Saturday, September 21, 2013

Dirty deeds and they’re done dirt cheap!

Constitutional repatriation Canadian style: in the middle of the night with a gang of thugs!

As I begin to write this it is Canada Day. Fortunately, nothing much will happen around where I live, except a fair amount of moving. However, in Canada, there is most likely much celebration, fanfare and many people saying they are “proudly Canadian,” but proud of what exactly?  In an attempt to justify that pride, I will look into two episodes of Canada’s glorious history, namely Newfoundland’s inclusion in Canada and the Constitutional repatriation. Luckily for me, two books recently came out dealing with these events. The first is Don’t tell the Newfoundlanders, by Greg Malone (2012), and the second is La bataille de Londres by Frédéric Bastien (2013). I choose these episodes not only because of the recent books, but also because of the striking similarities between them. In both cases we see deception, duplicity, collusion between the British and Canadian governments motivated by the belief that the end justifies the means and might makes right. They show a consistent modus operandi for the Canadian government.

Canada’s territorial expansion

Malone’s book is essentially a string of declassified secret memoranda from the Canadian and British governments, with some exposition in between. It makes for fascinating, if somewhat tedious, reading. Nevertheless, he makes it abundantly clear that neither government had any intention of letting the Newfoundland people truly decide their own future and every intention of manipulating the political process so as to make the annexation of Newfoundland to Canada a virtual certainty. Malone also makes clear their motivations. Canada wanted to expand her empire (as cheaply as possible, it must be said), and Britain wanted to acquit the war debt she owed to Canada. Both governments wanted emphatically to rid the island of the American influence that had implanted itself during the Second World War on account of their base there. They certainly did not want Newfoundlanders to get any ideas of independence coupled with some form of economic union with the United States.

Malone begins with an overview of Newfoundland’s history. He points out that Newfoundland is not Britain’s oldest colony, as many people seem to think, but rather her oldest possession. Britain was more interested in the fishing off Newfoundland’s shores than in Newfoundland herself. In spite of this, Newfoundland has always been a staunch ally of Britain, faithfully supporting her during two World Wars. Throughout his book, Malone depicts the people of Newfoundland as honest, hard-working and virtuous (well, if you don’t count the unfortunate business about the extermination of the Beothuks, that is (Lester, 2002)). All this makes Britain’s callous abandonment of Newfoundland to Canadian interests as part of her geopolitical game simply scandalous.

Still, in spite of everything Newfoundland continued to evolve and develop from a fishing colony in the sixteenth century to a full Dominion by 1907, just like Canada and Australia. Unfortunately, in the years leading up to the 1929 Crash saw a collapse of the markets for Newfoundland’s fish, and the Great Depression sent its economy in a tailspin. The British would only help Newfoundland pay its debt if she would submit to a royal commission and accept its finding on Newfoundland’s financial and political situation. Not to worry, said Newfoundland’s Prime Minister Frederick Alderdice, because he promised that no recommendation would be implemented without the approval of the electorate. This promise was never kept.

The commission resulted in what became known as the Amulree report. Pretexting that Newfoundland’s huge debt was due more to supposedly rampant corruption than the Great Depression or Newfoundland’s expenses during the First World War, it recommended that Newfoundland’s legislator be suspended and replaced a Commission of Government, to be supervised directly from the UK. But not to worry, again, because responsible government would be restored as soon as Newfoundland’s situation improved and the people demanded it, said the report.  Of course, this never happened. The Commission of Government was sworn in on February 16, 1934.

After the War, with prosperity returning to Newfoundland, the question of Newfoundland’s status came up again. Canada and Britain decided that her “natural” destiny lay within Canada and they were determined to make it happen. So instead of reinstating responsible government, the British created the National Convention tasked to give advice on the future of Newfoundland. But its terms of reference specifically mention that the National Convention could only discuss, it had no power to negotiate anything. And since the Commission of Government was a creation of the British government and could not represent the people of Newfoundland in this matter, this created a real problem. The future of Newfoundland was being decided yet it couldn’t formally negotiate anything with anybody.

