The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada, by Ron Graham

Nine stars

Having recently read the tome associated with Canadian Confederation in the History of Canada series, I wanted to complement it with Ron Graham’s book about the eventual Canadian patriation of the British North America Act, 1867—its own constitution—and the battles that ensued to do so. While likely not of great interest to those readers who are not Canadian political geeks such as myself, the detail Graham uses to present his arguments are both convincing and easy to comprehend. That Canada failed to create an amending formula for its constitution was lost on few, even as far back as 1867. As some historians mentioned, the Fathers of Confederation knew this, but thought it a trivial aspect that could be ironed out later on. A gaffe that had not been rectified over the 115 or so years up to this point, though many had tried. Many contentious issues arose to create clashes amongst the players, which Graham explores in depth. However, it was one day at the 1981 First Ministers’ Conference on the Constitution—Wednesday, November 4, 1981—that saw things go from disaster to a shaky agreement that many of the premiers could accept. Graham discusses the events in detail, including the many characters who served as political hurdles for Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to bring home Canada’s beloved constitutional document. From linguistic arguments by a separatist premier to refusal to cede control of knowing what its people wanted best when the Gang of Eight sought to torpedo the amending formula and even trying to ram a Charter of Rights and Freedoms past these wily men, Graham delved into the drama of this single day that tipped the scales and brought home the Constitution, once and for all. Riveting in its detail and discussion of many political issues of the day, Ron Graham turns Canadian history into something that many can comprehend with his flowing style. Recommended to those who enjoy all things Canadian politics, especially the reader (geek or not) who loves constitutional discussions.

When I noticed that this book was part of the History of Canada series, I knew I would have to get my hands on it as soon as possible. The topic has long been something that has interested me and while I am somewhat well-versed on the topic, this insider look hooked me from the opening pages. Graham does set the historical narrative on a single day, though he weaves in much of the political and social backstory that brought things to this point. There is a discussion of many of the key players: Trudeau, the premiers, federal and provincial ministers, and even some advisors. All these men (yes, like 1867, it was men making the decisions) clashes and fought as best they could, each feeling they knew what was best. Graham offers powerful backstories and some of the behind-the-scenes discussions that took place on that fateful November day, including some of the late-night moments that broke open the logjam and led to an agreement that most could agree upon, even if it was still contentious. There was much to learn from this and historians (and Canadians alike) can still learn from the arguments made at this conference. But, when the dust settled, however bloodied the actors were, Canada had what it needed. True, this opened up a new can of worms, but that is for another review. Full of well paced chapters that clearly explore central political and social events, the reader is able to better understand the nuances of the political infighting and the cleavages that separated some of the central players. Graham is fair in his depiction, though he surely could have written something three times as long and still held the attention of many.

Kudos, Mr. Graham, for such a great primer on the topic of Canadian constitutional reform/patriation. I will have to keep my eyes open to see what else you’ve published on the subject.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: