House of Commons Hansard #21 of the 36th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was referendum.


Marine AtlanticPrivate Members' Business

11:05 a.m.


Peter Mancini NDP Sydney—Victoria, NS


That, in the opinion of this House, the government should consider the advisability of taking into account safety concerns and local economic spin-offs before proceeding with any further privatization of Marine Atlantic services between Cape Breton and Newfoundland.

Madam Speaker, I rise today on this issue because it is of considerable importance to the people in my riding who live in and around the port of North Sydney, an historic port and an area which I believe was once the fourth most important port in Canada.

Today, unfortunately, the towns of North Sydney and Sydney Mines are in a difficult economic situation for a number of reasons. Partly it is because of the dependence on the coal industry in the town of Sydney Mines. As a result of the decline in the coal industry there has been a decline in the port facilities and shipping in the town of North Sydney.

Of crucial concern is the link between North Sydney and Port au Basque, an historic link which has existed for close to a century when North Sydney was the gateway to Newfoundland.

I left Cape Breton early this morning. I would be remiss if I did not comment on the weather, which was sunny and clear and with no snow on the ground. As I had an opportunity to fly over the island, it afforded me a chance to look down on the town of North Sydney and the tremendous waterways and the ocean that form the coastline of Cape Breton. Historically that coastline has been a source of tremendous wealth and development, not only for Cape Breton but also for Canada. When the Europeans first came here they arrived on that coastline. In fact, the first fishing boats came to North Sydney as early as the 15th century and began what was to develop into a tremendous trading port.

In 1834 the British based General Mining Association built the first coal shipping pier in North Sydney. It also built the first iron railway in North America which ran between Sydney Mines and North Sydney, allowing the mined coal to be transferred to the ports for shipment.

By 1850 North Sydney was a major, busy centre of activity and by 1880 there was a bank, a jeweller and the development of a town.

North Sydney was a major port in what was then the province of Cape Breton. There are those on the island who think perhaps we should return to those days. However, at that time we were still a separate province, not annexed by the province of Nova Scotia.

In 1885 North Sydney sought incorporation as the first municipality on the island. As I have indicated, in the 1870s it was the fourth largest port behind Montreal, Quebec and Halifax. In approximately 1889 it became the gateway to Newfoundland. It became the mainland terminal for ferry service to that province although it was not a province at that time. On June 30, 1889 the first ship left from Port aux Basques with 50 passengers and arrived in North Sydney.

That pattern has been repeated for 100 years. It is a pattern guaranteed to the province of Newfoundland under the terms of Confederation; that there would be established a transportation link to connect the island of Newfoundland to the mainland of Canada. The town of North Sydney prospered as a result, as did the town of Port aux Basques. Many sailors, many fishing and trading vessels made that port their home. In both communities there was the development of hotels and restaurants, ship supply stores and many merchants to provide for the needs of those sailors.

During World War I the port of North Sydney again played decisive role. We can still see the remnants of battalions. That repeated itself on the 1940s where North Sydney was an assembly port for the ships loaded at the “Saint River” ports before they crossed the ocean. In 1941 there were over 400 ships anchored in the port of North Sydney.

That brief historical outline will indicate the importance of shipping and the shipping trade to the town. It is no secret that over the last number of years, with the decline in the fisheries and with the decline in the coal industry, the town of North Sydney has suffered a tremendous economic burden. Despite that the people of the town are resolute. They have continued to thrive. Some of the businesses have been there for 100 years. They are family businesses. One bank remains committed to the town. The town has not prospered but it has endured and made the best of a bad situation.

There is tremendous uncertainty in that town today. Those who come from not quite as economically advantaged parts of Canada as others will understand that when there is uncertainty in a town like North Sydney, it has tremendous ramifications on investment and on the social fabric of the town. That uncertainty derives from whether Marine Atlantic will continue to be an economic presence in that town.

The reason for the uncertainty is many fold. In part there are rumours, as there always are in certain towns where there is one major employer, of downsizing, of privatization, of alternate routes. There is concern that the head office of Marine Atlantic, which is now located in Moncton, may become the centre for reservations which employ a number of people in the town, and there is a concern that there may be a decline in activity.

That kind of uncertainty spreads throughout the entire island. When I talk about the town of North Sydney it is important to understand that it is perhaps a 20 minute drive from Sydney which also benefits from any economic activity in that port.

The government has not clarified what the minister of transportation intends to do with the whole Marine Atlantic enterprise. I point to section 140(1) of Bill C-9 which may not seem terribly important to anyone who is not from North Sydney. The section allows the minister to enter into agreements with any persons, including the government of a province, in respect of the continued services of Canada's constitutional obligations, which is a direct reference to the ties to Newfoundland.

Section 140(1)(b) ensures “the continuation of services similar to those provided by Marine Atlantic Inc. before the transfer, sale or disposal on the terms and conditions that the minister considers appropriate, including by making financial contributions or grants or other financial assistance”, and in section 140(1)(c) “the assets of Marine Atlantic Inc. that are transferred, sold or otherwise disposed of under subsection (2)”.

In addition section 140(2) indicates “Marine Atlantic Inc. is authorized to transfer, sell or otherwise dispose of all or substantially all of its assets used in any major business or activity of the corporation, including the shares of a subsidiary”. To the people of the town of North Sydney this heightens the concern they have surrounding the enterprise.

To illustrate the importance of the Marine Atlantic to the general area, let me indicate what was spent from 1995 to 1996 by Marine Atlantic in the town of North Sydney. I will not read the entire list, but I will read those in a community as desperate for economic growth as we are in Cape Breton: Lingan Builders Limited, $36,000; Ojolick Associates, a local architect, $35,000; Professional Upholstery, $3,300; R&A Paper Products, $31,700; Clover Produce, close to $300,000, because it provides much of the foodstuffs for the ferry service that travels back and forth; Convention Cape Breton, $17,000; Ryan Wayne Carpet Sales, $63,000; Standard Office Supplies, $11,400; and the list goes on to indicate the kind of impact the enterprise has on the community.

All these companies are small, locally run businesses in the towns of North Sydney and Sydney. They all employ three to four people from the community in solid jobs. The loss or the downsizing of Marine Atlantic would have a tremendous impact on the local economy.

When we have sought clarification from the government on what its plans are for Marine Atlantic so that at least the people in the community can make their plans, we have not received any clear message. I can cite correspondence between me and the minister and between my predecessor and the former minister wherein requests were made on the future of Marine Atlantic. The responses continue to be somewhat vague. I could illustrate that by reading an example into the record.

