New northern directions (and two lights that failed), 1976–1992

Dec 31st, 2019 | By | Category: Heritage Now

The middle of the summer of 1977 was not quite nine months after René Lévesque’s unsettling PQ victory in the November 1976 Quebec provincial election. And it was at this point that the Anglo-American economist and philosopher Kenneth Boulding told the 44th annual Couchiching Conference in Ontario : Canada is an “absurd country straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan, whose very existence is an object lesson to the whole world … I’ve always thought, ‘If Canada could exist, what couldn’t?’”

By then, however, three eventful decades had elapsed since the UK-raised US citizen Professor Boulding had briefly served as chairman of the economics department at McGill University in Montreal. And John Diefenbaker, Ellen Fairclough, James Gladstone, Judy LaMarsh, René Lévesque, Lester Pearson, Louis St. Laurent, Pierre Trudeau, and many others had been working hard to reduce Canada’s Gilbert and Sullivan veneer. (Or what some would call the obsolete British empire colonialism, that still haunts parts of the 1867 Canadian confederation even today.)

The middle of the summer of 1977 also marked a peak in the polling popularity of the Pierre Trudeau Liberals. Gallup polls on Canadian federal politics for both June and July 1977 showed the Liberals with an unusual 51% of the decided vote, compared with 27% for the Progressive Conservatives (now led by Joe Clark from Alberta), 18% for Ed Broadbent’s New Democrats, and 4% for Others.

Part of this may have reflected public sympathy over the May 30, 1977 announcement of the separation of Pierre and Margaret Trudeau (who now had three sons together). Yet : “While Trudeau’s personal life probably inflated his poll numbers in 1977, his own response to the separatist victory in Quebec in the early part of that year also played a part” (John English). The flawlessly bilingual prime minister from Montreal had quickly convinced such shrewd Ottawa journalists as Christina McCall that : “Like him or not, much of what happens to Canada in the next few years will depend on Pierre Trudeau.”

In the summer of 1977 many other Canadians apparently agreed. But by the end of August Pierre Elliott Trudeau had made his “worst political decision.” Ignoring advice from rainmaker Keith Davey and savvy right-hand man Jim Coutts (originally from Alberta), the prime minister decided not to call a quick early election, to capitalize on his party’s dramatic summer surge of support. Biographer John English has further explained : “As Coutts and Davey feared, the polls started to turn soon after Trudeau decided against an election … The twenty-four point lead the Liberals had enjoyed was only eight points by December.”

Pierre Trudeau would finally live up to the high hopes many Canadians had for him in the summer of 1977. But it would take close to five more years. And there were more than a few arduous public and private journeys (or complex canoe portages?) through various metaphorical northern rivers, lakes, plains, mountains, forests, and seacoasts ahead.

The rocky road to the new Constitution Act, 1982
(and the old Constitution Act, 1867)

Pierre Trudeau’s greatest (if still somewhat controversial) contribution to the larger Canadian future is without any question at all what finally became the Constitution Act, 1982.

It was ultimately signed into full legal force by Queen Elizabeth II in Ottawa on April 17, 1982, in keeping with the framework prescribed in the old British North America Act, 1867, now “patriated” from the Parliament of the United Kingdom and renamed the Constitution Act, 1867. But in the fall of 1977 other things apparently had to happen first.


To start with, Canada was not immune to the international economic troubles that continued to badger the rising global village. By the late 1970s inflation was still high (8.60% in 1978, 9.76% in 1979), despite the wage and price controls introduced after the government campaigned against them in the 1974 election. Annual unemployment, at 4.8% when Trudeau came to office in 1968, was 7.1% in 1976, 8.0% in 1977, and 8.4% in 1978.

Then the grievances in Quebec that stimulated René Lévesque’s PQ victory in November 1976 also stimulated other regional grievances. The complaints of the oil and gas industry in the Alberta that Conservative Premier Peter Lougheed would preside over from 1971 to 1985 were just the leading edge of regional unrest in Western Canada. The parallel discovery of Newfoundland and Labrador’s first commercial offshore oilfield in 1979 only added to longstanding complaints in Atlantic Canada, going back to Acadia in the 18th century and Nova Scotia’s original second thoughts about confederation in 1867.

Then again in the 1976 Census Toronto, somewhat to the west, at last succeeded the old fur trade capital in Montreal as Canada’s most populous metropolis. And Calgary, Edmonton, and (especially beautiful) Vancouver on the Georgia Straight showed still further western movement in the growth of shining, new (and restless) Canadian big cities.

Meanwhile, the dramatic example of Quebec was similarly affecting a new generation of Canadian Indigenous leaders, already mobilized by opposition to Ottawa’s assimilationist and finally abandoned White Paper of 1969, “Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian policy.”

By the late 1970s it was at least starting to become clear as well that the increasing cultural diversity of global migrations everywhere — and the Canadian immigration policy reform that peaked with the culturally neutral points system adopted in 1967 — would ultimately be reflected in the increasing cultural diversity of the Canadian people.

Along with Trudeau’s new official multiculturalism, what the Constitution Act, 1982 would finally call the “Métis Peoples of Canada” offered one constructive historical precedent for managing this new diversity. But, like other fresh old ingredients in the Canadian future, the precedent still lacked prestige, dating back to the mid-19th century.

Meanwhile again, in the 1971 Census of Canada just under 45% of the cross-country population had still reported British and just under 29% French “origins.” The lion’s share of the remainder was still “Other European.” And even among the wider English-speaking majority outside Quebec it was far from clear just what Pierre Trudeau’s stress on official bilingualism would mean across Canada, practically.

