moved that Bill C-110, an act respecting constitutional amendments, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, Bill C-110 represents the fulfilment of one of the three undertakings made by the Prime Minister during the referendum campaign. At that time, the Prime Minister made a commitment not to amend the Canadian Constitution without the consent of the people of Quebec. But the bill goes much further. It also ensures that no constitutional change will take place without a regional consensus.
Let us be very clear: this initiative, the resolution respecting Quebec's distinctiveness, and the initiative that will follow tomorrow, are in no way the sum total of our response to the Quebec referendum or to the issue of national unity. Rather, these three commitments should be seen as important first steps.
It was in front of a rally of over 100,000 proud Canadians in Montreal that the Prime Minister promised change. He made a commitment and now he has delivered.
On that day he made it clear that to implement change he would need the support of those same proud Canadians and their friends who came from coast to coast to coast to Montreal. The time for this renewal starts now.
We need the support of those Canadians and Canadians from all across the country to confirm the faith of the majority of Quebecers who voted no to separation on October 30.
The steps we are taking this week in combination signal a new beginning and a reaffirmation of our desire to remain united.
Bill C-110 should be seen in the context of this renewal. Yesterday, the Prime Minister spoke eloquently before the House to the resolution recognizing Quebec's distinct society.
That resolution represents a solemn commitment, the fulfilment of a pledge, and this Chamber's genuine expression of respect for the people of Quebec. True, this resolution will satisfy neither the Parti Quebecois nor the Bloc Quebecois.
As we know, sadly, nothing short of breaking up this country would satisfy them. But, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, it is easier to destroy than to build. This government is interested only in building a stronger, more united Canada.
As the Prime Minister asserted yesterday, the resolution through which the House is being called on to confirm the reality that Quebec is a distinct society is not intended in any way and does not infringe on or derogate from aboriginal or treaty rights. This position includes the inherent right to self-government. We recognize the unique legal position of aboriginal peoples, including the protection of aboriginal and treaty rights as found in the Constitution.
Tomorrow my colleague, the Minister of Human Resources Development, will table a bill transforming the unemployment insurance program into an employment insurance program. This will represent the latest step in the practice established by the government in the two years since we have taken office; a practice of co-operating to end duplication with other levels of government as we work toward our common goals of creating jobs and achieving economic growth.
We reaffirmed that commitment during the referendum campaign. Tomorrow will mark an important step in that continuing process.
During the referendum campaign, we assured the people of Quebec that the Canadian Constitution would not be amended again without their consent. That was a solemn commitment. Yet, the Government of Quebec stands in the way of our modernizing the federation and stays on the sidelines by itself. It refuses to participate.
As Canada begins its renewal, we need a practical way of assuring Quebecers that we will not proceed without them. What we have done is to provide a strong political commitment, backed by the force of law, that we will use our veto to oppose any change that, in the opinion of Quebecers or people from any other region, goes against their best interests. This simply acknowledges the reality. There is no point in adopting changes that do not have substantial support in all the regions of the country.
Allow me to deal briefly with the contents of Bill C-110. May I emphasize at the outset that this legislation does not initiate or represent constitutional change. It is essential to emphasize that the adoption of this bill by Parliament will not result in any change in the amending formula provided for in the Constitution of our country.
All of the features of Part V of the Constitution calling for provincial agreement in various forms, depending on the nature of
the proposed amendment, will remain entirely as they are at present. In particular, the general formula for amendment requiring the approval of two-thirds of the provinces representing 50 per cent of the Canadian population will remain exactly as it is at present.
What this bill does achieve is to make the federal veto over constitutional change available in such a way as to ensure that no such change will take place without regional consensus. Simply stated, the federal government is providing by law that such support will not be forthcoming unless certain conditions are met. Those conditions involve the support of every region of Canada.
Let me spend a few moments setting out in a summary way that which is already well known to members of Parliament; that is, the features of the present amending formula contained in Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 and that will continue unchanged after this bill is adopted.
