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30 years later

Photoillustration by David Woodside/The Globe and Mail

Thirty years ago today, Pierre Trudeau reached an agreement with nine provincial premiers that would transform Canada forever. However imperfect a deal, he saw it as a great victory. At last, after more than 50 years of effort by five prime ministers, after a decade of futile negotiations and a year of bitter struggle, Canada was going to take control of its Constitution, with a new amending formula and an entrenched Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

One immediate disappointment was the absence of Quebec's signature. A flaw, perhaps, but not a fatal flaw in Mr. Trudeau's estimation. He had never expected René Lévesque, the leader of a party dedicated to the independence of Quebec, to sign. And what could Mr. Lévesque do to stop it?

The deal was legal, according to a ruling by the Supreme Court. It didn't require unanimity, according to the same ruling. Quebec had no veto power, having walked away from two opportunities to secure one with Mr. Trudeau's help. And Mr. Lévesque wouldn't dare repeat the mistake he made in the 1980 referendum when he asked Quebeckers for permission to begin negotiating an ambiguous half-measure called sovereignty-association – and lost, 60 to 40 per cent.

"You won't get away with this," Mr. Lévesque now growled at the prime minister in Ottawa that day. "The people will stop it."

"The people have already decided, René," Mr. Trudeau shot back, "and you lost."

Indeed, in the weeks that followed, polls showed that only 32 per cent of Quebeckers agreed with Mr. Lévesque's position. Ottawa was able to make significant adjustments to the amending formula and the Charter to keep Quebec's Liberal opposition from siding with the Parti Québécois government. There was no mass rioting in the streets of Montreal, no overnight spike in support for independence, no sudden flight of voters from the federal or provincial Liberals.

Yet that didn't prevent the indépendantistes and their sympathizers in the universities, the media and the arts from sowing falsehoods like dragon's teeth, ready to rise up like an army of fierce warriors when nurtured in the hothouse of Quebec politics. With time and repetition, their interpretation crystallized into the Night of the Long Knives, a legend so potent it still threatens the country.

A myth takes shape

Once upon a time (May 20, 1980, to be precise), René Lévesque, a hero in the guise of a Chaplinesque Everyman, is defeated in the referendum by the lies, threats and money of a traitorous princeling, born of an anglophone mother, Pierre Trudeau. Mr. Trudeau then takes advantage of Mr. Lévesque's weakness by trying to ram through constitutional amendments that will take power from Quebec and the other provinces without their permission.

Mr. Lévesque rallies seven dissident premiers into forming the Gang of Eight, whose sole purpose is to block Mr. Trudeau's unilateral action in their legislatures, in London and in the courts. After a year of fighting valiantly side by side, the Gang wins an important skirmish in September, 1981, when the Supreme Court rules that Ottawa does indeed require "a substantial degree of provincial consent" in order to proceed.

Reluctantly Mr. Trudeau is forced to meet with the 10 premiers in Ottawa in early November, 1981. For three days, the talks go nowhere. "I'm not a gambling man," Mr. Lévesque tells the press as the conference adjourns on Wednesday evening, "but I'd say the odds are loaded toward failure."

Later that night, while he is tossing and turning in his bed at the Auberge de la Chaudière, across the Ottawa River in Hull, several of his allies and their officials conspire in a suite in the Château Laurier hotel. They 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.

Shortly after 8 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 5, rumpled and late as usual, Mr. Lévesque rushes into the Château Laurier for the Gang's daily breakfast meeting. There, to his shock, he is presented with a two-page draft of a compromise that had been patched together in the middle of the night.

"It was the procedure much more than the content that was intolerable," he remembers. The "shady dealing," the "trickery."

"Lévesque Trahi Par Ses Alliés," the Journal de Québec wails in a large front-page headline, accompanied by a photograph of Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Chrétien laughing uproariously. Mr. Lévesque stabbed in the dark, as he puts it, by a bunch of "rug merchants who wouldn't hesitate to walk over their mother for an ice cream cone." Quebec betrayed and left out.

In the end, as in all fables, the hero is vindicated. Quebeckers neither forgive nor forget the injustice of what happened that cold night. They punish the federal Liberals and send Brian Mulroney's soft nationalists to Ottawa. Then they turn on the federal Conservatives and vote for the Bloc Québécois in 1993. Hard-line indépendantistes recapture the government of Quebec and almost win their second referendum by a hair in 1995.

Patriation was the Original Sin. Sovereignty alone can expunge the shame. "Everyone will recall that sad episode in the history of Quebec and Canada," laments Lucien Bouchard, the former Mulroney cabinet minister who led the Bloc in Ottawa before becoming a PQ premier of Quebec.

A revisionist account

Recall it, certainly. Sad, no doubt. But a close examination of the facts, based on official documents, media reports, a score of memoirs and interviews with the surviving participants, suggests a very different story.

