Prime Minister Stephen Harper is on "the wrong side of history" by failing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms to avoid stirring up lingering resentment in Quebec, says former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow.
In an interview with Evan Solomon, host of CBC’s Power & Politics, Romanow believes bitter divisions have dissipated over time, and that Harper is in a "very, very small minority of Canadians" not marking the occasion as a historic milestone.
"I’m saddened a bit that the prime minister would not recognize it as an important contribution to Canada’s nation-building, an articulation of our values and our responsibilities," he said. "However, he’s entitled to his point of view."
The prime minister called the 30th anniversary an "interesting and important step," but noted the charter remains inextricably linked to the patriation of the constitution — and divisions around that remain "very real."
Harper also noted the charter had roots in the Bill of Rights established by former Progressive Conservative prime minister, John Diefenbaker, in 1960.
Romanow suggested the statements were unnecessarily partisan in tone.
"There will be separatists who don’t like the process or perhaps even the substance – what can we do about that, except to explain in Quebec and elsewhere to Canada and elsewhere in the world that this country is one of the greatest, most fair-minded, most opportunity-filled nations in the world?" he said.
"I think that’s what we should be celebrating, and harbouring, in fact, raising the spectre, I find it tough to accept that a prime minister would raise it."
Solomon also asked Romanow about NDP Leader Tom Mulcair’s support for a 2002 motion by the Parti Quebecois reaffirming that the Constitution Act was unacceptable for Quebec. Mulcair was a Liberal MNA at the time.
"I think when you are a prime minister, when you are a leader of the official opposition, you are working off what has been accomplished," Romanow said. "Imperfectly, I admit, but basically a tremendous product accomplished in the sense of building another block for strengthening the unity of this country."
Romanow was Saskatchewan’s attorney general and intricately involved in the high-stakes political negotiations in the run-up to the patriation of the constitution in 1982. Failure to bring home the constitution would have had "unconscionable and unfathomable" consequences for Canada, he said.
In the two-part, one-on-one interview on the 30th anniversary of the charter, Romanow also recounted details of the secret negotiations and political drama that characterized the run-up to the patriation of the constitution. He also offered his own account of the famous "Night of the Long Knives" — when politicians negotiated the final draft of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.