Trudeau started it

The former liberal PM made it personal by attacking Mulroney and Meech Lake

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The Gazette, Saturday, September 8, 2007

In a more perfect world, former Canadian prime ministers would get along and even do things together, as former presidents do in the United States.

Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, opponents in the 1976 election, subsequently became close friends - Carter spoke at Ford's funeral. The first George Bush and Bill Clinton, adversaries in the 1992 campaign, have since made common cause on tsunami and hurricane disaster relief in Asia and America.

Former U.S. presidents attend the dedication of each others' presidential libraries. And a sitting president can call on his predecessors - as Clinton did with Bush, Ford and Carter on NAFTA in 1993 - to appear with him at the White House in support of important bi-partisan initiatives.

Sadly, this isn't the culture of Canadian politics, as Brian Mulroney's settling of accounts with Pierre Trudeau reminds us.

But then, Ford didn't try to undermine Carter on the Camp David accords. And Clinton never called Bush a criminal.

In other words, there wasn't the kind of bitter personal history between U.S. presidents that has, unhappily, been the case between Trudeau and Mulroney over Meech Lake, or between Mulroney and Jean Chrétien over the Airbus frameup.

And make no mistake, Mulroney is settling a 20-year-old score with Trudeau over Meech. Mulroney's attack on Trudeau for what he did in the war - nothing - is merely a rhetorical sideshow. Mulroney's pointing out that Trudeau, as a young man, reflected the anti-Semitic sentiments of the 1930s, simply echoes Trudeau's own writings of the period, as detailed by sympathetic biographers Max and Monique Nemni, as well as John English, who had access to his papers and private correspondence.

Nope, this is about payback for Meech, not that Trudeau opposed it, but for the way he opposed it, and for his glaring breach of courtesy from one prime minister to another.

While there is no doubt that Mulroney speaks ill of the dead, there is equally no doubt that Trudeau spoke ill of Mulroney in his famous missive on Meech.

Trudeau wasn't content to dismiss the Meech Lake Accord on substantive grounds, such as whether the distinct society conferred special status on Quebec. That would have been one thing, and quite within bounds.

Not stopped at that, Trudeau personalized the debate by calling Mulroney "a weakling" and a "pleutre," an obscure French word for a coward. The provincial premiers were "snivellers" who "should be sent packing."

And not only would Meech put Canada on a "fast track" to sovereignty-association, it would "render the Canadian state totally impotent," and the country would be "governed by eunuchs."

Trudeau's polemic appeared the same day in the Toronto Star and La Presse. What's not widely known is that the previous evening, Trudeau and Mulroney were together at a Toronto dinner in honour of Cardinal Emmett Carter. When they had a friendly word at the VIP reception, Trudeau gave no indication of what was coming in the next day's papers.

It's even less well known that after Meech was first negotiated, Mulroney called Trudeau and offered him a briefing. Norman Spector, then secretary to the cabinet for federal-provincial relations, and Trudeau's own former speechwriter André Burelle, came to Montreal and briefed him for three hours on the accord.

Trudeau's only comment to them as they left his office was that it was too bad Ottawa always had to give stuff up in these deals. In fact, there was very little in Meech that Trudeau himself hadn't offered in a succession of constitutional packages going back to the Victoria Charter in 1971. As for special status for Quebec, the distinct society was to be interpreted as part of a duality clause entrenching Quebec's English-language minority and French-language minorities elsewhere as "fundamental characteristics" of Canada.

Mulroney had asked Trudeau to get back to him with his thoughts, but never heard from him. "The next we heard from him," Mulroney said years later, "was the article."

Some years later, at a round table with Robert Bourassa, a university professor named Stéphane Dion called Trudeau's opposition to Meech, "the worst constitutional error in Canadian history." And in a recent interview with Policy Options magazine, Liberal leader Dion said: "If Meech had passed, I would be a university professor today and we would not have had the second referendum."

Meech Lake wasn't adopted largely because Trudeau sabotaged a constitutional initiative of his successor, which was meant to close the books on the patriation period by obtaining the signature of Quebec - "principal home of French Canada" in Trudeau's own words - on the Constitution. Meech was a very low-cost deal, especially in light of all that happened when it failed.

All politicians settle scores in their memoirs. No one should be shocked that Mulroney is settling this particular score with Trudeau in his.

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