On March 20, 1997 the Canadian Auto Workers, which is the union that represents many of the workers, sought from the then minister of transport some clarification. The letter stated:

Rumours—cause much stress for the employees of Marine Atlantic. We, Mr. Minister, as the executive of the unions representing 1,300 Marine Atlantic employees in Atlantic Canada,—are asking you to respond to us as quickly as possible to advise us of the facts.

The response was anything but clear. It stated:

Notwithstanding the foregoing, it is expected that Marine Atlantic will continue to operate this service with the aim of reducing costs and increasing efficiency. Please be assured that you will be informed if there is any change of circumstances concerning the future of Marine Atlantic as an ongoing concern.

There was a commitment in the letter to maintain the constitutional requirement of service between Newfoundland and Cape Breton. However the matter of privatization was not clear.

I will read from a pamphlet given out by Rod Morrison, president and CEO of Marine Atlantic, to the workers. The date on it was some time after the letter to the minister. He stated in the pamphlet:

There is absolutely no truth to these damaging rumours and I want you to know the Government of Canada has not given me any direct or indirect indication that privatization is imminent.

He went on to state something that was important:

We have the best people, the best ships, the best technology and, with a continual commitment towards efficiency, I am satisfied we will remain as the operators.

Notwithstanding I wrote to the current minister requesting clarification and the response I received was:

As to the location of the—head office, MAI is currently examining all options and will put forward a recommendation in due course. Any proposed relocation will, however, be based on commercial considerations—

The people in North Sydney and Sydney Mines are under very real stress as a result of the unclear position of the government.

Last weekend when I was in my riding it was raised by two constituents. I was not in the town of North Sydney. These were people I met in Sydney while I was at a meeting there. They talked about the impact on their families. It is important for us to know exactly what direction the government will be moving in this regard.

Another aspect I have asked the government to consider in this motion is the safety impact. Currently Marine Atlantic has a good safety record, one of the best in North America, because there is a strong unionized workforce, a satisfied workforce, and it has been operating the transportation link for near 100 years.

In closing I ask the government to consider the advisability of taking into account safety concerns and the local economic spinoffs before proceeding with any further privatization of the service between Newfoundland and Cape Breton.

Marine AtlanticPrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Hamilton West Ontario


Stan Keyes LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Minister of Transport

Madam Speaker, I consider it a privilege to address the motion put before the House by the hon. member for Sydney—Victoria. It asks the government to take into account the safety concerns and local economic spinoffs before proceeding with any further privatization of Marine Atlantic services.

Before I go any further, however, allow me to assure the hon. member and all other members of the House that safety is the government's top priority when it comes to transportation.

Economic growth and job creation are important objectives and solid reasons behind why the government is pursuing the commercialization of marine services and facilities. Marine Atlantic Inc., a crown corporation established back in 1986, has operated six ferry and coastal services since its inception.

These have included the constitutionally guaranteed ferry links between North Sydney, Nova Scotia and Port-aux-Basques, Newfoundland, and between Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, and Borden, P.E.I. In addition, a convenient alternative to the highway was provided year round between Saint John, New Brunswick, and Digby, Nova Scotia. Seasonal services were also operated between Labrador and Newfoundland; between North Sydney, Nova Scotia, and Argentia, Newfoundland; and between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and Bar Harbor, Maine.

In 1996 Marine Atlantic carried 2.8 million passengers, 965,000 passenger vehicles and 290,000 commercial vehicles. The company has also done an excellent job for many years. Marine Atlantic employees are to be commended for their efforts. Like most organizations, however, Marine Atlantic has been affected by our fiscal concerns and by the need for increased efficiencies.

The national marine policy announced in December 1995 called for Marine Atlantic to substantially reduce its costs and increase efficiency ensuring that the most effective and efficient use is made of tax dollars in the delivery of government services.

As part of the government's efforts to reduce the deficit numerous commercialization initiatives have been concluded with both the private sector and the province of Newfoundland. These have had a significant impact on the operations of Marine Atlantic.

I would like to provide the hon. member for Sydney—Victoria with the following update. In July 1995 Newfoundland accepted a one time cash payment of $55 million in exchange for assuming responsibility for the provision of ferry services on the south coast of Newfoundland, previously provided by Marine Atlantic, and services between Jackson's Arm and Harbour Deep provided by a private operator.

In March 1997 Newfoundland also took over the remaining ferry services in Labrador provided by Marine Atlantic as well as assignment of the St. Barbe, Newfoundland, and Blanc Sablon, Quebec, ferry services in exchange for a lump sum payment of $340 million. This service was provided by Marine Atlantic in 1997 under contract with the province. Future provision of the coastal service is under study by the province.

In the spirit of the national marine policy a request for proposals was issued by Transport Canada in July 1996 seeking commercial interests in assuming Marine Atlantic's Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Bar Harbor, Maine, Saint John, New Brunswick and Digby, Nova Scotia, ferry services.

This resulted in the selection of Bay Ferries Limited of Charlottetown, P.E.I., to assume operation of these two services effective April 1, 1997. Under this agreement the federal subsidy will be eliminated in three years.

The opening of the Confederation Bridge on June 1 of this year replaced the federal constitutional obligation for ferry service between Borden, P.E.I., and Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick.

As a result of these different initiatives the subsidy paid to Marine Atlantic has been reduced. It will drop from $122 million in 1993 to a forecasted $25 million in 1999. That is a significant savings to the taxpayer. Equally important, and I know it is of great concern to the hon. member, it is a savings that has not come at the expense of service. Those who relied on Marine Atlantic two years ago continue to receive ferry service today either from the company or a private operator.

Marine Atlantic remains an important partner in Newfoundland's economy providing the constitutionally guaranteed service between North Sydney, Nova Scotia, and Port aux Basques and the alternative ferry service between North Sydney and Argentia.

The federal government has not received or requested any proposals to take over these remaining Marine Atlantic ferry services.

The member for Sydney—Victoria will be happy to learn that the federal government will continue to support all constitutionally mandated ferry services as well as those to remote communities. Such services need not always be provided by Marine Atlantic but they must be provided and they must be there in a reliable sense.

Transport Canada will continue to explore options to reduce the cost to the taxpayer of subsidized ferry services. It is expected that Marine Atlantic will continue to operate the Newfoundland services with the aim of reducing costs and increasing efficiency.