In 1977 the Trudeau government had also updated the pioneering Citizenship Act of 1947, to (among many other things) remove all remaining vestiges of special status for “British subjects” in Canadian law. Some Canadian citizens who still saw their origins as British were troubled by what they understood (not altogether illogically?) as Pierre Trudeau’s anti-British vision of the Canadian future. Other early “visible minority” British subjects from, eg, the West Indies or South Asia, saw their loss of special status in Canada as a racialist attack on their non-European origins.


Pierre Trudeau had already tried to “patriate” Canada’s constitution from the United Kingdom (along with an all-Canadian amending formula), at the 1971 Victoria Conference of federal and provincial first ministers.

It could also be argued that, going back well into the 1960s, a patriated (or amendable-in-Canada) Canadian constitution, with a Charter of Rights that included French language rights, was Pierre Trudeau’s main answer to the concerns about Quebec’s future raised by his former colleague and fellow francophone patriot, René Lévesque.

Yet with Premier Lévesque’s promised referendum on “sovereignty association” at least in the air, Prime Minister Trudeau allowed a politically convenient fiction to develop as well. It implied an interest he did not really share in some broader form of “renewed federalism” in Canada, as an answer to the Quebec sovereigntism advanced by the Parti Québécois.

(The appointment of a Task Force on Canadian Unity in July 1977, co-chaired by John Robarts from Ontario and Jean-Luc Pepin from Quebec, was one case in point. Its 1979 report recommended a federation with still stronger provinces, to accommodate Quebec. Pierre Trudeau, who once confessed to some admiration for the centralist philosophy of John A. Macdonald — as interpreted by George-Étienne Cartier, is said to have filed the report in his office wastebasket, unheeded and unread!)

Prime Minister Trudeau’s main and entirely serious response to Premier Lévesque’s challenge was nonetheless clear enough in Bill C-60, introduced in parliament on June 20, 1978. It bore the revealingly complex title, “An Act to amend the Constitution of Canada with respect to matters coming within the legislative authority of the Parliament of Canada, and to approve and authorize the taking of measures necessary for the amendment of the Constitution with respect to certain other matters.”

A comparison of Bill C-60 with what became the Constitution Act, 1982 not quite four years later draws attention again to how Pierre Trudeau at his best was more of a catalyst for constructive but only gradually evolving new policy directions, than a successful inventor of well-conceived practical public action from the top down. Bill C-60 was what Trudeau and his advisors wanted. The Constitution Act, 1982 is what the rest of the country (provincial premiers, federal opposition parties, the Supreme Court of Canada, and a host of other, more ordinary Canadians) did to drastically revise Bill C-60. What Elizabeth II finally signed as the “new constitution” in 1982 did not spring fully formed from the brain of Pierre Trudeau. It was the work of many hands, coast to coast to coast.


In the short run of the late 1970s the full-blown Bill C-60 quickly became yet another political liability of the Trudeau Liberal government in Ottawa. And this helped lead to the government’s defeat in the election the prime minister finally called for May 22, 1979.

Eugene Forsey — a 74-year-old authority on Canada’s constitution and an almost-retired senator appointed by Pierre Trudeau himself — called the proposed constitutional legislation a “nightmare” that “could be interpreted as a bid for a Canadian republic.” Some have called this a “wild” interpretation. Yet even a casual perusal of the Bill C-60 introduced in June 1978 can suggest what Senator Forsey may have had in mind.

The bill still paid, for instance, formal homage to the underlying constitutional monarchist rhetoric of what it called “the Act of 1867.” But section 2 in 1978 freshly began with : “By this enactment, the people of Canada declare and affirm ….” And section 3 carried on : “By this enactment, the people of Canada likewise declare and affirm ….”

Bill C-60 in 1978 similarly stressed the role of the Governor General of Canada over that of the monarch, who the governor general is supposed to represent in the traditional British theory.

Section 9 of the original Act of 1867 had prescribed that the “Executive Government and Authority of and over Canada is hereby declared to continue and be vested in the Queen” (Victoria in 1867). Section 43 in Bill C-60 changed this to : “The executive government of and over Canada shall be vested in the Governor General of Canada, on behalf and in the name of the Queen” (Elizabeth II in 1978). Section 44 similarly spelled out that : “The Governor General of Canada shall have precedence as the First Canadian, and the office of the Governor General shall stand above and apart from any other public office in Canada.”

Such confirmed old-school Canadian monarchists as Eugene Forsey could plausibly see all this as a legal framework in which the monarchy might at least be all too easily and quickly abolished. A constitutional amendment could simply change section 43 of Bill C-60 in 1978 to : “The executive government of and over Canada shall be vested in the Governor General of Canada, on behalf and in the name of the people of Canada.”

Senator Forsey was also far from the only Canadian of the day who still identified with Queen Elizabeth II across the seas. A fall 1978 poll by Environics Focus Canada asked : “Do you think that the Monarch should remain as the head of state in Canada, or should the constitution be changed to have a Canadian as head of state?”. Just over 55% believed the Queen should remain. Only 37% wanted “a Canadian as head of state.”

Other parts of Bill C-60 quickly proved equally controversial. It proposed, for example, that “Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick” be officially bilingual provincially, as well as federally — a concept already honoured by New Brunswick, but flatly rejected by the premiers of both Ontario and Quebec, William Davis and René Lévesque.

