Mr. Speaker, it is with great pleasure that I rise today to speak to the motion the justice minister has just tabled. This motion reflects faithfully the amendments requested by Newfoundland regarding its education system as set out under Term 17 of the Terms of the Union of Newfoundland with Canada.
I think the minister spoke very eloquently of the concerns surrounding the consequences of the amendments, especially the sense of security this amendment may provide with regard to the situation in this province as it stands for minorities among others.
As members of the Bloc Quebecois, a sovereignist party and the official opposition in this House, we will naturally consider this amendment to the Canadian Constitution in a broader context. Indeed, to understand what this amendment is all about, one has to look at the history of how Newfoundland joined the Confederation, under what terms it joined, and how it is now asking for these amendments, which are raising a lot of concerns and questions on the part of the people of Newfoundland.
Everybody in Canada knows that Confederation has been in existence since 1867. Through the years, provinces and territories have joined Canada. In 1949, Newfoundland entered Confederation. How and under what terms?
How? Through a referendum. Quebecers did not invent referendums, they have been part of the Canadian Confederation for many years. Therefore, on March 15, 1948, the government in the United Kingdom passed an act paving the way for the referendum process. It asked three questions and provided for a second referendum should none of the proposals made by the government receive the support of the majority during the first referendum. Of course, since there were three proposals, the one with the least support from the public would be dropped.
Therefore, in 1948, there was a referendum on an extremely important issue: Would Newfoundland adopt a new constitutional status? Would Newfoundland enter the Canadian Confederation?
It should be noted that neither Ottawa nor the other provinces which were already part of the Canadian Confederation intervened to choose a date, draft the question or dictate the rules. Moreover, the federal government even had reservations regarding the wording of the question. Even then, the federal government argued about the percentage required to come into the Canadian Confederation. Things never change, do they? We have the same concerns today about a province that wants to leave Confederation.
Let us look at history, let us see what it tells us. In Britain, since Newfoundland was part of the United Kingdom in those days, they immediately recognized that 50 per cent plus one would be enough for Newfoundland to become part of the Confederation. We will see that Ottawa upheld that decision, and quite properly so.
So Newfoundland held its first referendum on June 3, 1948. It is important to know about the three proposals to evaluate the impact of the amendment before us in an historical context. Let me briefly review with you those elements of history.
The wording and the order of the questions in the referendum act were as follows. First, it proposed to the Newfoundland population a commission of government which was to govern for a five-year period; second, a confederation with Canada; and third, a responsible government, as it existed in 1933.
Obviously, there were pros and cons for all three. Some criticized the text saying it was biased in favour of the commission. The federal government did not agree with the wording of the proposals and was very reluctant. Ottawa condemned the fact that nothing was said about Great Britain no longer being able to financially support Newfoundland. The Canadian High Commission said the terms of the question were ambiguous and equivocal. I feel I have heard that same comment recently, but that was in 1948. The high commissioner even wrote: "The Confederation entered the battle with a great handicap and even if it were to win with a majority, it would probably be necessary to review the bases of the union".
All this goes to say that, according to Ottawa, the question submitted to the constituents on June 3, 1948 was unclear and ambiguous and nobody knew the ins and outs of the plan. There were reservations regarding the process.
However, there were good reactions. On the whole, the media said that, yes, Newfoundland should join Canada under certain conditions. The Church played a very important role and that is why, today, we should look correctly at the amendments. It must also be pointed out that there were very strong sentiments against joining the Canadian Confederation.
In any case the campaign in Newfoundland, in June 1948, was democratic. Each side had a chance to express its point of view. It is not clear whether Ottawa got directly involved or not in the referendum debate in 1948, and it is not clear either whether Ottawa actually invested money in that debate. One thing is certain, agreements, with the Americans in particular, favoured the
federalist option, and in the end Newfoundlanders decided to join the Canadian Confederation.
What were the results of the first referendum? For responsible government, 44.55 per cent; for Confederation, 41.13 per cent; for commission government, 14.32 per cent. As you can see none of the three options had the absolute majority recommended by the United Kingdom, that is 50 per cent plus 1.
Therefore, a second referendum was held within 30 days. It was held on July 22, 1948. It was identical to the first one, that is to say that each party exposed its program and tried to convince voters, presented the pros and the cons, the reasons why Newfoundland should join Confederation or why it should choose a responsible government, etc. The result of this new referendum was: for Confederation, 52.34 per cent and for responsible government, 47.66 per cent.