The government will continue to regulate ferries for safety. Any operator of ferry services, whether it be Marine Atlantic or someone else, must meet the stringent safety requirements set out by Transport Canada's marine safety branch. Furthermore in most commercialization initiatives it is likely that the same vessel would be used to provide the ferry service under a charter agreement.

Marine Atlantic has been able to achieve significant savings for the taxpayer. Subsidies have been reduced even as service has been maintained. Safety remains a top priority and all ferry operators must continue to meet the highest standards.

The federal government believes it has done an excellent job assisting in the transition to a more flexible and efficient arrangement for ferry services. We are therefore happy to support the private member's motion:

That—the government should consider the advisability of taking into account safety concerns and local economic spin-offs before proceeding with any further privatization of Marine Atlantic services—

Such concerns have received top priority since the day the national marine policy was announced almost two years ago. Hon. members can be assured that they will continue to weigh very heavily in all the government's policy decisions.

Marine AtlanticPrivate Members' Business

11:25 a.m.


Diane Ablonczy Reform Calgary Nose Hill, AB

Madam Speaker, I too am pleased to speak on the motion today. It is a timely issue, particularly in light of the economic stresses and changes impacting citizens in Atlantic Canada over the last while.

It also allows us to examine the performance of the federal government on this issue and related issues. I congratulate my colleague from Sydney—Victoria for raising the issue today.

The motion states:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should consider the advisability of taking into account safety concerns and local economic spin-offs before proceeding with any further privatization of Marine Atlantic services between Cape Breton and Newfoundland.

It is important because it addresses the ferry service between Cape Breton and Port aux Basques as well as the summer service between Cape Breton and Argentia, Newfoundland.

While the impact of the service on Cape Breton is substantial, for Newfoundland it is essential for the ferry to provide a critical link between Newfoundland and the rest of Canada.

Also, as has been mentioned, the federal government has a constitutional obligation. One of the conditions of Newfoundland entering Confederation was that there would be a year-round ferry service between that province and the mainland.

On a number of fronts this is very important both to Cape Breton and to Newfoundland. An efficient and economical transportation system is vitally important to our Atlantic provinces. In any analysis or discussion about the economic opportunities in that part of the country, a timely, cost efficient and effective transportation system does become a very critical issue.

The marine Atlantic ferry and coastal services are a vital component of the maritime transportation network. With the new economic development such as Sable Island gas, the Voisey's Bay development, Hibernia and other economic opportunities, these ferry services and the ability of citizens to access different parts of the Atlantic provinces quickly and easily will become more and more important.

It has been very interesting to see how this whole area of privatization of the ferry services has developed. As many people are aware, privatization has not just taken place in the Newfoundland and Cape Breton end of ferry services, but there has been significant change in the Yarmouth to Bar Harbour and Digby to Saint John legs of the ferry service. This has caused a great deal of concern to many of the people in that area and rightly so.

I noted just recently in the October 16 Chronicle-Herald a very disturbing headline, “East coast towns suffer as transportation links are lost”. The big headline is even worse, “Yarmouth—A dead area, according to a lobbyist”. One can imagine for those Canadians who live in those areas how concerned they are.

We know that there are changes due to economic restructuring and positive changes as time goes on. Sometimes as some job opportunities are lost, others open up. Having said that, it is up to the government as the responsible party here to really examine the impact and planning that goes into these kinds of changes to minimize the negatives for the citizens involved. I think that is what my colleague from Sydney—Victoria mentioned in his motion and with which the government agrees, according to the government speaker, needs to be done.

It was interesting to talk to some of the people I personally know out in that part of the world and to get their comments on some of these privatization changes. I received a comment from a lady who was pretty pointed about things. She said, “In the current government's headlong rush to privatize, they have maintained consistency in the way they have handled all their other programs. Namely, they are consistent in their poor planning and in their failure to acknowledge long range considerations. They just do things and walk away from the consequences”. That really sums up how a lot of people in Atlantic Canada feel about some of these changes.

Sometimes there is a bit of a characterization of my party, the Reform Party, as being just in favour of privatization of anything and everything at all cost. That is certainly not the case. One of the founding principles of Reform, the principles on which we think public policy should be formulated, is principle 17. We believe that the legitimate role of government is to do for people whatever they need to have done but cannot do it all or do as well for themselves individually or through non-governmental organizations.

If Reform were looking at this ferry service and how it could be best run, the first thing we would look at is what would best serve the interests of the people who are being affected by the service, who are using the service, who are the end users of whatever government does here. We would examine whether this is a service that cannot be done by people, either individually or through non-governmental organizations, as well as government could do.

If it were decided that this was a service that government could do better than any other organization, then we would make sure that was delivered. If it was decided in consultation with the end users letting the people who are affected speak for themselves instead of the made in Ottawa solutions that so often take place, then we would make sure that the move toward delivering the service in that manner through a non-governmental agency was again done in the best interests of the people with long term planning, with careful steps and with an acknowledgement of the need to minimize the impact on the people who are using it.

It is interesting when reading the headline “Yarmouth area dead” to remember that Yarmouth has not only lost its ferry service but it lost the rail service and the air service. Also the highway down to that part of the country is in severe disrepair in many areas.

One wonders if the headline were “Shawinigan area dead” whether there would be the same attitude of this government as there is to the headline “Yarmouth area dead”. I suspect there would be a great deal of scrambling to make sure that the negative consequences for some parts of the country were a lot better looked after than they have been for the part of the country we are talking about.

The Reform Party has given a great deal of thought to ways and means to revitalize the economy of the Atlantic provinces. There have been a number of studies done in the Atlantic provinces themselves that point to the fact that the traditional approach of the old line parties simply has not worked at all in the best interests of Atlantic Canada.

The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, itself based in Atlantic Canada, came out with a stinging report just a few months ago. It said that the traditional agencies of subsidy and political patronage that have been put into place in the past have actually been a real hindrance to economic growth and prosperity in that part of the country.

Our plan is based on a strong, vital transportation network as part of the plan to rejuvenate and revitalize the Atlantic economy.

We too support this motion. We feel it is an appropriate motion. We hope the government will take a long sober look at the best interests of Atlantic Canadians when making changes such as those the government has made in the past.

Marine AtlanticPrivate Members' Business

11:35 a.m.


