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Patriation was the political process that led to Canadian sovereignty, culminating in 1982. Until that date, Canada was governed by a constitution composed of British laws that could be changed only by acts of the British parliament, albeit only with the consent of the Canadian government. The patriation process saw the provinces granted influence in constitutional matters and resulted in the constitution being amendable by Canada only and according to the Canadian amending formula, with no role for the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Hence, patriation is associated with the acquisition of full sovereignty.


The word patriation was coined in Canada as a back-formation from repatriation (returning to one's country). As the Canadian constitution was originally a British law, it could not return to Canada.[1] The term was first used in 1966 by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in response to a question in parliament: "We intend to do everything we can to have the constitution of Canada repatriated, or patriated."[2]

Early attempts[edit]

From 1867, the Constitution of Canada was primarily contained in the British North America Act, 1867, and other British North America Acts, which were passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Several Canadian prime ministers, starting with William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1927, had made attempts to domesticize the amending formula, but could not obtain agreement with the provincial governments as to how such a formula would work.[3] Thus, even after the Statute of Westminster granted Canada and other Commonwealth nations full legislative independence in 1931, Canada requested that the British North America Act, 1867, be excluded from the laws that were now within Canada's complete control to amend; until 1949, the constitution could only be changed by a further act at Westminster. The British North America (No.2) Act, 1949, granted the Parliament of Canada limited power to amend the constitution in many areas of its own jurisdiction, without involvement of the United Kingdom. The constitution was amended in this manner five times: in 1952, 1965, 1974, and twice in 1975.

Negotiations continued sporadically between federal and provincial governments on the development of a new amending formula in which the United Kingdom would have no part. In the 1960s, efforts by the governments of Prime Ministers John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson, including the Confederation of Tomorrow conference in Canada's centennial year,[4] culminated in the Fulton–Favreau formula, but without Quebec's endorsement, the patriation attempt failed.

In 1968, Pearson was succeeded by Pierre Trudeau, who also advocated patriation. He made several attempts, including the Victoria Charter in 1971 and more proposed amendments in 1978. At the 1978-79 conference, Trudeau prepared for the first time to provide some federal concessions with regard to the division of powers, including family law, fisheries, and resources.[5] However, the other premiers balked, which led to speculation they were waiting to see if the more province-friendly Progressive Conservatives would win the coming federal election.[6] In that campaign, the Liberals ran on constitutional change, including a speech at Maple Leaf Gardens in which Trudeau promised unilateral action if the premiers did not agree to patriation.[7]

Patriation achieved[edit]

Patriation was given a new impetus after the 1980 referendum on Quebec independence, before which Trudeau promised a new constitutional agreement if the majority of Quebecers voted "No". After a number of days of negotiation and the leak of the Kirby Memo, Quebec, after talks with the other premiers at the Chateau Laurier, drafted a list of 10 powers to be devolved to the provinces in exchange for consent to patriation. Trudeau, when presented with the document, refused to accept it and reiterated his threat that he would seek the House of Commons' approval to proceed with a unilateral amendment. Faced with Premier of Manitoba Sterling Lyon's charge that it would "tear the country apart", Trudeau responded that, if Canada could not have control of its own constitution and a charter when most provinces had their own, the country would deserve to be torn apart.[8]

The Canada Bill and provincial opposition[edit]

Trudeau announced his belief that the premiers were dealing in bad faith and met with his caucus to propose a new course. After offering a wide range of options and proposing full reform, a member shouted "Allons-y en Cadillac!" to general approval. Taking the proposal to Cabinet, some ministers suggested using the maneuver to increase federal economic powers, but Trudeau demurred[9] and, on October 2, 1980, announced on national television his intention to proceed with unilateral patriation in what he termed the "people's package". The proposal would unilaterally request patriation from the UK parliament, as well as the entrenchment of a charter of rights, and would call for a referendum to be held within two years on the amending formula for the new constitution, which would be a choice between the Victoria Charter veto formula and any joint proposal by the provinces that could be approved by provinces totalling 80% of the population.[n 1]