The Convention could send delegations on fact finding visits, which it did. It sent a delegation to London, then to Ottawa. There was talk of sending a delegation to Washington in order to explore the possibility of a special trade relationship between Newfoundland and the United States. The British shut this suggestion down … for some reason. Malone produces secret memoranda from the Canadian government entreating the British to offer no hope to the Newfoundlanders for British aide or assistance, and the British were happy to comply. The reception in London was cold and even rude. The British made it clear how little the Newfoundlander’s could expect from them.

As the reception in London was cold, the one in Ottawa was warm, even gushing. The “discussions” that went on were really unofficial negotiations, much to the delight of the pro-Confederation members of the delegation, chief among them the zealous and hyperactive Joey Smallwood. Anyway, all this led to the first referendum, where people were asked to choose between (a) Commission of Government for a further period of five years (b) Responsible Government as it existed in 1933 prior to the establishment of Commission of Government, or (c) Confederation with Canada. First of all, why was the year 1933 mentioned in option (b), as this would bring up memories of the Great Depression?  It’s as though they wanted to associate Responsible Government with an economic calamity. Worst of all, the choices aren’t clear!  What comes after the Commission of Government for five year?  As for Confederation with Canada, on what terms is this to be implemented?  I’m sure Stéphane Dion will look into this!

The results of the first referendum are as follows: Commission of Government got 14%, Confederation with Canada received 41% and Responsible Government obtained 45%. By the standards of our electoral system Responsible Government should have won. But when the powers that be in Ottawa and London want something, they find a way of fiddling with the rules until they get what they want. So there was a second referendum to decide between Responsible Government and Canada. Joey Smallwood led the pro-Canada campaign with limitless funds from wealthy Canadian business men, whereas the opposing side had to raise money from donations. This time, the Confederation with Canada option obtained a “clear” and overwhelming majority of 52%! To this day, hearsay persists in Newfoundland about vote tampering, but we will never know since a number of them were burned shortly after the vote. And the rest, as they say, is history…

1981: The year of the rat

We now turn to the second great episode of Canadian history: the constitutional repatriation of 1982 and the machinations leading up to it. Bastien’s book starts, as it must, with the 1980 referendum in Quebec on sovereignty-association. After a campaign where the federal government overspent and tried to frighten people into voting NO (Conway, 1995), Pierre Trudeau made the following promise at the Paul-Sauvé centre six days before the vote (the translation and italics are mine):

The government of Canada, the governments of all the provinces have already clearly spoken. If the answer to the referendum question is “no,” we have all said that that “no” will be seen as a mandate to change the constitution, to renew federalism… A “no” means change…

I am speaking solemnly to all Canadians from the other provinces. We are putting our heads on the block, we, MPs from Quebec, because we are telling Quebeckers to vote “no”. And we are saying to you of the other provinces that we will not accept that that “no” be seen afterwards by you that all is well and that things can stay as they were before.  We want change; we are placing our seats on the line for change!

The reference to renewed federalism is important because in the context of the time it was understood to mean greater autonomy for Quebec, either by some special status or greater decentralisation. Trudeau knew this and his use of that term while intending the exact opposite is a clear case of deception on his part (Laforest, 1995). The reference to the other provincial governments is also significant because as Bastien reminds us, the premiers of Ontario (Bill Davis), British-Columbia (Bill Bennett), Saskatchewan (Allan Blakeney), Alberta (Peter Lougheed) and New-Brunswick (Richard Hatfield) visited Quebec during the campaign to endorse Trudeau’s message. So Quebec was deceived and betrayed, by Trudeau first and foremost but also by these premiers, some of whom were Lévesque’s allies during the constitutional negotiations the following year. In this sense, Lévesque was betrayed by these men regardless of what may or may not have happened during the night from the 4th to the 5th of November 1981, when five of his seven allies went off to strike a deal with Trudeau’s bipedal lap dog Jean Chrétien without informing Lévesque.