For starters, it was the strength of the Quebec nationalists, not their weakness, that drove Mr. Trudeau to act. He had promised a renewed Constitution during the campaign, and though there was no evidence in the opinion polls that his promise made any difference one way or the other, he moved quickly on its delivery. He had to prove to Quebeckers that the federation could be made to work. "In voting No in the referendum," Mr. Lévesque admitted, "the citizens of Quebec clearly indicated that they wanted to give renewed federalism another chance."

Mr. Trudeau was never going to give Quebec special status, which he saw as a halfway stop on the road to independence. But he was willing to plunge into negotiations to redistribute powers and reform central federal institutions in 12 important areas, from fisheries to telecommunications, from the Senate to the Supreme Court. When those talks broke down during an acrimonious first ministers' conference in September 1980, he had had enough.

"We're going to introduce a resolution," Mr. Trudeau said, "and we'll go to London, and we won't even bother asking a premier to come with us."

It must astonish a new generation of Canadians to learn that their Constitution was not theirs in 1981. The ultimate authority over the fundamental law by which we are governed continued to reside with the British Parliament. Every change required Ottawa to ask Westminster for an amendment. Why? Because our politicians could not agree on how to amend it once it was brought home.

When two attempts almost succeeded, the provinces changed tactics. Following Quebec's lead, they chose to hold the patriation process hostage until Ottawa agreed to their demands for more power. Mr. Trudeau resisted, in part because Canada was already the most decentralized federation in the world, in part because he wanted something in return: a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The impasse seemed insurmountable.

On Oct. 2, 1980, true to his vow, the prime minister announced his government's intention to forge ahead – unilaterally and at once – with a "people's package" that would include patriation, a new amending formula and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Far from being a power grab, it would surrender Ottawa's legal right ever to act unilaterally again. It would give the final word on constitutional amendments to the people of Canada by means of referendum. Through the courts, it would check abuses of power by all levels of government.

Mr. Lévesque was in a tough spot. Few Quebeckers wanted to preserve the last important link to British colonialism. Mr. Trudeau's Charter, based to a large extent on Quebec's, was extremely popular. Mobility rights, by which citizens could live or work in any part of the country, were no more than would be required by sovereignty-association. And the protection of education rights for Quebec's English-speaking minority was more or less what Mr. Lévesque had twice accepted in principle.

Mr. Lévesque's best hope lay with the Gang of Eight. If he could keep it together, he had a fair chance of derailing Mr. Trudeau. But the price of solidarity was steep. In April, 1981, though fresh from a second election victory, Mr. Lévesque was cornered into signing an accord that set aside Quebec's perennial demand for a veto and recognized "the constitutional equality of provinces."

In fact, the Gang was deeply divided in purpose and united only in its opposition to Mr. Trudeau. By the time the first ministers gathered in Ottawa in November, 1981, it was ready to fall apart.

Allan Blakeney of Saskatchewan, Bill Bennett of British Columbia and Brian Peckford of Newfoundland were desperate for a deal. Manitoba's Sterling Lyon quit the conference to return to his election campaign. Alberta's Peter Lougheed was preoccupied with putting his province's interests first. On Wednesday morning, already anticipating the Gang's disintegration, Mr. Lévesque stunned everyone by impetuously agreeing to Mr. Trudeau's suggestion of a national referendum.

It was undoubtedly bad politics, as well as bad form, not to have notified the Quebec delegation of the discussions that took place in Mr. Blakeney's suite that evening. It unnecessarily gave Mr. Lévesque a feeling of victimization to exploit. Nothing, however, would have changed the result. He never wanted the conference to succeed.

Besides, the draft was not a fait accompli. It couldn't have been, since neither Mr. Trudeau nor his justice minister, Mr. Chrétien, had been aware of its contents until sunrise. (Mr. Lyon didn't even know of its existence until after Mr. Lévesque.) As much as the anglo premiers might have hoped it was a done deal, they didn't know what the prime minister was going to decide when they all gathered for the final session that fateful morning.

The crypto-nationalist

The core of the Thursday compromise was a straight swap: a modification of the Gang's amending formula in exchange for a modification of Ottawa's Charter.

Mr. Trudeau didn't like the Gang's formula. He preferred a veto power for Quebec. He feared for future national programs if each province was permitted to opt out with full financial compensation. Most of all, he had become deeply attached to his own proposal that, in the event of future deadlocks, the people of Canada should be able to make the ultimate decision in a referendum.

Nevertheless, he was prepared to give way if financial compensation were dropped. (He even accepted that, for amendments involving education and culture, in a last-minute attempt to appease Quebec.) What really obsessed him was the chance to enshrine a bill of rights.

If Mr. Trudeau pushed for patriation because of the Charter, he pushed for the Charter because of linguistic equality and minority-language education. Some premiers even came to see it as the sugar coating by which Mr. Trudeau hoped to get English-speaking Canadians to swallow the bitter pill of two official languages.