Trudeau found new allies in Premiers Bill Davis (Ontario) and Richard Hatfield (New Brunswick)[10] and the federal New Democratic Party, under Ed Broadbent, announced its support after persuading Trudeau to devolve some resource powers to the provinces.[10] The Prime Minister's proposal in the House of Commons, which would be tabled as the Canada Bill, invited Aboriginal, feminist, and other groups to Ottawa for their input on the charter of rights in legislative committees. However, there was disagreement over the charter, which the premiers of six provinces (Lyon, René Lévesque of Quebec, Bill Bennett of British Columbia, Angus MacLean of Prince Edward Island, Peter Lougheed of Alberta, and Brian Peckford of Newfoundland) opposed as encroachments on their power; the press dubbed this the Gang of Six. Manitoba, Newfoundland, and Quebec launched references to their respective courts of appeal asking if the Canada Bill was constitutional. Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan remained neutral.

At the insistence of British Columbia, the premiers who opposed unilateral patriation drafted an alternative proposal to showcase the disagreement between the sides and to counter the federal government's charges of obstructionism if the document were to proceed to Westminster. The idea was for patriation to take place with no charter of rights and the amending formula would permit amendment with the approval of seven provinces consisting of 50% of the population, referred to as the Vancouver Formula. The premiers' innovation was a clause allowing for dissenting provinces to "opt out" of new amendments that superseded provincial jurisdiction and receive equivalent funding to run a substitute programme if 2/3 of the members of the provincial legislature acquiesced.[11] Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan approved of this, prompting the press to now call the opposition premiers the Gang of Eight.

Trudeau rejected the proposed document out of hand and again threatened to take the case for patriation straight to the British parliament "[without] bothering to ask one premier." The federal Cabinet and Crown counsel took the position that if the British Crown—in council, parliament, and on the bench—was to exercise its residual sovereignty over Canada, it did so at the request of the federal ministers of the Crown only.[12] The gang soon appealed to the courts. Justice Joseph O'Sullivan of the Manitoba Court of Appeal found that the federal government's position was incorrect; the constitutionally entrenched principle of responsible government meant that neither the Queen of Canada nor the Queen of the United Kingdom could legislate for the provinces (i.e. alter their constitutions) only on the advice of Canadian federal ministers; "Canada had not one responsible government but eleven."[12] Judges, however, were not unanimous in their conclusions on the matter.[13] Further, officials in the United Kingdom indicated that the British parliament was under no obligation to fulfill any request for legal changes made by Trudeau, particularly if Canadian convention was not being followed.[14] The case was eventually presented to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Patriation Reference[edit]

Main article: Patriation Reference

The reference cases from Manitoba, Quebec and Newfoundland were then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. On September 28, 1981, the Court gave its decision. The court ruled (for the first time, on live television) that the federal government had the right, by letter of the law, to proceed with the unilateral patriation of the constitution (the decision seven to two in favour). However, by a different six-to-three majority, the court said that the constitution was made up as much of convention as written law and ruled that a unilateral patriation was not in accordance with constitutional convention. Although the courts enforce laws, not constitutional conventions, the Court's decision stated that agreement by a "substantial" number of premiers would be required to abide by the convention.[13] This number was not defined and commentators later criticized the court's failure to rule that the approval of all provinces was required.[13][15][16] The decision was controversial and a loss for the premiers. Lévesque would later remark: "In other words, Trudeau's goals might be unconstitutional, illegitimate, and even 'go against the principles of federalism,' but they were legal!" Trudeau, in his memoirs, paraphrased the court as saying "that patriation was legal, but not nice."

Both the United Kingdom and Canada undertook contingency preparations: Thatcher's cabinet explored simply unilaterally patriating the constitution to Canada with an amending formula requiring unanimous approval of the provinces.[17] Trudeau began to plan for a referendum proposing a unilateral declaration of independence and the formation of a republic of Canada in the event of a United Kingdom refusal.[18]

The conference[edit]

The decision set the stage for a meeting amongst all premiers and Trudeau in Ottawa, on November 2, 1981. The conference opened with Trudeau announcing an openness to a new amending formula, Davis postulating that his cabinet could accept an agreement without an Ontario veto, and Hatfield proposing deferral of some elements of a charter.[19] This was seen as a general opening toward the provincial proposal, though Trudeau declared the charter was non-negotiable.[19]

Pierre Trudeau (left) and Jean Chrétien (right) at a session of the 1981 constitutional talks

A compromise put to Trudeau involving amending the Group of Eight's proposal with a limited charter was met with a blunt refusal, with federal officials declining a "gutted charter",[20][21] while Lévesque and Trudeau argued on the language provisions of the charter.[20] On November 3, the premiers' breakfast meeting saw two new proposals floated: The Premier of Saskatchewan, Allan Blakeney, would accept a charter without language rights and constitutional amendment by any seven provinces, regardless of population and the removal of financial compensation,[21] while Bennett would allow Trudeau his language rights provisions in exchange for other considerations.[22] Lyon and Lévesque were angered and refused to go along, with Lougheed successfully suggesting the ideas be proposed to test Trudeau's negotiating position.[22] In return, Trudeau launched a new federal initiative to the premiers: patriate the constitution as it was, but continue debates for two years and, if deadlock resulted, hold a national referendum on the amending formula and charter.[22] Lévesque, fearing the alliance was crumbling and facing mocking remarks by Trudeau that as a "great democrat" (especially after the recent referendum he initiated on Quebec's independence), but confident he could ensure any referendum on a charter would fail, agreed in principle.[23] Trudeau promptly announced a "Canada-Quebec alliance" on the issue to the press, stating "the cat is among the pigeons."[23]

The other seven opposition premiers were startled: Campaigning against the protection of rights was generally seen as political suicide,[24] and a national referendum could be seen as "conventionalizing" the charter without the need for provincial approval.[23] Further, Canadians nationwide were mostly in agreement with Trudeau on the issue and were tired of the constant constitutional talks; The draft text of the Federal proposal was later revealed to involve the approval of Trudeau's reforms, with referendums being only if provinces representing 80% of the population demanded them within the two years.[24] This prompted Lévesque to back away from the referendum proposal, saying it looked as though it was "written in Chinese."[24] The conference descended again into acrimony, with Trudeau and Lévesque clashing over language rights.[25] Trudeau announced that he would attend one final meeting at 9am the following day and head to Westminster if agreement was not reached.[25] Peckford announced a proposal would be forwarded the next day.[25] Lévesque went to sleep in Hull, Quebec, for the night.

The Kitchen Accord[edit]

That night—November 4, 1981—the Minister of Justice, Jean Chrétien, met with Attorney General of Saskatchewan Roy Romanow and Attorney General of Ontario Roy McMurtry in the kitchen of Ottawa's Government Conference Centre. The premiers discussed a scenario in which the provinces would agree to the charter and disallowing opting-out with compensation, while Chrétien agreed to the Vancouver amending formula and reluctantly offered to include the Notwithstanding Clause in the constitution.[26] Chrétien, who had been deeply involved in supporting the "no" side of the Quebec referendum and was abhorred at the possibility of another one, recommended the compromise to Trudeau,[26] but the Prime Minister felt, given the previous chaos, it would still be impossible to obtain the agreement of his provincial counterparts and demurred.[26] Hatfield and Davis, however, agreed in principle to the compromise and told Trudeau that he should do so as well, informing him they would not be on his side if he proceeded unilaterally at that point.[26] Trudeau, who knew that his position in London was growing tenuous, even with the support he had, accepted.[27] Thus, working with the draft proposal created by the Newfoundland delegation,[28][29] the nine groups worked through the night to prepare the compromise proposal. This period would be called the Kitchen Accord; the men at the table that night became known as the Kitchen Cabinet.

Lévesque and his people, all in Quebec, remained ignorant of the agreement until Lévesque walked into the premiers' breakfast and was told the agreement had been reached. Lévesque refused to give his support to the deal and left the meeting; the government of Quebec subsequently announced on November 25, 1981, that it would veto the decision. However, both the Quebec Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, which issued its ruling on the matter on December 6, 1982, stated that Quebec had never held such veto powers.[30]

The events were divisive. Quebec nationalists saw the deal as the English-speaking premiers betraying Quebec, which prompted use of the term Night of the Long Knives.[n 2] In English Canada, Lévesque was seen as having tried to do the same to the English-speaking premiers by accepting the referendum. Among those was Brian Mulroney, who said that by "accepting Mr. Trudeau's referendum idea, Mr. Levesque [sic] himself abandoned, without notice, his colleagues of the common front." Chrétien's role in the negotiations made him reviled among sovereigntists. Until the Quebec Liberals came to power in 1985, every law passed in Quebec used the Notwithstanding Clause.