Then there was the still unresolved crucial question of what the federal government could do about the constitution, without the consent of at least some substantial number of provincial governments. As explained by John English, Bill C-60 (1978) finally “died when the Supreme Court said that some of its provisions went beyond the powers of the federal government. So ended too any hopes for a constitutional triumph,” that could help return the Trudeau Liberals to office in the 1979 election. When the votes were counted on the evening of May 22, economic, regional, cultural, and constitutional grievances had conspired to give Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives a narrowly based minority government.

The Clark Conservatives won 136 seats with just under 36% of the cross-Canada popular vote in 1979. (A bare majority in a new 282-seat House was 142.) The Trudeau Liberals did manage to win somewhat more than 40% of the popular vote. But, through the vagaries of Canada’s “first past the post” electoral system, this gave them only 114 seats. Ed Broadbent’s NDP took 26 seats with somewhat less than 18% of the vote, and Fabien Roy’s Social Credit won 6 seats with less than 5%!


At first, the defeat of the Liberal government on May 22, 1979 seemed especially good news for Premier René Lévesque. He had worried that a sovereigntist referendum on Quebec’s future had slim prospects, so long as his fellow francophone patriot Pierre Trudeau was federal prime minister.

On June 21, 1979, not quite one month after Trudeau lost the election to Joe Clark, Premier Lévesque announced in Quebec’s National Assembly that a referendum on sovereignty association would be held in the spring of 1980. In November 1979, the PQ government released “La nouvelle entente Québec-Canada” (aka the “White Paper on Sovereignty- Association” in English). And the exact wording of the referendum question was made public on December 20, 1979.

By this point, however, the plot had already thickened in other directions. On December 13, 1979, aided and abetted by the parliamentary cunning of the Liberal warrior from Nova Scotia, Allan MacEachen, Liberals and New Democrats suddenly combined to defeat Conservative finance minister John Crosbie’s right-wing budget in the Canadian House of Commons. The Conservatives lost by a vote of 139–133 — with the six Social Credit or Créditiste MPs, all from Quebec, abstaining.

On this unexpected defeat of its major financial legislation, Joe Clark’s minority government had no choice but to call a fresh election. It was held on February 18, 1980. When the votes were counted this time, the Conservatives did well in Western Canada, and well enough in Nova Scotia and PEI. But the Liberals did better in the most populous province of Ontario — and took 74 of the 75 seats in Quebec. All told, they won a strong enough majority government of 147 seats, with more than 44% of the cross-Canada popular vote. Pierre Trudeau, who had earlier decided to resign as Liberal leader, suddenly changed his mind. He returned as prime minister, and advised the people of Canada : “Welcome to the 1980s.”


The debate over the Quebec referendum, which finally took place on May 20, 1980, now began in earnest. Others were prominently involved. But for many voters it reduced to a contest between Lévesque and Trudeau.

From Ottawa’s point of view, Quebec may have been able to decide on its full “sovereignty” all by itself. (Though on one legal doctrine Canadian provinces were already “sovereign,” with respect to their assigned powers under what was still the British North America Act, 1867.) But Quebec could not, Pierre Trudeau quite logically stressed, decide on its own to have both more “sovereignty” than the other provinces, and a continuing “association” with the rest of Canada.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau made clear as well that the federal government would not view “Non” to sovereignty association as a sign that the question of French Canada in confederation could be forgotten. The status quo was not an alternative. If the people of Quebec voted No, the federal prime minister underlined : “We will immediately take action to renew the Constitution and we will not stop until we have done that.”

In Trudeau’s own mind this renewal would focus on the patriated (or amendable-in-Canada) Canadian constitution with a Charter of Rights (including French language rights), that had long been his main answer to concerns about Quebec’s future — as at the failed Victoria conference of 1971, and in the ultimately abandoned Bill C-60 in 1978.

Again, however, the by now quite politically seasoned Prime Minister Trudeau allowed another convenient fiction to develop, about an interest he did not really share in some broader “renewed federalism.”

(No less a figure than his “major speechwriter for the referendum campaign, André Brunelle,” mistakenly believed the federal government was still open to some radical decentralization of the Canadian federal system to accommodate Quebec. By this point in his career — as the Winnipeg comedian Larry Zolf explained — Pierre Trudeau had evolved “from philosopher king to Mackenzie King.”)

An impressive 85%+ of the Quebec electorate turned out for the referendum on May 20, 1980. Almost 60% voted Non to René Lévesque’s plan for sovereignty association. The 40% voting Oui were broadly the same proportion of the electorate as those who had voted for a Parti Québécois provincial government back in November 1976.

Some outside Quebec were surprised (and discouraged) that as many as 40% inside Quebec wanted even the attenuated “independence” proposed by the Parti Québécois. In Ottawa, where worse fears had been contemplated, there were restrained celebrations. As soon as they ended the Trudeau government set out in earnest to realize its commitment to a more sensible but serious renewal of Canadian federalism. (Albeit not the one that Pierre Trudeau’s referendum speechwriter André Brunelle or the radically decentralist Pepin-Robarts task force had imagined.) Whatever else, it could also be said, the people of Quebec were patriotically pushing the people of Canada to do something democratic, free, independent, and much needed about the Canadian future, at last.


It would be close to two more years before Elizabeth II signed the final result. To start with, there was a “constitutional roadshow” across the country over the summer of 1980. Meetings between federal and provincial politicians and officials explored “12 agreed-upon agenda items for a formal, First Ministers’ conference of prime minister and provincial premiers in early September.”

