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Dr. Howard Leeson gives insight into the events leading to Patriation

Dr. Howard Leeson gives insight into the events leading to Patriation

Howard Leeson and The Patriation Minutes

Article: Liam Fitz-Gerald – Contributor

[dropcaps round=”no”]T[/dropcaps]hree decades ago, Federal and Provincial leaders met in Ottawa to discuss the patriation of the Canadian constitution from Great Britain. On the Federal side, Liberal prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, wary from the 1980 Quebec sovereignty referendum and a perception that the Provinces were growing too powerful, sought to create a constitution that would strengthen Ottawa, and include a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that would transcend regional identities. On the provincial side, eight provinces, including Quebec separatist premier Rene Levesque, opposed Trudeau’s attempt to create a stronger Federal government. In November 1981, the first ministers of Canada met in Ottawa to discuss Patriation, with a last minute deal coming on the fourth day of the meeting. Dr. Howard Leeson was there.

The Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Regina was Deputy Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs in the Allan Blakeney’s NDP government during the Patriation talks. Leeson took detailed minutes during the meeting, highlighting discussions over different patriation formulas, resources and charter rights, as well as the clash of personalities. His 2011 book, The Patriation Minutes, which captures these moments so succinctly, came out three decades after the aforementioned events.

“On the thirty-year mark, I was part of a conference that was coming up at the University of Alberta of people who were there [at the 1981 conference] and it seemed to me that it was time to give these minutes to the archives,” Leeson says, highlighting that there was misinformation floating around about the First Ministers conference and he was trying to correct the record.

“They simply felt that the interests of Canada as a whole were better served by coming to an agreement, and once they recognized that, they were drawn together,” Leeson says, pointing out that regional differences were initially a stumbling block.

Indeed, it took premier Alan Blakeney to bring together premiers like Peter Lougheed of Alberta and Bill Davis of Ontario, who, despite being Conservatives, were divided by regional differences.

Indeed, Leeson is critical of Trudeau’s role during the conference, pointing out that the Prime Minister seemed more interested in fighting with the Parti-Quebecois than negotiating the constitution. This was frustrating to the other premiers who came to come to an agreement.

“I think, fundamentally, he didn’t want an agreement. I think he had a [particular] view of Canada and Quebec and what was needed to fight separatism. He would have preferred to have a referendum over the constitution in Canada,” Leeson said.

Yet, when the English premiers reached an agreement on patriation, Quebec was outraged. On the third night of the meeting, the English First ministers and delegates came to an agreement on patriation, gave it to Trudeau the next day, and it was accepted. Quebec was not contacted, as it was felt that they would not agree to anything and they would get the package the next morning. This event, known as “knight of the long knives,” is premised on Quebec’s “betrayal” by English premiers siding with Trudeau against Quebec.

However, Leeson says that not talking to the PQ allowed an agreement to be reached and maintains it was a good decision to not talk to them during the night. With the PQ not present, the first ministers and their deputies quickly came to agreements and put a package together that evening.

“Quebec’s fundamental interest was to have no agreement, that was their goal.” Leeson said, highlighting that Levesque planned to use either Trudeau’s unilateral actions or the expected deadlock between the premiers to further his separatist agenda.

Leeson believes his experience in government sharpened him as an academic.

“For a University professor, this experience is incredible to have and I strongly urge people in academe to do both the practical and academic side of things,” he says, mentioning that he has drawn upon his own experiences for his lectures as a professor.

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