What Trudeau did not promise was imposing a charter on Quebec and Canada. I mention this because Trudeau wanted the British to repatriate the British North America Act with a charter of rights tacked on. Trudeau told the British that the charter was necessary in order to fulfill his promise to Quebec. It was a manipulative lie, but at least that was better than threats. Indeed, one thing that comes through clearly in Bastien’s book is the amount of bullying the British were subjected to. Canada would become a Northern Ireland across the Atlantic, it would become a republic, and it would make life difficult for the British diplomatically and economically if they would not pass the charter. The British needed this much coaxing because there is something about a charter of rights that is very antithetical to the British parliamentary system. In that system parliament is supreme, but a charter that allows a group of judges to strike down any law passed by parliament is a direct threat to its primacy.

The arm-twisting in the case of repatriation is in sharp contrast with the annexation of Newfoundland, where the two governments were generally on the same wavelength. What the two cases have in common is a denial of logic. Just as it was logical to give Newfoundland responsible government first and then negotiate with it to decide Newfoundland’s future, it was also logical to ask the British to repatriate the BNAA only and submit the adoption of the charter to Canada’s political process. Logic was defied in both cases for the same reason: it would entail a loss of control. Canada might not get what it wants as quickly and as cheaply as it would like, or not get it at all.

So Trudeau’s repatriation project was in real trouble in London. The dissident provinces led an effective lobbying effort that turned many Labor and Conservative MPs against the charter. But Trudeau had allies, most notably the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher, who was determined to give Trudeau what he wanted. And Trudeau had other, more troubling allies. At that time Canada’s Supreme Court was tasked with ruling on the legality of the repatriation project. Two judges, Bud Estey but mainly the Chief Justice Bora Laskin, took it upon themselves to inform British and Canadian authorities on the state and tempo of the deliberations within the Court. By knowing the speed and nature of the deliberations the federal government had an unfair advantage over the provinces. Laskin even went so far as to assure Canadian and British officials on his support for the charter.

This is Bastien’s main revelation and it is huge. It is a flagrant violation of the separation between the judiciary and the executive and it taints the entire repatriation process. Laskin’s defenders reply that he didn’t say anything important. This is untrue and also irrelevant, because he shouldn’t have said anything at all. This is the kind of transgression that, in another context, could lead to a mistrial or overturn a conviction. And this is much more serious than that because an entire nation, Quebec, is subject to a constitution that it did not sign as a result of these backroom shenanigans.

Furthermore, Bastien bases his claim on recently declassified documents from the British Foreign Office, and they leave little to the imagination. Indeed, the language is usually quite plain, such as an official reporting something like “met Laskin the other day and he told me such and such”. So Bastien makes a very convincing case on the basis of British documents. He does occasionally refer to Canadian documents, but their contents are inconsequential. He was denied access to high-level Canadian documents, such as those from the Prime Minister’s Office. This is both strange and typically Canadian. It’s strange because there is no reason for secrecy. We are talking about constitutional reform. It concerns all Canadians. We are not talking about military secrets. Surely, the Canadian government didn’t do anything unethical, did they?  And besides, it’s been over thirty years since the events in question.

And yet, it is typically Canadian because Canada is basically an empire struggling to maintain itself. Just like the law, history is made to serve this struggle as much as possible by the federal government. That is why the Conservative government refused to make public those documents on the grounds that it didn’t want to stir up old quarrels, while at the same time spending considerable resources celebrating and glorifying the War of 1812!  On logical grounds, the secrecy is indefensible. If the Trudeau government did nothing wrong, then there is no reason not to disclose the documents. If it did, then the people of Quebec have a right to know. When Bastien’s revelations came out, the Supreme Court, clearly worried, issued a terse statement saying that it would investigate the allegations. After a while, the Supreme Court announced that there is nothing to worry about since it could not find any evidence of wrongdoing in its internal documents. Because, you see, if Laskin and Estey had done something unethical they surely would have written it all down!