The conference was held September 8–13, 1980 in Ottawa, and its public sessions were televised. The Canadian Encyclopedia has succinctly summarized the result : “During four days under hot television lights, the premiers and the prime minister articulated, occasionally impressively, widely different visions of Canada … The intractable views of the participants led to the inevitable failure of the conference.”

The intractability of the provincial premiers persuaded a still determined Pierre Elliott Trudeau that the federal government should and could go it alone. On October 2, 1980 he announced on TV “that Ottawa would make a unilateral request to the British Parliament” — for something he called the “People’s Package.”

The historic Mother of Parliaments would be asked to amend Canada’s constitution one last time, to provide for patriation with an entrenched Charter of Rights (including French language rights), and a referendum within two years on a future all-Canadian amending formula for matters affecting both federal and provincial governments.


This People’s Package (or “Canada Bill” in the proposed legislation tabled in Parliament) was an already stripped-down descendant of the 1971 Victoria Conference and the 1978 Bill C-60. Yet even in condensed form in the early 1980s it stirred controversy among federal political parties, provincial governments, and many Canadian people.

Indigenous, feminist, and other groups were invited to Ottawa to advise a parliamentary committee on the Charter of Rights. But parliament itself had more than one mind. Back when the Quebec referendum debate began in earnest, Prime Minister Trudeau, all too aware of his woefully weak representation in Western Canada (only 2 of 77 seats in the 1980 election, both in Manitoba), had asked Ed Broadbent if his New Democrats (26 Western seats in 1980 — 12 in BC and 7 in each of Saskatchewan and Manitoba) would join the government (with places in cabinet), to strengthen Ottawa’s hand. The NDP finally demurred on any formal coalition (perhaps remembering David Lewis’s informal experience in 1972–74) . But the Broadbent New Democrats did support the Trudeau federal government on what finally became the Canada Bill.

At the same time, Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives had won all 21 Alberta seats in 1980, 16 of 28 in BC, 7 of 14 in Saskatchewan, and 6 of 11 in Nova Scotia. They were aggressively sympathetic to provincial aspirations. Clark urged that Canada was “a community of communities.” Trudeau mocked the concept as “a community of shopping centres” and asked more than once : “Who will speak for Canada?”

At first six and then eight provincial governments (the “Gang of Eight”) came out opposed to the Canada Bill. (All except Ontario and New Brunswick.) The question of whether the federal government could do what it proposed alone was appealed to three provincial courts.

By April 1981 majorities on the Manitoba Court of Appeal and the Québec Superior Court of Appeal had agreed that the federal government could “patriate and amend the Constitution, without provincial consent.” But the Supreme Court of Newfoundland “condemned the federal procedure unanimously.” And the Gang of Eight premiers (including René Lévesque) endorsed “an alternative constitutional accord … that would limit the request to Britain to simple patriation” without a Charter of Rights, but with a province-friendly amending formula especially admired by Alberta.

Adding another kind of fuel to the fire, in a Quebec provincial election on April 13, 1981 Lévesque’s Parti Québécois, losers of the May 1980 sovereignty referendum, nonetheless won 80 seats with more than 49% of the popular vote — against Claude Ryan’s provincial Liberals, with a mere 42 seats and just 46% of the province-wide vote. And the energetic, chain-smoking M. Lévesque returned to office as Quebec premier.


At this point Pierre Trudeau agreed to submit the question of provincial consent to the Supreme Court of Canada. Several months later, on September 28, 1981 the country’s highest legal authority delivered a more ambiguous decision than the (former law professor) prime minister expected. The federal government could do as it wished as a strict matter of written law under John A. Macdonald’s Act of 1867. But by unwritten constitutional “convention” (an important ingredient of any “Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom”) amendments affecting provincial powers required some provincial government “consensus.”

Biographer John English has nicely described Pierre Trudeau’s considered but robust reaction. Though he now “realized that his plan was imperilled,” he remained resolute. He “would make one last effort with the premiers, but if it failed he would then seek unliateral patriation.” (And he conceived further options if unilateral federal patriation raised new objections in the Mother of Parliaments at Westminster. They included a referendum among all the Canadian people, coast to coast to coast, on “a declaration of independence for a sovereign Canada.”)

As fate (Machiavelli’s fortuna?), the Great Spirit of Canada, or whatever else would have it, the one last effort with the premiers worked at last — at least well enough to get the job done, according to all the accepted legal and constitutional markers. It all happened at another “Federal–Provincial Conference of First Ministers on the Constitution,” held in Ottawa, November 2–5, 1981. The agreement for what ultimately became the Constitution Act, 1982 was signed on November 5, 1981.

(And though perhaps of deep interest only to a few unusually ardent students of the deep Canadian past, this date would also have marked the 87th birthday of “Canada’s first and perhaps only genuine intellectual,” Harold Adams Innis, author of The Fur Trade in Canada, The Cod Fisheries, Empire and Communications, Changing Concepts of Time, and much more — if he had not passed away far too early, just three days after his 58th birthday in 1952, leaving only his hard-to-read writings behind.)