Yves Rocheleau Bloc Trois-Rivières, QC

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to act as a last minute replacement for my colleague from Beaufort—Montmorency—Orléans, the erstwhile Bloc Quebecois transport critic. He would no doubt have been as pleased as I to comment on this motion by our colleague from Sydney—Victoria, which reads as follows:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should consider the advisability of taking into account safety concerns and local economic spin-offs before proceeding with any further privatization of Marine Atlantic services between Cape Breton and Newfoundland.

I am, moreover, pleased that fate has given me the opportunity to speak on this subject this morning, since I had the pleasure as a tourist this summer to use the services of Marine Atlantic with my family. Its services are highly appropriate, highly competent, and very secure. This motion uses three terms which draw my attention: “safety”, “local economic spin-offs” and “privatization”, and I would like to speak a little on them.

When it comes to privatization, which I shall return to at the end of my speech, this must be handled with kid gloves, for if there must be privatization it must not mean a change for the worse.

When we are talking about a ferry that can accommodate over 1,300 persons, if I remember correctly, and 400 motor vehicles, an imposing ship, safety measures are self-evident. It was very very well maintained.

Failure to keep it so can lead to drama. There was such a drama in the North Sea, in the Mediterranean, with a similar ship. It was doubtless not properly maintained. There was negligence, whereas here in the maritimes the ships are well maintained.

So, from a safety standpoint, before we start talking about privatization, we should ensure that today's standards are maintained.

There is another area where caution should be exercised. I am speaking of benefits to the local economy. We can imagine that the government has taken care for some one hundred years—it was in 1889 that it took over the Port-aux-Basques to North Sydney run, and I have taken the trip between Port-aux-Basques and North Sydney and North Sydney and Argentia, a comfortable 14 hour trip—to do two things at once: provide a safe and adequate service to users and to promote regional economic development by encouraging local economic development.

If we put this service into the hands of private enterprise, we will have no guarantee in economic terms of the same interest, the same care and the same concerns or of any desire on the part of the new management to develop the local economy, which, as my colleague from Sydney—Victoria pointed out, is facing difficulties in the fishing and coal industries. As we all know, the maritimes are facing a very difficult period.

This is not the time to question a winning formula. The service is a good reliable one that provides obvious local benefits. More attention should be paid to it. When the government privatizes or jettisons a public asset, there is no guarantee that the resource will be better utilized or the service better provided.

As our transport critic told me on the phone this morning with regard to the motion, he hears more and more comments to the effect that services, maintenance or safety at the Quebec airports that were privatized—particularly in Mont-Joli, Sept-Îles and Rouyn-Noranda—may not be at the level they used to be before privatization.

We must not become dogmatic. The current thinking in the western world is that the state must delegate more and more of its traditional responsibilities to all sorts of stakeholders. Yet, common sense dictates that responsibilities in the air, marine and railway transportation sectors should be those of the state, of the community.

There is currently a belief in the western world—and the Canadian government helps promote it—that the state no longer has any business providing these services. A debate is urgently needed to challenge the idea that the private sector is the solution to all our problems. Quite the contrary.

One can see that poverty is on the rise, that there is a globalization of misery. Instead of having increasingly civilized societies, we now have two-tier societies where the very rich make up 15% of the population. As I was recently told, in Chile, for example, and in Argentina, which have public health services on a par with those in Quebec and Canada, following all these free trade policies, all these pressures to promote globalization and freer trade, if one gets sick who does not belong to the select 15% club, it seems—and I hope I am wrong—one better bring his or her own sheets to the hospital. If you are hospitalized in Chile, the more family members you have to come and feed you the better. From what I hear, the health care systems in Argentina and Chile were as good as ours until they were undermined to a point that is a disgrace to countries that call themselves civilized.

So I am very pleased to be speaking to this issue this morning, because when you have a winning formula such as Marine Atlantic ferry services, which runs perfectly well, on time and safely, why mess around? Why run the risk of turning this over to any old Tom, Dick or Harry, who will, in all likelihood, think it is alright to maximize his profit and who will perhaps take chances with government inspectors, as we see too often, and possibly endanger the lives and safety of tourists visiting this lovely area of the maritimes, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland?

We therefore readily agree with this motion. We congratulate the minister from Sydney—Victoria for presenting it and, as the member for Trois-Rivières, I can say that I view it as part of a much larger movement that we must increasingly oppose because, the official rhetoric notwithstanding, this movement is not synonymous with real progress, but rather with an erosion of quality and all too frequently a maximization of profits, which is what we are seeing too much of right now throughout the world.

When we know, and this can never be said often enough, that 358 billionaires, according to a UN—not a Social Credit, but a UN—report, control 45% of the world's wealth, we have a problem that should be debated by all parliaments without delay, and perhaps by a rejuvenated United Nations, which could arrange a true debate on the development of our economies in general.

Marine AtlanticPrivate Members' Business

11:45 a.m.


Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Madam Speaker, I rise in support of the motion by my colleague for Sydney—Victoria. I believe the motion also has the support of our constituents.

It disturbs me when the government takes the path of privatization. There are many examples out there of what privatization has done to Canadian standards, for example Nav Canada's flight service and air traffic control.

Safety is still at a premium and I commend the government for maintaining the safety of aspects of it. We now have reports that Nav Canada wants to lay off 1,000 workers. Those who will be left within a year or two will be coming up for contract renewal and will be asked without a doubt to take further wage cuts and concessions.

My concern for the government and the working people in Atlantic Canada is that when we go the notion of privatization, instead of the government and the Canadian people becoming the shareholders, the shareholders are few, usually a company or certain individuals. The pressure on the individuals or the company to provide excessive dividends to their shareholders means that lower standards, wages and benefits have to accrue to the people who work in that environment.

My one concern besides supporting the motion is that the government also take into consideration the labour, financial and benefit standards of workers currently in those facilities, especially those in Atlantic Canada and Marine Atlantic.

I thank the government, the Reform Party and the Bloc for supporting my colleague's motion.

Marine AtlanticPrivate Members' Business

11:45 a.m.

Hamilton West Ontario


Stan Keyes LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Minister of Transport

Madam Speaker, I rise on a point of order. We ask for unanimous consent to suspend the sitting until 12 noon, at which time we will bring forward government orders.

Marine AtlanticPrivate Members' Business

11:45 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

Is there unanimous consent?

Marine AtlanticPrivate Members' Business

11:45 a.m.

Some hon. members


(The sitting of the House was suspended at 11.50 a.m.)

The House resumed at 12 p.m.

Newfoundland School SystemGovernment Orders


Richmond B.C.


