This is an excellent account of the complex even byzantine negotiations that brought Canada an amending formula for the constitution with the Constitution Act of 1982, which contains the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Many Canadians found the process boring, but Ron Graham brings the whole thing to life with his insights into the colourful personalities of the participants. The book is an excellent guide to this important series of events in Canadian history.
Other than the essential starting point that the patriation of the constitution from the Parliament of Great Britain to Canada was desirable and necessary, Graham does not take sides. The book is not about political philosophy and the nuances of a federal system. This is perhaps a wise course on his part.
The most important consequence of the new Constitution Act is that 'interpretation' - to be distinguised from 'amendment' - of the constitution is now made by the Supreme Court of Canada. Formerly the constitution was interpreted by the British Privy Council, which because it was removed from the Canadian scene could afford to be objective. It generally found in favour of the provinces. In fact interpretation of the constitution is everything; there will be few attempts to amend it. Trudeau, as a centralist, was determined to reduce the role of the provinces, and by taking the power to interpret it from the Privy Council and turning it over to the Supreme Court, all of whose members are appointed by the Prime Minster, he succeeded.
Graham touches only lightly on what modern political scientists call the 'compact theory' of federalism - which was in fact the Privy Council's interpretation. But it was not just a theory, it was our constitution. Its greatest proponent was Edward Blake, possibly the greates English language orator in Canadian history and the man who would have been our second prime minister had he not voluntarily yielded the leadership of the Liberal party to his lieutenant, Alexander Mackenzie.
In 1962 the Lesage government in Quebec, of which Rene Levesque was a member, appointed a Royal Commission to inquire into the Canadian constitution. Levesque and others were convinced by the results of this Royal Commission that the British Privy Council interpretations were correct. But then, running into Trudeau's intransigence, reluctantly gave up negotiating with him and formed the Parti Quebecois. A powerful influence on Levesque and many other Quebecois was Edward Blake. Trudeau would claim that this interpretation was original with tbe British Privy Council but the truth is that they listened to Blake, a Canadian, the second most important politician in Canada - Macdonald himself was afraid of him - and a magical orator.
I copy below a speech by Edward Blake to the Privy Council that was quoted in the Report of the 1962 Quebec Royal Commission. This speech is fundamental to understanding our constitution as it was before it was hi-jacked by Trudeau.
Edward Blake to the Privy Council, 1888:
"The word federal is the key, which unlocks the clauses and reveals their contents. It is the glass that enables us to discern what is written. By its light the (British North) Act must be construed. What then was the general scheme of this Act ? First of all, as I suggest, it was to create a federal as distinguished from a legislative union, but a union composed of several existing and continuing entities. It was not the intention of Parliament to mutilate, confound and destroy the provinces mentioned in the preamble, and having from their mangled remains stewed in some legislative cauldron, to evoke by some legislative incantation absolutely new provinces into an absolutely new existence. It was the design, I say, by gentle and considerate terms to preserve the vital breath and continue the political existence of the old provinces. However this may be, they were being made, as has been well said, "not fractions of a unit but units of a multiple". The Dominion is the multiple and each province is a unit."
But Ron Graham does not touch on the issues at stake; he, like Trudeau, favours the patriation of the constitution, tells the fascinating tale of how Trudeau got his way. His cleverest trick was to tie the amending formula to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in one document, The Constitution Act of 1982, and then say to Rene Levesque, you are not going to vote against human rights, are you? Levesque was furious and trapped. Graham does not comment on Trudeau's real agenda, which was to strengthen the power of the federal government at the expense of the provinces, an agenda that almost led to Quebec's separation.