Informal meetings among the federal attorney general, Jean Chrétien, and his provincial counterparts in Ontario (Roy McMurtry) and Saskatchewan (Roy Romanow) helped lubricate the wheels of progress. Another vital ingredient was Prime Minister Trudeau’s last-minute willingness to compromise with provincial demands on such key issues as the “Alberta-Vancouver formula” for constitutional amendments affecting provincial powers (agreement by the federal parliament and seven provincial legislatures representing at least 50% of the Canada-wide population), and a so-called “notwithstanding clause” to bring the Charter of Rights in line with the traditional doctrine of parliamentary supremacy, in constitutions similar in principle “to that of the United Kingdom.”

The great political flaw in what became the Constitution Act, 1982 was the ultimate isolation of René Lévesque’s sovereigntist provincial Government of Quebec, during what much of the francophone media came to call “the night of the long knives” on November 4/5, 1981. Despite having lost the 1980 referendum, it seems clear enough that Premier Lévesque and his Parti Québécois colleagues were still unwilling to agree to anything too far away from “sovereignty association.” (Lévesque’s message to his supporters after the 1980 referendum failed had been “à la prochaine fois” — or until the next time.) Yet because they did finally accept and even endorse a strong Canadian future, the other seven provinces in the Gang of Eight (like Ontario and New Brunswick, which supported the federal government all along) had turned their backs on and even “betrayed” Premier Lévesque’s provincialist extremism, as it were, on the night of November 4/5. And (for whatever exact reasons) the Government of Quebec did not find out until the morning of November 5.


Whatever else, agreement among the federal government (which had won 74 of 75 Quebec seats in the most recent election) and nine out of 10 provincial governments, representing some 73% of the Canada-wide population, met any serious questions about doing the right thing legally and constitutionally. The Parliament of the United Kingdom passed a Canada Act, which included the text of Canada’s Constitution Act, 1982, on March 25, 1982. In Ottawa on April 17, 1982 this Act was formally “proclaimed by Queen Elizabeth II … making Canada wholly independent” (as explained in today’s online Encyclopedia Britannica).

At the same time, the blunt fact that the government of Canada’s majority French-speaking province had not “signed” the so-called new constitution suggested it was something of a halfway house on the road to a more secure new Canadian future. And the Constitution Act, 1982 bore several other signs of a similar status — hardly unusual in a “absurd country straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan,” but still just pointing to a work in progress for the independent UN member state that had been struggling to move ahead, slowly but surely, since the new flag in 1965.

Bill C-60 in 1978, eg, had aspired to be a single written document that embodied the old “Act of 1867” as revised, and was prefaced by the new “Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” Instead the Constitution Act, 1982 became just one in a series of Canadian Constitution Acts that includes the old British North America Act, 1867, which simply had its name changed to Constitution Act, 1867. A curious ordinary citizen today who reads the two main documents in the written part of the modern independent country’s fundamental law — the Constitution Act, 1867 and the Constitution Act, 1982 — might somewhat uneasily feel they reflect sometimes almost conflicting visions of the modern confederation.

To mollify such critics as Senator Forsey — and the somewhat more than half of Canadians who still favoured his traditional monarchist views in late 1970s opinion polls — future changes to “the office of the Queen, the Governor General and the Lieutenant Governor of a province” were made subject to the most demanding federal-provincial constitutional amending formula, in section 41 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

(All such changes must be “authorized by resolutions of the Senate and House of Commons and of the legislative assembly of each province.” The more general amending formula for most other matters — including the still unreformed Senate of Canada itself — appears in section 38 : “(a) resolutions of the Senate and House of Commons; and (b) resolutions of the legislative assemblies of at least two-thirds of the provinces that have, in the aggregate, according to the then latest general census, at least fifty per cent of the population of all the provinces.”)

Yet even in the late 1970s support for the British monarchy in Canada had been slowly if surely declining. (It would fall below even a bare majority in opinion polls in the middle of the 1990s.) And as explained in the early 2000s by Frederick Vaughan, professor of political science at the University of Guelph in Southern Ontario, beyond the fine print of section 41 : “The Constitution Act, 1982 was the instrument that, with one stroke, severed Canadians from their ancestral monarchical foundations. With the Charter, Canada began a new life as a nation, a republican nation. The charter is based upon republican principles. It is the closest Canadians have ever come to a document that affirms the rights of the people.”

The various sometimes complex formulae involved in the “procedure for amending Constitution of Canada” in Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 have themselves been criticized as almost too demanding to make amendments of any real scope quite unlikely at worst, and very difficult at best. Some argue that the most workable formulae are those in sections 44 and 45, that allow federal and provincial governments to amend their own internal operations, as it were, all by themselves.

At the same time again, it is often forgotten that all 10 provincial governments (if not exactly legislatures) endorsed the finally failed 1992 Charlottetown Accord. (And this constitutional amendment agreement was only subsequently defeated in a cross-country popular referendum, that was not strictly speaking legally or constitutionally required!)

Sections 25 and 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 similarly deal with the “aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada” in ways that have subsequently been thought to invite various forms of clarification. Here as elsewhere (the monarchy and the Senate are other examples), Canadians in what section 1 of the Constitution Act, 1982 quietly alludes to as “a free and democratic society” have further constitutional business ahead, should they care to notice.

The first 34 sections of the Constitution Act, 1982 spell out the fundamental Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (Although section 33 — the notorious “notwithstanding clause”— prescribes that “Parliament or the legislature of a province may expressly declare in an Act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the Act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter” — to secure, as it were, the philosophical primacy of parliament in a parliamentary democracy.)

