House of Commons Hansard #147 of the 36th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was quebec.

Topics

The House resumed from September 28 consideration of the motion.

Calgary Declaration
Private Members' Business

11:05 a.m.

Reform

Rahim Jaffer Edmonton—Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise in the House today to address Motion No. P-22 which reads:

That a Humble Address be presented to His Excellency praying that he will cause to be laid before this House copies of all documents, reports, minutes of meetings, notes, memos, polls and correspondence relating to the Calgary Declaration.

As the motion outlines, in any fundamental democracy it is key that anything governments do with public money or anything governments endeavour to do be made public through access to information to almost anyone who would like to see the information.

There are three key elements that I would like to address in the House today regarding this motion. I will outline them before I begin my speech.

There is the key issue of transparency. Governments need to make more of an effort to become transparent. In addressing this motion it is important to talk about the issue of transparency.

The second issue is federal-provincial relations. In the House we have heard many different points of view on federal-provincial relations. How we enhance and balance those relations is fundamental when heading into the new century. I would like to address the issue of federal-provincial relations and what the government claims could be unfortunately hurt by making more documents public and by making people more aware of what the government is doing.

The third issue is how this will impact unity. There are many issues right now. The Quebec election is taking place. There are different points of view from different provinces when it comes to what direction Canadian unity should take and what sort of changes should be made in the federation.

What this motion tries to address will fundamentally impact the direction of unity in the country. In the long run, if we follow the direction of this motion it could enhance unity by following the two key elements of transparency and federal-provincial relations.

In addressing the issue of transparency I want to say that there has been widespread public disillusionment with governments. Generally, Canadians feel that their governments are trying to hide a lot of information that belongs to them.

Unfortunately, because of different things we have seen in the past, especially with the APEC scandal and other scandals of this government, there has been more and more public disillusionment with the way governments operate.

If we look fundamentally at this motion, all it is trying to do is make federal government operations more transparent. There is nothing wrong with that. Most members of the House would agree that it is in the best interests of governments to become transparent. They definitely should make the public aware of the sorts of things they endeavour to take part in and make available documents, reports, minutes of meetings, memos and anything else that should be made public.

We can especially point to the issue of the Calgary declaration. The public is skeptical. They really do not know what the federal government's role is within the Calgary declaration. Obviously it was a provincial effort. All of all the premiers of the country came together to suggest issues of positive change in the direction of unity.

However, the federal government has a role to play and has taken a role in that process. It is very important to make what its role is public. The issue of transparency is fundamental in trying to regain public confidence in governments and in the way they operate. I believe that is the crux of this issue.

Given the times we live in and the fundamental skepticism about politicians there is no reason for any member of this House to oppose this motion.

The second thing I want to address is the issue of federal-provincial relations. I have heard government members in their debate on this motion so far say that transparency would harm the government's ability to conduct federal-provincial affairs. As a member of this House and as a participant of democracy that is very confusing for me. As I mentioned earlier, when I look at the opportunities for governments in this whole direction of being more transparent and trying to enhance federal-provincial relations, the best way to do that is to make public and include the public in the endeavours the government chooses to take part in.

When one looks at the alienation that exists in this country between the provinces and the federal government there is no better time to change the direction of that public opinion by making government operations more transparent and by sharing information with the public.

Alas, we know what the government's stand is on trying to deal with the regions and the provinces. We have seen so many cases where it does not respect democracy and does not want to enhance its relationship with the provinces. We seen that most recently in the case of Alberta with its Senate elections. People in that province who are trying to change the way democracy works have gone ahead with an election process, trying to make the federal-provincial system of Senate representation work much better. They have been thwarted in that process. There is no direction on the part of government to try to enhance relationships between the provinces and the federal government.

We have also seen that on other issues concerning parliamentary reform. Many people in this country want changes, but we tend to see over and over again the heavy-handed governing strategy of this government and that unfortunately creates alienation between the federal and provincial governments.

The argument that the tabling before this House copies of documents reporting on meetings, notes, memos and correspondence relating to the Calgary declaration will harm the government's ability to conduct federal and provincial affairs is absolutely ludicrous to assume. Because we have not made a lot of these things public is the reason we have harmed provincial-federal relationships to begin with.

The official opposition, in its new Canada act, has outlined ways to specifically address provincial-federal tensions. One of the best ways to do that is to make governments more transparent and to address the fact that we need to make anything the federal government does more transparent. This would allow a relationship to develop between the provinces and the federal government, and the government has failed miserably in doing so. I encourage the government to consider that because there is nothing to hide and there should not be anything to hide.

The final point I want to address is the impact on unity. When it comes to the whole issue of the Calgary declaration, the initiative of the provincial premiers, there is definitely a will for change in the country. There is definitely a will to address this age old unity problem with some new solutions.

