OTTAWA — The papermakers chose the finest Manitoba flax and the artists etched the coat of arms in 24 carat gold for the Proclamation of the Constitution Act of 1982.
The goal: to create a uniquely Canadian, tangible piece of history befitting the constitution coming home and the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Except nobody thought about the pens used to sign the proclamation itself.
So while 30 years later the Charter remains a vibrant force in Canadian life, the signatures that brought it into force are at risk of fading.
“The paper is very, very good quality, but it begs the question when we’re signing prestigious documents, perhaps we should be using inks, pens that are as stable as the document itself,” said Catherine Craig-Bullen, manager, conservation treatment at Library and Archives Canada.
“But there is no regulatory body to say, oh, when you sign this you should use this type of ink.”
Except, the only signature that wasn’t even supposed to be there may outlast all the others.
And the reason former prime minister Jean Chretien’s signature remains so well preserved isn’t archival acrobatics, but the actions of a protester.
Two copies of the proclamation were made. One was for the public outdoor ceremony on Parliament Hill and the second for a private event on April 17, 1982.
Four people signed: the Queen, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, then-registrar general Andre Ouellett, and then-justice minister Chretien.
“In a kind gesture by Trudeau, I signed my name just below Her Majesty’s, although there was no technical reason for my signature to have been there,” Chretien wrote in his autobiography.
Fast forward to a year later, when a young man appeared at the archives asking to see the proclamation.
There seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary about him, recalled archivist Larry McNally, who was working at the front desk that day.
“The request sounded normal to me, though no one had ever asked to see the act before,” he said.
So, he sent the man up and one of the copies was retrieved from storage. Not the one already mottled by raindrops on the rainy Saturday it was signed, but the pristine version.
And as he peered over it, the young man pulled a glue bottle out of his suit and poured out red paint.
In court, Peter Greyson explained he had doused the document in protest of a decision to allow the United States to conduct cruise missile testing over Canada.
At the archives, it was as though staff themselves had been shot.
The paint spread over the middle of the text and up towards the signatures belonging to Chretien and the Queen.
Archivists managed to halt the ooze just below her name, but Chretien’s got soaked.
They then deployed every archival trick they knew to try and get the paint out — blotting, sucking it up through pipes and vacuums.
They even contemplated cutting the entire ruined section out and replacing it, while one suggestion from the public was to expand it so it looked like a map or maple leaf.
But finally, the archivists had to give up, leaving a shapeless, albeit paler, blob of red on top of one of Canada’s most historic documents.
“Of all the stuff on there, it’s probably the most stable,” said Craig-Bullen of the paint.
“Well, and Jean Chretien’s signature — because it is underneath the paint.”
While there have been advances in technology since 1982, there’s been no thought given to trying to get the paint or the raindrops out of the documents, as they are now part of their history.
But further testing is underway to see if the casing on at least one copy can be changed to ensure no further deterioration.
The new case would push as much oxygen away from the document as possible, explained Michael Smith, a collection manager at the archives.
“Because of lack of oxygen, things like ink fading are slowed down or arrested so its quite useful if you want to display it,” he said.
Chretien recalled with a laugh the day he signed the proclamation.
When it was his turn, the pen passed to him by Trudeau was broken, causing a French swear word to slip from his lips. “And the Queen looked to one side and looked to the other side and had a big laugh,” Chretien said the other day in an interview with The Canadian Press.
He added: “She was bilingual, she understood.”