At the beginning of this century, Canada was mainly an agricultural society, safely cradled in the arms of the mother country, Britain. A call to arms to protect Britain’s interests in the Boer War in South Africa (1899 – 1902) and the Great War (1914-1918) led to shiploads of Canadian troops gallantly crossing the ocean to her defense. (The province of Québec, however, had its own reaction to these calls to arms – a definite “non.”)
Oddly, it was one battle that took place in World War I that gave to us the first flicker of our nationhood. At Vimy Ridge in April, 1917, Canadian soldiers, for the first time fighting under their own Canadian officers, achieved what the British and French armies had failed to do. Our thoroughly Canadian approach to that treacherous battle and our subsequent victory was a turning point for Canadians. For the first time we saw ourselves as a distinct and separate people, capable of managing our own lives in our own way.
Our institutions continued, nonetheless, to remain solidly British for many years, with a constitutional monarchy, and our own parliament and legal system modeled after those of Britain. Although the Supreme Court of Canada had been established back in 1875, Canadians still appealed to the Privy Council in England for the final settlement of their legal affairs. The Supreme Court of Canada did not become our court of last resort until 1949.
We acquired our first Canadian-born Governor General in 1952, with the appointment of Vincent Massey – but then he was more British than the British, and has been described as a person only masquerading as a Canadian. We had a blistering 37-day debate in 1964 on whether Canada should have its own distinctive flag. During this debate, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and Opposition Leader John Diefenbaker competed with each other as to who had the strongest ties to Britain. They were only continuing in the footsteps of our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. McDonald, who proudly proclaimed, “A British subject I was born – a British subject I will die.”
We did not achieve full independence in international affairs until 1931, with the passage by the British Parliament of the Statute of Westminster. Throughout all these early years, Canadians maintained their singular demeanor of unabated deference to authority and even servility to the handful of individuals who then ran the country – the politicians, bureaucrats and wealthy businessmen.
However, suddenly and unexpectedly in the 1960s, something occurred that changed our direction. Canada underwent a revolution, which was typically Canadian, with no bullets or blood – but, nonetheless, this quiet revolution profoundly changed us as a nation.
The seeds of Canada’s revolution were sown by the sexual and feminist “liberation” that was occurring at that time. Canadians decided that they need no longer be bound by respect for traditional values. Such restraints, that had bound us together as a society for most of the century, were suddenly replaced by a raging new mood of defiance to our institutions, values and traditions. For example, for the first time in our legal history, the principle that every individual was of equal value and entitled to equal protection of the law, was shunted aside with the removal of legal protection for pre-born children, achieved by the 1969 amendment to the Criminal Code. This amendment permitted, in practice, the killing of human life for the convenience of others. The Divorce Act was amended to permit no-fault divorce and led to the subsequent breakdown of family life, with children left as lost souls in the midst of this chaos. Homosexual acts became permissible between consenting adults (21 years and over in 1969 and, subsequently, lowered to 18 years of age in 1986).
Individual rights, not societal rights, consumed Canadians. What I want, need, desire was the paramount concern which was repeatedly acted out with a vengeance.
Into this tumult strode Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau: contemporary and exciting, he seemed to represent the “new” Canada and its unrestrained freedoms. Québec-born and raised, he had no fondness for the British Crown and its institutions. He had another vision for Canada. He dreamed of a bilingual country from sea to sea, where the French language and culture would hold pride of place, in true equality, with those of the English. Trudeau diligently began to disentangle, one by one, our British connections. Surreptitiously, the HMS (Her Majesty’s Service) was removed from our mail boxes, and the “Royal” was dropped from many of our institutions, such as the Canadian Armed Forces.
Prime Minister Trudeau’s obsession with French-language rights was based on his belief that if these rights were entrenched in a constitution, Québec would be encouraged to remain in Confederation – a serious consideration, since a separatist party had gained power in Québec in 1976. From this plan to entrench minority language rights came Trudeau’s idea to widen the constitution to entrench all political and civil rights.
Process of EntrenchmentThe gauntlet for a Charter of Rights was dropped in the spring of 1980 without any warning. Mr. Trudeau soothed Canadians and deliberately misled them as to the fundamental changes in store for the country, by claiming that he was merely “repatriating” Canada’s constitution from Britain and, that the Charter would merely “enshrine” the rights of Canadians. He did not feel it necessary to disclose the fact that the Charter of Rights would have the effect of changing not only our system of government, but also, ultimately, our social values.
Using his Liberal majority in the Senate and House of Commons, the Charter of Rights was passed in December,1981. It was never debated in or ratified by any of the provincial legislatures, and only the consent of each English-speaking premier was provided. (Québec, which was supposed to be the reason for the Charter, never gave its consent to it.) In fact, Canada’s Constitution Act of 1982 was drafted by 10 men (Mr. Trudeau and the premiers of the nine English-speaking provinces), who negotiated mainly by telephone and telex. Never has a constitution of a democratic country been so speedily drafted (in less than 2 years) and implemented with so little input from the public. Many of the amendments to the proposed Charter were made on the recommendation of special-interest groups, such as government-funded feminist organizations, who were at the zenith of their power and influence at that time.
Implications of the CharterThe Charter eliminated the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty which had been a fundamental principle of Canadian law. It gave courts the power to overrule decisions made by elected politicians. This was due to the fact that the wording of the Charter was so general and ill-defined, that its ultimate meanings would depend upon the ideological views and personal interpretations of judges. In a short time, our appointed judges became social engineers – accountable to no one – who happily re-interpreted legislation according to their own biases.
Mr. Trudeau was responsible for yet another profound change in Canada. Although intelligent, Mr. Trudeau was not endowed with practical common sense. He neither understood nor cared about the ordinary Canadian except in the abstract – particularly those living in western Canada. Such people lived well outside the golden orbit of the sun which shone on Toronto, Ottawa and Montréal.
Mr. Trudeau, therefore, gradually took the reigns of power into his own hands. The cabinet became a rubber-stamp and Parliament became a sham.
A member of Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet was watching and waiting for his own chance at assuming power. Jean Chrétien, MP from Shawinigan, Québec, was no intellectual giant. However, he was a shrewd man with street smarts. Under Trudeau, Chrétien learned how to centralize power and control the party. Mr. Chrétien gained power on his own in the federal election of 1993 and since that time has run his party and this country with an iron hand. Chrétien’s MPs have colluded with him in this undemocratic power grab because of their desire for advancement within this new system.
This vacuum created in Canada’s judicial and legal systems by the rejection of our British models of parliamentary democracy has now been filled by an autocratic Prime Minister and an autocratic Supreme Court.
Will Canadians in the new millennium continue to accept the elitism of our Prime Minister and the courts? Will Canadians remain deferential and servile, as we have in the past, or will we launch another one of our own very Canadian revolutions, and take back our rights? We await the millennium with interest.Gwen Landolt is national vice-president of REAL Women of Canada.