Raymond Chan Liberalfor the President of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs


That a Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons be appointed to consider matters related to the proposed resolution respecting a proposed Amendment to Term 17 of the Terms of Union of Newfoundland with Canada concerning the Newfoundland school system;

That sixteen Members of the House of Commons and seven Members of the Senate be members of the Committee;

That the Committee be directed to consult broadly and review such information as it deems appropriate with respect to this issue;

That the Committee have the power to sit during sittings and adjournments of the House;

That the Committee have the power to report from time to time, to send for persons, papers and records, and to print such papers and evidence as may be ordered by the Committee;

That the Committee have the power to hear witnesses via video conferencing;

That the Committee have the power to retain the services of expert, professional, technical and clerical staff;

That the quorum of the Committee be twelve members whenever a vote, resolution or other decision is taken, so long as both Houses are represented, and that the Joint Chairpersons be authorized to hold meetings, to receive evidence and authorize the printing thereof, whenever six members are present, so long as both Houses are represented;

That the Committee have the power to appoint, from among its members, such sub-committees as may be deemed advisable, and to delegate to such sub-committees all or any of its power, except the power to report to the Senate and House of Commons;

That the Committee have the power to authorize television and radio broadcasting of any or all of its proceedings;

That the Committee present its final report no later than December 5, 1997;

That, notwithstanding usual practices, if the House or the Senate are not sitting when the final report of the Committee is completed, the report may be deposited with the Clerk of the House which is not sitting, or the Clerks of both Houses if neither House is then sitting, and the report shall thereupon be deemed to have been presented in that House, or both Houses, as the case may be; and

That a Message be sent to the Senate requesting that House to unite with this House for the above purpose, and to select, if the Senate deems it advisable, Members to act on the proposed Special Joint Committee.

Newfoundland School SystemGovernment Orders


Simcoe North Ontario


Paul Devillers LiberalParliamentary Secretary to President of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs

Madam Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak to this motion.

Unfortunately the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs is not here to introduce the motion personally because of the weather conditions. He is in transit and has not arrived. However, it is his desire, with the unanimous consent of the House, to speak to the motion later in the day if that is possible.

I am pleased to rise in support of the motion to set up a parliamentary committee to review the proposal to replace the present denominational school system in Newfoundland with a single non-denominational public school system.

Over the years, a consensus developed around the need to modernize the school system's administrative structure. This consensus was confirmed by a referendum. We know, therefore, that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians strongly and democratically support this amendment proposal. In the September 1997 referendum, the proposal carried in 47 of Newfoundland's 48 electoral districts. Not less than 73% of voters said yes to changes proposed by the province's government.

In addition, analysis of the referendum results leads us to believe that the proposal has the support of denominational minorities. The people of Newfoundland voted on a clear and concise question and expressed the desire to steer the province's school system in a new direction.

As premier Tobin indicated, this referendum has produced a clear, strong and outstanding degree of consensus. I think it would be fair to say that, in the wake of the referendum, this consensus has expanded. The Newfoundland legislature unanimously voted in favour of the constitutional amendment proposal, in spite of the fact that some of its members had voted against on referendum day.

Indeed, every member of the legislative assembly who had noted no in the referendum eventually endorsed the resolution. One of them, namely the provincial Leader of the Opposition, explaining his decision, said: “The people of the province have spoken in a very clear, very definitive way, and we have an obligation here to respect the wishes that have been carried out in a democratic manner.”

I believe that, given its commitment to the democratic process and to democratic values, this House should strike a parliamentary committee to examine the issue. Parliamentary committees are key elements in this process and the democratic tradition in Canada. They give experts, groups and individual citizens an opportunity to express their views and help the people and their elected representatives better understand larger issues.

On an issue as important as schools, it is doubly important to hear a wide range of opinions at the federal level. Our children are basically our future. If we want Canada to remain competitive and to continue to be renowned around the world for its quality of life, we must make sure that our children receive the best education possible.

That is the challenge facing us. One might say there is no greater challenge for a country than ensuring that its children acquire the knowledge, abilities and skills required to excel in a world that is increasing complex and shrinking at the same time.

In addition, we have a moral obligation to give the best to our children. As Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “What it does for its children is the touchstone of any society's morality.” That is why this government is working with the provinces to end the scourge of child poverty. That is also why, when a society achieves a clear consensus about what the administrative framework for the education of children should be, governments have a responsibility to respond in an appropriate, measured fashion, in accordance with the established democratic procedure.

How do the people of Newfoundland want their school system to be organized? Well, as mentioned in the referendum question, they want a single school system where all children, regardless of their religious affiliation, attend the same schools where opportunities for religious education and observances are provided.

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians clearly did not vote to drive God out of their schools. Of course, non-elected church leaders will no longer have a special place in the new school system. Like the members of the legislature, who will have the overall responsibility for education, school boards will be elected by parents and other members of the public in Newfoundland and Labrador and will be accountable to them.

But this does not mean that religion will no longer be welcome in the schools of Newfoundland. On the contrary, there will be a mandatory provision guaranteeing that courses in religion will be taught in schools. And religious observances, such as saying the Lord's Prayer or displaying Nativity scenes, will be held when requested by parents, and members of the clergy will be permitted to visit schools.

However, according to legal opinions obtained by the Government of Newfoundland, children will not be required to attend religious classes or to participate in religious observances if their parents do not wish them to do so. The whole idea of these reforms is to provide parents with greater control over their children's education.

These are the changes to the school system that were approved by the people of Newfoundland and their democratic representatives in the legislature. This is the new system which, according to them, will best meet the particular needs of Newfoundland.

This is a fundamental point. As the royal commission that looked into the province's school system at the beginning of the decade pointed out: “Perhaps more than any other institution, the education system is closely linked to the society and world that shape it and that it, in turn, will come to shape as well”.

The Newfoundland school system should reflect the situation and needs of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, just as the Ontario system should reflect that of Ontarians.

The fact of the matter is that Newfoundland always had a unique school system. For instance, it is currently the only system where all schools are denominational schools. The education reform was bogged down for years, but Newfoundlanders and Labradorians finally endorsed a set of changes that will ensure that their school system can satisfy their changing needs.

It is important to realize that the changes contemplated by Newfoundland do not set a precedent for any other province. Naturally, what works in Newfoundland and meets the needs of children in that province may not be adapted to the needs of children in Alberta, Quebec or the Yukon. In our federal system, each province may choose the school system that best reflects its particular situation and needs.

