Constitutional Timeline: 1980-1982

Constitutional Timeline: 1980-1982

1980

A May referendum on Quebec sovereignty wins only 40.4-per-cent support.

On June 10 the federal government tables a “Statement of Principles for a New Constitution” in the House of Commons:

We, the people of Canada, proudly proclaim that we are and shall always be, with the help of God, a free and self-governing people. Born of a meeting of the English and French presence on North American soil which had long been the home of our native peoples, and enriched by the contribution of millions of people from the four corners of the earth, we have chosen to create a life together which transcends the differences of blood relationships, language and religion, and willingly accept the experience of sharing our wealth and cultures, while respecting our diversity. We have chosen to live together in one sovereign country, a true federation, conceived as a constitutional monarchy and founded on democratic principles. Faithful to our history, and united by a common desire to give new life and strength to our federation, we are resolved to create together a new constitution which: shall be conceived and adopted in Canada, shall reaffirm the official status of the French and English languages in Canada, and the diversity of cultures within Canadian society, shall enshrine our fundamental freedoms, our basic civil, human and language rights, including the right to be educated in one’s language, French or English, where numbers warrant, and the rights of our native peoples, and shall define the authority of Parliament and of the legislative assemblies of our several provinces. We further declare that our Parliament and provincial legislatures, our various governments and their agencies shall have no other purpose than to strive for the happiness and fulfilment of each and all of us.

The government also outlines “Priorities for a New Canadian Constitution;”

The time has come for the Government of Canada and the governments of the provinces to join together in the task of drafting a new Canadian Constitution. As it enters upon that task, the Government of Canada is dedicated to a full review of all constitutional measures now applying to our federation. The whole task constitutes a great enterprise and will take time to achieve. Not all of it can be accomplished at once, nor can we wait until all of it is done to demonstrate to the people of Canada that tangible progress is being made. The Government of Canada believes, therefore, that intensive work should now begin on a list of items of particular priority to the people of Canada and to governments, with the understanding that some or all of these could well become the subject of early adoption as parts of the new Canadian Constitution. The list of proposed items is this: A statement of principles A charter of rights, including language rights A dedication to Sharing and/or to Equalization: the reduction of regional disparities The patriation of the constitution Resource ownership and interprovincial trade Offshore resources Fisheries Powers affecting the economy Communications, including broadcasting Family law A new Upper House, involving the provinces The Supreme Court, for the people and for governments The government also proposes that the leadership of the native peoples continue to be involved in the discussion of constitutional changes which directly affect the native peoples, in the context of the joint work on the item “Canada’s Native Peoples and the Constitution”. In addition, governments would pay special heed to representations from them on the items in the package set out above.

After announcing the plan for a joint committee, Justice Minister Jean Chrétien kicks off debate on unilateral patriation on Oct. 6:

 

1981

The Supreme Court rules that Ottawa has the legal right to push forward alone on patriation, but historical convention requires substantial consent from the provinces.

A constitutional conference takes place in Ottawa in early November. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, supported by Ontario and New Brunswick, has to contend with the “Gang of Eight” of premiers who oppose patriation without their consent.

The so-called “kitchen accord” between Attorney General Jean Chrétien and his Ontario and Saskatchewan counterparts (Roy McMurtry and Roy Romanow) leads to agreement on the “notwithstanding clause” in exchange for the premiers dropping their demand to “opt out” of federal programs and receive equivalent funding. Quebec Premier René Lévesque refuses to sign the accord.

On Nov.5, Trudeau addresses the House of Commons after reaching the agreement. Opposition Leader Joe Clark and NDP Leader Ed Broadbent respond to the prime minister’s speech:

On Nov. 20, Chrétien, Clark, and Broadbent take part in the debate on the final resolution concerning patriation:

Here is how the federal government described those tense days in “The Constitution and You,” a pamphlet designed to inform Canadians about patriation:

“It wasn’t easy. Along the way, we were subjected to long and often angry debate .. the 11 first ministers resumed bargaining in early November of 1981, and in our uniquely Canadian way the breakthrough came with the kind of consensus that had eluded our leaders for more than half a century. The constitutional impasse was at last broken. Canada was finally able to complete the process of gaining full independence that had begun nearly 115 years ago.”

 

1982

The Canadian Constitution formally comes home on April 17, 1982. Canada finally acquires full national sovereignty and the ability to amend the country’s most fundamental laws without the say or approval of the British Parliament at Westminster.

Trudeau calls it “not the completion of our task, but the renewal of our hope. Not so much an ending, but a fresh beginning.”

Queen Elizabeth travels to Ottawa to sign the Constitution Act, severing Canada’s legislative link to Great Britain. Patriation was one aspect of the new constitution; the other was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — a protected set of rights and freedoms that went beyond previous legislative measures.

The Queen signs a proclamation to bring the Constitution Act into force. It incorporates the BNA Act and adds several items, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an amending formula, the equalization principle, and greater provincial control over natural resources.

-Andrew Thomson