In April 1982, in a public ceremony on Parliament Hill in
Ottawa, Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau
signed the Constitution Act, marking the end of a process that
was so unusual that a word had to be invented to describe it.
The Canadian constitution had been “patriated” — brought home
from Great Britain.
From its beginning, Canada had a constitution, but it did not
belong to Canada. The British North America (BNA) Act, an 1867
law of Britain’s Parliament, was Canada’s founding document, yet
it could only be changed with the permission of the British
Trudeau believed passionately that Canada’s long journey from
the embrace of the British Empire was incomplete without
constitutional independence. However, Canada is a federal state
where political authority was shared between the national and
provincial governments. Prime ministers and provinces had been
trying for more than half a century to find a consensus solution
that would make it possible to Canadianize the BNA Act.
Trudeau’s own attempts in the 1970s had been unsuccessful.
After 1980, Trudeau was determined to patriate the constitution,
no matter what. He invited the provincial premiers to Ottawa in
September 1980, but rapidly concluded that they were demanding
far too much in return for their backing. Trudeau warned the
premiers that he would ask London to pass the necessary
legislation to bring the BNA Act home to Canada without
provincial consent, adding to his request a charter defining the
inalienable rights and freedoms of every Canadian citizen.
“I am telling you now,” Trudeau angrily told the provinces,
“we’re going to go it alone. We’ll go to London, and we won’t
even bother asking a premier to come with us.”
The Supreme Court ruled that Trudeau had the legal right to do
this but the court warned that to proceed this way would
contradict Canadian history and custom. The British themselves
gave hints that they might not be willing to send the
constitution to Canada unless they had an assurance that there
was strong provincial support for patriation.
Trudeau then decided on another federal-provincial conference.
In November 1981 he met with provincial leaders in Ottawa,
knowing that a coalition of eight of the 10 provinces was
against him. The “gang of eight,” as they were called, included
René Lévesque, the separatist premier of Quebec and Trudeau’s
Trudeau and Lévesque had clashed in the 1980 Quebec referendum,
in which a proposal for Quebec independence was defeated by a
large margin. That
gave Trudeau another incentive to remodel the constitution, as
he had promised he would if his fellow Quebeckers rejected
As the participants in the November 1981 constitutional
conference bargained, the gang of eight broke apart. Lévesque
found himself alone. He woke up on the final morning of the
conference unaware that the Canadian government and the other
nine provinces had reached an agreement the previous day and
night without his knowledge and participation. He left Ottawa
feeling outmaneuvered, betrayed and humiliated.
The government and legislature of Quebec did not agree to the
patriation of the constitution, and they haven’t yet. Two
subsequent efforts to renegotiate the constitution with Quebec’s
cooperation, the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, ended in
The British North America Act of 1867 was the basis of the new
constitution that Trudeau signed in April 1982, along with all
of the amendments to the BNA Act that had gone through the
British Parliament over the years as the country grew and
changed. The most important innovations in the 1982 Constitution
Act were a series of precise formulas for amending the
constitution, Trudeau’s Charter with landmark guarantees of
rights and freedoms and enhanced powers for the provinces in the
area of natural resources.
The Constitution Act is difficult to alter. Most changes require
the approval of the Canadian Parliament and seven of the 10
provincial legislatures; the provinces that agree to any
amendment must in turn make up at least 50 percent of the
overall population of Canada.
Amendments having to do with the Queen, the Governor General and
fundamental aspects of the structure of the House of Commons,
the Supreme Court and the use of the official languages of
French and English can only be authorized with the consent of
Canada’s Parliament and the legislatures of all 10 provinces.
Any one of the 11 parliaments, for example, could kill a
proposal to end Canada’s longstanding ties with the monarchy.
The patriation of the constitution was Trudeau’s greatest
victory. He had succeeded in the constitutional wars where
others had failed, and Canada finally had its declaration of
independence from Britain. Yet there was bitterness in Quebec at
having been left aside.
It lingers still.
Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs
at Carleton University. Eugene Forcey’s How Canadians Govern
Themselves, available on the Library of Parliament website, is
an excellent summary of the Constitution Act, 1982. John English
tells the dramatic story of the patriation of the constitution
in Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau 1968-2000
(Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2009).
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