The Battle of London: Trudeau, Thatcher, and the Fight for Canada's Constitution

  • National Newswatch

If you have any book lovers on your shopping list, here's an idea: political junkies, history buffs and the tortured souls who have followed (or participated in) Canada's constitutional travails will almost certainly enjoy The Battle of London: Trudeau, Thatcher, and the Fight for Canada's Constitution.Frédéric Bastien, a journalist, historian, and professor of history at Montreal's Dawson College, has authored a well-researched look at how Pierre Elliott Trudeau set about repatriating the Constitution (and making Canada fully independent) following the 1980 referendum. As someone still nursing wounds from the Charlottetown constitutional round, I was curious as to what inspired him to tackle this subject and interested in his take on Trudeau's constitutional odyssey.When we met, Bastien readily acknowledged that he never expected to spend eight years researching and writing the book. Fortunately, it's clear that the countless hours he invested in tracking down old briefing notes and studies, poring over documents, interviewing players and confirming details were key to making the book a very thorough and interesting chronicle of one of the seminal moments in Canada's political history.Recognizing that there were very few Canadian journalists in London during the early 1980s, Bastien made it his mission to include the British side of the story in his recounting. He acknowledges encountering several surprises along the way, including learning just how much time and energy some of the Brits invested in considering how to deal with the file.Bastien says that while it might have been reasonable (and perhaps typically humble) for a Canadian to think the initiative was of little interest to Brits, the fact is that for some players on the British side it became a hugely complicated and time-consuming issue. Margaret Thatcher had pledged to support Trudeau's mission to repatriate the Constitution but, with some of her cabinet restless, the British Labour Party looking for opportunities to embarrass her and successive high commissioners to Canada raising concerns about PET's constitutional project, the entire enterprise became a big headache for Britain's prime minister.Bastien admits that he was not a fan of Pierre Trudeau and that he has never regarded the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a great idea (he sees little value in the Charter and views it as having been a divisive, time-consuming distraction which resulted in a hierarchy of rights and contributed to the 'legalization of politics'). Despite this, the author largely succeeded in preventing his personal views from influencing his account.There is no denying that Pierre Trudeau is a compelling, if controversial, figure in Canada's political history. His patriation mission, a fascinating time, has been extensively studied -- but usually with less focus on the British perspective. Bastien has done an admirable job of chronicling how Réné Levesque's PQ government mounted its 'charm offensive' in London and how Canada's native leaders petitioned British MPs to ensure their interests were not ignored. His extensive research has helped to ensure this would be an interesting account of the political intrigue surrounding a key event in Canada's history. But it was Bastien's particular commitment to including perspectives of key British players which makes the book a unique and compelling read for political history enthusiasts and constitutional junkies.Following is a brief excerpt recounting how key parties responded to the Manitoba Court of Appeal's verdict that Ottawa didn't require provincial consent to send a request for constitutional change to London.


THE FEDS STRIKE BACK When Trudeau began his patriation project, he'd started strong in the sum