Happy birthday Harold Innis, on the day after the night of the Canadian constitutional long knives, 1981

Nov 7th, 2011 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

The 30th anniversary of the day after the Canadian Night of the Long Knives – when “on November 5th, 1981, a radiant Trudeau announced the deal that had been reached with the nine provinces” and a “fuming Lévesque looked on” – has already been commemorated, at various places on and off the world wide web. The Centre for Constitutional Studies at the University of Alberta, eg, has held a three-day conference, complete with former provincial premiers, on “The Patriation Negotiations … A Moment of Incalculable Consequences.”

As a promotional blurb for this conference has explained: “Thirty years ago in November 1981 the Constitution of Canada was remade. Prime Minister Trudeau and the Premiers of all ten provinces met behind closed doors … At the end of several tension-filled days, they had the agreement that became the Constitution Act, 1982.”

Other such commemorations include a piece by Ron Graham in the Globe and Mail for Saturday. November 5, 2011, entitled “The myth of the long knives.” As Mr. Graham explains: “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.”

What nothing we have yet seen has noted, however, is that November 5, 1981 would also have marked the 87th birthday of Harold Adams Innis – once called (somewhat jocularly, no doubt) “Canada’s first and perhaps only genuine intellectual,” and almost certainly the most impressive analyst of the Canadian “longue durée” that the global village has seen to date.

For us here (well …  most of us at any rate) the coincidence of Innis’s birthday and the effective domestic birth day of the Constitution Act, 1982 reflects an almost aboriginal mysticism in the modern Canadian political and economic experience – which almost guarantees its long-term existentialism, in spite of all the well-known improbable odds.

(And remember, first, that Canada is, to begin with, an aboriginal word, and second that Innis himself told us, as long ago as 1930: “We have not yet realized that the Indian and his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions.” And, whatever else, here’s a somewhat belated happy birthday to Harold Innis, and to the deal that finally gave us the Constitution Act, 1982 – the only part of the present Constitution of Canada that is remotely distinguished, even if Quebec still hasn’t formally “signed,” and most of the various amending formulae still leave a lot to be desired!)

Cunning and ironic legacies  : Trudeau, Levesque, and Chantal Hebert …

The events of November 4—5, 1981 at the Canadian constitutional conference in Ottawa form an   intriguing enough political story in their own right. But we won’t go into the details here. If you want more try “The Night of Long Knives” on the CBC website for a quick summary, and/or (for a more in-depth analysis) “November 4, 1981: The night of the long knives –  Pierre Trudeau’s strategy,” by the Quebec lawyer Marc Dupont.

More generally, history, as the poet says, has many cunning passages. Or (to cite another kind of poet): “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

Back in the early 1980s it did at first seem that Pierre Trudeau, the One-Canada federalist from Quebec, had finally beaten the sovereigntist premier of Quebec – and theorist of “sovereignty association,” René  Lévesque (even though Lévesque had his revenge by refusing to “sign” the new Constitution Act, 1982 : a refusal that the province of Quebec has carried on with down to the present). More recently, we seem to have begun to appreciate that the deeper significance of November 5, 1981 has proved considerably more subtle and complex.

Just this past August, eg, a piece on this site urged that: “Whatever else, the  November 27, 2006 resolution of the federal Parliament on the Québécois nation within a united Canada finally made clear that neither Pierrre Trudeau nor René Lévesque won the great battle over Federalism and the French Canadians in the last quarter of the 20th century. The future is going to be some characteristically Canadian compromise between their two conflicting visions.”

And then, just a few days ago, the Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hébert was explaining that, back 30 “years ago this month,” when “ nine premiers and the prime minister of the day” came to the agreement that resulted in the new Constitution Act, 1982, some “premiers naturally wondered whether the decision to dispense from Quebec’s formal support would give a boost to its secessionist aspirations … But none envisaged that the next three decades would see the gradual instauration of a federalist version of the sovereignty-association concept Trudeau had fought against on behalf of Canada in the 1980 Quebec referendum.”