I mention the new Canada Act. The official opposition has made that public. We encourage debate on that. We encourage people's feedback on that. We feel it is important that the public gets involved with important issues that will fundamentally change the future of the country. Why do we not see that sort of effort and will on behalf of the government?

One of the questions raised with this motion is how on earth as democratic representatives we can argue against making public any sort of reports, documents or memos pertaining to the Calgary declaration which could fundamentally affect the future of the country. It is a wonderful initiative on behalf of provincial premiers trying to evoke change.

I would like to summarize that if the government were interested in democracy, if it were interested in freedom and if it were interested in allowing positive change to take place in the country, it would make an effort to make its dealings more transparent. The government should want to make an effort to make provincial-federal relations more transparent and more effective. It would make it easier for for them to work together and for the provinces to deal with federal problems and vice versa. To be able to deal with the Calgary declaration in the way the motion says the government should allow unity and the future of unity to be debated openly. That should be encouraged.

All of us in the House should support the motion.

Calgary Declaration
Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

Reform

Jason Kenney Calgary Southeast, AB

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate being able to rise in support of the motion moved by my esteemed colleague from Calgary West and seconded by my learned colleague from Edmonton—Strathcona. It is an important motion that reads:

That a humble address be presented to His Excellency praying that he will cause to be laid before this House copies of all documents, reports, minutes of meetings, notes, memos, polls and correspondence relating to the Calgary declaration.

This is a very sensible motion, as my colleague said, calling for transparency with respect to an important development on the national unity file. It is particularly important because several times my colleague from Edmonton—Strathcona has risen in his place to ask members of the government cabinet at question time what exactly they plan to do, if anything, to consult Canadians on the Calgary declaration.

I believe the maiden question put by my colleague from Edmonton—Strathcona in this place last year related to that point: what, if anything, the federal government was doing to consult Canadians about the Calgary declaration given that at least nine of the ten provincial governments engaged in fairly exhaustive and in depth consultation processes.

Unfortunately we have yet to receive, notwithstanding several efforts, a clear response to that very simple question. It seems the federal government has no plan to consult Canadians about the future reform of the federation and potential amendments to our Constitution.

We find this very worrisome. If Canadians have learned one thing over the past 15 years of politics surrounding national unity and the Constitution, it is that a behind closed doors top down approach to constitutional reform is rejected out of hand by Canadians.

We saw this in the approach the Liberal government took to the repatriation of the Constitution and the adoption of the charter of rights in 1982 by limiting debate to a small circle of political elite within the government. That decision did not carry the support of the majority of Canadians in a majority of regions. It ended up helping to create ongoing constitutional discord because it did not embrace the heartfelt concerns of Quebecers with respect to repatriation.

Similarly in the efforts made by the federal government in 1986 through 1990 to adopt the Meech Lake accord we saw the same kind of top down, secretive, behind closed doors, executive federalism. It was elite brokerage politics which left ordinary Canadians on the outside of the information loop and left politicians alone on the inside. This led to enormous public cynicism about the Meech Lake accord, which ultimately was its undoing.

That in itself led to a revival of separatist sentiments in the province of Quebec, which then led to the sad history of the Charlottetown accord in 1982. The then federal government finally realized that leaving Canadians on the outside of the process and maintaining secrecy about negotiations and consultations on unity and constitutional reform was no longer acceptable. That question was put to Canadians in the referendum held in October 1992. We know of the remarkable historic result. Canadians overwhelmingly rejected the jerry-built approach to special status in constitution making and interest group politics found in the Charlottetown accord.

We started this process once more with the Calgary declaration. Nine of the ten premiers gathered in good faith in Calgary in the summer of 1997 to examine ways to once again begin as a federation to talk about the need for reform of our constitutional framework to include all Canadians, including westerners and Quebecers. The premiers came up with the five principles of the Calgary declaration as a framework for discussion. They encouraged their various legislatures to engage in an exhaustive process of consultation.

All those provincial governments went to their constituencies. Through a variety of techniques which included public opinion polls, focus groups, town hall meetings, information circulars, surveys, brochures, Internet sites and special committees, each provincial government reviewed the input from the public and each premier reported back to their fellow premiers.

We had the beginning of a bottom up process for reform of the federation and the Constitution. Unfortunately no similar effort was undertaken by the federal government. When my colleague for Edmonton—Strathcona asked the government whether it intended to engage in such consultations in the province of Quebec, the answer was no. There was no such plan.

We as the official opposition assumed the responsibility to consult with Quebecers. We mailed an information circular on the Calgary declaration to a quarter of a million homes in the province of Quebec seeking input on the declaration. We conducted a poll and held public meetings. We generally did whatever we could within our limited resources to get public feedback.

