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The eight dissenting premiers who disagree with Prime Minister Trudeau's constitutional package sit for breakfast in Ottawa, Nov. 3, 1981. Clockwise from left: Brian Peckford, Newfoundland; Allan Blakney, Saskatchewan; Angus MacLean, P.E.I.; John Buchanan, Nova Scotia; Rene Levesque, Quebec; Peter Lougheed, Alberta; William Bennett, British Columbia; and Sterling Lyon of Manitoba(back to camera). (PETER BREGG/Canadian Press)
The eight dissenting premiers who disagree with Prime Minister Trudeau's constitutional package sit for breakfast in Ottawa, Nov. 3, 1981. Clockwise from left: Brian Peckford, Newfoundland; Allan Blakney, Saskatchewan; Angus MacLean, P.E.I.; John Buchanan, Nova Scotia; Rene Levesque, Quebec; Peter Lougheed, Alberta; William Bennett, British Columbia; and Sterling Lyon of Manitoba(back to camera). (PETER BREGG/Canadian Press)

Brian Peckford

A fresh stab at 'the night of the long knives' Add to ...

Like many accounts of the historic federal-provincial conference that led to the patriation of our Constitution, the one by author Ron Graham that appeared in last weekend's Globe Focus contains inaccuracies.

This is not surprising, given that distorted reports of what actually happened in Ottawa's Chateau Laurier three decades ago this month began very soon after the event took place. National Deal, a book published the following year, described the night of Nov. 4, 1981, when the eventual deal was drafted, as though only four provincial officials produced the breakthrough.

Even now, Wikipedia still credits a “kitchen accord” that was supposedly put together by federal justice minister Jean Chrétien and the attorneys-general of Saskatchewan and Ontario, and then accepted by everyone else. The entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia, meanwhile, has four provinces producing a single-page compromise.

In reality, the group included four premiers and representatives of two others, all of them working from a typed, three-page (eventually reduced to two) proposal that the Newfoundland delegation had brought to the meeting. We knew of nothing being cooked up in the kitchen.

Now we have Mr. Graham trying to reconstruct events mainly from reports of people not in the room that night, not at the premiers' breakfast meeting the next morning or at the main table when they met the prime minister for the climactic session that followed.

As a result, he reports in The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada that Quebec premier René Lévesque “rallies seven dissident premiers into forming the gang” to oppose the federal position. In fact, we came together because we all believed that Ottawa's move to act unilaterally was wrong. (For some reason, the educational website Historica.ca says the Supreme Court of Canada deemed it “preferable” that the feds strike a deal with the provinces when, in fact, the court declared the plan to act alone unconstitutional.)

So it was not any one province; if anything, we rallied one another. We were all very upset: This was not the way to improve a country constitutionally.

Then Mr. Graham contends that, on the night of Nov. 4, we gathered to “plot in secret (and probably in cahoots with Mr. Trudeau's sidekick, Jean Chrétien) to make a pact with the enemy behind Quebec's back.”

‘No conspiracy with the federal government'

This, too, is not what happened. Efforts were made to reach nine provinces that evening; the only exception, New Brunswick, was contacted the next morning. Those attempts included Ontario, even though it was not part of the Group of Eight, and Quebec, to no avail – apparently they weren't at their hotel. But there was no contact with Mr. Chrétien and, therefore, no conspiracy with the federal government.

The proposal agreed upon that night was to go to all the provinces for approval the next morning. This is important because, as well as Mr. Lévesque, the premiers of Alberta and British Columbia had not been present, although both had senior representatives in the room.

To say the proposal “had been patched together in the middle of the night” is not only erroneous but insulting. All 10 provinces and the federal government had been working on this for more than two years, and agreements attempted by B.C. and Saskatchewan were both rejected just before Newfoundland stepped forward. As a result, our proposal contained elements we knew had the best chance of success. It was the culmination of many “patches” over many months.

As for Mr. Graham's assertion that “the Gang of Eight was deeply divided and ... ready to fall apart” by the time the first ministers gathered in Ottawa, wrong again. We realized this was a historic moment and Canadians wanted us to succeed. We knew compromise would be needed and that, with federal flexibility on the constitutional amending formula and flexibility by the provinces on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a deal might be possible, although Quebec would be a big issue.

On the other hand, it is simply not true to say that premiers Allan Blakeney of Saskatchewan, Bill Bennett of B.C. and myself were “desperate” for a deal, or that Peter Lougheed was just looking out for his own province. I often sat next to Mr. Lougheed at these conferences – he is an Albertan, all right, but also a devoted Canadian. Some commentators seem to forget that this is a federation.

The description of Manitoba's Sterling Lyon is equally unfair. I heard him speak passionately. about individual freedom and fears of how, over time, the Charter would reach into people's lives. True, he had to leave early, but he stayed in contact through his able attorney-general.

The pivotal meeting on Nov. 4 began with Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, but grew to include Nova Scotia premier John Buchanan and premier J. Angus MacLean of Prince Edward Island, as well as various cabinet ministers. Patriation was very much a team effort.

Why have I waited so long to speak out? After the deal was done, I had many other fish to fry – both literally (Ottawa was trading away our fish stocks to foreigners) and figuratively, from monumental court cases (Churchill Falls power and offshore oil and gas) to simply trying to run the province with the country's lowest credit rating, highest unemployment and lowest per-capita earned income.

The constitutional deal was done and, although troubled by the confusion over how it had come about, we let it pass. I guess my deputies and I were tired.

Article written in 1999 ‘rekindled the myth'

Then, in 1999, two professors at the University of Calgary wrote an article on the “night of the long knives” that not only rekindled the myth but insulted Newfoundland by saying it could not have put together something like this. As well as me, two of my former deputy ministers responded to the authors (who apologized), and only then discovered that we had all written accounts of the events of 1981. (Just after the conference, a St. John's journalist helped me record what had taken place. I still have the tape.)

At this point, I began to contemplate a book on my political life. Now almost complete, it includes an account of the patriation process that features documents kept by my deputies as well as copies of the actual proposal that was discussed on the night of Nov. 4 and finalized at breakfast the next morning. (Mr. Graham describes Mr. Lévesque as “rushing” into that breakfast, but I recall no sign of haste, even if he was 23 minutes late. Mr. Lougheed was keeping time.)

I admit to not being very helpful when Mr. Graham contacted me last year while researching his book, but by then I was in the midst of writing my own. I remember no one before him ever seeking my assistance.

The fact remains that the Newfoundland delegation had no knowledge of the so-called kitchen meetings, something that Mr. Lougheed and Mr. Buchanan have confirmed with me quite recently. No documents came to us from any outside source, and by the time Roy Romanow, then Saskatchewan attorney-general, showed up, the one we had been working on was completed.

Those who doubt this account should consider the fact that my copy of the provinces' proposal and the actual agreement are the same, apart from some minor word changes and a section that was added at that final meeting.

They also might want to recall what the prime minister said to the media after the conference. According to a Canadian Press story of Nov. 6, 1981, “Peckford won kudos from around the conference table, including prime minister Trudeau, for the work he put into a compromise offer placed on the constitutional table Thursday morning.”

That day, the St. John's Evening Telegram carried a report with this passage: “It was not of my making,” Trudeau conceded, addressing the youngest premier from the youngest province. “The draft that finally brought us to an agreement is the one presented by you this morning.”

Former Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford is now a consultant living on Vancouver Island. His political memoir will appear in 2012.

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