Kitchen Cabinet


An impromptu gathering to save Canada.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s race to give Canada control of its own Constitution was long and grueling, and in the fall of 1981, he still looked to be a long way from finish line. The Supreme Court had ruled that any deal to bring home Canada’s Constitution from the British would require substantial degree of provincial consent. All the premiers but two—Ontario and New Brunswick’s—had banded together into what was popularly described as the “Gang of Eight” to deprive Trudeau of just that.

Things came to a head on November 4, 1981. Trudeau and the premiers met in Ottawa, but they still lacked a recipe for constitutional resolution. A political potluck took place in the kitchen of the Government Conference Centre when federal Minister of Justice Jean Chrétien convened with the Attorneys General from Saskatchewan and Ontario to cook up the constitutional deal of the century. The group stirring the pot came to be known as the Kitchen Cabinet, a nod to the unofficial advisors surrounding American administrations since the 1830s.

Under their “kitchen accord” pact the provinces would accept patriation and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but the Feds would have to swallow a province-friendly constitutional amending formula. A legislative override clause was tossed into the stew as well, permitting legislatures to enact laws notwithstanding select Charter rights; a horrifying opt-out to purists, to others a brilliant scheme to embrace the possible over the perfect.

Trudeau got his deal and Canada got a new Constitution Act in 1982.

And yet, there might be another side to the story when you consider Trudeau and Chrétien’s efforts to keep some cooks out of the kitchen. Check out Parli’s entry on “Night of the long knives” to see how the patriation opponents would prefer history to be written.

Image source: CP


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