Shortlisted for the 2011 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing
Globe and Mail Top 100 Book – 2011
The Last Act by Ron Graham is from Penguin’s new History of Canada series. When I first saw this series in the bookstore, with titles exploring the legendary 1891 federal election, the now mythic Plains of Abraham battle, Expo 67, and the German U-boat battles in the St. Lawrence, I almost had a stroke induced by excitement. A quality series of books, by very reputable writers, digging into events that are known at at least in a general way by the Canadian citizenry is something to be celebrated. I immediately grabbed a pile of these titles and headed to the cash. Since I just finished Donald Creighton’s pair of histories on Canada, I figured this book would be a good follow-up.
Two great things happened to Canada in 1982: I was born and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was passed. Ron Graham’s The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada is an account of the November 1981 conference that resulted in severing one of the last lingering remnants of colonialism. (Eventually we will sever the last and get rid of that anachronistic monarchy that is still technically our Head-of-State). This meeting brought about constitutional patriation, the Charter, an amending formula, and set into motion the wheels of the Quebec sovereignty movement that culminated in the 1995 referendum. While the book focuses on the events of November 4 and 5, there is a great prologue giving historical context and a fantastic epilogue discussing Mulroney’s failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. Ron Graham has written a masterpiece of Canadian political history; it is highly readable and accessible, but also very thoroughly researched and scrupulously cited with a huge bibliography. In years to come, The Last Act will be looked at as an authoritative text on the 1981 constitutional debate.
Something that is interesting about Graham’s writing style is, with the exception of his epilogue, the utter neutrality he takes towards the people involved, especially Rene Levesque whom he tries to portray in as sympathetic manner as possible. As a reader though, depending on your ideological tendencies, you will definitely end up taking sides and developing strong dislikes of certain players (for instance I would have liked to beat Peter Lougheed and Sterling Lyon with a rubber hose).
This book could have become bogged down in philosophical notions of federalism, the role of the courts, and constitutionalism. These ideas are present, but they come out in the words of the players themselves through interviews, quotes, and their general actions. After reading Creighton’s The Road to Canada and learning about how opposed the Fathers of Confederation were to the concept of “provincial rights” and their destructive nature, I was fascinated by the importance of it in the negotiations.
I have always been a huge admirer of Pierre Trudeau, and this book did nothing but deepen that admiration. Trudeau took the long view. By introducing the Charter, he ensured fundamental freedoms for all Canadians. The political scientist in me firmly believes that for a liberal-democracy to function in the interests of its citizens, checks-and-balances need to be in place. The Charter provides this; important changes in Canada’s social fabric were brought about because of the Charter, changes that politicians would be terrified to touch (reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, safe-injection sites, and soon hopefully, assisted suicide). Trudeau was a Canadian visionary, but above all, he was a shrewd political mind, and love him or hate him, in November 1981, he was definitely the smartest guy in the room.