Parliamentary reporter Karl Nerenberg opens 2018 with a special historical series, which looks forward to the coming year in politics by looking back. In this collection of articles, we travel back through 50 years of history, one decade at a time. Read the full series, spanning 1968-2018, here.
As 1988 began, Progressive Conservative (PC) Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had been in power nearly four years.
He was first elected in a huge landslide in 1984, with more than half the popular vote (rare in Canadian federal elections) and 211 out of 282 seats. But by 1988, Mulroney was mindful of what had happened to his PC predecessor John Diefenbaker.
Diefenbaker, too, had come to power, in 1958, after a long period of Liberal rule. He had impressed the country with his rhetorical confidence, and won a huge majority of seats, with a clear majority of votes. By the time of the next election, in 1962, however, it was just about all over for Dief. Lester Pearson’s Liberals won the popular vote, but Diefenbaker clung to power with a bare plurality of seats. Within a year, the PC leader would be out altogether. A new Liberal dynasty would replace Diefenbaker’s relatively brief Conservative interlude.
By 1988, Mulroney’s government had acquired its share of bumps and bruises. There was a series of scandals, mostly involving ministers with scant political experience. Montreal MP Suzanne Blais-Grenier, whom Mulroney had named minister of the environment, got in trouble for her international travel, for cuts to her own department, and for challenging the government when it did not prevent closure of a Montreal oil refinery. In the end, Mulroney kicked her out of his caucus — and she was not the only MP he lost to controversy or incompetence during his first term.
Mulroney had also spent a goodly amount of political capital in an effort to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold with, in his words, “honour and enthusiasm”.
Trudeau, Levesque and the ‘night of long knives’
In 1981, all provinces, save Quebec, had gone along with a modified version of Pierre Trudeau’s package of major constitutional changes. Chief among those were two: the capacity for Canada to make future constitutional amendments without recourse to the British parliament; and a charter of fundamental rights and freedoms for all citizens. The latter included, at the behest of many provinces, the still-contested notwithstanding clause, which allows governments to pass laws that are counter to many, but not all, of the provisions of the charter.
The new amending formula stipulated that seven provinces out of 10, representing at least half the population, would have to agree to certain classes of amendments, while unanimity would be necessary for other amendments. There was no explicit veto for Quebec. That was a big sticking point for that province, led by the first leader of the separatist Parti Québécois, René Levesque.
Trudeau did not concern himself with Levesque, whom he had just decisively defeated in the 1980 referendum. The result in that vote was a thumping 60 per cent “no” to 40 per cent “yes”. Levesque had managed to get himself re-elected a year later, despite the referendum loss. In way, Trudeau welcomed the separatist’s re-election. The PM could now proceed to change the constitution, his long-time ambition, without (as he would have seen it) kow-towing to Quebec’s traditional demands. Had the federalist Quebec Liberals defeated Levesque in 1981, the entire constitutional process might have been quite different.
What did happen in the 1981 constitutional round was that, after forming a shaky alliance with a number of other provinces to oppose Trudeau, Levesque found himself out in the cold.
At a key point during a tense televised negotiating session involving all first ministers (with no women or Indigenous Canadians at the table), Trudeau suggested to Levesque that they break the impasse by letting the people decide. The PM offered to put his proposed constitutional amendments to a vote in a national referendum.
Levesque naïvely believed Trudeau’s offer was a blunder. The Quebec premier was confident Quebeckers would never vote to give up powers and rights their province was always deemed to have, and he quickly accepted Trudeau’s challenge.
Levesque’s English Canadian allies were quite mortified, however. The last thing they wanted was to fight a still popular Pierre Trudeau in a referendum campaign. They did not fancy having to explain to their own people why they opposed a charter of fundamental rights for all citizens and a made-in-Canada process for amending the constitution.
The referendum ploy worked like a charm for Trudeau. As he put it at the time: “the cat is now among the pigeons.”
