Margaret Thatcher told Pierre Trudeau she had no desire to deal with “queues of Indians” knocking on her 10 Downing Street door to voice objections about Canada’s plan to patriate the Constitution, newly declassified records show.
Minutes of a pivotal June 25, 1980, meeting in London between the British prime minister and her Canadian counterpart reveal an early reluctance on the part of Thatcher to get caught up in the burgeoning political drama of a former colony.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Trudeau’s successful gambit to bring home the Constitution through passage of legislation that included an amending formula and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Though Canada had long been in charge of its own affairs, there was still the matter of securing Westminster’s blessing of the plan, with a chorus of competing interests in Canada determined to have a say.
According to the minutes, Thatcher said “(Her Majesty’s Government) did not want to be accused of interfering in any way. HMG could help; and if, for example, queues of Indians knocked on the door of No. 10, the answer would be that it was for Canada to decide her future and not HMG.” The previous year a delegation of aboriginal chiefs and elders had spent a week in London, seeking British help to get a seat at the constitutional negotiating table.
During the meeting with Trudeau, it was suggested things would be easier for Britain if Canada “was united in its approach.”
Trudeau said the British government “would be accused of interfering whichever way things went.”
As for unanimity, “that could be forgotten,” added Trudeau. “The provinces would want to be heard and one or more of them would say that they were not getting what they wanted.”
The Canadian Press obtained copies of the previously confidential records from Britain’s National Archives with the assistance of Steve Hewitt, a senior lecturer in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham.
Thatcher and her government were obviously concerned “that they would become the lightning rod” for anger in Canada over the plan, said Hewitt, president of the British Association for Canadian Studies.
“I think it was pretty clear that there was not going to be unanimity, and (Trudeau) was determined to push ahead regardless.”
During the meeting, Thatcher said her public line would be that whether or not all provinces supported the Canadian request to patriate the Constitution, she would agree if it were the wish of Ottawa.
“The Prime Minister reiterated that she hoped that she would not have masses of people lobbying in front of No. 10,” say the minutes.
Trudeau said that he did not want to cause Britain any problems — he would try to make things as easy as possible. But he then offered a glimpse of trouble to come.
“He meant to unite Canadians if possible,” say the minutes. “But he recognized that he might in fact make things worse. He could foresee that Quebec, and perhaps other provinces, would not go along with what he wanted.” Trudeau’s private acknowledgment of the risk contrasts sharply with his public bravado, said Eric Adams, an assistant professor of law at the University of Alberta.
“That’s still the line out of that generation of Liberal politicians — how they have no regrets, they did nothing wrong, they needed to do this to basically save the country.”
In the end, Trudeau won sufficient provincial backing, though Quebec and its separatist premier Rene Levesque dissented. Many supporters of an independent Quebec have since pointed to the constitutional episode as a federalist betrayal.
Trudeau met with Thatcher just over a month after Quebecers rejected a significant step toward sovereignty in a provincial referendum.
Trudeau’s desire to make the most of the opportunity was obvious to Thatcher and her advisers.
“He did not wish to give the Quebecers and others the opportunity to say that he could not obtain any agreement, that they would be stuck for another five years with separatist tendencies or that there were reasons for holding another Referendum,” say the minutes.
“Mr. Trudeau said he was determined on movement, and sooner or later the British North America Act would have to be amended.”
Records that came to light last spring showed that at one point the British cabinet considered denying Canada’s proposal to create a Charter of Rights over concerns that Trudeau was pushing the plan without the desired backing of the provinces.