In 1968, shortly after he took office, Pierre Elliott Trudeau visited an ailing Louis St. Laurent in Quebec City. Trudeau found the former prime minister depressed by the rise of nationalism in Quebec and his failure to promote the rights of French Canadians; he thought the promise of Confederation remained unfulfilled. Trudeau resolved then that when he was in retirement, he would have no agonizing self-doubt.
Not that Trudeau needed to hear St. Laurent's lament. By 1968, having thought deeply about rights, law, language and federalism, he was committed to reimagining Canada to preserve it. Asked why he entered politics, he later said: "One to make sure that Quebec wouldn't leave Canada through separatism, and the other to make sure that Canada would not shove Quebec out through narrow-mindedness."
His solution was the Constitution. When he was younger, as an activist and essayist in Quebec, Trudeau had wanted to rewrite the British North America Act. Now, he was less ambitious. But let there be no mistake about the power of one man's will: Constitutional reform was his "magnificent obsession."
Trudeau would return again and again to the Constitution in more than a decade and a half as prime minister. He convened the premiers often from 1968 to 1979 to find an agreement that had eluded his predecessors since 1927. But it wasn't until he had returned to office in 1980, after a dramatic resurrection, that Trudeau would finally force the issue. If the first ministers could not agree, he would act alone. And so it was that he gathered the premiers in Ottawa in November, 1981, to try one last time to reach consensus on freeing the BNA Act from British trusteeship - an insulting vestige of colonialism - and bring it to Canada.
This is the prelude to The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada, the latest in the History of Canada Series. It is a spirited and judicious account of Trudeau's heroic struggle that reached its climax in those feverish days of autumn, "a pivotal moment in the evolution of the nation, the stuff of history and of myth … Canada's spiritual coming of age."
Ron Graham is an able chronicler of this epic tale of nation-building. One of the finest long-form journalists of his generation, he brings clarity and balance to a drama that has been cynically distorted by separatists and revisionists, principally by Brian Mulroney.
This is not the first account. Journalists Michael Valpy and Robert Sheppard told the story well in 1984 in their book The National Deal: The Fight for a Canadian Constitution, as has biographer John English. Graham's advantage here is the passage of time, archival documents, recent interviews and his tight focus on the train of events from the morning of Nov. 4 to the morning of Nov. 5. It is then that negotiations between Ottawa, Ontario, New Brunswick and the rest of the provinces ("the Gang of Eight") reached their climax. Out of this, after threats, cries and laments, they agreed to patriate the Constitution with an amending formula and Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For Canada, it was a watershed; some called it a constitutional revolution.
Graham takes us through the ups and downs of the talks, which nearly fell apart. He offers an engaging sense of the dramatis personae: the rumpled René Lévesque, the vacuous John Buchanan, the earnest Bill Davis, the cerebral Allan Blakeney, the likeable Peter Lougheed. While his work is not as textured as that of Valpy and Sheppard, Graham has an eye for the amusing anecdote, such as when an impatient Lévesque is feted at his hotel restaurant with an unwanted platter of moose meat, preceded with ceremonial candles and sparklers. To the solicitous chef, the premier barks: "Can you go faster? I'd like to see the 10 o'clock news."
While Lévesque dines, the provinces are meeting across the Ottawa River, cooking up a deal. This becomes known as the "Night of the Long Knives," in which Quebec was said to be isolated and betrayed and "left out of the Constitution" It was a canard.
So what do we learn here from Graham's masterful retelling?
The first is that whatever concessions Ottawa offered Quebec in this game, none would have been enough. The talks didn't matter. Although Lévesque and company had just lost the sovereignty referendum, they believed that if the constitutional project failed, it would demonstrate the futility of federalism.
The other is that without Trudeau, who stood like Horatius at the bridge, Canada's Constitution would still be in London. Only Trudeau, the strong man of Quebec, could have carried off this daunting enterprise and made the necessary concessions.
And as Graham tell us, the steely Trudeau did make compromises, beginning with including a "notwithstanding clause," which allows some rights to be overridden by provinces. Later, he regretted it.
In the end, though, there was a deal, and 30 years later, the Charter of Rights is the soul of our citizenship. The last act was the first in the remaking of Canada.
Andrew Cohen, the founding president of the Historica-Dominion Institute, is the co-editor of Trudeau's Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He is writing a book on the administration of John F. Kennedy.