This is why we have put the motion before the House. We feel the government has been cavalier and indifferent at best to the Calgary declaration, which by no means is perfect. It includes elements of deep concern to many Canadians. Many people are concerned that the unique characteristics clause may be some day interpreted to confer special legal privileges on a particular province.

Notwithstanding, most Canadians support the general direction of consultation, the principle of equality of provinces under the law and the principle of rebalancing powers as the premiers further manifested in their social union agreement in Saskatoon earlier this year.

The motion comes before this place simply to ask the government to show the House and to show all Canadians what, if anything, it has done, said and thought about or how it has consulted Canadians in the way of public opinion polls and other mechanisms with respect to the Calgary declaration.

It is important. This should not just be regarded as some sleepy motion. It is critically important that we get the process right at the front end, that we do not once again find ourselves as a country in the backwaters of the constitutional elite brokerage deal making that occurred at Meech Lake and Charlottetown. It is absolutely critical that we know exactly what the Government of Canada has done, said and plans to do with respect to the constitutional future of the country and reform of the federation.

While speaking to the motion I would also point out it is unfortunate, in seeking access to critical information of this nature, that increasingly Canadians and parliamentarians find the legal framework for access to information far too inaccessible. The Access to Information Act passed in parliament in the 1970s has become a joke in terms of guaranteeing real access to government information. It is well known that the bureaucracy has learned how not to comply with the spirit of the act but has managed to twist the letter of the law to its advantage to keep secret government information which should be public.

It is not just a partisan opinion that I express. Some members of the government opposite, including the hon. member for Hamilton—Wentworth, have put forward a comprehensive private member's bill before us to completely overhaul and reform the access to information law so that it will once again put Canada on the leading edge of governments with respect to openness, transparency and accountability. This is an important principle. As someone who used to work at an advocacy organization seeking information on government spending I can say that time after time—

Calgary Declaration
Private Members' Business

11:25 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. McClelland)

I am sorry but the member's time has expired. I have been trying to get the member's eye for the last two minutes.

Calgary Declaration
Private Members' Business

11:25 a.m.

Winnipeg South
Manitoba

Liberal

Reg Alcock Parliamentary Secretary to President of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased the motion has come back on the order paper. When it was introduced into the House I was at home awaiting the arrival of my new daughter and was unable to speak to it. I thank the member for Simcoe North, the former parliamentary secretary to the minister of intergovernmental affairs, who stood in my absence and responded on behalf of the government, and the member for Vancouver Quadra who also spoke to the issue.

In trying to respond to the comments that have been made, and certainly the comments that were made when the House was previously seized with the matter, it is important for us to reflect on a couple of points.

I am in my 11th year as an elected person. I spent two terms in the provincial house and I am now in my second term here. It has been my experience—and I think this experience holds in most walks of life—that we do our best work and create the best results when we work together, when we work in co-operation, when we attempt to put aside some of our differences and work on behalf of the best interests of the country and the people we serve.

Nowhere is this more important than in the issue of constitutional reform which affects every person in the country. It is an issue that must be considered very carefully. Each decision we make will become part of the structure of the country for a very long time.

It is not a process to be entered into lightly and I certainly do not hear members opposite suggesting that we should. The important aspect for me is that it is a process that needs to be entered into co-operatively. It is a process that is entered into when people are sitting down, not to fight about their personal differences or their broad political differences, but to look at ways in which they can produce something that is truly in the best interests of Canadians.

Having said that, I am a little surprised by this motion. It is said that if the policies or actions of the government cannot be attacked, then attack the process. Unfortunately, recently in this House when members cannot attack the process, they attack the person.

We have seen a lot of debate in this House in these last few weeks, certainly since we came back into this House in September, that has little to do with reality, little to do with actions of individuals and a lot to do with an attempt by members of this House to personally discredit and attack individuals. I find that extremely distasteful. In the two speeches that were just made I have heard the words “secrecy”, “behind closed doors”, “talked down”, “ramming things through”.

What is the government's response to this motion? It will produce all the papers. That was the government's response before it was debated in the House. There is no secrecy here. There is no attempt to hide anything.

Calgary Declaration
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

An hon. member

Where are they?

Calgary Declaration
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Reg Alcock Winnipeg South, MB

Ask for them. A member opposite asks where are they? The point is that we moved to this debate before anyone asked for the papers.

Calgary Declaration
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

An hon. member

Not true.

Calgary Declaration
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Reg Alcock Winnipeg South, MB

I am sorry. I do not want to be like our NDP friend on the plane who chooses to share all conversations, but there were conversations which took place that I was a party to.