During a flurry of talks in the middle of that same night, Trudeau’s justice minister, Jean Chrétien, and the federal government’s provincial allies (which included Ontario) convinced the recalcitrant, but now quite nervous, English-speaking provinces to sign on to a deal, while the Quebec delegation slept at its quarters across the river in Hull. It was only when morning came that Levesque found out he and Quebec were isolated. He felt genuinely betrayed, and did not mince words. To this day, the most widely accepted Quebec view is that the rest of Canada stabbed Quebec in the back during what they call the “night of long knives”.
Applying balm to the national wound
Three years after that tumultuous night, Brian Mulroney, who grew up in predominantly French-speaking Baie Comeau and who studied law at Laval in Quebec City, sincerely believed the 1981 constitutional reform had created a wound in Canada that might never heal. When, in 1985, the federalist and Liberal Robert Bourassa took power in Quebec, Mulroney saw his chance. He now had a ready and willing partner in Quebec. Together they would apply a soothing balm to the wound Trudeau had so insouciantly inflicted on the country.
In 1987, Brian Mulroney gathered the premiers, famously, at one of the loveliest spots in the national capital region, a bluff overlooking Meech Lake in the Gatineau Hills. There, they considered the set of demands Bourassa had presented — the price he required to sign on to the constitution — and, in large measure, accepted them.
Bourassa’s chief and most important demand was the famous (or infamous, depending on one’s point of view) clause declaring Quebec a distinct society within Canada. That idea goes back a long way in Canadian history, to the Quebec Act of 1774, although Quebec Liberal premier Jean Lesage, one of the chief authors of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, might have been the first to utter those exact words.
The words distinct, and the other similar word often used at the time of Meech, unique, are neutral in French. They have neither positive nor negative connotations. In English, however, their meanings — or, more exactly, their connotations — have been altered and augmented over time. In English, “distinct” does not now merely connote specificity or difference. It has come to imply a superior, higher status. “Unique”, meanwhile, has almost lost the original, literal meaning it still has in French: the sole or only one. By the late 20th century, to be “unique” meant one was quite special, and often privileged. A good many in English speaking Canada resented the prospect of recognizing Quebec as “unique” and “distinct”. Those words connoted, to many, that Quebec and Quebeckers would become, in some undefined way, better than the rest of us.
In addition, with his willingness to enshrine distinct society status for Quebec in the constitution, Mulroney had revived a notion earlier Conservatives such as John Diefenbaker had vehemently opposed, that of so-called special status for Quebec. In Lester Pearson’s time, the early 1960s, it was the Liberals who had embraced the notion of Quebec’s special status. Diefenbaker would fulminate against it, muttering warnings about “balkanizing” Canada. Pearson’s successor, Pierre Trudeau, put a halt to all that special status talk. Trudeau, like Dief, opposed any specific and targeted arrangements for Quebec, even if such arrangements had been part of the fabric of the country since Canada’s earliest days. Quebec had always had its distinct civil law system, for example.
It was a notionally retired Trudeau who, at first, led the charge against Mulroney’s constitutional deal. He called the PC prime minister a weakling ready to give away the store to whining provinces, especially his own province. For a while, though, Trudeau’s was a lonely fight. His successor as Liberal leader, John Turner, supported what seem like a broad consensus on Meech, as did the New Democrats’ Ed Broadbent.
In any case, by the time of the 1988 election, constitutional change was still only a backburner issue, bubbling slightly, but not overflowing. It would explode in Mulroney’s face only well after that election. An early warning sign of that coming explosion was the presence of a new party on the ballot (in 72 out of 282 ridings), the western-based Reform Party, headed by the son of a onetime Social Credit premier of Alberta, Preston Manning. Reformers were not much of a factor in 1988. They won zero seats. But their nearly three per cent of the popular vote, and fourth place finish, was a harbinger of things to come.
In part 2, we look back to the origins of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Canada, Mexico and the United States are now attempting to renegotiate that treaty, which got its start as a Canada-U.S. pact in 1988.
Photo: Government of Alberta/Flickr
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