Fish swim. Indeed they do. That gem of wisdom came from former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
“Fish swim” was Trudeau’s terse response to Brian Peckford’s pleas for tighter reins on foreign fishing quotas on the Grand Banks.
Peckford was angry over the cavalier way the federal government allotted quotas with no consultation or consideration of Newfoundland’s interests.
As a young premier, Peckford sparred mightily with Trudeau. His critics naturally wrote it all off as grandstanding. He was a brash fellow with a flair for dramatic outbursts, and the spectacle occasionally detracted from the causes he was pursuing.
I was a young university student in 1980 and ’81 when Peckford and Canada’s other first ministers were wrangling over the patriation of the Constitution.
The era remains a little hazy, but so much of it flooded back upon perusing Peckford’s new memoir, “Some Day the Sun Will Shine and Have Not Will Be No More.”
One memory that immediately rushed back was the scorn and derision Peckford faced at the hands of Trudeau and his covey of kindred centralists.
At first ministers conferences, Trudeau waxed eloquent about his proposed charter of human rights. Peckford wanted to talk about fish and oil.
Trudeau was quick to make Peckford his special project.
At one point, he asked why Peckford supported Quebec separatism. In fact, Peckford had merely expressed admiration for Quebec’s social programs.
But the smear stuck. Trudeau revived it again in his memoirs, and others perpetuated it as well.
In his book “The Way it Works: Inside Ottawa,” former federal bureaucrat Eddie Goldenberg recalls how then federal justice minister Jean Chrétien was “physically sickened” by Peckford’s support for the separatists.
Of course, Goldenberg also props up the most famous lie of all — that Chrétien and two provincial justice ministers concocted what was to become the final agreement for patriating the Constitution — the so-called Kitchen Accord.
“I was a member of the federal team at the conference in Ottawa and was present on the afternoon of November 5, 1981, in the fifth-floor windowless kitchen of the Ottawa Conference Centre,” wrote Goldenberg, “an unlikely venue for such an historic moment — when the three justice ministers put the finishing touches to an agreement in principle, which (Saskatchewan’s Roy) Romanow carefully wrote down on a pad of yellow lined legal paper that was to serve as the basis of the next day’s formal agreement.”
A total fabrication, as Peckford proved this year prior to even releasing his book.
In reality, the Newfoundland delegation presented a separate proposal to other premiers and delegates, and this is what eventually led to the final agreement — a fact the prime minister himself admitted publicly the next day.
That the Kitchen Accord myth has survived so long is a testament to a couple of things. First, it was undoubtedly a lie Chrétien was happy to disseminate, considering his willingness to play fast and loose with the truth on other files. It also reflected a common attitude among mainland intellectuals that Newfoundland was incapable of contributing anything constructive to the national dialogue.
Among other sources, Peckford cites a particular article by two Calgary professors published in the National Post in 1999, in which the authors make an astounding pronouncement: “Since when does Newfoundland broker national unity deals?”
Nothing speaks more loudly to the prejudice this province has endured from some circles of Canadian intelligentsia.
That scorn persists today, though not nearly on the same scale.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor.