Pierre Trudeau's Essay on the Quebec Referendum, by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, former prime minister of Canada.
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Pierre Trudeau's Essay on the Quebec Referendum, by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, former prime minister of Canada.

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By Pierre Elliot Trudeau


I Accuse Lucien Bouchard of having betrayed the population of Quebec during last October's referendum campaign. By distorting the political history of his province and of his country, by spreading discord among it's citizens with his demagoric rhetoric and by preaching contempt for those Canadians who did not share his view, Lucien Bouchard went beyond the limits of honest and democratic debate.

Truth must be restored in order to rehabilitate democracy in Quebec - this, I shall do by examining some of Mr. Bouchard's assertions between Oct. 14 and 27, 1995.


Mr. Bouchard's Assertion:
"Countless negotiations have been held between Quebec and the rest of Canada over the past 30 years. All have failed..... Others have profited from our political weakness...." (Oct. 14, 1995 - Center Communautaire de St.Justin, Rosemount)


In 1964, in 1971 and in 1981, it was the government of Quebec that sabotaged the negotiations by going back on its word. The Meech Lake Accord, in 1990, is a different matter, and I shall address it later.

  1. In 1962, Premier Jean Lesage, with the strong support of his minister Rene Levesque, had negotiated and signed the Fulton-Favreau accord to patriate the Canadian constitution. In 1964, Mr. Lesage changed his mind and repudiated the accord. . In 1971 Premier Robert Bourassa negotiated a constitutional agreement giving Quebec a veto as well as several other linguistic and legal benefits. The Canadian government convinced the premiers of the other provinces to accept this agreement. When the time came to sign the "Victoria Charter" Mr. Bourassa announced to his colleagues that he had new requests to present and that he needed a brief delay for tactical purposes. A few days later, he announced that he no longer wished to sign the agreement that he, himself, had negotiated and proposed.
  2. On April 16, 1981, Premier Rene Levesque signed, with seven other provinces a constitutional agreement recognizing that Quebec was a province like all others, and did not have a constitutional veto ("this amending formula....recognized the constitutional equality of each of Canada's provinces'). The objective of this agreement was to force the Canadian government to resume negotiations with a solid bloc of eight provinces.

This tactic would eventually constitute an almost insurmountable obstacle to the patriation of the constitution once the Supreme Court of Canada in September 1981, declared that that, as conventions dictated, the Canadian government could not patriate without a "substantial level of provincial consent." The Gang of Eight's solidarity was broken on Nov. 4, 1981, when during a negotiation meeting and without warning his colleagues, Rene Levesque accepted a proposal from Canada's prime minister to resolve the constitutional stumbling block through a referendum. By going back on his word to his seven allies, Mr Levesque forced them to regroup in a common front without him.


Mr. Bouchard's assertion:

"For 30 years, the fundamental reason why.... we were never able to convince English Canada (to concede) even Quebec's smallest historical demands is not that we sent people who were not good negotiators. we had the best ones. we had Rene Levesque." (Oct. 18, 1995 - St. Leonard)


Let us first examine the question of demands and then that of the negotiators.

  1. The true "historical" demands of French Canadians consisted essentially of one thing: respect for the French fact in Canada, mainly in the areas of language at the federal level and of education in the provinces where francophones were a minority. Thus the first two demands of premier Lesage, presented in July 1960 at the start of the Quiet Revolution, were : first, to reopen negotiations for patriating the constitution and its amending formula, and second, to adopt, within the constitution, a charter of fundamental rights, including the linguistic and educational rights of French speaking minorities outside Quebec.

    Despite Mr. Bouchard's assertion, the Fulton-Favreau formula satisfied the first requirement; the Victoria charter satisfied the first one fully and the second one partially; and the Constitution Act of 1982 entirely satisfied both requirements. In the three cases, these traditional demands were abandoned by successive Quebec governments when they went back on their word.

  2. Let us examine the question of negotiators where , as Mr. Bouchard said, "we had the best ones." More particularly, how can one explain that Mr. Levesque, the master negotiator - who only had to hold his own for a few more hours to turn to his advantage the enormous enterprise of constitutional revision which had started in 1967 and was to end on Nov. 4, 1981 - could suddenly betray the Gang of Eight's accord to accept my offer of a public consultation via a referendum? Though this question will doubtless never be answered, I offer the following hypothesis. Did he fear I would accept their proposal ? Mr. Levesque would then have been caught at this own game since, by signing this accord, he had supported a patriation formula, which included neither a distinct- society clause, nor a veto for his province.

But then how can we explain that he then reneged on my referendum proposal which he had accepted a few hours before? Was he negotiating in good faith, or rather, was he trying to sabotage any federal-provincial co-operation designed to solve the constitutional problem?


Mr. Bouchard's assertion:

"Although there was an alliance with Rene Levesque to reach a reasonable agreement, these seven English Speaking provinces... abandoned him in the course of one night." (Oct., 23, 1995 - CEGEP de Limouilou)

It should first b noted that when Mr. Bouchard speaks of a "reasonable agreement" he does not know what he is talking about. This agreement explicitly rejected both the notion of distinct society and that of a veto, two items which Mr. Bouchard is constantly seeking for Quebec.


The 'Night' in question is of course that of the so-called "Long Knives," a label shamelessly borrowed from Nazi history by separatists suffering from acute paranoia. ( See note)

What really happened? When Rene Levesque betrayed his allies of the Gang of Eight by accepting my referendum proposal, he lost his credibility with them. The seven English speaking premiers were in disarray and the session was adjourned to the following day, Nov. 5. But it should be underlined that the seven English provinces did not, as Mr. Bouchard says abandon Mr.Levesque. Rather, it is Mr. Levesque who abandoned them. He plunged the knife into the heart of the very accord he had signed less than seven months earlier. And when Mr. Bouchard, in his Oct. 25 speech to the nation , says that (Mr. Levesque's) "so called allies...went to meet Jean Chretien in an Ottawa hotel room in the middle of the night, " this is historical falsehood.

Here is how the newspapers reported these events at that time:

As soon as the meeting was adjourned, around noon on Nov. 4, Mr. Levesque is quoted as saying "For us, it (the Trudeau proposal) seems to be a respectable and extraordinarily interesting way of extracting ourselves from this imbroglio" To which Claude Charron, one of his ministers, added: "For us, it is the ideal solution." Le Devoir reported that "at that point, the Quebec delegation was jubilant and , at the risk of offending its partners of the Common Front, did not hesitate to climb on board with Ottawa." (Le Devour, Nov. 5,1981)

The "Risk of offending its partners" was not an imaginary one, the Quebec delegation finally realized in the afternoon of Nov. 4. This led Rene Levesque to repudiate my referendum proposal without any explanation other than saying "It is all Greek to me." Michel Vastel, a journalist then with Le Devoir, wrote: "By the end of the day , the bridges were burning between Levesque and his former allies." He added that later, while everyone thought agreements were under discussion, "a senior Quebec official, who had been asked why he did not make a last-ditch effort to keep the provinces together, glumly answered: 'After what has happened this morning, we have lost all credibility'" (Le Devoir, Nov. 6, 1981)

For more details on the press commentaries, see Le Desaccord du Lac Meech in max Nemni's book Le Quebec et la Restructuration du Canada (pp. 177-179) and William Johnson's A Canadian Myth (pp. 180-183).

Continue to Part Two

  • Originally published in the Montreal Gazette, Feb 3, l996.


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