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(Originally Published Sept. 15, 2004)

First Ministers Stroll Down Memory Lane

But oh, how they've forgotten

If a television network aired reruns this old and tedious, it would go out of business fast. But because this rerun involved the country's First Ministers, the show went on without anyone pulling the plug.

The just-ended meeting in Ottawa to discuss health care appeared to have some trappings of originality: it was televised, it featured a new Prime Minister struggling to preserve a minority government and make good on his campaign promises, and it opened with a native ceremony.

But what did it yield? A federal contribution of $18 billion, up 50 per cent from the original offer, towards health care. And a nationally televised display of pique, along with the usual accusations and counter-accusations. There was none of what George Bush père called "the vision thing."

Anyone paying attention to a similar meeting 23 years ago would say that little has changed. But, at least back then, these things were a great deal more entertaining. Arguably, they also accomplished a great deal more.

Think back to November 2, 1981, and the opening of a constitutional conference in Ottawa -- at the same old railway station-turned-conference center as the health meeting -- aimed at patriating the Constitution. Remember the players: Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Quebec Premier René Lévesque, Ontario's Bill Davis, Allan Blakeney of Saskatchewan, and the legendary Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick.

In their opening words, Trudeau, Davis and Hatfield offered concessions to get Quebec to agree to a formula that would allow Canada to bring its Constitution back to Canada from Britain. Lévesque, bolstered by seven other premiers who were part of his so-called Gang of Eight, answered by telling Trudeau he had no right to patriate the Constitution, and challenged the Prime Minister to call an election and campaign on the issue.

Two days later, the dam broke when Blakeney, one of the Gang of Eight, proposed an amending formula that dismayed Lévesque but appealed to the others. Trudeau jumped on it and offered more, swaying more members of the Eight and isolating Quebec further.

And, finally, there was the dramatic meeting the night of Wednesday to Thursday when the English-speaking premiers -- minus Quebec -- tore the Gang of Eight apart with a new constitutional proposal leaving out one of Quebec's longest-standing demands.

Trudeau was delighted. He had his consensus and was set to bring the Constitution to Canada the following year. But an angry Lévesque said that "Quebec finds itself alone ... the straitjacket which the federal régime represents is being tightened again for us. There is absolutely no question of accepting that." And at least one observer reported at the time that Lévesque wept as he boarded the plane back to Quebec City.

High drama, low politics -- this is the stuff of memorable federal-provincial meetings. Some of the players in that conference of 1981 are dead (Trudeau, Lévesque, Hatfield) but the memory of what they accomplished and how they played endures.

This week, their successors quibbled over money and how much would be enough. Do you suppose we'll remember this meeting in another quarter-century?

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Copyright © 2004 Joel Ruimy

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