How a Ukrainian Canadian helped draft the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of one of the most important Canadian documents – the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that finally allowed Canada to fully govern itself outside of British parliament. It had made Canada a truly independent nation,  allowing courts and judges to defend the citizen against the state and guarded the minority from the excesses of a parliamentary majority.  It successfully defended freedom of choice in abortion, homosexual rights, same-sex marriage, wearing religious symbols, and aboriginal and minority language rights. The Charter has replaced the American Bill of Rights as the constitutional document most emulated by other nations.

But the Harper government planned no celebration of this milestone, possibly because it would promote the accomplishment of a rival Liberal-Trudeau government, or that it stands in the way of his ideological stances on mandatory minimum sentences, electronic surveillance and enhanced police powers. The Harper government seems more interested in reverting Canadian identity back towards the British with a celebration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, restoring the ‘royal’ designation of the Air Force and Navy, and ordering all Canadian embassies and missions abroad to display a portrait of the Queen,  while the Charter aimed to further a distinct Canadian identity without the Queen.

The signing of the Charter was a very difficult, complex journey that involved many players to see it through, and one of them was a Ukrainian Canadian:

Trudeau wanted the Charter. The premiers worried over loss of provincial power. The logjam was broken in a dramatic few hours by four people — Jean Chrétien, federal minister of justice; Bill Davis, Conservative premier of Ontario; Roy McMurtry, Ontario attorney general; and Roy Romanow, the NDP attorney general of Saskatchewan.

By Day 3 — that was Nov. 4 (1982) — the participants were going nowhere.

That’s when Chrétien, McMurtry and Romanow forged what became known as the “kitchen accord.”

“It was not the kitchen, actually, but rather a pantry,” recalled Romanow. “We happened to be there by accident — one Anglophone from Ontario, me a Ukrainian socialist from Saskatchewan, and this French Canadian from Shawinigan.

“Those two did most of the talking. I happened to be carrying a note pad, so I took down notes. Chrétien, having gone through one referendum in Quebec, was determined not to go through another that would end up dividing the country and dividing families. “I also dreaded a national referendum on such divisive issues as language.”

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Romanow was born to Ukrainian parents in Saskatoon, and after helping draft the Charter became of premier of Saskatchewan in 1991.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is on “the wrong side of history” by failing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms to avoid stirring up lingering resentment in Quebec, says former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow.

In an interview with Evan Solomon, host of CBC’s Power & Politics, Romanow believes bitter divisions have dissipated over time, and that Harper is in a “very, very small minority of Canadians” not marking the occasion as a historic milestone.

“I’m saddened a bit that the prime minister would not recognize it as an important contribution to Canada’s nation-building, an articulation of our values and our responsibilities,”

“There will be separatists who don’t like the process or perhaps even the substance – what can we do about that, except to explain in Quebec and elsewhere to Canada and elsewhere in the world that this country is one of the greatest, most fair-minded, most opportunity-filled nations in the world?” he said.

“I think that’s what we should be celebrating, and harbouring, in fact, raising the spectre, I find it tough to accept that a prime minister would raise it.”

Romanow was Saskatchewan’s attorney general and intricately involved in the high-stakes political negotiations in the run-up to the patriation of the constitution in 1982. Failure to bring home the constitution would have had “unconscionable and unfathomable” consequences for Canada, he said.

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