It's been 37 years since this seminal moment in Canada's democratic history
On April 17, 1982. Canada acquired full national sovereignty and the ability to amend the country’s most fundamental laws without the say or approval of the British Parliament at Westminster. Queen Elizabeth travelled to Ottawa to sign a proclamation, bringing the Constitution Act into force.
The patriation process incorporated the 1867 British North America Act into the new Constitution and added the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an amending formula, the equalization principle, and greater provincial control over natural resources.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau called it “not the completion of our task, but the renewal of our hope. Not so much an ending, but a fresh beginning.”
But it emerged from a complex, arduous and often bitter negotiating process. Here’s how the federal government described those days in “The Constitution and You,” a 1982 pamphlet designed to inform Canadians about patriation:
It wasn’t easy. Along the way, we were subjected to long and often angry debate … the 11 first ministers resumed bargaining in early November of 1981, and in our uniquely Canadian way the breakthrough came with the kind of consensus that had eluded our leaders for more than half a century. The constitutional impasse was at last broken. Canada was finally able to complete the process of gaining full independence that had begun nearly 115 years ago.
Key moments that led to the new Constitution:
The Victoria Conference gives hope to a constitutional agreement between Ottawa and the provinces. Québec Premier Robert Bourassa rejects the plan, however.
Quebec’s May referendum on sovereignty wins 40.4% support, three months after Trudeau and the Liberals return to power in Ottawa.
Later that year, Justice Minister Jean Chrétien kicks off debate on unilateral patriation:
— CPAC (@CPAC_TV) October 6, 2016
With plenty of disagreement on what should be included in a charter of rights — and whether Parliament or the courts should have final say — the government proposes a committee to hear from Canadians and move debate outside of the House of Commons. The Special Joint Committee holds its first meeting in November 1980.
25 MPs and senators hold more than 100 meetings and receive nearly 1,000 written submissions. They consider issues that have defined the debate and court cases about the Charter ever since: civil liberties, women’s rights, sexual orientation, religion, Indigenous rights, and language.
University of Ottawa law professor Adam Dodek explains the significance of the Special Joint Committee:
The Supreme Court rules that Ottawa has the legal right to push forward alone on patriation, but historical convention requires substantial consent from the provinces. Intense negotiation surrounds the constitutional conference in Ottawa in early November. Trudeau, supported by Ontario and New Brunswick, contends with the “Gang of Eight” premiers opposed to patriation without their consent.
The so-called “kitchen accord” between Jean Chrétien and his Ontario and Saskatchewan counterparts (Roy McMurtry and Roy Romanow) leads to an agreement on the “notwithstanding clause”, in exchange for the premiers dropping their demand to “opt out” of federal programs and receive equivalent funding. But Quebec Premier René Lévesque refuses to sign the accord.
Less than five months later, the now-iconic image of Queen Elizabeth signing the proclamation on Parliament Hill emerges. But Quebec’s refusal to ratify the new Constitution led to more talks over the next decade — without an agreement reached, even today.