Each and every one of the provinces already has a veto on many categories of proposed constitutional amendments. For example, each and every one of the provinces has a veto on all changes that require unanimity; that is, those matters that are touched on by section 41 of the Constitution Act. These involve changes to the office of the Queen, the governor general, the lieutenant governor of a province. They involve changes in provincial representation in the House of Commons and the Senate, the use of the English and French languages, and the composition of the Supreme Court of Canada.
Under section 41, every province, from Newfoundland on the east to British Columbia on the west, has an absolute and unconditional veto over any amendment referred to in section 41.
The second type of change contemplated by the Constitution and the second kind of veto provided in part V is dealt with in section 43. Whenever there are proposed changes that affect one or more but not all of the provinces, those provinces affected by the proposed changes have an absolute and unconditional veto over any such amendment. Think, for example, about the resolution of boundary questions between provinces that neighbour each other, or instances such as the amendment permitting the construction of the fixed link between the mainland and Prince Edward Island. Without the concurrence of the province or provinces affected by changes under section 43, those amendments will not occur.
The third kind of change in respect of which there is a virtual veto is under the general amending formula in subsection 38(1). It is provided in subsection 38(3) that where there is any amendment approved by seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population, if it involves the reduction of any provincial power, right, or privilege, any province can opt out. In that section, the veto is exercised in a negative sense by the objecting province opting out of the proposed change. Under section 40, where such an opting out takes place in relation to matters involving culture or education the federal government is obligated to compensate the dissenting province financially.
It is therefore clear that each and every province, from Prince Edward Island to Alberta, from British Columbia to Newfoundland, has a veto either directly or indirectly over almost all categories of constitutional change.
The only area that exists at present where there is no veto is where the general amending formula applies and where the opting out provisions of subsection 38(3) do not arise; in other words, those amendments that do not involve taking powers away from the provinces. We are therefore dealing with those categories of amendment that would, for example, add powers to the provinces, enlarge the territories of existing provinces, or deal with all the other matters listed in section 42 of the Constitution.
The effect of Bill C-110 is to provide a regional veto for any of the changes in respect of which the individual provinces do not already have direct or indirect vetos. The additional regional veto that is contemplated by this legislation will be provided not by constitutional change but rather through a commitment by the Canadian government to introduce such changes only when regional consensus is demonstrated.
In effect, the federal government is putting in place a set of criteria that will guide the future use of its own veto power. The seven and fifty amending formula is still in place. Bill C-110 is merely a discipline the federal government imposes on itself.
Canadian history shows that the idea of a regional veto has often been supported by many responsible proponents. Indeed, at the Victoria constitutional conference of 1971, the federal government and all 10 provinces agreed to a constitutional amending formula that was, in general terms, very similar to that proposed in Bill C-110.
This approach was ultimately rejected, for other reasons, by a subsequent decision.
Let us keep in mind, however, that the Victoria formula as it was then called had the original support of all eleven governments.
Similarly, the 1991 report of the Beaudoin-Edwards Committee contained a proposal almost identical to that in Bill C-110. Finally, at its 1992 policy convention in Hull, the Liberal Party of Canada
endorsed certain specific amending formulas, including the very formula set out in this bill.
As members will see, this bill provides expressly that no minister of the crown can introduce a resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution unless such an amendment has the consent of a majority of the provinces. Which begs the question: What is meant exactly by "the consent of the provinces"?
First, let me point out that it will be up to the federal government to determine what this phrase means every time a new situation arises. Depending on the circumstances, the federal government might interpret as consent, for example, an expression of consent by the provincial government of the day, a resolution of the legislative assembly, or a direct expression of the population's agreement through a referendum.
There are those who may argue that Bill C-110 is unconstitutional because it represents a unilateral attempt by the Canadian government to amend the Constitution. I can tell the House that I gave careful consideration to this question before certifying the bill as constitutional, as it was tabled in the House yesterday.
Let me express my sincere conviction that Bill C-110 is valid federal legislation. It does not amend the Constitution in any way. Indeed, it is complementary to the constitutional amending provisions.
