"The Night of Long Knives"
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"The Night of Long Knives"
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"The Night of Long Knives"
Political intrigue highlights Canada's struggle to bring home its constitution
In the early 1980s, Canada's attempt to bring home its constitution became a dramatic game of high-stakes politics, culminating in a night of political intrigue.
On April 17, 1982, Queen Elizabeth II came to Ottawa to proclaim the new Constitution Act for Canada. Pictured here, the Queen and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau signing the Constitution. (National Archives of Canada, PA-141503)
On April 17, 1982, Queen Elizabeth II came to Ottawa to proclaim the new Constitution Act for Canada. Pictured here, the Queen and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau signing the Constitution. (National Archives of Canada, PA-141503)

"I have been stabbed in the back during the night by a bunch of carpetbaggers," Quebec Premier René Lévesque later wrote of the events of November 1981.

The unfolding of what Lévesque dubbed "The Night of Long Knives" began in spring 1980 when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau turned his attention toward a lifelong goal; to bring home the Canadian constitution.

The British North America Act, which had brought Canada into being in 1867, was a statute of the British Parliament. Trudeau was determined to bring home a revised constitution so Canadians no longer needed Great Britains approval in order to change it. His vision of the Constitution included a charter of rights and freedoms, which would protect citizens against arbitrary actions by their governments.

But Trudeau's dream wasn't shared by all. Most provincial premiers opposed Trudeaus sweeping charter of rights proposal. They feared it would diminish their influence, transferring power from elected politicians to non-elected judges.

"Trudeau represents the centralizing of Canada," Lévesque observed, "literally crushing provinces into a federal mode. That cannot go for Quebec."

Only Conservative Premiers Bill Davis of Ontario and Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick supported Trudeau. The others premiers formed an alliance against him, soon known as the Gang of Eight.

Without the support of most premiers, Trudeau threatened to take his constitutional case to England alone.

"Im telling you gentlemen," Trudeau said to the premiers at an official dinner at the Governor Generals residence on September 7, 1980, "Ive been warning you since 1976 ... were going to go it alone ... well go to London and we wont even bother asking a premier to come along with us."

The Gang of Eight mounted a fierce challenge to Trudeau's threat and took it all the way to Supreme Court. The final judgment left almost everyone dissatisfied. The Court ruled Trudeau's constitutional initiative was not illegal but according to Canadian convention there should be a substantial number of the provinces agreeing with the federal government. "Substantial" was never defined.

In November 1981, Trudeau held a last chance meeting with all the premiers in Ottawa.

The Gang of Eight was determined to stick together. But Trudeau was ready for a game of high stakes politics.

"I could either prove to the Canadian public that the eight were being completely unreasonable and then go ahead alone ... or I could break the solidarity among the eight and go .... with the support of a substantial number of premiers, which I supposed would be anywhere between five and nine of them."

For two days, in closed-door meetings, the Gang of Eight held together. On the third day, with no deal in sight, Trudeau pitched one last proposal.

"Why dont we get patriation first, nobody can object to that-then give ourselves two years to solve our problems over the amending formula and the charter, and failing that, consult the people in a referendum?"

Lévesque felt the challenge was directed at him.
Shortly after the 1980 Quebec sovereignty referendum, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, pictured here with Quebec Premier Ren Lvesque, turned his attention to a lifelong goal: to bring home the Canadian constitution.
Shortly after the 1980 Quebec sovereignty referendum, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, pictured here with Quebec Premier Ren Lvesque, turned his attention to a lifelong goal: to bring home the Canadian constitution.

"In an insinuating and provocative tone, Trudeau pushed me to the wall", Lévesque wrote in his memoirs. "You the great democrat', he said 'Dont tell me youre afraid to fight. At the time, he seemed really sincere. All right, ' said."

The other premiers were horrified. The last thing they wanted was a referendum because they knew Trudeau had Canadians on his side. The unity of the Gang was collapsing.

That night, Trudeau went home and the premiers retired to their rooms in Ottawas Château Laurier Hotel, except Lévesque, who was staying across the river in Hull. In his memoirs, Lévesque recalls telling the others before he left for the hotel, "If anything new comes up, dont forget to call us."

They didn't call. Instead there were anxious gatherings in hotel rooms and hallways. After midnight, the minister of Justice, Jean Chrétien, who was the point man for the federal government, worked with the attorneys general from Saskatchewan and Ontario, Roy Romanow and Roy McMurtry, to find an acceptable deal.

They discussed diluting Trudeaus charter of rights, allowing provinces to override the charter. The "notwithstanding" clause" would allow provinces to declare particular laws exempt from the provisions of the charter. Trudeau had already rejected this watering-down. But during the night, Chretien, Romanow and McMurtry locked in the final agreement that included the override Trudeau hated.

But Trudeau's only two allies, premiers Hatfield and Davis, agreed to the compromise position. Then Davis convinced a reluctant Trudeau he had to take it if he wanted a deal.

The late-night bargaining included another change: the deal dropped Lévesques prized opting-out clause, which would have allowed the province to opt out of shared federal-provincial programs but receive equivalent funds to set up its own programs.

Lévesque, across the river in Hull, was not informed of the unfolding events. When he arrived late for a premiers breakfast the next morning, he found that a new deal had been drafted during the night.

Lévesque was incensed.

"We had been betrayed, in secret, by men who hadnt hesitated to tear up their own signatures, and without their even taking the trouble to warn us," Lévesque said, though he, too, had broken their pact by agreeing to a referendum.

The new deal was signed by Trudeau and nine of the premiers that morning. Only Lévesque refused to endorse it. Lévesque didnt say anything. He just got up from his chair, spun around, and walked out.

"Behind his Oriental impassivity," Lévesque observed, "One could feel Trudeau literally rejoicing. He had put one over on us."

There are conflicting interpretations of what had happened. Trudeaus supporters argued that Lévesque was committed to separation and would not have accepted any agreement to patriate the Constitution.

But Lévesque and his supporters saw the agreement as a betrayal, one in which English politicians had conspired against Quebec. Lévesque left the conference, denouncing the premiers and their role in what would be characterized as "The Night of the Long Knives."

On April 17, 1982, Queen Elizabeth II came to Canada to proclaim the new Constitution Act on Parliament Hill.

On that day, René Lévesque ordered the Quebec flag to be flown at half-mast.

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