While speaking about the 31st anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, on Wednesday, Trudeau said Quebec had not ratified the Constitution because then-premier René Lévesque was a sovereigntist.
“The NDP has always been particularly lukewarm in its approach to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms due to the unfortunate way in which Quebec chose not to sign the Constitution because it had a provincial premier who was a sovereigntist at the start of the 1980s," he said in French.
Parti Québécois Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs Alexandre Cloutier took him to task, pointing out that federalist premiers such as Robert Bourassa and Jean Charest also avoided signing the Constitution.
In a Wednesday interview with CBC Radio’s Quebec AM, Trudeau defended his comments.
“I did not say [Levesque’s pro-sovereignty stance] was the reason, but what I did point out was that it is unlikely that a politician whose focus is on withdrawing Quebec from Canada was going to support something that actually strengthens Canada.”
Trudeau added there wasn’t anything controversial about what he said.
“It’s not a shocking revelation,“ he said. “I don’t think anyone expects a sovereigntist premier like Madame Marois to suddenly turn around and say, 'Oh by the way, I’m thinking about signing the Canadian Constitution.'”
Trudeau acting like 'young prince': Lisée
Trudeau met with the leaders of Quebec's two biggest oppostion parties, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard and Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) Leader François Legault, during his visit to Quebec City on Thursday.
After the meetings, Trudeau told reporters they agreed on many issues, including their opposition to changes to the federal Employment Insurance program for seasonal workers.
But PQ cabinet minister Jean-Francois Lisée slammed Trudeau, accusing him of behaving like a "young prince, descending from Ottawa, to meet those who could become his subjects."
"He wanted the three party leaders of Quebec to organize their schedules to meet him at the same time. That gives you an idea of the gap between the reality of the Quebecois nation and its institutions, its political parties, and the incomprehension of the new Liberal leader of Quebec democracy," Lisée said.
"He's not even the leader of the official Opposition in Ottawa — he's the leader of the second opposition party — and he thinks he can meet the three party leaders at the same time?" Lisee told a news scrum.
People from various quarters, including the Quebec premier's office, disputed Lisée's portrayal of events.
"It was a communication error. And that error was transmitted to Mr. Lisée and Mr. Lisée 'scrummed' on bad information," said a spokesman for PQ Premier Pauline Marois.
"The request was to meet the three leaders — but individually."
A spokeswoman for the premier said Marois wasn't available Thursday, but that she would welcome suggestions for a future meeting date.
"I understand how busy the premier is and, for me, it's just a matter of time (before we meet)," Trudeau said. "I am looking forward to talking to her when she has the time. She has a bit more on her plate these days than I have."
As for Lisee and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Alexandre Cloutier, who accused Trudeau of being arrogant and contemptuous toward Quebecers, Trudeau first took the high road before firing off a jab of his own.
"I understand that they don't agree with my political vision and I would have liked to have met Madame Marois today to find common ground on Mr. (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper's reforms, which have a considerable effect on not just Quebecers but all Canadians."
"Spending an enormous amount of time being extremely negative toward one another doesn't really interest me," Trudeau said.
Constitution quarrels linger
Lisée also criticized Trudeau for wanting to discuss issues raised during his leadership campaign — such as health care and education.
"It's a vision of Canada — the idea that provinces are vassals," said Lisee, the minister responsible for international relations. "Is he not aware that under the Constitution these are provincial responsibilities?"
Trudeau's visit comes as he has become embroiled in a debate over the circumstances under which his father introduced the Constitution in 1982.
A new book suggests the event was marred by improper behaviour by the Supreme Court of Canada, and all of Quebec's political parties are demanding more information on the court's role.
Trudeau said at his scrum Thursday he shares Quebecers' concerns about making sure there is a separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.
"[But] for me, the fact the Supreme Court...is looking into it to see what happened with chief justice Bora Laskin satisfies me for the moment. Let's see what they come up with."
Trudeau told reporters the "old" constitutional debate is not a priority for middle-class Canadians.
Couillard, however, said he told his federal counterpart the issue is not "banal" or "unimportant," but something that needs to be addressed.