What we should note today, and what might explain the fears or some points raised by various denominations concerning religion, with regard to the amendment to Term 17, is that 67.18 per cent of the people in the Avalon peninsula voted in favour of responsible government. At the time people in the Avalon peninsula, which is now part of Newfoundland, voted massively in favour of responsible government and not for joining the Canadian Confederation.
If we look at Quebec today, it is roughly the island of Montreal voting no in a referendum and the rest of Quebec voting yes to Quebec's sovereignty. But, at the time, the Avalon peninsula voted by a margin of 67.18 per cent in favour of a responsible government. It did not want to join Canadian Confederation.
The vote, when analyzed, seemed to follow denominational lines. That is why it is important to analyze what we have before us today. Note that the Avalon peninsula was for the most part roman catholic. In fact, the archbishop had taken position against Canadian federation.
The results were interpreted different ways, of course. The people of Newfoundland decided to join Confederation by a margin of 52.34 per cent, and this was interpreted all sorts of ways. Some were even concerned about disturbances in Newfoundland because of the narrow majority margin. Yet, that was not the case.
Government members, democratically elected people had voted against the project to join Canadian Confederation, but they went along with the wishes of the 52.34 per cent majority and worked to build Newfoundland within the Canadian Confederation. What I am saying is, if a 52.34 per cent margin is enough to join Canadian Confederation, I should imagine a 52.34 per cent margin-a minimum in any case-would be enough to leave it. At least in my view.
Furthermore, the Avalon peninsula rejected Canadian Confederation by a margin of 67.18 per cent, and I want to emphasize that. Was there any mention of partition? Did anyone say the results were too low to have Newfoundland join Confederation? Was anything said about a two-tier democracy, public disturbances, instability, or even about two kinds of referendums in Canada, about different values in referendums? No, nothing was said about that.
I have not checked, but I imagine that, at the time, in 1948, Canada, and Ottawa in particular, had a very responsible Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, because he did not challenge these results. No, the minister and the government acted responsibly because democracy had spoken. By a margin of 52.34 per cent, the majority had made its position known.
What did this result lead to? To negotiations between the Government of Newfoundland and the Government of Canada on the terms of their union. Negotiations were held between October and December 1948 to finalize the terms of the union, which, among other things, resulted in Term 17 before us today through a government motion, a motion that faithfully reflects the Newfoundland government's position on amending, among other things, the school education system in that province.
Everyone knows that Newfoundland joined the Canadian Confederation on March 31, 1949. But when Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, the clause on education in the terms of the union, which is part of the Canadian Constitution, specified that the Newfoundland legislature would not have the authority to pass legislation infringing on the rights or privileges of denominational schools as they were in 1949.
There have been many changes since 1949. In order to save money, to modernize the school system, or for other reasons, the people of Newfoundland decided in a referendum to give the government a mandate to amend Term 17 in the Canadian Constitution.
History is once again repeating itself. On September 5, 1995, a referendum was held in Newfoundland. In studying this matter, I became aware of the similarities between Newfoundland and Quebec, which hold periodic referendums to help their people move forward by seeking their opinion on some extremely important issues. I think education is extremely important, because our progress as a people and as a country is based on education, on the training of young people in our society. I think the amendments proposed by Newfoundland are worthwhile; they are not insignificant, as I read in the newspapers, but extremely important because they will have an impact on all future generations of Newfoundlanders. I think this needs to be said.
But on September 5, 1995, the people of Newfoundland were presented with a referendum question, a question selected by the Newfoundland government and written by the Newfoundland government, asking them if they agreed Term 17 be amended so as to reform the education system.
Only 52 per cent of Newfoundland voters participated in this referendum, which means that about half the population voted on deciding that future. So be it. That is democracy. There is nothing we can do about it.
Of this 52 per cent, which represents approximately 201,710 voters, 54 per cent said yes to the proposed reform, to give their government the mandate to reform the education system, while another 45 per cent said no. The Newfoundland government derived the mandate to submit constitutional amendments, which we are debating today, from a yes majority of 19,941. That is a rather slender majority. But the people have spoken, democratically. For the sake of argument, let us round off these 19,941 votes to 20,000. With a 20,000 vote majority, the people have given the Newfoundland government the mandate to initiate amendments and reform the system.
The question approved by the legislative assembly of Newfoundland was a legitimate question. It was selected by lawfully elected MPPs. Those who complained about the wording, those on the yes side and those who took issue with the question all participated in this referendum, each in support of their own position. In this case, 54 per cent of the people of Newfoundland who voted said yes.
An information campaign was conducted. A proper referendum was held. The result was a democratic one.