I am sure that the fact that the changes contemplated by the Government of Newfoundland do not affect in any way minority rights to education in other provinces will be raised and reinforced during the proceedings of the joint committee.

The Government of Canada indicated time and again that, beyond this, should any province seek an amendment to its terms of union or to section 93 of the Constitution, the federal government will want to see, as in this case, a reasonable level of support among the denominations concerned.

In Newfoundland, 72% of voters in regions as profoundly Roman Catholic as the Burin Peninsula and the Avalon Peninsula voted yes. While it is difficult to assess the level of support of the Pentecostal community because of how scattered it is, all four Pentecostal members of the legislative assembly endorsed the resolution to amend Term 17.

It should also be noted that, as I said, all schools in Newfoundland being denominational schools, every denomination, not only Roman Catholic and Pentecostal, will be affected by these changes.

The royal commission I referred to earlier noted that the school system in Newfoundland had been established in response to specific needs in very difficult circumstances and that its development these past 30 years had been characterized by adapting, adjusting and restructuring on the basis of changing times, conditions and priorities.

The people of Newfoundland and Labrador recently expressed the desire to see their school system continue to adjust to changing times and priorities.

Our federal system too has shown it is capable of adjusting to the changing needs of Canadians. Our federation has changed since 1867 in order to take up new challenges and to reflect new priorities. This federal government is working with its provincial partners on a number of fronts to carry on this modernization process. Much can be accomplished and was indeed accomplished through administrative agreements or through the exercise or non-exercise of powers, without changing one iota in our Constitution.

We must not make the mistake of thinking that the Constitution is or should be a static document. It is not. Rather, it is a living document that can be adjusted to reflect our changing times. The changes requested by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians would require a constitutional amendment, and the level of support shown for the proposal to amend Term 17 leads me to believe that such an amendment may be totally appropriate.

The proposed joint committee will provide an excellent forum where my fellow parliamentarians can decide for themselves the merit of the amendment proposal, which would enable Newfoundland to carry out in its education system reforms it has been wanting to carry out for a long time.

That is why I hope the House will approve today the setting-up of this committee. I invite my colleagues to support the motion before us.

Newfoundland School SystemGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Calgary Southwest Alberta


Preston Manning ReformLeader of the Opposition

Madam Speaker, I rise to address the motion before the House to appoint a special joint committee to consider matters related to a constitutional amendment concerning the Newfoundland school system.

I want to thank the parliamentary secretary for his explanation of the motion and the Newfoundland reforms. I note that he used the word reform numerous times in a positive vein. I would like to encourage him to keep up that habit. It is a good one to cultivate.

I would also like to begin by observing that the amendment to be considered by the committee pertains to the rights of provinces, the education of children, majority and minority rights. It is therefore not just a dry constitutional amendment, as the parliamentary secretary alluded to. It does deserve our full attention.

On October 1, I addressed the House in relation to the proposed amendment of section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867 as it pertains to Quebec schools. There is a certain parallelism between this motion and the motion we addressed that day.

At that time I pointed out that the intent of this section, which we would ultimately be amending, is to recognize the exclusive jurisdiction of the provinces over education subject only to the proviso that the provinces not pass laws that prejudicially affect rights granted by law to any class of persons prior to the establishment of the federal union or the union of a province with Canada.

At that time, we proposed that the House apply three great tests to any constitutional amendment brought before it, including proposed amendments to section 93. Those three tests were the test of democratic consent, the test of the rule of law and the test of the Canadian national interest.

I would like to continue to urge the government to adopt these three tests as a national standard to be applied consistently to all constitutional amendments. The word here is consistently. For example, when Quebec proposes yet another referendum on the secession issue, which is a huge constitutional change, the federal government has a right, indeed an obligation, to make clear its views on how such a referendum should be conducted in order to meet the test of democratic consent.

The prime minister, for example, has said that such a referendum, to be legitimate, must involve a fair process and a fair question. We agree with that.

If those are the requirements for Quebec constitutional initiatives to meet the test of democratic consent, those should be the same requirements for other provinces. We should be insistent in this House that that high standard be adhered to in every case so we respect equality of the provinces and do not impose a lower standard of democratic consent on one province than another.

I now turn to the position of the official opposition on the proposed Newfoundland schools amendment which will be the subject of consideration by the committee being proposed by this motion.

The official opposition has communicated to interested parties in Newfoundland over the last number of months that it neither supports nor opposes a denominational school system for Newfoundland. We feel this is an issue the people of Newfoundland must determine for themselves by means of a fair democratic decision making process in accordance with the rule of law.

The position of the Reform caucus in Parliament with respect to any proposed constitutional amendment will be determined by applying these three tests which I have already alluded to. If we are satisfied the proposed Newfoundland amendment meets these three tests, our members would be inclined to vote in the House in favour of the proposed amendment. If we believe the proposed amendment does not meet these tests, we will suggest to the Newfoundland legislature that it make such changes as are required to ensure compliance with these tests.

Let me share with the House where we feel this amendment now stands in relation to these three tests.

The first is the test of democratic consent. When we applied the test of democratic consent we asked whether there was a clear majority result from the referendum on the proposed term 17 amendment, was the referendum process fair and was the referendum question unbiased.

It appears at this time that the term 17 proposals have passed the test of democratic consent. A larger majority, 73%, approved the proposals contained in the latest referendum than did the previous one. There was a large turnout, 53.1%, when compared with typical voter turnouts for such electoral events.

The referendum was conducted by Newfoundland Elections, a body separate from the government under the authority of the Newfoundland Elections Act.

Not all our members are convinced that the Newfoundland referendum was as democratic as it should have been. They will be seeking answers and will expect the special committee to seek answers to questions about the referendum itself, such as those raised by the Hon. Kevin Barry, a retired judge of the Newfoundland supreme court, in correspondence with a number of MPs.

Unless we are presented with more evidence to the contrary than we have received thus far, we are assuming the referendum met the test of democratic consent.

Second is the test of the rule of law. There is a question as to whether section 93(1) can be amended using the section 43 amending formula of the Constitution Act, 1982. I have dealt with this concern on a previous occasion and do not intend to repeat the arguments here. Suffice it to say the special committee should satisfy itself that this is the appropriate formula. Assuming it does so there is another more fundamental concern that can be raised and has been raised under the heading of the rule of law.