May all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out” says the Emperor Claudius

Reclaiming history

As we have seen in this essay, Canadian pride rests largely on selective amnesia and overblown achievements. Fortunately, writers like Malone and Bastien help us to lift the shiny monuments and see the worms crawling underneath. Or as the Emperor Claudius in I Claudius would say, so that all the poisons that lurk in the mud may hatch out. I would like to end this essay by commenting on these books, starting with the one by Malone. First of all, Malone often refers to the ambitions of “central Canada”, by which he means Ontario and Quebec indiscriminately, as though they form a monolithic bloc. He conveniently ignores the fact that at that time Quebec was effectively run by the Anglo oligarchy based in the West Island of Montreal. It was they who wanted the riches of Newfoundland, not Quebec as a whole. True, the annexation was completed under Prime Minister Louis Saint-Laurent from Quebec, but if Newfoundland could have a self-serving toady in the person of Joey Smallwood, why can’t Quebec have one in Saint-Laurent (and many others)?  I can only hope that Newfoundland patriots won’t give in to the knee-jerk Francophobia so prevalent in Canada, and see in Quebec an ally in their struggle against Canadian imperialism.

Finally, Malone ends his book by saying that if Newfoundland had a responsible government, it would be independent (the best option) or would have negotiated better terms with Canada. I find this last option hopelessly naive. If the Supreme Court wants to screw you over, they will find a way as they did recently to the Francophone School Commission of British-Columbia by digging up an old British law from 1731. Whatever advantages Newfoundland might have obtained would have been whittled down over time.

As for Bastien’s book, the thing that struck me most was Trudeau’s thoroughly unpleasant personality. He struck the British the same way, who described him in none too flattering terms (neurotic, paranoid). Lies, manipulation, dishonesty, demagoguery, arrogance, deception, vindictiveness, nothing was out of bounds when it comes to putting Quebec in its place. It wasn’t enough simply to win, he had to crush his opponents for all time. I found one incident particularly telling. On June 25th 1980, Trudeau met Thatcher and they discussed, among other things, the possible opposition of the provinces to Trudeau’s repatriation plan. After the meeting, a journalist asked Trudeau if the possible opposition of the provinces was discussed and he flat out denied it. He said that the subject never came up. Not only was this lie so blatant, it was also unnecessary since Thatcher agreed with Trudeau and pledged her support. His lie angered the British and got Trudeau into trouble when it was eventually leaked to the media.

So why did he lie?  We can only guess that Trudeau thought that the lie would insure his dominance over the provinces by suggesting that they were not even worth the mention. If true, this would suggest a deep seated insecurity in Trudeau masquerading as bravado. Maybe Trudeau had a tumor the size of a tennis ball pressing down on the ashamed-of-where-you-come-from center of his brain, thereby explaining his pathological contempt for Quebec. Who knows?  What’s important is that the truth, however incomplete, is coming out. Books like those from Malone and Bastien, and others, help to break through the thick sugar coating on Canada’s official history. 


F. Bastien, La bataille de Londres, Éditions du Boréal, 476 pp. (2013)
J. F. Conway, Des comptes à rendre, VLB Éditeur, 273 pp. (1995)
N. Lester, Le livre noir du Canada Anglais 2, Éditions des Intouchables, 302 pp. (2002)
G. Laforest, Trudeau and the end of a Canadian dream, McGill-Queens University press, 217 pp. (1995)
G. Malone, Don’t tell the Newfoundlanders, A. A. Knopf Publ., 314 pp. (2012)


  1. There’s no doubt about it. History is not made of fanfare, red carpets and the savvy quirks of our politicians. Nor is it made in the press. It usually is made by people who take the time to access available information, 30, 40, or 60 years after the fact, research it and give us the best picture possible.
    So please take a few minutes out of your daily routine and read this excellent review of two recent books, written by people who did take the time…

  2. I am one of those whose library is extensive and I am also one who highlights the high points of books good and bad. In Greg's case I am on my 2nd highlighter as I find a lot of his info would be important for future reference/writing of my own. "We won the battle but we lost the war" comes to mind when reading anything pro or con of Newfoundlands place in history. I think it was Tom Cahill who once said," We've lost the railway, we've lost the fishery and the forestry is not at all looking good. LOL! Britain as it is did not get to be an Empire without a plan. To fight back would be like a game of cat and mouse and we all know who'd lose that one. Excellent review and most entertaining and knowledgeable. Thank You.

    Roderick Brentnall

  3. 'nice to read from you again, veritasEtjusticia ;)

    « Canadian pride rests largely on selective amnesia and overblown achievements » .. Priceless !!