Mr. Speaker, I am speaking in support of the amendment before the House tonight because I believe it will be beneficial to the people of my province of Newfoundland and Labrador and to all of Canada.
The educational system of Newfoundland and Labrador is distinct in Canada. The responsibility for educational matters falls within the legislative jurisdiction of the provinces. As a result there is a wide diversity among provincial school systems reflecting the wide diversity that is such an integral part of Canadian society.
Members will recall there are no public schools in Newfoundland and Labrador. Our education system is a part of our history. That is the case in most provinces. Our first schools were sponsored, fostered and promoted by the churches and their clergy. Governments did not assume responsibility for education until much later in our history. Even when public funding became available the Newfoundland system was still directly exclusively run by the churches.
The example of my home of Bonavista, an historic fishing town on the tip of the Bonavista Peninsula, best illustrates this. Not only is Bonavista the landfall of John Cabot 499 years ago this year, it is famous for other historic events.
In 1722 Reverend Henry Jones came to serve in Bonavista where he supervised the building of the first church in Newfoundland. Four years later he organized the first school in Newfoundland in my home town. I did not attend that school but the three room, one teacher per room school on the very same site of that school that the existing system directed I attend. I had good teachers and enjoyed my time in school, but it kept me from attending a larger, more modern, better equipped school that would have more effectively prepared me for the future.
By the time of Confederation, six individual denominations had been granted the right to operate schools. They still possess that. One denomination was added in 1987. Today in Newfoundland and Labrador there are four separate, distinct and individual school systems with 27 overlapping boards in a province with 575,000 people and 110,000 students, roughly the size of Calgary.
The people of Newfoundland and Labrador have now asked Parliament to give the provincial legislature the authority to make changes in the denominational educational system. That will be the effect of the amended term 17. Simply put, the legislature would have more authority to decide and direct educational issues and the individual denominations would have less. Those arrangements which were incorporated in the Constitution in 1949 reflected the wishes and the beliefs of the Newfoundlanders of that day.
The people of the province through their government now wish to make different arrangements. They believe changes must be made to the schools for the sake of their children and their children's future. The decision to make change was neither hasty nor arbitrary and came as a consequence of a long process of public discussion and negotiation.
Six years ago the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador appointed a royal commission on education. More than 30 years had passed since such a study had been made. The commission was chaired by Dr. Len Williams, a respected and experienced educator. The commission recommended far reaching changes designed to give the children of Newfoundland and Labrador far greater opportunities to prepare themselves to lead full, satisfying and productive lives.
The provincial government quickly decided to negotiate new arrangements and then Premier Clyde Wells and several of his senior colleagues began a series of discussions with the representatives of the denominations. These discussions continued for more than two and a half years. Agreement was not possible, however, despite the best efforts of all involved. I know all of those involved, representing churches and government alike, strove mightily and in the best of good faith to reach an agreement but were not able to do so.
The provincial government was then faced with only three options: abandon the project to make changes it believed were necessary, agree to the much less far reaching changes which the leaders of the churches were prepared to accept, or seek a constitutional amendment to give the legislature powers with respect to
education similar to those already vested in every other provincial legislature. It chose the amendment route.
The government believed that because the changes were so important to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador that it should not seek a constitutional amendment unless the people of the province agreed they wanted one. The government sought the views of its electors, the parents of the children of the province, in a referendum. A majority of 54.8 per cent of those who voted endorsed the government's reform proposal.
The government then asked the House of Assembly to decide the issue. Every member of the House except the Speaker voted on the proposal. Thirty-one members supported the proposal, 20 voted against. All three party leaders voted in favour of it. That resolution is the one which is before us now.
My colleague, the Minister of Justice, has described the amendment in detail and addressed the legal issues that arise from it.
I want to say a word or two about the educational issues in the context of the province and her peoples. I know the denominational system well. I am a product of the denominational school, as I mentioned earlier. The system has served Newfoundland and her people well, but I am convinced it can be improved. I am convinced the changes proposed by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador will provide a better education for the children who live in my constituency of Bonavista-Trinity-Conception and for all the children of Newfoundland and Labrador.
I realize some of my colleagues and members on the other side of the House have concerns about the wisdom of the government's decision to ask Parliament to amend term 17. I have discussed it with many of them. I respect their opinions, which I know they have weighed carefully. I have done so too. So have many of our colleagues in the government. We did not come lightly or quickly to our decision to recommend the amendment to Parliament. Our decision came after detailed study, much thought, much reflection and strong debate.
We are fully persuaded that the amendment is an appropriate and proper change. We have no hesitation in recommending it to Parliament and in asking members on both sides of the House and those in the other place to support it. We believe the result will be a better educational system for the children of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The case for this amendment requested by the Newfoundland legislature is compelling in my judgment. I speak as a Newfoundlander, as a Canadian and as a member of the Government of Canada. It is true the powers enjoyed by our churches for the last half century will be diminished somewhat. However, all will be diminished equally, and so the question is not one of the majority discriminating against a minority.
Any fair minded observer would have to acknowledge that the constitutional protections, which will still be vested in seven denominations in Newfoundland and Labrador if the amendment is adopted, will compare favourably with those enjoyed by any established religious group anywhere else in Canada.
It would be both fair and accurate to describe the effect of the amendment as being an intent to introduce in Newfoundland and Labrador a system comparable to that in effect in many other provinces, with the significant exception that all schools in the province will still be denominational.
Members will have seen that the amendment gives the legislature the power to make provision for unidenominational schools. A constitutional provision will ensure the powers of the churches with respect to these schools will be comparable to those of separate schools in Ontario, for example.
Some are troubled by the suggestion that the legislature's power, which is found in section (b)(i) of the item which has been discussed often today, to make rules with respect to the establishment of unidenominational schools could be used to frustrate the ability of any given denomination to organize a denominational school. I looked closely at that. I have sought advice from our lawyers on that point and I am assured that such a result cannot come to pass.
This comes about because of the use of the words "subject to provincial legislation that is uniformly acceptable to all schools", the preamble of the new term. I am told these are words which have a precise meaning in law and would be used by a court to determine the reasonableness of a legislative enactment. Those members who are concerned by this point can take comfort in this protection.
In closing, I am convinced the legislature and the government of Newfoundland and Labrador will be able to provide the children of the province with a better education if we adopt this amendment. I am persuaded on the merits of the amendment. I am persuaded that it would not threaten or harm the rights of any other Canadian. I am persuaded that its adoption would not require a future Parliament to adopt an amendment that would unacceptably change the rights of any Canadian.
I am going to vote for it for those reasons and on that basis. I am going to vote for it because I believe it to be in the best interests of the children who live in the constituency of Bonavista-Trinity-Conception and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. They deserve the best that Newfoundland and Labrador can provide. The adoption of this amendment will help make this so.