The National Deal: The Fight for a Canadian Constitution

Description

360 pages
Contains Illustrations, Index
$9.95
ISBN 0-7715-9824-6

Year

1984

Contributor

Reviewed by John Stanley

John Stanley is a policy advisor at the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and
Universities.

Review

“Patriation” of the Canadian constitution is an issue that has obsessed, bored, and mystified the Canadian public and its politicians for decades. The process, fraught with legal and political complexities, finally reached its conclusion in April 1982 when the Queen signed the formal proclamation document. Robert Sheppard and Michael Valpy, two senior reporters for the Globe & Mail, have put together an account of the final stage of the constitutional discussions, from the Quebec referendum to the formal proclamation by Her Majesty.

While the contacts developed oven their years in the newspaper business have served Valpy and Sheppard well, this is first and foremost a journalistic account.

While the short-term is the most important view-point for newspaper readers, contemporary history requires a different type of accounting. Mere chronology poses a challenge to the authors: invariably their chapters start by recounting the end of an event and then work backwards. Since the chapters themselves are more topical than chronological, this technique involves repeating many events three times, as the same events pop up in a different context. It is not for simple convenience that a formal, chronology is appended to the text: it is an urgent necessity!

Since the journalists’ vacuum-technique has picked up every conceivable fact, the reader is bound to drown in detail. Not only are the personalities and issues discussed, but so is the weather, the landscape, and interior decorating schemes. While this technique gives immediacy in a newspaper account and veracity to fiction, it can easily prove irritating to readers, now and in the future.

Finally, the authors often let their own style gallop away with their better judgment. Chapter headings like “Trail-Driving the Dinosaurs” (a reference to the Tories), “The Frenzied Umpire” (referring to the Supreme Court), and “The Candy-Coloured Charter” (the Charter of Rights) prove Valpy and Sheppard to be imitators of the worst techniques of Tom Wolfe, whose book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test provided an impetus to the New Journalism.

Despite objections to style, focus, and chronology, this is an account that is going to be read, not only by contemporaries but by our descendants. As a first-hand account of the constitution’s patriation, it will have a place in any library collection and certainly will act as a reference for future researchers. In an attempt to “get the story,” however, the two journalists have often lost the larger issues. For example, the constitutional battle was one of the first steps in uniting the Federal Tories, thus providing a crucial step in their overwhelming victory in 1984. However, the Tories in Ottawa are given a place early in the narrative and then ignored. Because the authors concentrate on the personality clashes of provincial and federal figures, the substantive disputes fade into the background. Even the account of the fabled “kitchen negotiations,” which led to the final accord, falls flat as a result.

As one of the first book-length studies of the finalising of the Canadian constitution, The National Deal will undoubtedly find its place in Canadian history collections. However, it is only a first step. More serious and more authoritative accounts will inevitably push it aside as time gives greater perspective to this historic accomplishment and compromise.

Citation

Sheppard, Robert, and Michael Valpy, “The National Deal: The Fight for a Canadian Constitution,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 20, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/37689.