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Inventing Canada in the Mulroney Years

  • George Feaver

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‘IF THE STATE DID NOT EXIST, WE WOULD HAVE TO INVENT IT. Comment.’ Few of the responses to this examination question qualified its suggestion that the state might be amenable to instantaneous contrivance or conscious design. The oversight on the part of my undergraduate charges pointed to the still potent legacy of a generation of Canadian political artificers whose projects of inventing the Canadian state had abetted the rise of a species of ‘constitutional politics’ given to the ever more elaborate concoction of comprehensive solutions to Canada's vexing constitutional shortcomings. These projects tended to politicize historically embedded elements in the constitutional order, serviceable if imperfect, which had been conventionally regarded as resistant beyond redemption to improved reformulation. This new-style politics was at centre stage in the long and eventful prime ministerial years of the Liberal Party's Pierre Trudeau, the great Cartesian inventor par excellence of the contemporary Canadian state. It would remain a central feature of the nine-year incumbency of Trudeau's Conservative Party successor, Brian Mulroney. Trudeau's vision of a reinvented Canada had proceeded from his background preparation for public life as an academic constitutional lawyer. Mulroney, aiming to finesse what the more cerebral Trudeau could not, would bring to bear on the affairs of the Canadian state the skills of a labour lawyer with the know-how to get Canada's perennially fractious provinces and interest groups to the political bargaining table, there to resolve once and for all any constitutional differences still outstanding.

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1 For background, see my ‘Letter From Canada’, Government and Opposition, Vol. 23, No. 4, Autumn 1988, pp. 471–86.

2 Russell, Peter, Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians Be A Sovereign People?, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1992, p. 11.

3 One close observer of the Canadian scene has noted how curious has been ‘the detached, unappreciative Canadian attitude to one of the most durable and successful constitutions in the world’. Cairns, Alan C., ‘The Living Canadian Constitution’, in Blair, R. S. and McLeod, J. T. (eds), The Canadian Political Tradition, Toronto, Methuen, 1987, pp. 316.

4 Burke, Edmund, ‘Letter to a Noble Lord’, cited in Willetts, David, Modem Conservatism, London, Penguin Books, 1992, p. 151.

5 Peter Russell, op. cit., p. 190.

6 Human Development Report 1992, Published for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), New York, 1992, Chapter 1.

7 Cairns provides perhaps the most comprehensive and insightful perspective on the changing face of Canadian federalism and the evolving political scene in Canada. See his Constitution, Government and Society in Canada (ed. Douglas E. Williams), Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1988; Disruptions: Constitutional Struggles, from the Charter to March Lake (ed. Douglas E. Williams), Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1991; and Charier versus Federalism: The Dilemmas of Constitutional Reform, Montreal, McGill‐Queen's University Press, 1992.

8 Cairns, Alan, ‘The Charter, Interest Groups, Executive Federalism, and Constitutional Reform’, in Smith, David E., Peter MacKinnon and John Courtenay (eds), After Meech Lake: Lessons for the Future, Saskatoon, Fifth House Publishers, 1991, p. 15.

9 For many years prior to the first Mulroney electoral victory in 1984, Quebec had been a political preserve of the federal Liberals. Put simply, the price of dislodging the Liberals was an alliance with Quebec nationalists. But with the looming failure of Meech, Mulroney's pequiste lieutenant Lucien Bouchard left the federal Conservative caucus to form a new party, the Bloc Quibecois, a sort of federal counterpart to the provincial Parti Quibecois. Mulroney felt deeply betrayed by his former friend and the Bloc is expected to hurt the Conservatives in Quebec in the upcoming federal election. Meanwhile, in Western Canada, disaffected former federal Conservatives and others who believe Quebec to be the spoiled child of Confederation, joined together in a new Reform Party, which is poised to hurt the Conservatives in the West. The West has also recently given birth to a new National Party led by prominent Canadian English‐language nationalist, Mel Hurtig. So much for the fruits of Mulroney (and Trudeau) style ‘constitutional polities’.

10 Premiers Design New Senate, Deal Being Forged for a Whole New Way for Parliament to Work, ran the headline of Toronto's Globe and Mail for 20 August 1992, capturing the spirit of the day.

11 He added that the proposals were irreversible once adopted, that they would ensure that Canada would never succeed in breaking down barriers to interprovincial trade in order finally to achieve an internal common market, and that, once adopted, the Charlottetown Accord would ensure that Canada would never get rid of the ‘notwithstanding clause’ which had been the political cost of getting the 1982 constitutional agreement accepted, but which still remained as its chief flaw.

12 New York, Doubleday, 1967. Lipset has also been for many years a close student of Canada. Of relevance here is his recent Continental Divide, The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada, New York, Routledge, 1990.

13 New York, Doubleday, 1978. The title, at least, of another of Wills's books, Nixon Agonistes, The Crisis of the Self‐Made Man, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1970, is itself not without relevance to the public persona of Brian Mulroney –‘not bad for a boy from Baie Comeau’– throughout his years in Canadian federal politics.

14 New York Times, 16 February 1993, p. A8.

15 Winning the nomination by acclamation for his original Quebec riding of Shawinigan, Liberal leader Jean Chretien told a cheering crowd: ‘Unlike the Bloc QuSbecois, I won't talk about the Constitution … I think the people have had it up to here with that … They want to know what can be done to create jobs.’Globe and Mail, 26 April 1993.

16 Governing Under Siege, Macleans, 8 March 1993, pp. 16–18.

17 In the months following his February resignation statement, Mulroney's dogged defence of his record on national unity, culminating in a seventy‐minute speech on 28 May to hundreds of Conservative supporters at Ottawa's Chateau Laurier Hotel, made clear that in his view, the real enemy1 of his constitutional dreams was not separatists, nor populists, but Mr Trudeau and his legacy.

18 Galbraith, J. K., The Scotch, Penguin Books, 1966, p. 145.

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  • George Feaver

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