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The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada

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In advance of the awarding of the annual $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, this Wednesday at the Politics and the Pen Gala in Ottawa, Huffington Post Canada will be running excerpts from the five finalists. Ron Graham's book documents the constitutional conference of November 1, 1981, as "the culmination of more than five decades of political wrangling, one last attempt to renew the constitution with the consent of the provinces. Faced with the threat of Quebec independence, the ambitions of Western Canada, and the provinces' demands for more power, Pierre Trudeau was embattled yet fiercely determined."

"WE'LL FIGHT THEM and we'll win!" Peter Lougheed growled as he strode away from the morning session. Though the premier of Alberta hated the idea of a referendum, his competitive instinct was to take up Pierre Trudeau's challenge and wallop him. Lougheed was certain that the people of his province were on his side. Trudeau hadn't won a seat there since 1968, and the federal government was at the nadir of public opinion following its recent attempt to make off with a chunk of Alberta's lucrative oil-and-gas revenues. And Albertans would never accept the inequality of provinces explicit in the Victoria Charter.

"Trudeau couldn't have won with us opposed," he insisted. "Sure, Albertans liked the idea of patriation and the Charter, but they liked our government too. If we said it was wrong, they would have gone along with us."

The problem was, neither Lougheed nor anyone else knew the conditions under which the two referendums would be held. Would a Yes vote require a national majority alone? Or a national majority plus a majority in each region? Or a majority in every province? What would happen in the event of a No vote? Would a referendum be on Wednesday afternoon the whole of the Charter or on each part separately? Would the Charter apply in the parts of the country that voted Yes and not in the ones that voted No? Although Peter Lougheed was convinced that he could defeat Trudeau in a showdown in Alberta, no matter what the polls were showing, he couldn't tell how most other Canadians or even most other westerners might vote. Nor was he willing to risk a scenario that would force Albertans to live with a constitution they had resoundingly opposed.

If the gunslinger from the East wanted a shootout, Lougheed would be ready and waiting for him at the O.K. Corral. He suited the part, with his handsome features and the physique of an aging athlete. Short, tough, laconic, he was a Marlboro Man who had traded his horse, his Stetson, and his home on the range for law school, a Harvard MBA, and a corner office downtown. Despite the rock-hard stubbornness with which he presented his arguments, as though the least sign of compromise would expose a chink in his armour, there was a kindness around his blue eyes and a boyishness in his tight smile that suggested a shy, sensitive, slightly insecure but fundamentally decent soul protected by a steely resolve -- very much like Pierre Trudeau, in fact -- which is what made them such well-matched protagonists. They battled hard, but they battled honest, and their battle only made them stronger. "Don't mistake our reluctance to have a referendum as not being able to fight one," Lougheed warned the prime minister.

Averse to losing and with wills of steel, both men brought to the table opposing visions of the country. Trudeau was a national politician with no experience and little interest in provincial government. Having grown up in Quebec, where provincial autonomy was an excuse for corruption, isolation and ethnic nationalism, he associated the provinces with parish-pump politicians whose narrow interests prevented them from seeing the grandeur and potential of Canada.

Lougheed was a provincial CEO who lacked experience on the national stage, spoke no French, and never dared risk failure by running for the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives. He saw the world through the eyes of Albertans and viewed Alberta mostly through the prism of its natural resources -- a perspective that earned him the honour of being voted, in one poll, the most selfish premier in Canada, ahead of René Lévesque.

While the great debate between Trudeau and Lévesque sprang from the question of who spoke for Quebec, the essential question for Trudeau and Lougheed was "Who speaks for Canada?"
"We all do," Lougheed replied, for he saw the federation as a partnership of 11 sovereign governments. In other words, Ottawa could only speak for all Canadians in areas of federal jurisdiction.

"Trudeau believed," or so Lougheed alleged, "that Canada would be a much more efficient, a much more successful country if the national government in Ottawa had almost all the powers. I disagreed with him strongly, but that is what he believed. In addition to that, he was concerned that developments, instead of moving towards stronger central government, had been swinging the other way; that Alberta had been a focal point for the shift. Trudeau felt the best strategy was to go right at the strength, weaken the Alberta government by weakening Alberta's control of its resources."

That was an extreme interpretation of Trudeau's motives. The prime minister's purpose was to restore the balance that had been lost with the devolution of revenues and authority since the mid-1960s. Certainly the premiers were powerful players with important responsibilities under the BNA Act, but, he argued, their role was limited to looking after the needs and desires of their own citizens. The federal Parliament -- and the federal Parliament alone -- had been ordained by the founding fathers to look after the needs and desires of all Canadians.

The will of the whole was more than just the sum of its parts, and whenever the national interest conflicted with individual, municipal, provincial, or regional interests, the good of the nation had to prevail.