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Readings in Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

Pierre Elliott (E.) Trudeau, Quebec and the Canadian Constitution


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

Born on October 18, 1919, Pierre Trudeau was the first Prime Minister of Canada born in the XXth century; he was to reflect a new and modern Canada with which the electors were to relate easily. He was first elected to the House of Commons in 1965 after spending years seemingly aimlessly wandering from place to place and cause to cause. He was re-elected in 1968, 1972, 1974, 1979 and 1980. He retired from politics in 1984. In 1967, Trudeau was appointed Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada; in this capacity, he championed the omnibus bill to reform the criminal code of Canada, modernising a number of clauses (abortion, divorce, homosexuality) that were sorely in need of change. He became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in 1968 and remained as the head of the Party until 1984. Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada from 1968-1979 and 1980-1984. In 1972, he led a minority government and in 1979 he was defeated by Joseph Clark in a close election.

In 1965, Trudeau entered politics, along with Jean Marchand and Gérard Pelletier, as one of “les trois colombes” (the three wise men). At the time, he was seen as the junior member of the triumvirate but was soon to emerge as the most articulate and important of the three in the federal government. His entrance into politics followed on the heels of a very active phase of his life as a writer in Cité Libre, championing the causes of freedom of speech and thought as well as democracy, and strong social critic of the Duplessis regime and of the nationalism that emerged out of the Quiet Revolution. Three main reasons seem to have precipitated his entrance into politics: he wished to provide a strong voice for Quebec in the federal government, and in this manner attach more firmly the province to Canada, fight the rising tide of separatism and arrest the erosion of federal powers in the direction of the provinces, and particularly to Quebec.

The early 1960's had seen developing the view that the aspirations of Quebec ought to be accommodated as that government represented best the wishes and desires of French Canadians, increasingly defining themselves as Québécois. Consequently, the government of Lester Pearson had made honest efforts to reach agreements with Jean Lesage’s government and such arrangements had led to an increase in the amount of self-government which Quebec possessed and wished to see further expanded; in practice, it had enlarged the special position of the province in the federation. Many in English Canada viewed such arrangements with suspicion while some - (including Trudeau) within French Canada felt that they weakened French Canadians' role within the government of Canada and risked so weakening the central government that they foresaw the collapse of Canada for lack of a strong enough centre of gravity.

The development of nationalism in Quebec in the 1960's disturbed Trudeau profoundly. He challenged the assumption that Quebec was the national government of French Canadians and contended that the protection and development of the French culture in Canada was as much the task of the federal government as that of the government of Quebec; he believed that all of Canada was the homeland of French Canadians and not only Quebec. To the emerging concept of a French Quebec, Trudeau opposed the idea of a French Canada which could live, side-by-side with an English Canada. Consequently, more powers were not necessary for Quebec, but French Canadians had to play a stronger role in the federal government if they were to achieve equality and develop their culture. In Trudeau’s views, there was also a sense that the federal government should not transfer powers to the provinces, and especially to Quebec, as the province did not show sufficient ability in managing properly the powers it already had and could only make a mess of things in the end. Such views, that I have personally heard him expressed on more than one occasion, did not endear him to the nationalist groups in Quebec and he soon became one of their favourite targets. Trudeau relished this position and derived a lot of support outside of Quebec for his willingness to face-up to the nationalists/separatists in Quebec.  

In a document written in 1965, Trudeau outlined the constitutional position which he was basically to follow during his public life. He first affirmed that he did not fear to be identified with the constitutional status quo; he claimed that it was less necessary for the Québécois to dream about the powers which an hypothetical Quebec might have than to fully implement, and properly use, those that it really possessed; fiscal raids on the federal purse were less important than the economic development of the province - such development would produce the increased revenues which Quebec needed. If constitutional reforms were necessary they were to be implemented in four main areas:

1) A charter of basic freedoms might be included in the constitution; this charter would be binding on all governments in Canada. The charter would also entrench traditional political rights, certain social rights and put English and French on an equal footing in the eyes of the law.

2) Once these basic rights would be protected, the preponderance of the central government might be reduced (the only limitation specifically mentioned by Trudeau was abolishing the federal power of disallowance and reservation); the language of the B.N.A. Act might also be modernised by eliminating the imperialist phraseology.

3) He proposed to reform the Supreme Court so that the Court's authority would stem from the Constitution rather than the federal government; the Senate, he thought, might also be changed so that it would represent more adequately provincial interests. In his opinion, it was evidently preferable to reconcile provincial and regional interests in the central government, through an improved Senate, rather than have the provincial governments do that directly themselves.

4) The Constitution ought to be patriated to Canada.

The similarity of these views with the constitutional steps taken by the Trudeau government between 1968 and 1982 is striking particularly when compared with the Official Languages Act (issued in 1969), the Victoria Charter (1971) and Bill C-60 which was introduced shortly before the defeat of his government at the polls in the spring of 1979.

