In April 1982, as an Ottawa winter turned to spring, Queen Elizabeth II made her eleventh visit to Canada. She had come to make it official. After more than a half-century of trying, Canada would have its own constitution. A Canadian-made constitution was unfinished business from the country’s colonial past. The British North America Act in 1867 set out the jurisdictions of the federal and provincial governments and created the Dominion of Canada. It was, however, a law of the British Parliament, and it could only be amended (changed) by the British.
Canadian governments had been attempting to “patriate” the BNA Act (take control of it back to Canada) ever since the period between the First and Second World Wars, when Canada emerged from the cocoon of the British Empire. (See also: Imperialism; Commonwealth.) It was unacceptable, insisted Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, to travel “cap in hand to a foreign government” every time Canada wanted to change its own constitution.
A celebration of the 1982 constitution was scheduled for the stuffy Senate Chamber of the Parliament Buildings. Less than two weeks before the date, it was moved outside to Parliament Hill, taking advantage of what reporter John Gray called the world’s largest television studio. At precisely 11.37 a.m. on Saturday, 17 April, with trumpets blaring, Pierre Trudeau invited the turquoise-clad Queen to leave her makeshift throne to inscribe “Elizabeth R” on the royal proclamation of the constitution. It had been written out in elegant script on paper made from Manitoba flax.
Organizers expected 100,000 spectators to attend the ceremony, but the prospect of bad weather kept the numbers down. Just as the Queen stepped up to speak to a crowd estimated at 32,000, the rain and hail began, sending umbrellas skyward and VIPs scurrying. Much of what the Queen had to say could not be heard.
For the English Canadian media, it did not seem to matter. The constitution was a triumph, and the signing of it a grand, almost giddy, moment. “3 Cheers for Canada,” exclaimed the Toronto Star.
Quebec Premier René Lévesque marked the day in another way; he headed a protest march against the constitution in Montreal. He insisted that the Queen had been imported to put a bright face on mediocrity.
Trudeau and Lévesque had been the central protagonists in the 18-month battle that led to 17 April. The federalist Trudeau and the separatist Lévesque were classic adversaries: articulate, charismatic politicians with strong convictions, crusading mentalities and faithful followers.
Trudeau had won the 1980 Quebec referendum on sovereignty-association. He promised constitutional renewal and vowed, “we will not stop until we have done that.” He immediately proposed the “patriation” (a word invented for the purpose) of the BNA Act. He also pledged to include an amending formula (the criteria that would have to be met to make future changes) and a Charter spelling out the rights and freedoms of Canadians.
A First Ministers conference in September 1980 pitted a combative Trudeau against Lévesque and the majority of the premiers. It ended in disarray. “I’m telling you now,” Trudeau responded, “we’re going to do it alone.” He threatened a resolution from the Canadian Parliament asking the British to pass the necessary legislation without the consent of the provinces.
To determine whether this was legal, the Supreme Court of Canada was consulted. In the Patriation Reference case of September 1981, the court ruled that Trudeau had the legal power to proceed unilaterally, but that it would go against history and practice — it would be a breach of constitutional conventions — to do so. That opinion was rendered against the background of the powerful feelings from both sides of the constitutional divide. It nicely balanced what was possible and what was right.
Trudeau decided to try one last time for consensus. The premiers were brought to Ottawa for four days in November 1981. Lévesque was originally part of the Gang of Eight that opposed Trudeau’s plan. But Trudeau was able to isolate Lévesque by suggesting a referendum could be held to settle the matter. The prospect of another heated political battle to determine the country’s fate left Lévesque unfazed but terrified the other premiers. The anti-Trudeau coalition broke apart.
While Lévesque slept, his former allies met in a kitchen pantry and negotiated a compromise with Justice Minister Jean Chrétien. (See Kitchen Accord.) The deal was presented as a fait accompli to Lévesque at breakfast the next morning. He left Ottawa humiliated and embittered. The events around the Kitchen Accord became known in Quebec separatist circles as the “night of the long knives.”
The constitution was brought home, and home would never be the same again. Quebec felt deeply betrayed. The wound, over the next two decades, would prove difficult to heal. At the same time, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms revolutionized the Canadian legal system. It dramatically increased the powers of the courts in the arena of individual rights and social values.
See also: Constitution of Canada; Constitutional History; Constitutional Law; Statute of Westminster; Editorial: Statute of Westminster, Canada's Declaration of Independence; Constitution Act, 1982; Constitution Act, 1982 Document; Patriation of the Constitution; Editorial: Newfoundland’s Contribution to the Patriation of the Constitution.