OTTAWA – Justin Trudeau presided over his first caucus meeting as Liberal leader Wednesday by harking back to the party’s signature accomplishment when his father was at the helm.
Trudeau said it’s “extraordinarily fitting” that Wednesday’s meeting should occur on the same “auspicious” day that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted 31 years ago — a seminal addition to the Constitution when it was patriated in 1982 by Pierre Trudeau.
“We celebrate today, as Liberals, the document that makes sure that Canadians enjoy freedoms that can never be taken away,” he told Liberal MPs and senators.
In an era when parties are elbowing each other for room at the centre of the political spectrum, Trudeau asserted that the charter is what distinguishes Liberals from the Conservatives and NDP.
“(The charter) is at the centre of what it means to be a Liberal,” he said.
“Conservatives talk a good game about being a party of freedom but they are mistrustful of the mechanisms that actually ensure those freedoms for Canadians and that’s why they don’t celebrate the charter.”
The Harper government issued a perfunctory press release last year to mark the 30th anniversary of the charter, in stark contrast to the year-long, government-sponsored festivities to mark the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.
New Democrats supported patriation of the Constitution with a charter of rights back in 1982. But Trudeau asserted that the NDP finds itself “deeply conflicted” today.
“(That’s) largely because of a political calculation they’ve made, pandering to a tremendous number of very vocal sovereigntist Quebecers who do not particularly appreciate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
The Constitution was patriated over the objections of Quebec’s separatist government of the day and has been a sore point ever since with many Quebecers.
Nevertheless, Trudeau said no document is more broadly supported “by all Canadians, including the vast majority of Quebecers” than the charter.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called Trudeau’s assertion “completely false.”
“There has never been the slightest hesitation with regard to the importance of the charter, for the rights that it protects for all Canadians,” Mulcair said.
The NDP, which swept Quebec in the 2011 election, is committed to creating “winning conditions for Quebec within Canada,” he said, adding that it’s unacceptable that “one of the key founding provinces … should be excluded from the Constitution.”
Trudeau, elected by a landslide Sunday to the Liberal helm, was welcomed to caucus as the conquering hero by Liberal MPs, senators and staffers. They crammed into the tiny room in the bowels of Parliament’s Centre Block where the party has been relegated since being reduced to a third-party rump in the 2011 election.
Trudeau predicted the party has “not just a glorious past but a glorious future.” Still, he soberly told the assembled Grits: “We have an awful lot of work to do.”