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Trudeau promises a renewed Confederation

Do you want "a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations"? That was the heart of the question placed before the people of Quebec in the May 20, 1980 referendum. René Lévesque's Parti Québécois was asking Quebecers for a mandate to negotiate "sovereignty-association", an idea that inflamed federalists and separatists alike. CBC Archives looks back at the vote that divided a province and changed a nation.

In theory, the battle for Quebec is between Parti Québécois Premier René Lévesque and Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan. But with the referendum less than a week away, it's clear that the last, best hope for the No forces is Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Trudeau's last and most important stop is an enormous Montreal rally. As we see in this clip, his stirring speech is equal parts attack on Lévesque, and unprecedented promise of constitutional reform. 
. In 1979, after 11 years as prime minister, staunch foe of separatists Pierre Trudeau found himself out of the prime minister's office and Joe Clark in. The Parti Québécois viewed Clark as less of a threat, but didn't count on his government falling after just nine months in power. Trudeau returned to office as Prime Minister of a Liberal majority government.

. Trudeau was careful to let Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan spearhead the No campaign, but when he did get involved (claiming to do so as a Quebecer, not as prime minister) he was extraordinarily effective. Trudeau made no tour of the province, and gave only four speeches (April 15 in Ottawa, May 2 in Montreal, May 7 in Quebec City and May 14 at Montreal's Paul Sauvé Arena - the site of René Lévesque's 1976 victory.)

. At this final stop, Justice Minister Jean Chrétien introduced Trudeau as "the pride of Quebec and the pride of Canada." Trudeau gave a speech that some say turned the tide of the campaign, and charted a new course for constitutional reform in Canada.
. "In one of the great Canadian speeches of the 20th century, Trudeau brilliantly personified the appartenance canadienne, the sense of belonging which most Quebecers shared," said L. Ian MacDonald in a review of Canada's greatest prime ministers for the journal Policy Options.

. A few days earlier, René Lévesque told journalists that the referendum was showing Trudeau's "Elliott side." Trudeau leaped on the ethnocentric remark.
"Of course my name is Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Yes, Elliott was my mother's name. It was the name borne by the Elliotts who came to Canada more than two hundred years ago." (Trudeau's mother was of mixed Scottish and French decent.) "My name is a Quebec name, but my name is a Canadian name also, and that's the story of my name."

. Trudeau cited the names of other influential French-Canadian political families with Anglo-Saxon names, including the Johnsons, Ryans and O'Neills. "Well, that's contempt for you, my friends, to say that the Quebecers of the No are not as good Quebecers, and have perhaps a little bit of foreign blood," Trudeau said. "That is what contempt is, and that is the division that has been created in a people, and that is what we are saying No to!"

. Most importantly, Trudeau used the occasion to vow that he and his Quebec MPs would "place our seats on the line" for constitutional reform if the No side won.
. "I'm telling you in other provinces that we will not agree to your interpreting a Non vote as an indication that everything is fine and can remain as it was before," Trudeau said.

. Quebecers took this as a promise of fundamental change to Canadian Confederation. But Trudeau never spelled out what he meant.
. "But what change?" Lévesque complained. "The sphinx kept his secret."
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News
Broadcast Date: May 14, 1980
Guest(s): Jean Chrétien, Pierre Elliott Trudeau
Reporter: Mark Phillips
Duration: 2:07

Last updated: January 11, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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