Premier of Ontario Bill Davis

Further, Peckford rebuked in an article in The Globe and Mail claims the events that night resembled anything akin to the Kitchen Accord or Night of the Long Knives.[32] According to Peckford, four premiers—from Newfoundland, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia—and senior representatives from Alberta and British Columbia, worked from a proposal brought to the meeting by the Newfoundland delegation. Efforts were made to reach the other provinces, including Quebec, but to no avail. Peckford further asserted that Chrétien was not contacted and he had no knowledge of the "so-called kitchen meetings". The proposal agreed upon that night was essentially the same as the Newfoundland delegation's, except for minor alterations to wording and the addition of a new section, and the final draft was to go to all the provinces for approval the following morning.[32]

Peckford's assertions have, in turn, been challenged by Howard Leeson, who was then the Saskatchewan Deputy Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs and present during all of the negotiations that night.[28] He claimed that, while the officials did work from Newfoundland's draft, it was only because it was largely similar to the Kitchen Accord, which had already been developed and agreed to by the governments of Ontario and Saskatchewan and was known to the federal government.[29] Further, Peckford played only a minor role that evening, entering later, with the majority of the negotiating being done by Blakeney and Davis. Leeson concluded that Davis and Lougheed were the most important players in securing an agreement.[33] In his opinion, the presence in the National Archives of Canada of the Kitchen Accord leaves no doubt about its existence and it was one of several crucial linkages in the patriation negotiations.[34]

Legal closure[edit]

With the agreement of the majority of provincial governments, the Canada Act 1982 and the Constitution Act, 1982 were formally approved by the governments of the United Kingdom and Canada. By a joint resolution of the Canadian House of Commons and Senate, the Canadian parliament requested that the Queen cause to be introduced in the British parliament the necessary legislation to patriate the constitution. The resolution contained the text of what was to become the Canada Act, 1982, and the Constitution Act, 1982.[35] The British parliament then passed the Canada Act, 1982, and Queen Elizabeth II, as Queen of the United Kingdom, granted it Royal Assent on March 29, 1982, 115 years to the day since Queen Victoria gave assent to the British North America Act, 1867.[36] The Canada Act contained the Constitution Act, 1982, which itself included an amending formula involving only Canadian governments and legislatures. Section 2 of the Canada Act states that no subsequent UK law "shall extend to Canada as part of its law", while item 17 of its schedule also amends the Statute of Westminster removing the "request and consent" provision.[37] Elizabeth II then, as Queen of Canada, proclaimed the patriated constitution in Ottawa on April 17, 1982.[n 3]

Paul Martin, Sr., who was in 1981 sent, along with John Roberts and Mark MacGuigan, to the UK to discuss the patriation project, noted that, during that time, the Queen had taken a great interest in the constitutional debate and the three found the monarch "better informed on both the substance and politics of Canada's constitutional case than any of the British politicians or bureaucrats."[40] Trudeau commented in his memoirs: "I always said it was thanks to three women that we were eventually able to reform our Constitution[, including] The Queen, who was favourable... I was always impressed not only by the grace she displayed in public at all times, but by the wisdom she showed in private conversation."[40]

Being aware that this was the first time in Canadian history that a major constitutional change had been made without the Quebec government's agreement and Quebec's exclusion from the patriation agreement had caused a rift, the Queen privately conveyed to journalists her regret that the province was not part of the settlement.[n 4][42] Quebec sovereigntists have, since 1982, demanded that the Queen or another member of the Canadian Royal Family apologize for the enactment of the Constitution Act, 1982, calling the event a part of a "cultural genocide of francophones in North America over the last 400 years."[43] In 2002, Premier of Quebec Bernard Landry directed the executive council and lieutenant governor not to recognise Elizabeth's golden jubilee in protest of the Queen having signed the Constitution Act, 1982.[44]

