“Night of the long knives”

Double-dealing cloaked in darkness; a treacherous turn to undercut provincial prowess.

By 1979, Quebec nationalist René Lévesque had racked up significant political success in provincial office, including introducing the landmark—and highly controversial—language primacy law, Bill 101.

But after Lévesque’s sovereignty movement suffered a major setback in the 1980 Quebec independence referendum, his federalist nemesis Pierre Trudeau saw an opening. Trudeau planned to capitalize on Lévesque’s weakness by ramming through a Charter of Rights and Freedoms for all Canadians.

Lévesque forged an anti-Charter “Gang of Eight” premiers who believed this change would cut into provincial power. They litigated the matter up to the Supreme Court to hinder Trudeau’s scheme. Lévesque’s strategy looked so effective that at a November 1981 meeting between the premiers and Prime Minister, the Quebec premier told the press that, “I’m not a gambling man, but I’d say the odds [of Trudeau getting his Charter] are loaded toward failure.”

Ever the riverboat gambler, that very night the Prime Minister found a way to beat Lévesque’s odds. After the Quebec delegation had crossed the Ottawa River back to their Gatineau hotel, Trudeau’s gang set to work negotiating a backroom deal with the other provincial teams. Offering a province-friendly amending formula and a legislative override clause, the Charter sausage was already cooked by the time Lévesque arrived at breakfast.

Hotter than his signature cigarette, Lévesque felt he had been stabbed in the back by his provincial allies in what he styled the “night of the long knives.” [Parli pauses to note that Lévesque’s phrasing was a little hyperbolic when viewed against the backdrop of history; the original “night of the long knives” was a Nazi purge of opponents in 1934 that included more than 150 extrajudicial executions.]

Lévesque principled defence of provincial power had been undone by what he called “shady dealing”, “trickery,” and political operators who “wouldn’t hesitate to walk over their mother for an ice cream cone.”

Walking over one’s mother or not, Trudeau got his Charter.

But Lévesque fought on, asserting Quebec’s independence from the federation at every turn. On the day of the Constitution’s patriation, he ordered that Quebec flags be flown at half mast. And while he remained premier until the fall of 1985, each of his government’s legislative initiatives invoked the notwithstanding clause to protest the Charter.

But then again, there might be another side to the story. Check out Parli’s entry on “Kitchen Cabinet” to see how the Charter champions would prefer history to be written.

Image source: Globe

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