of the country’s unity that endured for more than a dozen years. The clash triggered by the so-called night of the long knives led, in turn, to the Meech Lake accord. And it led to the stardom of Lucien Bouchard, the creation of the Bloc Québécois and, ultimately, the 1995 referendum.
The fallout from the unity wrangles resulted in the crumbling of Brian Mulroney’s Tories in Quebec. The Liberals were also stung as Meech Lake occasioned bitter divisions between the John Turner/Paul Martin forces on one side and the Pierre Trudeau/Jean Chrétien school on the other.
Connecting the dots, it could be argued that the separatists’ surge brought on by their exaggeration and exploitation of developments created the climate for federalist excesses in the form of the sponsorship program and the resulting scandal.
The trigger to the aftershocks was Mr. Mulroney’s decision to reverse course and begin plotting to get Quebec’s signature on the Constitution document. He had been initially supportive of the Trudeau/Chrétien initiative but then chose to side with Quebec nationalists, charging that the province had been ostracized.
At first, the strategy paid dividends, helping his Tories – at that point, phantoms in Quebec – capture 58 seats in the province in the 1984 election. In keeping with his vow to get Quebec signed on, he brought Mr. Bouchard and other quasi-sovereigntists onto his Tory team and negotiated the Meech Lake deal.
In the NDP, meanwhile, Ed Broadbent’s support for patriation had brought on a degree of defiance, led by Saskatchewan members, that came close to ousting him. The party backed Meech Lake but was still far from unified.
With the failure of Meech Lake, Mr. Bouchard bolted the Mulroney Tories in 1990 to form the Bloc. In apocalyptic terms, he repeatedly invoked the night of the long knives and Meech Lake as representing the ultimate betrayal of Quebec. In the 1993 election, the Bloc won 54 seats and became the Official Opposition. Mr. Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau then used the same rhetorical weapons, lifting self-pity and grievance to the fevered heights of Greek tragedy, to come within a whisker of winning the 1995 referendum.
Mr. Chrétien, shaken by the referendum trauma and facing a strong challenge from separatists in his own riding, resorted to countermeasures, and that led to the advertising scandal. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were miles behind the Liberals in the polls. Overnight, they became a contender.
The fallout from 1982 – all that time and energy sucked up by unity wrangles – is all the more distressing when we consider that the night of the long knives was largely fiction. Parti Québécois leader René Lévesque could have been part of the deal-making had he chosen to. But his aim was independence, not a unity agreement. It was no surprise that he’d walk away. As Mr. Bouchard himself would write, a party that had tried to destroy Canada held little credibility in negotiating a unity pact.
Mr. Trudeau’s hands were hardly clean, either. He had pledged in the 1980 referendum to bring about a new deal for Quebec. But special standing for the province was never his intent. Not long before, he had rejected the Pépin-Robarts task force report calling for sweeping reforms to recognize Quebec’s distinct qualities.
The patriation of the Constitution and the introduction of the Charter were landmark moments. But great things often come with big costs. Testimony to it are the scars left by the unity wars, the deep wounds inflicted on the old Tories and Liberals, and the destabilizing of this country for so long a period.
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