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Snapshots in History: November 4-5: Remembering the Kitchen Accord and the Constitution

November 5, 2013 | John P. | Comments (0)

On November 4-5 and beyond, Canadians may want to reflect on the events of November 4-5, 1981 that led to the patriation of Canada’s constitution from the United Kingdom and the subsequent ratification of the Constitution Act (1982) and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by Canada’s federal government and a majority of the provincial governments. However, the outcome was far from perfect and harmonious as the then-separatist Parti Québécois (PQ) government of Québec under Premier René Lévesque refused to go along with the federal government and some of the other provincial governments who disagreed on issues such as an amending formula, the proposed Charter of Rights (which some provinces saw as encroaching on their jurisdiction and powers), and the provincial right to opt out of federal programs in exchange for compensation. Initially, the provinces of Ontario and New Brunswick sided with the government of Canada against the other eight provincial governments including Québec (referred to as the “Gang of Eight”). At the constitutional meetings of November 1981, the matter was turned on its head when Lévesque agreed with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on the provisional idea of patriating the constitution without amending it, followed by the possibility of a national referendum in several years time. Other provincial premiers were concerned that this course of events, if followed through, would lead to a diminution of provincial powers. So began the push to make a deal…

On the evening of November 4, 1981, then-federal Justice Minister Jean Chrétien met with then-Ontario Attorney-General Roy McMurtry, and then-Saskatchewan Attorney-General Roy Romanow in the kitchen of the Government Conference Centre in Ottawa, thereby being dubbed The Kitchen Cabinet. The Premiers agreed to remove the “opt-out” clause off the table, while the federal government agreed reluctantly to include the notwithstanding clause that would allow provincial governments to override certain sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau agreed and The Kitchen Accord was born. Québec Premier René Lévesque learned of this deal on the morning of November 5, 1981 at breakfast, felt a sense of betrayal, and announced that his government would not support the deal and left the meeting. Québec announced its intention to veto the agreement but subsequent rulings by the Québec Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada stated that the province did not possess veto powers, even though previous administrations had argued for the right of Québec to have a veto in constitutional negotiations.

For those who are interested in this aspect of Canadian constitutional history, consider the following titles for loan from Toronto Public Library collections:


Canada's constitutional revolution

Canada’s constitutional revolution / Barry L. Strayer, 2013. Book. Adult Non-Fiction. 342.71029 STR

The now-retired Hon. Dr. Barry L. Strayer, who served on the Federal Court of Canada and the Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada, was also a constitutional adviser to the federal government who was influential in designing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In this work, Dr. Strayer shares his experiences as an important legal advisor. He discusses the constitutional discourses of the 1960s and the influence of Pierre Trudeau and constitutional expert F. R. Scott on the Charter of Rights file. Strayer also lays out the negotiations before and after the 1980 Québec referendum, the ensuing federal-provincial conflict, and the eventual conclusion of the patriation process.



The Canadian constitution

The Canadian constitution / Adam Dodek, 2013. Book. Adult Non-Fiction. 342.71029 DOD

The author, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, provides an up-to-date overview of Canada’s constitutional history, including a brief overall history, an examination of the Constitution Acts of 1867 and 1982, the importance of the Supreme Court of Canada and its Justices, key constitutional cases, and important dates in Canadian constitutional history.

Also available as an eBook.  



The last act Pierre Trudeau the gang of eight and the fight for Canada

The last act: Pierre Trudeau, the gang of eight, and the fight for Canada / Ron Graham, 2011. Book. Adult Non-Fiction. 342.71029 GRA

Journalist Ron Graham offers the reader a good accounting of what happened that fateful November in 1981 with the negotiations to fully bring Canada’s constitution home from the United Kingdom. Watch the shifts in position between the opposing camps on the constitutional front that led to the “Kitchen Accord”. Lévesque expresses anger at what he sees as a betrayal of Québec and likens it to “The Night of the Long Knives” (which usually refers to Hitler’s purge of the Nazi Party in 1934) although it is doubtful whether the PQ government would have agreed to anything. Trudeau sees the patriation process as legal but also as mean. However, he also the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms come to fruition but later regretted agreeing to the notwithstanding clause. Read Andrew Cohen’s review of this book in the Globe and Mail here.

Also available as an eBook



Memoirs and reflections

Memoirs and reflections / R. Roy McMurtry, 2013. Book. Adult Non-Fiction. 340.092 MACM MACM

The former “Red Tory” Progressive Conservative attorney-general of Ontario (and member of provincial parliament) offers insights into a varied and exceptional career that also included time as a reformist defense lawyer, Canadian high commissioner to the United Kingdom, and chief justice in Ontario. In addition to being in the midst of constitutional discussions while provincial attorney-general, McMurtry also discusses legal cases mired in controversy, including the police raids on Toronto bathhouses, and a nurse wrongly accused of and charged with murdering babies. 



The patriation minutes

The patriation minutes / Howard A. Leeson, 2011. Book. Adult Non-Fiction. 342.71029 LEE

See the developing constitutional negotiations in early November 1981 through the lens of Dr. Howard A. Leeson, a political science professor then serving as Saskatchewan’s Deputy Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs. Leeson has made public his primary sources:  notes and minutes taken at meetings of the First Ministers as well as in-depth memos of meetings taking place away from the Government Conference Centre. 


If you want to delve a little further back, try the following title as well:

Canada-- notwithstanding : the making of the constitution, 1976-1982 / Roy J. Romanow, Howard A. Leeson, and John D. Whyte, 1984. Book. Adult Non-Fiction. Find copies under:  342.71029 R / 342.029 ROM

The authors offer an inside account of the process leading to the patriation of the constitution and the beginning of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They acknowledge that the process and outcomes can be criticized but achieving full independence and constitutional reform are symbolic of Canadians’ resolve to sustain their country.


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