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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)


Canada’s constitutional dramas cracked jaws in London – from yawning Add to ...

Those very long in the tooth, who happened to be living in London in the early 1980s, remember Margaret Thatcher, laid to rest this week, and how she handled one of the minor inconveniences of her time in office: the patriation of the Canadian Constitution.

That the Iron Lady didn’t like the file was obvious. There was nothing in it for her, except for irritating Pierre Trudeau, whom she didn’t much like, or annoying the provincial premiers who were resisting Mr. Trudeau’s designs to bring the Constitution home with a Charter of Rights from Westminster, where it had remained owing to Canadians’ inability to agree on a formula to amend it. For a while, patriation looked like a no-win situation for a woman who always liked to win.

British MPs, apart from a bizarre handful interested in patriation, would flee Canadian journalists seeking their position on a matter they neither knew nor cared about. They were supremely ignorant – and quite content in their ignorance.

They would vote, when the time came, as their whips instructed them, before moving to meatier matters. Meantime, were they short a good meal, one could be easily had at the Canadian high commission or the gaggle of provincial offices, where, for the price of listening to a boring speech on the intricacies of patriation, some fine food and excellent wine could be had.

It was rather fun watching this Canadian non-event unfold in London. The MPs interested in patriation were delightfully eccentric, for who but the eccentric would be intrigued by the subject. There were left-wing Labourites who loved aboriginals, or “red Indians,” as the British press kept calling them. There were right-wing Conservative backbenchers for whom the Empire flickered again in this remnant of colonial responsibility.

They were utterly unrepresentative of the House of Commons, both because they were even interested and because they were so eccentric. Great fun they were to listen to, their irrelevance matching their insouciance.

And then there was Sir John Ford, out of central casting of the British Foreign Office circa some previous time, very full of himself, tall and lean and imperious of demeanour, possessed of a certainty that he, as Britain’s high commissioner to Ottawa, had the responsibility to alert London to the perfidious plans of Mr. Trudeau. He not so cordially detested Mr. Trudeau, and the feeling was reciprocated without the cordiality.

In any event, as patriation unfolded in Ottawa, reference was made to the Supreme Court, which, in due course, ruled 7-2 that patriation was legal but not constitutional – that is, Mr. Trudeau could proceed without the provinces, but, if he did, he’d be defying constitutional convention.

This little part of the saga – whether then-chief justice Bora Laskin pushed the court into the decision it reached and communicated his intention to the Canadian government – features in a new book about these long-ago events by historian Frédéric Bastien. This would have been, as today, a breach of the separation of court and government.

The alleged indiscretion has a portion of Quebec’s political elite all aflame because secessionists still see patriation as the devil’s deed to which the Parti Québécois government of the day never assented. By contrast, the mythical ordinary Quebecker cares not a fig for this rehashing of history, or so it struck someone at an event this week in Quebec City. He asked those whether this matter interested them, to which the unanimous response was Non.

The political refighting of battles usually distorts what happened, as in this instance. The court’s ruling put the spokes into Mr. Trudeau’s unilateral intentions (to the relief of Mrs. Thatcher) and forced him into negotiations with the premiers. The ruling was a victory for Quebec in fact if not in law, rather than a defeat.

The subsequent negotiations didn’t produce the result the secessionists liked. That result had as much to do with their inept bargaining as anything else, and the fact that a PQ government wouldn’t sign anything designed to legitimize Canada.

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