I read in the newspapers that some thought it was strange that the opposition, the Bloc Quebecois, would agree with the action taken by Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin. As a responsible official opposition in this House, we acknowledge the result, and we will act upon the wish of Newfoundlanders by supporting their request. We do not support the motion of the justice minister or of the government opposite, we support the motion tabled by the Minister of Justice as the spokesperson for Newfoundlanders regarding a decision they arrived at in a democratic fashion.
Indeed, we support the motion before us because it reflects the wish of Newfoundlanders. In so doing, we are only acting like a responsible opposition.
We would have liked to get absolute guarantees, including for French speaking minorities, because we have always protected the rights of francophones outside Quebec. No doubt about that. We would have liked to see the Government of Newfoundland provide full guarantees.
We did not get such guarantees, but we got some assurance that these minorities would continue to enjoy the same rights, following the amendments proposed by Newfoundland to Term 17.
We carefully reviewed the proposed amendment and we came to the conclusion, as did the Minister of Justice earlier, that this amendment, which we support, takes nothing away from minorities. Obviously, we would have liked to get more, to have things in writing, including things that do not currently exist but relate to the amendment. It goes without saying that such guarantees would have been beneficial.
Newfoundland's education minister, with whom I met on Wednesday, gave me an assurance. He told me about the funding and management of French speaking schools by francophones. I trust him to be true to his word. We did everything we could possibly do. We defended the rights of francophones within the limits set by our jurisdiction. Let us not forget that this is the federal government. We, Bloc Quebecois members, are respectful of the various jurisdictions.
Unfortunately, we read and heard comments in the newspapers, as well as here in this House and in the Senate with which we do not agree. We have to set the record straight. Some said the rights of minorities are sacred and must be protected when threatened by the majority. These people claim that the rights of the religious minorities will be challenged by the proposed measures to amend the Constitution of Canada.
I have heard some people say and I have read in the papers that the amendment before us would stifle or rather threaten the rights of religious minorities. According to their arguments, we have to vote against the motion before us, nip this dangerous precedent in the bud, because if we do not, other religious and linguistic minorities will be threatened by all the referenda other provinces may hold on various issues.
Their reasoning does not withstand close examination. These statements are unwarranted. The changes proposed to the education system in Newfoundland, however major or important they are, as I said earlier, do not threaten the fundamental rights of religious minorities, or for that matter linguistic minorities.
In fact, the goal here is not to abolish the separate school system, but to no longer impose a school system on a majority that does not care for it anymore. I would urge the ultraconservatives and the tale spinners to show a modicum of intellectual honesty.
Although I agree with the initiative he has taken, I would also invite the premier of Newfoundland to be fair, because from what I read in the newspapers about the meeting he had with the Leader of
the Opposition, where I was present, his account does not fully reflect the discussion we had.
I think Captain Canada should put away his hero's attire when he meets the official opposition. When he wants to inform the public, he should put aside his political options and talk clearly about what was really said during these meetings, because he put words in the mouth of the Leader of the Opposition that the Bloc leader never uttered.
Also in attendance at that meeting were the Newfoundland premier, naturally, the Newfoundland leader of the opposition and the leader of the third officially recognized party in Newfoundland. This is to show you, Mr. Speaker, that when the people express themselves, everyone gets behind the victor to move democracy forward, to make the people progress.
In the Newfoundland legislative assembly, the leader of the opposition and the leader of the third party were against amending term 17. On the 29th, the three leaders stood side by side to show their support of the democratic will of the people.
This is exactly what will happen in Quebec. Some may have their doubts about this, but after a yes vote in Quebec, the leaders of the main parties will all stand by the decision of the people.
We must remember that that meeting dealt mainly with two things: first, the recognition of the democratic process in Newfoundland and second, as I said earlier, the protection of the French minority.
As I said, the people expressed themselves clearly. Even if a province wanted to challenge in court the decision made by the people of Newfoundland on this constitutional amendment, it could not do it. Even the Constitution itself could not stand in their way. The people decided to accept this amendment.
To show how important democracy is, a Liberal member of the legislative assembly, Walter Carter, said that the wording of the referendum question was too complex. Even the opposition, as I said earlier, was against the question and the amendment. According to the Church, in Newfoundland, the wording was biased in favour of the yes side. The participation rate was not high, and that could raise questions.
But the wording of the question was decided upon by the democratically elected representatives of the people. Everyone was able to make himself or herself heard. This was a legitimate initiative and we, as members of the House of Commons, must accept it, period. The people of Newfoundland have spoken and we must accept the verdict wether we favour pluridenominational schools or not. Is my time up, Mr. Speaker? I still have points to make.