Term 17 is intended to serve as a replacement for section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Reform MPs are particularly interested in ensuring the Newfoundland educational reforms do not violate the letter or the spirit of section 93(1) which states:

In and for each province the legislature may exclusively make laws in relation to education, subject and according to the following provisions:

(1) Nothing in any such law shall prejudicially affect any right or privilege with respect to denominational schools which any class of persons have by law in the province at the union.

Section 93(1) does not prevent Newfoundland from reforming its educational system or from implementing reforms that affect minority rights, but the rule of law, particularly the law contained in section 93(1), requires the Newfoundland government to demonstrate that its proposed reforms do not prejudicially affect the rights of those who desire a religious orientation in the education of their children.

I suggest that this interest in the religious orientation in the education of children is broader and deeper than the mere provision of non-denominational religious courses in secular schools and the permitting of religious observances supervised by a secular authority. It includes the right to have those courses and observances provided in an environment that truly reflects spiritual values. It is this broader right that many parents would like to see safeguarded.

We are aware that the minister of education for Newfoundland has obtained a legal opinion from a respected law firm stating that the proposed amendments to term 17 are legal, but we are also aware that the original term 17 amendment proposed by the Newfoundland government in 1995, which we were assured conformed to the rule of law, was subsequently found to be constitutionally suspect by the Newfoundland supreme court.

Many members of the official opposition are therefore not yet convinced that the latest Newfoundland amendment fully conforms to the rule of law. Our concerns would be alleviated if the government of that province were to obtain a ruling from the province's supreme court clearly establishing that its proposed amendment does not prejudicially affect rights protected under section 93(1) of the Constitution Act, 1867.

It is not in the interests of the people of Newfoundland, the Government of Newfoundland or the Government of Canada to permit any ambiguity to exist on this question. The last thing any of us want is for this amendment to proceed and for the educational reforms based on it to proceed only to discover later, by means of a court decision, that they are unconstitutional and must be changed again.

The intergovernmental affairs minister and the justice minister will know that section 93 of the Constitution act has been judicially considered over 50 times in the past. Is it not in everyone's interest to get a clear signal from the courts in advance that the educational reforms proposed by Newfoundland conform to the rule of law in this important matter of safeguarding minority rights?

Third is the test of the Canadian interest. The actions of one province affecting majority and minority rights in education may set an important precedent regarding the educational rights of majorities and minorities in other provinces.

The parliamentary secretary said in his remarks that the Newfoundland reforms are not precedent setting. However, it is not a question of whether the educational reforms are precedent setting; it is a question of whether the treatment of minority and majority rights is precedent setting.

Because the Reform caucus is not wholly convinced that the latest Newfoundland amendment conforms to the rule of law, particularly as it relates to protection from prejudicial effects, we are not yet convinced that the Newfoundland amendment therefore meets the test of the Canadian national interest.

To summarize the application of these three tests to the amendment that will be considered by the committee to be established by this motion, in our judgment the Newfoundland schools amendment does not yet appear to have passed two of the three tests which Reform MPs have established as conditions for our support of such amendments.

If further evidence is presented to us and our constituents prior to voting on this amendment in Parliament which satisfies our concerns then we would be inclined to support the amendment. If no such convincing evidence is presented to us and our constituents and we remain doubtful then our inclination would be to vote against it.

Ultimately Reform MPs will be particularly influenced by the opinion of their constituents and whether those constituents are satisfied that the Newfoundland amendment is democratic, legal and in the national interest.

Finally, a word on amending the motion to make it better. That of course is one of the functions of the official opposition; it is not simply to point out the flaws in what the government is doing but to endeavour to make it better.

It is our intent to amend the motion establishing the committee to ensure that its deliberations include the application of the three tests which I have already mentioned. We also ask the House to amend the composition of the committee and its terms of reference.

When the joint special committee to consider the Quebec schools amendment was set up, Reformers and members from various other parties in the House objected in principle to unelected and unaccountable members of the upper House participating on the committee. In the case of the joint special committee to consider the Quebec school amendment, we did not make an issue out of Senate participation because we had larger fish to fry.

Since that time, however, the government has shown an increased propensity to initiate in the Senate bills which we believe should be initiated in the House. This we find particularly objectionable.

Whereas it is apparently the government's position to enhance the role of unelected and unaccountable senators by referring more and more important matters to their attention, it is the position of the official opposition to restrain that role. Our amendment to the motion will therefore also include striking all references to senators and the Senate from the motion. My colleagues will elaborate further on this position in debate.

Also if a committee is being set up to receive advice from citizens and witnesses on the Newfoundland schools amendment, it seems self-evident to us that such a committee should hold hearings in Newfoundland. Our amendment to the motion will therefore also ensure that the committee is directed and empowered to do so.

I therefore conclude by moving the following motion. I move:

That the motion be amended:

By replacing the words: “Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons” in the first paragraph with the words: “Special Committee of the House of Commons”;

By adding immediately after the words: “concerning the Newfoundland school system;” the following: “more specifically, the matter of applying the following three tests for such a proposed constitutional amendment:

  1. The Test of Democratic Consent,

  2. The Test of the Canadian National Interest, and

  3. The Test of the Rule of Law”;

By deleting the words: “and seven Members of the Senate” in the second paragraph;

By inserting after the word “Committee” in the sixth paragraph the words: “be directed and authorized to hold hearings in Newfoundland and”;

By replacing all the words in the eighth paragraph with the following: “That the quorum of the committee be nine members, whenever a vote, resolution or other decision is taken, and that the Chairperson be authorized to hold meetings, to receive evidence and authorize the printing thereof, whenever six members are present,”;

By deleting the words “Senate and” in the ninth paragraph;

By replacing all the words in the twelfth paragraph with the following: “That, notwithstanding usual practices, if the House is not sitting when the final report of the committee is completed, the report may be deposited with the Clerk of the House, and the report shall thereupon be deemed to have been presented to the House”; and

By deleting all the words in the last paragraph.

The effect of these amendments is to remove the references to senators and the Senate from the motion; to ensure that the committee holds hearings in Newfoundland; and most importantly, to ensure that it subjects the Newfoundland schools amendment to the three great tests of democratic consent, the rule of law and the Canadian national interest.

Newfoundland School SystemGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

The Chair will take the amendment under advisement for a few minutes. Resuming debate.

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12:30 p.m.


Pierre Brien Bloc Témiscamingue, QC

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak on the motion, as amended by the Reform Party. I will come back later in my statement to this proposed amendment which defines the interests to be considered in a constitutional amendment process but which also seems to involve a very particular interest by the Reform Party in this matter. We will come back to this later.

