Constitutional rift between Quebec, rest of Canada left a ‘deep scar’

Thirty years after the patriation of the Constitution, many Quebecers are still bitter about how it all transpired.

In November 1981, Pierre Trudeau's government reached a deal with nine provinces, sans Quebec, to add a new constitution, including a charter of rights, to the 1867 British North America Act. The omission is commonly portrayed in Quebec as a betrayal — the result of an all-night negotiating session known as the Night of the Long Knives. Attempts to include Quebec with the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords failed and La Belle Provence remains on the outside looking in.

If comments from a 'patriation' conference in Montreal are any indication, many in Quebec still feel betrayed.

"A majority of Quebeckers and Canadians recognize that there is no constitutional change that could satisfy Quebec," University of Ottawa political scientist François Rocher said at the three day conference called 30 Years After the Patriation: Taking Stock.

"The patriation has left a deep scar that is not yet ready to be healed."

Former René Lévesque staffer, Louis Bernard, who is also presenting at the conference, says patriation will one day be remembered as the event that "broke-up" Canada.

"English Canada naturally rejoiced over the repatriation of the constitution. It regarded repatriation with pride, as an accomplishment, as a gesture of national affirmation that unified the country around its leaders," he wrote for the Montreal Gazette prior to his conference presentation.

"But it was seen wholly otherwise in Quebec, and the repatriation exercise has become the cause of profound division between Quebec and the rest of the country."

"On [the day of patriation], Quebec was more or less shown the door out of Canada."

According to the Globe and Mail, the conference's spokesman, former Quebec Liberal minister of intergovernmental affairs Benoît Pelletier, said every effort must be made to re-open the constitutional debate. Pelletier is realistic enough to believe that there won't be any constitutional renewal any time soon.

"Failure would give new impetus to the separatist movement and no federalist leader wants to be held responsible for that," Pelletier said in a Radio-Canada television interview.

"But the important thing is to talk ... If debate over constitutional renewal remains taboo then nothing will be done and Quebec will be permanently excluded from the Canadian constitutional fold."