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How Trudeau and the Charter made today’s Canada

The thirtieth anniversary of the enactment of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms — ‘les trente glorieuses” as the French would put it — offers an opportune moment to recall how the concept for this nation-changing statute first developed in the mind of Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

The process is explored in the second volume of the three-part biography of Trudeau, Trudeau Transformed, by Max and Monique Nemni. This volume builds on the revealing details of their first book, in which Trudeau is shown as the willing prisoner of an orthodox Catholic upbringing, reared in a society dominated by the most reactionary elements of his church. The result is a cloistered personality nourished by fascist-like sensibilities, grounded in a survivalist philosophy that saw Quebec as the only “pure” society in North America, in need of constant defense from Protestant godlessness.

That Pierre Trudeau broke free of this stultifying environment is well-known. He left his comfortable upper class home in Montreal to study law at Harvard, went on to take political science and law in Paris, and worshiped at the feet of Harold Laski, the Jewish Marxist who influenced a generation of future leaders by his teachings at the London School of Economics.

After London, Trudeau traipsed around the world — to Israel, India, China, Cuba et al — traveling not in the first class comfort he could well afford, but with a rucksack and just enough cash to get him from  point to point. In writing of this period of his life, the Nemnis point to it as experiences as evidence of a desire to absorb lessons from cultures other than his own. He was not an idle dilletente, they argue, but a dedicated student of the politics and economics of the lands through which he journeyed.

In 1950, Trudeau found himself back in Montreal with the firmly fixed idea that he would become a “statesman” who would  liberate his people from the subjugation he now realized they had suffered under reactionary leadership. It was not a matter of his abandoning Catholicism; he no intention of doing so and never did leave the church. He remained so faithful, in fact, that while working in Ottawa, now a man past his thirtieth birthday,  he applied to Church authorities for permission to read certain social and political works from the Church’s index of forbidden books.

Trudeau was surely transformed by his education and world travel. He chose to take a job with the Privy Council (the secretariat to the Cabinet) in Ottawa because he wanted practical experience in the working of Canadian federalism. He had by now rejected narrow nationalism as the preferred route for Quebec and saw in federalism the opportunity for his people to grow to heights beyond what might be achieved in their home province.

Trudeau’s first public appearance in support of the idea of a charter of individual rights came on May 8, 1951, when he went before Prime Minister St. Laurent and other government leaders as secretary of a committee urging  such a measure. Their effort was in support of a Senate recommendation that Canada adopt a declaration of human rights modeled on the declaration recently proclaimed by the United Nations. That didn’t happen, because no one at that point had figured out how to get agreement of both the federal government and the provinces to make a change to Canada’s constitution, then embedded in the British North America Act. As the Nemnis write:

 Nine years later, on August 10, 1960, the Conservative government of John Diefenbaker adopted a bill of rights. But this was only a federal law, which could easily be amended. It was not until thirty-one years later, in Ottawa on April 17, 1982, that a beaming Pierre Trudeau looked on as Queen Elizabeth ratified the repatriated Constitution, enshrining the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As he dutifully took the minutes at the meeting in 1951, could Trudeau have imagined that the Charter would one day be his most important contribution to Canadian history?

The thirty years of the Charter have seen a historic shift in the weight of individual rights vs government mandates. Innumerable cases have been argued before the courts on Charter issues, and repressive laws have been struck down or modified as a result. The Charter has far from unanimous support; there are those who see it as an invitation to social anarchy, benefiting only those who would abuse convention to pursue reckless behaviour. Hardly convincing arguments.

The Charter was not, of course, the only act of statesmanship of Pierre Trudeau’s career. He brought in the Official Languages Act, worked for a Just Society, promoted multiculturalism as a foundation stone of modern Canada, and in repatriating the Constitution made Canada a fully independent nation.

As Max and Monique Nemni conclude, “Whether we revere him or revile him, the fact remains that today’s Canada is the Canada of Pierre Elliot Trudeau.”

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