Saskatchewan

Premiers, not Trudeau, key to Constitution deal, author says

A Regina political scientist says it was the premiers of the day, not Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who were responsible for the deal that led to the patriation of Canada's Constitution.

More credit due to premiers than either Pierre Trudeau or René Lévesque, author says

A new book by political science professor Howard Leeson credits the premiers for the reaching an agreement on the Constitution in 1981. (Submitted to CBC )

A Regina political scientist says it was the premiers of the day, not Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who were responsible for the deal that led to the patriation of Canada's Constitution.

Howard Leeson was Saskatchewan's deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs during the negotiations that took place 30 years ago.

"I give more credit to the premiers than I do to either Pierre Trudeau or René Lévesque," Howard Leeson told CBC News in an interview Friday about his new book The Patriation Minutes.

Leeson says many accounts of the patriation effort focus on Trudeau's determination to succeed, while others spend a lot of time examining how Quebec was ultimately left out of the agreement.

He says his view — highlighting the role of the premiers — is based on his own 100 pages of notes, from inside the meeting rooms.

Leeson was told to take notes by Saskatchewan's then-premier Allan Blakeney, who insisted a good record be made of who said what.

Leeson said, based on his notes, it was apparent that Trudeau and Lévesque went into the meetings with no intentions of agreeing to anything the other put forward.

"There seemed to be no way to bridge the gap between Quebec and the federal government led by Pierre Trudeau," Leeson recalled.

"They each wanted to have one more political fight," he added. "The premiers, actually, are the ones that got together and in essence put the deal together."

Leeson said Trudeau and Lévesque were not engaged in that.

"There was not a willingness on either side — that of Trudeau or Lévesque — to actually do this," he said.

Leeson said the key people in reaching a deal were former Ontario premier Bill Davis, former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed and Blakeney.

He said it was their efforts that ultimately led to an agreement.

Trudeau keen to fight

Leeson said, with a deal in place among nine premiers, the group had to ensure Trudeau would not scuttle it due to Quebec's exclusion.

"The prime minister really wanted to have that one more fight [with Lévesque]," Leeson said. However, with nine premiers agreeing to a deal, Trudeau would have had a difficult time.

"When you have nine premiers presenting a solution, you can't come out of the hall and say to the people of Canada, 'Oh, there is a package here but I'm not agreeing to. We're having a referendum fight anyway,'" Leeson said.

"So the prime minister ... became a more minor player in his own play," he said.

He said the agreeing premiers knew Quebec would not change its position.

"After they had put the deal together that night, they pretty well understood that Rene Lévesque couldn't be a father of confederation," Leeson said. "He likely would say no, and he did." 

Leeson also observed, up close, the dynamic of Trudeau and Lévesque whose mutual animosity was real.

"There is a dislike," Leeson said. "But it's not a dislike in the sense of two relatives fighting and can't stand each other."

Leeson said any notion that the premiers were simply bystanders in the patriation effort is wrong.

"They've gotten too little credit," he said. "They were active contributors."

Leeson quickly added that Jean Chrétien, the federal minister of justice at the time, and Roy Romanow, Saskatchewan's minister of justice of the day, were also key figures.

Leeson is now a professor of political science at the University of Regina.

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