It is worth noting as well that, in another intriguing sign of perhaps not-so-strange similarities between the views of John Diefenbaker from Saskatchewan and Pierre Trudeau from Quebec, the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a direct descendant of the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights, passed by the record parliamentary majority from the 1958 election.

Diefenbaker’s 1960 Bill, however, could be changed by an ordinary act of Parliament. The 1982 Charter is “entrenched,” and can only be changed by constitutional amendment. Just what former Prime Minister Diefenbaker would think of the entrenched Charter cannot be exactly known. He died in the middle of August 1979 (while still serving as an MP). But he had allowed himself to show his underlying admiration for Pierre Trudeau on a few occasions. And this may have been one of them.

Postscript, 1982–1992 :
The last of the Progressive Conservatives?

On June 11, 1983 — not quite 14 months after Elizabeth II had proclaimed the Constitution Act, 1982 in Ottawa — the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada did something unusually sensible and strategic.

At a convention in the federal capital it elected as leader a 44-year-old labour lawyer, negotiator, and political activist of Irish descent, who had grown up in a francophone and even sovereigntist region of Quebec, and was almost as flawlessly bilingual as the retiring Pierre Trudeau.

Brian Mulroney from Baie-Comeau (in a provincial electoral district nowadays known as René-Lévesque) had failed his bar exams twice in the 1960s. His personal charm and negotiating skill nonetheless built a bustling Montreal legal career in the 1970s.

Mulroney did not hold elected office until just after he became PC leader in 1983. But he had worked in the federal Conservative Party since John Diefenbaker’s historic majority win in the 1958 election. He had a failed but instructive dry run as a candidate for the federal PC leadership in 1976. And : “He made telephone calls because he wanted to, because reaching out and talking was an essential part of his nature” (Bob Rae).

When he finally resigned as PC leader and Prime Minister of Canada in June 1993 Brian Mulroney and his party had become astoundingly unpopular. Under the leadership of his successor, Kim Campbell from Vancouver Centre, the Progressive Conservatives won only two seats (and a mere 16% of the Canada-wide popular vote) in the October 1993 federal election.

Yet in the 1984 election that brought them to office the Mulroney Conservatives had done almost as well as the Diefenbaker Conservatives in 1958. They won just under 75% of the seats in the House, with just over 50% of the popular vote. (In 1958 Diefenbaker’s party had won more than 78% of the seats with just under 54% of the vote.)


Brian Mulroney had one great success in his career as Canadian prime minister, 1984–1993 — the ultimate achievement of a modern Canada-US (and then Canada-US-Mexico) free trade agreement. And he had one great failure — the defeat of his two efforts to win Quebec’s formal assent to the Constitution Act 1982, in the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords.

At the same time, though he got on famously with President Ronald Reagan in the United States (and then with President George H.W. Bush), Mulroney was more of a Diefenbaker Progressive Conservative than the kind of new right ideologue brought into the 1980s limelight by both Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. (As spelled out, eg, in the political direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie’s The New Right : We’re Ready To Lead, self-published in 1980 and 1981 in Falls Church, Virginia, USA, with an introduction by televangelist Jerry Falwell.)

Somewhere in between Mulroney’s one great success and one great failure, he also managed a few more modest but enduring and largely progressive accomplishments. The almost certainly most compelling example flowed from his stalwart support for ending the white supremacist apartheid regime in South Africa.

Even the South Africa that had figured in Alexander Brady’s Democracy in the Dominions in 1947 was still far from any seriously inclusive practical embrace of the country’s black African majority. But the rise of a more openly white supremacist, segregated regime can be dated to the at first shaky electoral victory of D.F.Malan’s Nationalist party in 1948. Malan’s successors would finally lock the African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela in jail in 1962. And in 1961 John Diefenbaker had already set Canada on the side of global diversity (and against the United Kingdom, Australian, and New Zealand governments of the day), with his support for apartheid South Africa’s leaving the new Commonwealth of Nations, into which the old British empire was rapidly dissolving.

Mulroney carried on and stiffened this Diefenbaker tradition with his aggressive support for the liberation of Mandela and the end of South African apartheid in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many years later, in 2015, he was awarded the new South Africa’s Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo in Gold, in recognition of his contribution. The explanatory text for the award summarizes this particular achievement :

“Brian Mulroney’s role in the fight against apartheid … contributed immensely to South Africa’s liberation struggle … From 1985, Mulroney spearheaded an aggressive Canadian push within the Commonwealth for sanctions to pressure the racist South African government to end apartheid and release Mandela from prison where he had been locked up for a quarter century … That put him [Mulroney] at odds with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher … After his release from prison in 1990, Mandela … ended apartheid as national leader … But in the 1980s, when he needed foreign friends the most, it was Mulroney’s Canadian Government that led the way. Mandela never forgot it.”

Brian Mulroney can claim credit as well for some pioneering Canadian federal interest in climate change and the environment. Future Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May served as senior policy advisor to Mulroney’s Minister of the Environment, Tom McMillan, 1986–88. She helped create several new national parks, and negotiate the Montréal Protocol, an international agreement on Earth’s ozone layer. The Mulroney government similarly passed an Environmental Protection Act in 1988, and negotiated an Acid Rain Accord with George H.W. Bush’s USA in 1991 — “an air quality agreement that has significantly reduced acid rain levels and sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions.”

In 1991 the Mulroney government also introduced an unpopular value-added sales tax called the Goods and Services Tax, that helped manage federal government finances without aggressively cutting popular public services. Prime Minister Mulroney was sometimes impressively non-partisan in his appointments as well. The most striking example may be his choice of former Ontario New Democratic Party leader Stephen Lewis (also the son of former federal NDP leader David Lewis) as Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, 1984–1988.


The Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was negotiated in 1987, voted on in the November 21, 1988 Canadian federal election, and then brought into force on January 1, 1989. It was in one respect the culmination of historic efforts to restore the original Reciprocity Treaty of 1854-1866 — efforts that had haunted the first generation of the 1867 Canadian confederation, were then rebuffed by Canada in 1911, and then partly acted on in the Canada-US Auto Pact of 1965.

In another respect the late 20th century Canada-US FTA was Canada’s bow to the Anglo-American conservative revolution led by Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States, and the accompanying great burst of “globalization” in the world economy that began to gather steam in particular earnest in the 1980s. (And somewhere in between these two respects lies the explanation of why Canadian Liberals and Conservatives more or less switched sides on the issue between the late 19th and late 20th centuries.)

In yet another respect the crucial background was the increasingly global economic distress of the 1ate 1970s and early 1980s. Similarly, by the mid 1980s it was clear enough that the Trudeau government’s “Third Option” with the new European Economic Community was just not working, as an alternative or supplement to the old imperial trade relationship with the United Kingdom. And in any case the UK itself had been a member of the European Community since January 1, 1973. Asia was starting to rise, but getting seriously involved was very complicated.

Meanwhile, the US market was right next door, on familiar ground for Canadian businesses. The 1965 Auto Pact was pointing the way (even if it was technically “managed” not exactly “free” trade). In 1965 21% of Canadian exports had gone to the United Kingdom and the European Community. By 1985 this had shrunk to a mere 6%. And by 1985 78% of Canadian exports were going to the United States, up from 57% in 1965.

For some or even many sectors of the Canadian economy there really was opportunity in the US market — as the continental growth of an eventually privatized CN or Canadian National Railway would show in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, chaired by former Liberal finance minister Donald Macdonald and appointed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1982, reported to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in September 1985. It recommended that Canada take a “leap of faith” and seek a new free trade agreement with the United States.

At first Mulroney himself was apparently somewhat cautious about Canada-US free trade. He nonetheless accepted Donald Macdonald’s recommendation with some enthusiasm when it came in 1985. And Prime Minister Mulroney’s subsequent aggressive salesmanship did finally lead to a serious or even deadly defeat for the kind of Canadian economic nationalism envisioned in Kari Levitt’s Silent Surrender of 1970.

At the same time, much of the mainstream media across Canada was against the 1987 draft agreement that was effectively voted on popularly in the Canadian federal election of 1988. And, though the Mulroney Tories won a second majority of seats in parliament, the majority of votes cast in the 1988 election were for parties that also opposed the agreement (including Donald Macdonald’s old colleagues in John Turner’s federal Liberals). Perhaps partly because of all this, two decades into the 21st century it could be reasonably said that the 1988-89 Canada-US Free Trade Agreement did not finally dismantle the political fabric of the 1867 confederation, as some old nationalist critics feared in the 1980s.

(And the 1994 folding of the Canada-US FTA into a North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, which included Mexico — and was warmly enough adopted by the new Jean Chretien Liberal government elected in 1993 — removed the most obviously serious threat to Canadian political sovereignty, in the original deal between Canada and the 10-times-more populous USA alone.)


If trying to find a way for his home province of Quebec to at last embrace or “sign” the Constitution Act, 1982 finally proved the great downfall of Brian Mulroney’s government, it was also an important ingredient in getting him into office in the first place.

The traditional Conservative weakness in Canadian federal politics — after the 1867 confederation’s founding era of Macdonald (and Cartier) — was a recurrent dearth of support in the Quebec francophone community. And occasionally combatting this weakness with overtures of sorts to French Canadian “soft nationalists” — as in Robert Borden’s early 20th century governments — was another long enough tradition.

Taking up what some saw as the unfinished business of the constitutional change begun by Pierre Trudeau, to recognize Quebec’s unique position in Canada, was Brian Mulroney’s own major overture to his home province in the 1984 Canadian federal election campaign.

It impressed no less than Premier René Lévesque (if not all other members of his still governing Parti Québécois), as a “beau risque” that was at least worth looking into. And, whatever else, Mulroney’s serious efforts to make the beau risque work very much helped make and keep him Prime Minister of Canada, in the federal elections of both 1984 and 1988.

Just as John Diefenbaker’s record majority government win in 1958 had leaned on support from Quebec’s Union Nationale Premier Maurice Duplessis, that is to say, Brian Mulroney’s near-match of the record in 1984 leaned on soft nationalist supporters in Quebec, willing to at least look into le beau risque. In Joe Clark’s minority-government victory of 1979, Conservatives had taken only 2 of Quebec’s 75 seats, with just under 14% of the provincial popular vote. In 1984 the Mulroney Conservatives won 58 of the 75 seats in la belle province, with just over 50% of the popular vote.

The deal (or amendment to the Constitution Act, 1982) that Brian Mulroney finally managed to (tentatively) negotiate with his provincial counterparts was the Meech Lake Accord. It was named after a body of water in Quebec near Ottawa which hosted a facility called Wilson House, where the Accord was sketched out by the prime minister and all 10 premiers (with no one else present) on April 30, 1987.

