A book about the struggle to repatriate Canada’s Constitution in the 1980s has no right to be as entertaining as Frédéric Bastien’s The Battle of London. The journalist and Dawson College history professor created a minor stir when the book was first published in French, but this translation deserves a wide readership for its solid scholarship and, most impressively, powerful storytelling.
Bastien’s book covers the years-long diplomatic efforts to ensure that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government could, with or without agreement from the provinces, gain the support of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to amend the BNA Act, thereby allowing Canada to pass its own Constitution and establish the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But more than just the back-and-forth between Thatcher and Trudeau, which was surprisingly cordial given the stark differences between the two, this book also tracks the efforts that provinces and First Nations groups made to influence British members of parliament in the hopes of stopping Trudeau’s initiative, which was seen, at least initially, as a federal power grab. Bastien covers, in great detail, the negotiations between the feds and the provinces, with Quebec’s René Lévesque and Alberta’s Peter Lougheed playing major roles.
Even though readers know the outcome, the book’s brisk pace, combined with writing that is more journalistic than academic, make for something of a page-turner. The reliance on primary documents – diplomatic cables and memos – gives the reader a good sense of the central figures. Jacob Homel, the book’s translator, deserves much credit: The Battle of London features none of the clunky sentences or untranslatable turns-of-phrase that often mark French-to-English books.
When first published in Quebec, The Battle of London attracted attention as a result of Bastien’s assertion that two Supreme Court of Canada justices – including the chief justice, Bora Laskin – shared information about the court’s internal deliberations on Constitution-related questions with officials from both the British and Canadian governments. If true, this is an undeniably important revelation. But in the context of this very enjoyable book, it is just another piece of a fascinating puzzle.