It must be observed that the House of Commons is the only legislative assembly in Canada with a complete veto over almost every conceivable type of constitutional change. That is so because as a practical matter no such change will occur if it is opposed by the House of Commons.
Bill C-110 simply represents a reflection in legislative form of the policy of the Canadian government with respect to the circumstances under which it will lend its support to constitutional change where the provinces do not already have a veto.
In my respectful view, this legislation is much in the same category as those provincial statutes by which certain provinces have bound themselves to support constitutional amending proposals only after a referendum has been held in which the people of a province express their support. I refer specifically to the legislation in both Alberta and British Columbia, which imposes on those provincial governments exactly that constraint or discipline.
Accordingly, I say that this bill is neither intended to nor does it amend the Constitution directly or indirectly. It simply sets out the circumstances under which the Canadian government may support constitutional change.
Another question that arises is whether there are four regions for these purposes or five. As the Prime Minister asserted in his remarks yesterday, some are already suggesting that the bill does not do justice to British Columbia. Let me emphasize that this is simply not the case.
The changes in this legislation are a significant step forward for British Columbia in the constitutional process. These steps are the clearest recognition we have had to date of British Columbia's growing importance within Canada. The voices of British Columbians are being heard in Ottawa and throughout Canada. Let there be no mistake about that.
As the largest western province, British Columbia will obviously have a major voice in determining whether regional consensus exists in the circumstances contemplated by Bill C-110. Indeed, the arithmetical reality is that British Columbia, with the support of only one other western province, could block any constitutional change affected by Bill C-110. This represents a significant increase in British Columbia's role in the amending process. The situation at present in respect of amendments to which Bill C-110 would apply is that change would be possible without the consent of three western provinces, even if the three dissenting provinces together represented a majority of the population in the western region.
The population of British Columbia is expected to surpass 50 per cent of the total of the western region early in the next century. This will mean that under the provisions of Bill C-110 British Columbia on its own would ultimately be able to block any amendment. This will represent a major improvement and significant recognition of British Columbia's place in Confederation.
This issue should surely be kept in perspective. We speak in this bill of a veto. A veto does not initiate constitutional change, it blocks it. What we are talking about is the ability of a region to stop an amendment to the Constitution.
I remind members as well that the Constitution requires that a conference convened by the Prime Minister and including all first ministers must be held before April 1997, expressly for the purpose of discussing the amending formula in part V. The issue of British Columbia's involvement in the veto process could very well be put on the agenda of that conference for full discussion.
There are those who suggest that Bill C-110 will make it impossible for any government to amend the Canadian Constitution. I fundamentally disagree.
First of all, the amending formula remains exactly as it is today. Part 5 remains unchanged. The general amending formula will still require the consent of seven provinces representing over 50 per
cent of the Canadian population. Bill C-110 simply provides that a regional consensus must be achieved before the Canadian government can effect any changes.
It is difficult to imagine that the federal government would endorse constitutional change without the support of all regions. Bill C-110 requires that a majority of provinces, namely six, express their support for or consent to the proposed changes before Ottawa can participate.
That is, of course, a smaller number than required in Part 5 of the Constitution, and I emphasize as well that there is no national population threshold.
I suggest that Bill C-110 will strengthen the constitutional fabric of this country, not by changing the Constitution but rather by making plain the circumstances under which constitutional change can be carried out.
This bill is a measure that reflects the importance of the regions of Canada and ensures their participation in constitutional renewal. In a sense the bill is a bridge, because we can expect that the amending formula will evolve in the years to come. There is no doubt that at some future point the amending formula will be reviewed and no doubt improved upon. In the meantime, by this legislation the federal government is ensuring that amendments will occur only when they have the support of all regions of the country.
As I said at the outset, this bill and the other initiatives introduced this week are not in any sense the only response by this government to questions of national unity. Rather these initiatives are the first steps. They represent new beginnings. We undertake them with renewed hope and optimism for our future as a country. Let us proceed in that spirit and put Canada above all else. Let us put Canada first.
I commend the legislation to the House and I urge all members to support it.