Why Margaret Thatcher wasn’t there when Canada’s Constitution came home

Pierre Trudeau needed the British prime minister’s help to patriate the Constitution. So why wasn’t she on Parliament Hill for Canada’s big day? 
By Steve Paikin - Published on Oct 29, 2019
Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Queen Elizabeth
The Queen signs Canada's constitutional proclamation in Ottawa on April 17, 1982, as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looks on. (Rod Poling/CP)

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Last week’s 43rd federal election certainly provided us with an opportunity to analyze Justin Trudeau’s political legacy. But the timing of the election also deprived the country of a chance to reconsider the legacy of another Trudeau.

Pierre Trudeau’s 100th birthday landed on October 18, just three days before election day. And, so, the University of Toronto’s Massey College hosted a daylong retrospective on the elder Trudeau’s life last week, offering some fresh insights into a man whose career might have been dissected more than any other politician’s in Canadian history.

One session that caught my attention focused on Trudeau’s efforts to repatriate Canada’s Constitution with an accompanying Charter of Rights and Freedoms — the highlight of his final term in office from 1980 to ’84. By this time, Trudeau had already been in office for more than a decade, and his relationships with other foreign leaders were well cemented.

“He made few friends in the White House,” offered Charles MacMillan, a senior adviser in Brian Mulroney’s prime minister’s office. “There was indulgence on behalf of the Americans, but certainly not close friendship.” Trudeau’s prime ministership covered some or all of the presidencies of Richard Nixon (who called him an “asshole”), Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan.

But as the conference heard, perhaps the most intriguing relationship Trudeau had with a foreign leader during his last term in office was with Britain’s prime minister — and so-called Iron lady — Margaret Thatcher, who appreciated the intellect of her Canadian counterpart.

Trudeau was determined to see an end to the bizarre predicament that resulted from the Constitution’s being an act of the British parliament: Canadian governments could not make significant changes to it without requesting the motherland’s permission. Trudeau thought it was completely unacceptable for a mature democracy to live under such conditions and was determined to “bring the Constitution home.” To do so, however, he needed to get approval from the Thatcher government — and that required some tricky diplomacy.

Trudeau recaptured his majority government in February 1980. In June, he met with Thatcher in hopes of getting her onside with his Constitutional agenda. Trudeau knew that Britain’s opposition leader James Callaghan supported it (“If Canada asks the United Kingdom for something, the United Kingdom should pass it,” Callaghan said).

But Thatcher had a relatively small majority government, and it was known that some of her Conservative party backbenchers weren’t keen on the idea of parliamentarians ceding power to the judiciary, as Trudeau proposed to do with his Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“They were parliamentary fundamentalists,” says MacMillan.

“You’ll have lots of trouble there,” the U.K.’s high commissioner to Canada once warned a group of Canadian MPs.

“There was high dudgeon over this” is how MacMillan put it at the conference.

Thatcher also understood Canadian politics: a unilateral action by the federal government simply wasn’t on. She knew that a significant amount of provincial endorsement (whatever that meant) would be required. At the time, only two premiers — Ontario’s Bill Davis and New Brunswick’s Richard Hatfield — were on board, and that surely wasn’t enough provincial support by anyone’s measure. So Thatcher found herself in the unhappy position of being stuck between an ambitious prime minister and some recalcitrant premiers. And both sides wanted her to do their bidding.

Eventually, of course, things worked out. At the 11th hour, at the First Ministers’ Conference in Ottawa in November 1981, Davis essentially gave Trudeau an ultimatum: if he didn’t accept the opposing premiers’ idea of a “notwithstanding clause” in the Constitution, Ontario would withdraw its support for the PM’s agenda. Trudeau could hardly go back to Thatcher claiming he had substantial provincial support with only New Brunswick in his back pocket.

And, so, Trudeau compromised, and the deal was done — yes, without the support of separatist Quebec premier René Lévesque, but with the endorsement of 73 of Trudeau’s 74 Quebec MPs. 

Tom Axworthy, Trudeau’s principal secretary, told the conference that the PM always gave credit to three women for getting the British government onside: Queen Elizabeth, Margaret Thatcher, and Jean Casselman Wadds, a former Canadian MP who was Canada’s high commissioner to the U.K. at the time.

On a rainy April day on Parliament Hill in 1982, someone was conspicuous by her absence at the signing ceremony. Queen Elizabeth was there. Trudeau was there with senior cabinet ministers and mandarins on stage. But the woman Trudeau would refer to as the “Mother of Confederation” was absent.

“Mrs. Thatcher was invited and intended to come,” MacMillan said at the conference. “But there were no hard feelings that she didn’t come, and Trudeau thought it was a job well done on her part.”

In fairness, Thatcher was preoccupied with a major foreign-policy crisis that had just unfolded on her watch. Two weeks before the Canadian signing ceremony, Argentina had invaded the Falkland Islands, which were (and still are) a British overseas territory. Three days later, Thatcher sent a convoy of British military forces to the region. Ten weeks later, the war ended, but not before claiming the lives of 649 Argentine soldiers and 255 British soldiers.

This explains why the “Mother of Confederation” was not in the picture — Thatcher’s absence from Parliament Hill was thus totally understandable.

“It was a respectable excuse,” concludes MacMillan.

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