Pierre Elliott (E.)
Trudeau, Quebec and the Canadian Constitution
Department of History,
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.
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.
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 Lesages 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.
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 Trudeaus 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 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.
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.
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.
The Constitution ought to be patriated to Canada.
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.
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.
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.
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 Trudeaus mind, the Charter of Rights
was to be a central piece in developing a common sense of canadianism all across
As we examine
the situation in 1998, the consequences of Trudeaus 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.
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. Trudeaus
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.
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.
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.
Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College