Today in Canada's Political History: Pierre Elliott Trudeau Responded to the Premiers and Defined the Country

  • National Newswatch

Today it is my distinct pleasure and honour to welcome my friend, Peter Biro, as my guest columnist on Art's History. Peter is Founder of Section 1 -- a civil society and civics education initiative -- a lawyer, writer, educator, businessman, Chair Emeritus of the Jane Goodall Institute, Global Editor of Constitutional Democracy Under Stress: A Time For Heroic Citizenship, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.  In his column he recalls what many consider to be one of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's greatest speeches, delivered on this date in Peter L. BiroGreat political speeches can be effective instruments of masterful leadership when they are employed in the service of an ambitious mission, informed by a grand vision, at time of high stakes and in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  And the greatest of political speeches seek to bend history's arc even as detractors caution that bending will lead to breaking.Forty-one years ago, at the Conference of First Ministers in Ottawa convened for the purpose of reforming the country's constitutional arrangement, then Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau made just such a speech, one that explained the past, defined the future and connected the two.Coming on the heels of the first Quebec Referendum, in which Trudeau promised that a “No” vote would be met with a renewed Confederation, and following calls by the Premiers for more powers for the provinces and fewer for Ottawa, Trudeau put it squarely to the Premiers that they must not use such demands as bargaining chips in the grander mission to patriate the Constitution and to give Canadians a Charter of Rights and Freedoms (what he called, a “People's Package”).Nine years after Victoria, where Premier Robert Bourassa had nixed Trudeau's effort to achieve successful constitutional reform, and following Trudeau's renewed exhortation to the Premiers to put the People's Package and Patriation ahead of all haggling over the division of powers, Trudeau would again be denied the prize; but not without having made an unassailable case for the cause and not without having laid down the marker:  “[The] point I want to make . . . is that this haggling, this bargaining between politicians of more power for me or more power for you should not be brought over into the people's package, the package which doesn't give power to either of us, but which gives power and hopefully satisfaction to the people”.Within two years of this speech, Canadians had their Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they had their own, made-in-Canada, Constitution with an amending formula, and they had a renewed, albeit still imperfect and not fully resolved, Confederation.  But one of the truly important speeches it was.Arthur Milnes is an accomplished public historian and award-winning journalist.  He was research assistant on The Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney's best-selling Memoirs and also served as a speechwriter to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and as a Fellow of the Queen's Centre for the Study of Democracy under the leadership of Tom Axworthy.  A resident of Kingston, Ontario, Milnes serves as the in-house historian at the 175 year-old Frontenac Club Hotel.