Legal questions[edit]

As constitutional scholar Robin White has noted, some might think that, since the Canada Act 1982 is British as well as Canadian law, the United Kingdom could theoretically repeal it and declare its laws to be binding in Canada. Peter Hogg, however, disputes this view, noting that since Canada is now sovereign, the Supreme Court of Canada would find a British law which purported to be binding in Canada just as invalid in Canada "as a law enacted for Canada by Portugal."[45] Paul Romney argued in 1999 that, regardless of what the British authorities did, the constitutional principle of responsible government in Canada denied them the right to ever again legislate for Canada; he stated: "[T]he constitutional convention known as responsible government entailed legal as well as political sovereignty. Responsible government meant that the Queen of Canada could constitutionally act for Canada only on the advice of her Canadian ministers. If the British parliament were to legislate for Canada except at the request of the competent Canadian authorities, and the Queen assented to that legislation on the advice of her British ministers, Canadian courts would refuse to enforce that legislation."[46]


  1. ^ It should be noted that 80% of the population would, by necessity, require Ontario's and Quebec's approval.
  2. ^ Trudeau, in his essay on the Quebec referendum, regarding the curious and distasteful use of this description, remarked: "The 'Night' in question is of course that of the so-called 'Long Knives', a label shamelessly borrowed from Nazi history by separatists suffering from acute paranoia."[31]
  3. ^ On the royal proclamation parchment were spaces for the signatures of the Queen, Trudeau, and the Registrar General of Canada; at the signing ceremony, however, Trudeau offered Chrétien an opportunity to also place his name on the document. The pen's nib had, by that point, been broken, leading Chrétien to utter under his breath "merde!" (French for "shit"), which the Queen overheard and laughed at.[38] The broken pen caused a smudge at the end of Chrétien's signature.
    The desk upon which the proclamation was signed (known as the Constitution Table) resides in the office of the Speaker of the Senate of Canada.[39]
  4. ^ The Queen later publicly expressed on 22 and 23 October 1987 her personal support for the Meech Lake Accord, which attempted to bring Quebec governmental backing to the patriated constitution by introducing further amendments, and she received criticism from opponents of the accord, which failed to attract the unanimous support from all federal and provincial legislators required for it to pass.[41]