The government has said from the beginning that we do not have any objection to sharing this information. I would suggest on issues such as this one in the future that if there is a concern, if there is information members opposite want, and I am not saying all information will be shared automatically, but the information will be shared. I am certain there will be policy issues and information that will come forward at times between the government and others where it will be difficult to do that.

On this issue, I would advise members that if they want information from the government, perhaps the first approach would be to call the minister and ask if they could have it. If members get told no, then they have the option of going the freedom of information route and all this information would have been received that way, or members could come to the House.

To start at the top simply uses a lot of time that could be spent elsewhere and produces no advantage, no additional result, particularly when members have been told they would get the information. One has to wonder why members came into the House to do this. Is it because they really want to get the information because they are concerned about transparency or is it because they want to create a straw man that reinforces the image members want to create regarding secrecy and lack of accountability? Members want to run against that.

I would argue frankly that it is the latter. I would feel, if I were allowed to feel things around here any more, that that was probably an abuse of the time of this House. More importantly it is an abuse of the process that we have to create if we are going to create the kind of constitution we all want.

What is the official response of the government to this motion? This comes from the speech of the member for Simcoe North. The government agrees to follow up on this initiative. The member in saying this has said his prediction is that the government will vote down this motion. Why are these polls being held back? Why are we not being apprised of the situation? The government's response is “Sure. If you want them, you have got them”.

Calgary Declaration
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

An hon. member

Give them to us.

Calgary Declaration
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Reg Alcock Winnipeg South, MB

The member says to give them to him. Let me read the motion: “That a humble address be presented to His Excellency praying that he will cause to be laid before this House copies of all documents, reports, minutes of meetings, notes, memos, polls and correspondence relating to the Calgary Declaration”. We have agreed to do that.

Calgary Declaration
Private Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

An hon. member

I expect that tonight.

Calgary Declaration
Private Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Reg Alcock Winnipeg South, MB

It takes a few days to pull it together. Under freedom of information I think the departments are given 40 days to prepare it. When it comes before the House all documents have to be put together. Those that are not originally in both official languages have to be translated before they can be entered into the House.

All of that information will be produced.

In terms of the comments that were made by the member from Calgary about the government's supposed concerns about the Calgary declaration, let me read what the former parliamentary secretary of federal-provincial relations said when he spoke on this motion in the House: “The Calgary declaration is based on seven principles that are completely”—completely, not partially, not maybe, not sort of—“in line with our government's national unity policy. It highlights our country's diversity”.

How that can be twisted into some other government playing games with the Calgary accord or not supporting the Calgary accord is a little difficult to figure. The point I would like to make is that if we are truly going down the road to changing, rebuilding, restoring confidence of Canadians in our constitutional framework and we are truly going to rebuild this framework, maybe we should begin that process by trying to work together on it rather than simply making it one more straw man that arguments are created about. I do not know how that assists the process.

Calgary Declaration
Private Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

Reform

Garry Breitkreuz Yorkton—Melville, SK

Mr. Speaker, in a democracy in order for people to make decisions, they need information. For the member opposite to give the impression that the government is forthcoming and free in sharing that information is totally hypocritical and totally false. One of the biggest problems I face as an MP is the fact that I cannot get information in a timely fashion. It is a very serious matter which needs to be addressed by this House.

The main point is that if the elected representatives of the people of Canada are to be effective and make proper decisions in a democracy as we pretend to have here, we need to have that information. It needs to be forthcoming. I have had a lot of experience in the last five years where that information has not been forthcoming.

We have an issue here regarding the Calgary declaration, or separation, or the Quebec issue, whatever the label is, where that information is not forthcoming. This issue gravely affects the country and for the government not to be producing all of these things is very serious. The government pretends it is but it is not.

I have had information denied to me regarding positions that this country has taken at the United Nations and the government continues to stonewall. It continues to deny us the information as to what it is saying and doing internationally. I cannot understand why it does not share this information. The government shares it all over the world. It shares it with people from other countries, many of them dictators and people whom we may not even agree with. The government is more open with those people than it is with the people of Canada.

We have a very serious problem here, especially in parliament. When we are dealing with issues here we need information and I hope that information will be forthcoming.

Another example is my experience with questions on the Order Paper where we specifically ask the government for information in relation to a certain matter. The government is supposed to answer within 45 days. I have yet to have an instance in which it does answer within 45 days. We sometimes have to wait a year, even longer. This is unconscionable.

The people of Canada ought to be aware of the fact that one of the biggest problems I face as a parliamentarian is the fact that I cannot get proper information in a timely fashion.

Calgary Declaration
Private Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. McClelland)

According to Standing Order 97(2), it is my responsibility to interrupt debate for right of reply. The government has the first right of reply and seeing no one standing, the hon. member for Calgary West, the mover of the motion.