Of course, who can say at this juncture just where the future will lead. But the decision of the people of Quebec this past May 2 to send 59 MP s from the Nouveau Parti Démocratique to Ottawa as their federal representatives is reassuring at the very least. And if one recent (and somewhat misleading?)  “Poll shows great doubt Quebec will ever sign Constitution,” another reports that “30 years later, vast majority polled in Quebec back patriation of Constitution, Charter … Poll respondents also expressed pride in being both Quebecers and Canadians, hope that constitutional changes might come eventually, desire for a moratorium on constitutional talks for now, and exhaustion with the longstanding debate on independence.”

Cunning and ironic legacies : Pierre Trudeau and Harold Innis

To us there is little doubt that, over the past generation, Pierre Trudeau’s somewhat utopian francophone One-Canada view has had to make more compromises with the in some ways more realistic sovereignty association goals of René Lévesque than Trudeau himself would have liked.

At the same time, it also seems to us that there is another increasingly important respect in which Pierre Trudeau’s wider Canadian vision continues to live on. To return to the deeper mysticism of the Canadian longue durée, we also think that the more enduring side of Trudeau’s vision has a lot to do with parallel probings of the Harold Adams Innis who was born in the family farm countryside of Otterville, Ontario, on November 5, 1894.

On this front, we will content ourselves, for the time being, with citing a half dozen paragraphs from a posting that appeared on this web site on September 28, 2010 – the 10th anniversary of the death of Pierre Trudeau:

“Pierre Trudeau was not only more interesting than other Canadian politicians, of his or any other generation, he was also more interested in Canada and the Canadian future.

“He actually had a coherent historically-rooted vision of the modern country, that transcended its transitional 19th century status as the first self-governing dominion of the (now fallen, and inevitably obsolete) British empire. It was a flawed vision. But at least it was a vision. What Canadian political leader today is offering anything of the sort?

“Trudeau’s vision in this sense had quite a lot to do, I think, with the ‘northern North American’ transcontinental themes that also lie at the bottom of Harold Innis’s local classic of 1930, The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History – still in print, and still the single most interesting book on Canadian history that anyone has written to date.

“Trudeau was no kind of serious student of Innis’s work (as best as I can make out). And he only gradually came to appreciate the depths of the northern transcontinental history (from coast to coast to coast) that Innis had first made public when Joseph Philippe Pierre Yves Elliott Trudeau was still just the pre-teenage son of Charles-Émile Trudeau and  Grace Elliott, getting excellent grades at the Académie Querbes, 215 Bloomfield Street, Outremont, in Montreal.

“Shortly after the 49-year-old ‘Rt. Hon. Pierre E. Trudeau’ first became Prime Minister of Canada in 1968, however, he wrote a short Foreword to his friend Eric Morse’s book, Fur Trade Canoe Routes of Canada / Then and Now: ‘In Canada we have had few decisive battles and not many dominant leaders. Much more important to our history has been the struggle of nameless Canadians to improve their lives in our often hostile environment. This struggle has produced its share of adventure and heroism …  Anyone who wishes to get a feeling for the unique history and geography of this country can do no better than follow Eric Morse’s example.’

“(And Trudeau himself was an avid and athletic canoeist, who had travelled many of the old northern transcontinental fur trade routes outlined in Eric Morse’s book.)”

Somehow, somewhere, sometime, we believe (or at least continue to hope fervently) some Canadian politician of the future will arise – or perhaps it will be a larger group of politicians and ordinary voters together – and take the Innis-Trudeau-trans-continental-canoeist vision to some next level, where the Canadian experiment will be at least somewhat more secure than it sometimes appears to be today. Meanwhile, it is also somewhat mystically intriguing, we would respectfully submit, that Harold Innis died, at an all-too-early age, on November 8, 1952 – just four days after (ignoring the year of course) the night of the constitutional long knives in Ottawa, on November 4, 1981: and just three days after his own birthday!

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