  1. ^ Hogg, Peter W. Constitutional Law of Canada. 2003 Student Ed. Scarborough, Ontario: Thomson Canada Limited, 2003, p. 55.
  2. ^ House of Commons Debates (Hansard), 373/2 (28 Jan. 1966). Documented as earliest known use in the Oxford English Dictionary, entry patriate.
  3. ^ Privy Council Office. "Intergovernmental Affairs > History > Why, in 1931, Canada Chose Not to Exercise its Full Autonomy as Provided for Under the Statute of Westminster". Queen's Printer for Canada. Retrieved 21 June 2013. 
  4. ^ Whyte, John (26 October 2012), "Rejection of Charlottetown accord ended era of constitutional reform", Toronto Star, retrieved 26 October 2012 
  5. ^ Fraser, Graham (1984), PQ: René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois in Power, Toronto: MacMillan, p. 173, ISBN 0771597932 
  6. ^ Fraser 1984, p. 174
  7. ^ Fraser 1984, p. 179
  8. ^ Trudeau, Pierre Elliot (1993), Memoirs, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, p. 306, ISBN 0-771-08588-5 
  9. ^ Trudeau 1993, p. 309
  10. ^ a b Trudeau 1993, p. 310
  11. ^ Bayefsky, Anne F. Canada’s Constitution Act 1982 and Amendments: A Documentary History II. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd year=1989. pp. 804, 808. 
  12. ^ a b Romney, Paul (1999). Getting it wrong: how Canadians forgot their past and imperilled Confederation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. pp. 273–274. ISBN 978-0-8020-8105-6. 
  13. ^ a b c Romney 1999, p. 275
  14. ^ Heard, Andrew (1990), Canadian Independence, Vancouver: Simon Fraser University, retrieved 25 August 2010 
  15. ^ Russell, Peter H.; et al. (December 1982). The Courts and the Constitution. Kingston: Institute of Intergovernmental Relations. ISBN 978-0-88911-035-9. 
  16. ^ Forsey, Eugene (1984). "The Courts and the Conventions of the Constitution". University of New Brunswick Law Journal (Fredericton: University of New Brunswick Press) (33): 11. 
  17. ^ Bastien, Frédéric Bastien (2013), The Battle of London: Trudeau, Thatcher, and the Fight for Canada's Constitution, Toronto: Dundurn, pp. 286–8, ISBN 9781459723290 
  18. ^ Bastien 2013, pp. 283–6
  19. ^ a b Bastien 2013, p. 290
  20. ^ a b Bastien 2013, p. 291
  21. ^ a b Fraser 1984, p. 294
  22. ^ a b c Bastien 2013, p. 292
  23. ^ a b c Fraser 1984, p. 295
  24. ^ a b c Fraser 1984, p. 296
  25. ^ a b c Bastien 2013, p. 294
  26. ^ a b c d Bastien 2013, p. 295
  27. ^ Bastien 2013, p. 296
  28. ^ a b Leeson, Howard (2011). The Patriation Minutes. Edmonton: Centre For Constitutional Studies. p. 112. ISBN 978-0986936500. 
  29. ^ a b Leeson 2011, pp. 59–60
  30. ^ Russell, Peter H. (2011). "The Patriation and Quebec Veto References: The Supreme Court Wrestles with the Political Part of the Constitution". Supreme Court Law Review (Ottawa: LexisNexis Canada Inc.): 75–76. ISSN 0228-0108. Retrieved 5 March 2012. 
  31. ^ Montreal Gazette. Feb 3, 1996.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  32. ^ a b Peckford, Brian (November 11, 2011). "A fresh stab at ‘the night of the long knives’". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved March 5, 2012. 
  33. ^ Leeson 2011, pp. 85–99
  34. ^ Leeson 2011, p. 96
  35. ^ Text of the Resolution respecting the Constitution of Canada adopted by the House of Commons on December 2, 1981.
  36. ^ Lederman, William (1983), "The Supreme Court of Canada and Basic Constitutional Amendment", in Banting, Keith G.; Simeon, Richard, And no one cheered: federalism, democracy, and the Constitution Act, Toronto: Taylor & Francis, p. 177, ISBN 978-0-458-95950-1, retrieved June 12, 2010 
  37. ^ "Canada Act 1982 Full text". UK National Archives. Retrieved January 6, 2012. 
  38. ^ Delacourt, Susan (May 25, 2012), "When the Queen is your boss", Toronto Star, retrieved May 27, 2012 
  39. ^ Kinsella, Noël (May 25, 2010). "Speaking Notes of the Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, Speaker of the Senate, on the Occasion of the Unveiling of the Portrait of the Right Honourable Jean Chrétien" (PDF). Queen's Printer for Canada. Retrieved February 23, 2012. 
  40. ^ a b Heinricks, Geoff (2001). "Trudeau and the Monarchy". Canadian Monarchist News (Toronto: Monarchist League of Canada, published July 2001) (Winter/Spring 2001–2001). Retrieved 10 February 2009. [dead link]
  41. ^ Geddes, John (2012), "The day she descended into the fray", Maclean's (Special Commemorative Edition: The Diamond Jubilee: Celebrating 60 Remarkable years ed.) (Rogers Communications): 72 
  42. ^ The Canadian Royal Heritage Trust: Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada[dead link]
  43. ^ "Charles must apologize: Quebec sovereigntists". CBC. 30 October 2009. Retrieved March 7, 2011. 
  44. ^ Phillips, Stephen. "Republicanism in Canada in the reign of Elizabeth II: the dog that didn't bark" (PDF). Canadian Monarchist News (Toronto: Monarchist League of Canada). Summer 2004 (22): 19–20. Retrieved 10 February 2009. [dead link]
  45. ^ Hogg, Peter W. Constitutional Law of Canada. 2003 Student Ed. Scarborough, Ontario: Thomson Canada Limited, 2003, p. 58.
  46. ^ Romney 1999, p. 272

External links[edit]