In the context of the development of a large consensus in Quebec over the desirability of greater autonomy and powers for the province, in the last thirty years, and increasingly for demands of a recognition of the special position of Quebec within the federation, Trudeau's constitutional thought appeared to have increasingly been considerably out of touch with the reality of Quebec. In the end, his policies seem to have had exactly the opposite effect that was intended: instead of resolving problems, his position fuelled discontent in Quebec and, ultimately contributed to the increasing rise of separatism in the province.

In any case, by 1979, his efforts to alter the constitution in the direction defined in 1965 had had no results as all federal proposals fell to the now concerted attacks of several of the provinces; the constitutional process was becoming even more complex by the entrance of western provinces into the fray and by increasing restlessness of Natives who wished to see their problems and concerns addressed and their rights enshrined into the constitution.

The year 1980 was to prove of great importance. On May 20, 1980 a referendum was held in Quebec over the future of the province, and the people of Quebec were asked to give the mandate to their provincial government to negotiate sovereignty-association. While Trudeau played a rather modest part in the debate that took place, he did make two very public appearances at federalist gatherings, during the referendum, and committed himself and his government to “renewed federalism”. The use of these terms in Quebec in the context of the referendum appeared to signal a softening of policy, and a dedication to commit the federal government to some form of decentralisation and to a formal recognition of the special character of Quebec in the constitution. The words conveyed in Quebec a clear image and must have been chosen precisely to provoke the positive reaction that it did in the end. Without any specific promise having been made,  clear expectations were, nevertheless, raised.

Thus, one should not be surprised with the sense of loss, distress and betrayal that the constitutional package offered by Trudeau in 1981 caused in the province. Not only were most (if not all) of the traditional decentralist constitutional demands made by Quebec not met, but the package did not include a constitutional veto for Quebec, nor a recognition of its specific character, and contained a clause specifically designed to invalidate an article of the popular Charte de la langue française (Bill 101). Understandably, the Levesque government refused to accept and sign the new constitution and the province was constitutionally isolated. Trudeau, and his disciples, have always contended that Levesque, as the separatist premier of Quebec, would never have signed a deal in any case; he also denied that the new constitution did any harm to Quebec and claimed that the Charter of Rights and Freedom would prove to be as much of benefit to Quebecers as it would be to other Canadians. In Trudeau’s mind, the Charter of Rights was to be a central piece in developing a common sense of canadianism all across the country.

As we examine the situation in 1998, the consequences of Trudeau’s actions in 1981-1982 seem enormous. For years the province availed itself of the notwithstanding clause found in the Charter of Rights to render its operation impossible in the province. Since 1982, six separate provincial governments, some federalist, some separatist, have refused to sign the constitution and have all demanded that changes be brought about. Nationalism and separatism has continued to grow and now commands the support of the majority of French speaking Quebecers (the last referendum was only lost by the separatists by a margin of 50.5% to 49.5%). The Liberal Party of Canada that had commanded the majority support and the loyalty of Quebecers in every single federal elections held since 1896, except for the lone election of 1958, has been unable to elect but a handful of candidates in the province ever since. For several years,  the majority of the federal seats in the province have been held by the Bloc Québécois, a separatist party.

Trudeau appeared for a last time onto the constitutional stage at the time of the Meech Lake Accord. The Accord devised by the Mulroney government, and accepted by the ten provincial premiers, in April of 1987, in an atmosphere of euphoria and reconciliation, was torpedoed by Trudeau and his political followers. Perhaps more than the 1981-82 failure, the fiasco of Meech generated for many Quebecers a sense of disgust toward the federal system and Canada. Trudeau’s responsibility in this event was considerable and is well known. He remained faithful to himself. His attacks on the Accord were biting, hurtful, sometimes telling, but also frequently very unfair.

Trudeau’s vision of Canada, and of the place of Quebec within it, will long be debated. His strong dedication to Canada has never been put in doubt. His programs to promote the equality of the French and English languages in Canada now command the support of a large majority of Canadians. The entrenchment of basic rights into the constitution, and the patriation, are now objectives shared by most Canadians. He has won a place for francophones in the federal government and in the civil service. He also did much to bring the federal government closer to the people of Quebec. These gains are very important. At any other time of our history, they would have been hailed as milestones. But as we examine the country so close to a potential break-up, we must reach the conclusion that what was done was still too little and, sometimes, too late.

There was in Trudeau a love of country and a commitment to ideals that were very profound. But there was also an inflexibility of character, an inability to accept compromise, an annoying habit of distorting and simplifying his opponents’ views and a devil-may-care attitude about consequences of his decisions and actions. He could be the most rational debater but at the same time be rude and crude. He seldom showed respect for those who did not agree with him. Only time will tell whether he will be seen as the greatest of Canadians or as one of the contributors to the destruction of Canada.

© 1998 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College