Monday, 13 May 2013

La Bataille de Londres - take 2

Is the controversy worth it? Perhaps that's what historian Frédéric Bastien should be asking himself.

I received a message from him on the weekend from Bastien - a message which I presume to a group letter as it wasn't addressed directly to me. But it did make me look a bit more closely at the controversy generated by his book La Bataille de Londres and to the logic of his arguments.

You will recall that he has been in the news recently over the allegations that there was some kind of impropriety (putting it in my mild terms, not his) over Bora Laskin's handling of the Constitutional Repatriation case in 1981. The Supreme Court was asked to render a decision as to whether Pierre Trudeau's government could unilaterally repatriate the constitution. Negotiations with the provinces had broken down (several times). The re-elected Trudeau, in the aftermath of the defeat of the first Quebec referendum, wanted to act. If the provinces weren't playing ball, he speculated quite openly as to whether the federal government couldn't just act on its own.

This is where things get interesting. Bastien seems to show that Laskin had some informal discussions with Michael Pitfield, secretary to cabinet under Trudeau in these years. In these discussions, Bastien claims that information passed between the government and the court, breaking down the normal and expected barriers between these levels of government.

What Bastien wants is to get the fully uncensored documents from the period. As to be expected (in this or any case, alas) the government isn't cooperating.

But does that mean that Bastien is really on to something? On that, it's looking less and less likely.

Just read his most recent logic: Bastien has taken some heat for suggesting that what happened here was a 'coup d'état'. Now Bastien replies to the criticism by saying that the wording isn't is. He was merely quoting the British High Commissioner to Canada, John Ford. So far so good. Except that Ford was talking about the possibility that Trudeau might unilaterally repatriate the constitution. A very different subject. Even still, Trudeau didn't unilaterally repatriate the constitution. The Supreme Court rendered a mixed decision, suggesting that it might be possible for the government to do so, but that it would go against precedent. Trudeau went back to the table. A majority of the provinces (all but Quebec) signed on.

Now to a common view of Confedertion in Quebec - that confederation was  compact between English and French Canada - this might be a coup d'état. But it wasn't what Ford was talking about. And it wasn't, in all common sense, really a coup d'état at all.

When a historian so misrepresents and misreads evidence, it really is stunning. This isn't just a matter of interpretation. It's taking some pretty clear wording and then just misusing it. How are we supposed to trust anything else in the boo
k? Do we have to look up all the sources to see what else has been ripped out of context? Maybe not, but the doubt is sown.

Bastien may have got the headlines. But he may come to regret the publicity.

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