"If certain language and educational rights were written into the Constitution, along with other basic liberties, in such a way that no government – federal or provincial – could legislate against them," he argued, "French Canadians would cease to feel confined to their Quebec ghetto, and the spirit of separatism would be laid to rest forever."

A few years ago, it shocked historians to learn that Mr. Trudeau, the great anti-nationalist, had had a brief but fiery flirtation with Quebec independence as a young man. But his quarrel with nationalism was never a quarrel with defending the language and culture of French Canadians, a minority bound by blood and history within English-speaking North America.

His quarrel was with confusing the ethnic nation of French Canada with the civic territory of Quebec, for the simple reason that not every French Canadian lived in Quebec and not every Quebecker was a French Canadian. In that sense, Mr. Trudeau was no less committed than Mr. Lévesque to the survival of their people. That was made evident on Thursday morning when the anglo premiers agreed to capitulate on the Charter provided that it include a "notwithstanding" clause. By permitting their legislatures to override the courts, it was intended to reassert the supremacy of elected politicians over appointed judges and reduce the Charter's intrusion into provincial jurisdiction.

Mr. Trudeau hated the idea. In the end, however, he proved willing to concede an override on fundamental freedoms and equality rights but not language. At the same time, he manoeuvred the nine anglo provinces (albeit with a caveat by Manitoba) into guaranteeing French-language primary and secondary education, where numbers warrant, even though Quebec did not have to fully reciprocate.

Who knows what Mr. Lévesque might have obtained if he had indicated the least willingness to sign something at that moment? He might have won a new round of talks on the division of powers or refinements to the Charter. He might even have found an ally in the federal government in resuming the struggle for a Quebec veto. Instead, he stormed off in a fit of personal pique to beg Westminster to keep us a colony.

Here came the moment of decision.

"Yes" would mean an agreement that satisfied the Supreme Court's condition for a substantial number of provinces. "No" would mean at least another year of strife in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s. Even Mr. Trudeau's only two allies, Bill Davis of Ontario and Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick, were no longer willing to remain at his side if he didn't compromise now.

"We might have won," Mr. Trudeau said, "but we also might have ended up with nothing. I was a sufficiently long-in-the-tooth politician by then to realize that sometimes you have to take second best."

Taking second best meant moving ahead without Quebec's signature. Yet, by law and convention, it was fully within the Constitution. Even Mr. Lévesque got the message once he calmed down. "We must certainly resign ourselves, at least for the next elections," he said in November, 1984, "to the fact that sovereignty shall not, in whole, or in parts more or less disguised, be an issue."

No one could have predicted that, within three years, a prime minister of Canada would join with a federalist premier of Quebec to denounce Mr. Trudeau's historic accomplishment as "a collective trauma" for the people of Quebec, one that had "isolated and humiliated" the province, a major error, the worst injustice, not worth the paper it was written on.

By vilifying what had happened in November, 1981, to help sell the Meech Lake Accord, by which Quebec would sign in exchange for constitutional recognition as a "distinct society," Brian Mulroney and Robert Bourassa opened a Pandora's box. Out of it flew the creation of the Bloc Québécois in Ottawa, the election of a hard-line Parti Québécois government in Quebec, and the narrowly defeated referendum in 1995.

Given that mess, Pierre Trudeau – like many other Quebeckers, though from a different angle – had second thoughts. "I should have gone for an election or a referendum," he rued in 1992. "Quebec wouldn't have been able to say it was 'left out,' because everybody would have been 'left out,' and Canada would have got a better amending formula and a better Charter."

A good, good deal

Thirty years may not be long enough to judge the success or failure of the November conference. But we do know that hardly a day passes without the Charter of Rights and Freedoms making a profound impact on the political and social lives of Canadians. Though academics and jurists continue to argue about its good and evil, there's no question that the Charter has helped to bind Canadians of every region, language and ethnicity to a set of national values and principles faster and more thoroughly than Mr. Trudeau had ever imagined.

We also know that, after more than a century of injustice, a francophone prime minister of Canada had finally fulfilled the dream of every French-Canadian patriot from Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine to Wilfrid Laurier, from Henri Bourassa to Jean Lesage. Though Quebec nationalists persist in portraying Mr. Trudeau's success as an act of infamy, the people of Quebec have not been duped by the myths.

In a recent CROP poll, 80 per cent of them considered patriation a good thing, while 88 per cent approved of the Charter.

Some day, more Canadians will have Mandarin or Spanish as their mother tongue than French. Some day, hundreds of thousands of francophone Canadians will receive a French education that otherwise would have been denied them. And when that day comes, perhaps there will arise in Quebec a leader with the courage and vision to sign the agreement of Nov. 5, 1981, not as leverage but as a very, very good deal.

Ron Graham is the author of The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada , published by Allen Lane Canada in the spring of 2011.

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