A final revised version of the draft Accord was signed in Ottawa on June 2, 1987. By this point, back in June 1985 René Lévesque had resigned as Parti Québécois leader over disagreements within the sovereigntist party about his beau risque strategy. The provincial Liberal Robert Bourassa, still more open to now Prime Minister Mulroney’s overtures than Lévesque, had won the December 1985 Quebec provincial election. (And the chain-smoking Lévesque himself would die of a heart attack at the age of 65 on November 1, 1987, at the Montreal General Hospital.)

The crux of the Meech Lake Accord was an amendment to the Constitution Act, 1982 recognizing the French-speaking majority province of Quebec as “a distinct society within Canada.” This and other more minor provisions — which “tended to enhance the role of the provinces” generally “in their relationship with the federal government” (Canadian Encyclopedia) — were seen as requiring the approval of both the federal Senate and House of Commons and all 10 provincial legislatures, as required by section 41 of the Constitution Act, 1982. And for the Accord to become law it was stipulated that these approvals or ratifications had to be complete within three years.


At first the future for the Meech Lake Accord looked bright enough. Quebec’s National Assembly was the first provincial legislature to ratify the June 2, 1987 final agreement, on June 23, 1987. (And this activated the clock on the three-year deadline.) The Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan followed suit on September 23, 1987. Alberta joined on December 7, 1987. The federal Liberal and New Democratic opposition leaders in the Canadian House of Commons were apparently on board. By the end of 1988 all provincial legislatures except New Brunswick and Manitoba had ratified the deal.

From the start, however, there were critics. One of the most influential was the retired Pierre Trudeau. On May 27, 1987 — in between the April 30 Wilson House meeting and the June 2 final Meech Lake Accord agreement in Ottawa — the former prime minister published “a scathing analysis of the deal in the Toronto Star and Montreal’s La Presse.”

His fundamental objection was : “Those Canadians who fought for a single Canada, bilingual and multicultural, can say goodbye to their dream. We are henceforth to have two Canada’s, each defined in terms of its language.” (Or Quebec as a distinct society was just the old concept of special status for Quebec. And that still meant a greatly reduced role for French Canada outside Quebec — the opposite of the Canadian dream Pierre Trudeau shared with George-Etienne Cartier and Henri Bourassa.)

There were still other objections to the Accord. One did not reject the idea of Quebec as some kind of constitutionally distinct society itself. It only urged that the future of Quebec and French Canada was not the only compelling constitutional issue for the most northern part of North America in the late 20th century. Two other examples were Senate reform, to more adequately represent regional interests in Canada’s vast geography, and the rights of the founding aboriginal (or Indigenous) peoples of Canada, already alluded to in sections 25 and 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

By the end of June 1990 the Manitoba legislature had still not ratified the agreement (and the new premier of Newfoundland Clyde Wells was having second thoughts). The Meech Lake Accord failed to meet its ratification deadline. Brian Mulroney was personally exhausted, but perhaps too determined not to give up. He ultimately asked former Progressive Conservative prime minister Joe Clark to preside over a new federal-provincial process, seeking an agreement that included such issues as aboriginal rights and Senate reform, alongside Quebec as a distinct society. This finally led to the Charlottetown Accord of 1992 (named after the Prince Edward Island capital where the 1867 confederation began, and where the final details of the 1992 agreement were negotiated).

The strategic theory behind the Charlottetown Accord was that an agreement with something for all provinces and interests, coast to coast to coast, was more likely to secure final agreement than the Meech Lake Accord, which had concentrated on the particular interests of Quebec. And this did seem to work, at the level of Canada’s elite leadership. An agreement finalized on August 28, 1992 — and combining a distinct society in Quebec with a more or less reformed Senate drawing on Alberta proposals, “Aboriginal self-government”, an interpretive “Canada Clause”, and other more modest provisions — was supported by the federal Progressive Conservative Party, the Liberal Party of Canada, and the New Democratic Party, all provincial and territorial premiers, the major First Nations leaders, and many women’s and business leaders.

Like the Meech Lake Accord, to finally become law the Charlottetown Accord required ratification by the federal Senate and House of Commons and all 10 provincial legislatures. The Mulroney government decided that as a practical political as opposed to a strictly legal and constitutional matter, the August 28, 1992 deal would also be submitted to a cross-Canada popular referendum. Quebec, Alberta, and BC had already decided to hold provincial referendums on the agreement, which warranted some broader test of the democratic people’s will in any case.

Robert Bourassa’s Quebec finally insisted on holding its own referendum, but Alberta and BC agreed to join the contest organized by the federal government. Both the Quebec and federal referendums were held on October 26, 1992, on the question : “Do you agree that the Constitution of Canada should be renewed on the basis of the agreement reached on August 28, 1992?/Acceptez-vous que la Constitution du Canada soit renouvelée sur la base de l’entente conclue le 28 août 1992?” The final result Canada-wide was 54.3% No/Non, 45.7% Yes/Oui.

Regionally, voters in four provinces and one territory did support the Accord — PEI, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Ontario (very narrowly), and the Northwest Territories. Voters in the other six provinces and the Yukon Territory were against the deal. And so it died in the hands of the people of Canada. (Confirming as it were that they are indeed the ultimate source of governmental and political authority in the modern “free and democratic society” alluded to in the Constitution Act, 1982).

Or, the Charlottetown Accord was finally defeated by something that was not strictly speaking legally or constitutionally required. Yet whatever else fortuna and the Great Spirit may hold in store, it is now hard to see how any future Canadian constitutional agreement of any similar magnitude will be able to avoid another Canada-wide popular referendum.

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