Let us examine the content of the whole proposal, whether or not there is an amendment, as suggested at this time by the Reform Party. What is involved is the creation of a committee to review a motion that would amend section 17 of the Constitution, which is the agreement between Newfoundland and Canada concluded when Newfoundland joined the Canadian federation and which is the result of a genuine democratic process—I will come back to this later—which was followed in the case of Newfoundland.

What is at issue in the first instance? Section 17 provides for and guarantees the denominational status of the school system in Newfoundland. Since education comes strictly under provincial jurisdiction, people in Newfoundland agree today, but they decided on this already two years ago and twice during referendums, that they wanted to change their educational system in order to have a non-denominational system.

There will be a number of advantages. One is the modernization of their facilities. They will also be able to reduce the number of school boards, while not eliminating religious education entirely. However, this should be achieved at the request of parents. Religious education could continue within the schools. They would not be denominational schools as they are currently. The amendment Newfoundland is seeking would mean the amendment of section 17 of the Constitution.

This has all come about through a process, which began a number of years ago, but which was not given expression until hearings were held by a royal commission of inquiry. If I am not mistaken, it was in 1992 that Newfoundland made the proposal. Taking a look at how things progressed subsequently, a first referendum was held in 1995 and resulted in a motion before Parliament. The referendum was carried, if I remember correctly, with 54% of the votes and a participation rate of slightly more than 50% of the population.

The amendment proposed by the Newfoundland government was subsequently contested before the courts, which rejected it. The Government of Newfoundland decided to hold a second referendum. It even expanded the terms of the reform and again turned to the people for their reaction.

The level of support was even higher the second time around, since the Newfoundland government received the support of 73% of the population, again with a participation rate of about 54%, or slightly over 50%. Twice, the Newfoundland government decided in a democratic fashion to amend its system.

Let us not forget that a similar process is taking place in Quebec—and I will get back to this—to protect, if you will, the denominational system of two specific regions, namely Montreal and Quebec City. I should point out that consultations took place, because when it comes to the constitutional amendment that will affect Quebec, Liberal members often claim no consultations were held, in an attempt to justify their desire to hold such consultations.

They are ill-informed about what goes on in Quebec. Yet, they have a number of members in our province and they should know that a summit conference on education was held in Quebec. One clear item on the agenda was how to make the required amendments to have a non-denominational school system in the Montreal region, which is primarily concerned, because the protection did not apply to the other regions in Quebec.

The Liberals seem to forget that consultations did take place. The reservations or positions expressed by almost all of the groups we are now hearing, in public venues or other forums, are already known because they did state their views at the time.

In politics, it often seems difficult to differentiate between consensus and unanimity. A lack of unanimity does not mean that there is no consensus. A “consensus” means that a majority of people or groups share the same clear desire to go ahead. We can see it here because when people are being consulted we often hear those who oppose the initiative, thus giving the impression there is an imbalance, but such is not the case.

Most groups—including the Quebec Conference of Catholic Bishops—stated their support for the new proposal made by the Quebec government to bring about a constitutional amendment which has the unanimous support of the National Assembly.

Let us go back to the case of Newfoundland. Following its second referendum, Newfoundland's legislature unanimously decided to support the motion. MLAs who were opposed bowed to the democratic verdict—and more power to them. In democracy, it is important to recognize the wish of the majority. And that is what they did.

The situation has every appearance of being one which could be resolved quickly and easily. But why create a committee? There is the question. We will not oppose the creation of a committee, although we have a number of reservations on that score.

It would be impossible not to have a committee in this instance when there is one in the case of Quebec. The government would have trouble justifying the length of time it is taking to approve the constitutional amendment for Quebec. We know very well that this committee came about because of lobbying by Alliance Quebec and other groups that are always feeling threatened and that wanted to be heard, that turned to Ottawa to protect them. Through political pressure, they succeeded in obtaining a process designed especially for them, and now we find ourselves having to do the same thing for Newfoundland. When the people have expressed their wishes democratically in a referendum and unanimously in their legislative assembly, what else can be learned from these consultations? Would the government be nasty enough to tell them “After all that, you will have to introduce more amendments and start the process all over again”?

After the committee has done its work, the conclusion reached will be that the amendment should be passed. So this committee is a bit of a sham. If that is not the case, then it is despicable of the federal government to keep lording it over the provinces as though it has the monopoly on wisdom and truth.

The exercise was gone through in Newfoundland and in the case of Quebec, but the federal government is still trying to keep a finger in every pie, with the support, furthermore, of the Reform Party today, in the sense that that party would like to add a clause about Canada's interests to the conditions for deciding on the advisability of making amendments.

What is meant by Canada's interests? We know very well where it is headed with that. What it has in mind when it talks about a referendum, and even when it talks about this issue, is not the situation in Newfoundland but the one in Quebec, the constitutional amendment in Quebec and a future referendum in Quebec. The Liberals are playing games here, and even more so on other issues, but that is part of the strategy for plan B, defining the rules, making sure the federal government has a role to play in the next referendum in Quebec.

And now, supported more than ever—and supported is not even the right word, as he is practically leading the onslaught—the leader of the Reform Party is giving a sense of direction to the federal government, and it is following the path he has set out. Now, he is defining new criteria. He is even questioning the support he could provide. But where is the sense of democracy? In the case at hand, the people of Newfoundland have spoken, not just once but twice. They have spoken in full knowledge of the issues at stake.

Something else was said, which I feel obliged to explain here. There is always this notion constantly going around in Ottawa: the clarity of the questions. This makes me laugh, because I have read the press review of the first referendum held in Newfoundland. What did the opposition or those who were in the no camp have to say? “The question is not clear”. I remember also having read that about other referendums, the ones in Europe on the treaty of Maastricht, for example: “The issues are not clear. The questions are not clear”. That is just what happens when there is a referendum. If the people on the no side feel that things are not clear, then let them explain them. Does that mean that they are incompetent at making themselves heard and understood?

Behind all this is the hope that the 49.5% of Quebeckers who voted yes did so because they did not understand. We are unable to understand the issues, not smart enough to do so. That is what it means when they say the question was not clear, that people do not understand, that they spoke without understanding the real issues at stake, that they were taking the exercise of democracy rather lightly. That is a classic approach. The no side here is not the only one to do it. It was also the case to a certain extent in Newfoundland, in the first referendum. It is the case with just about any referendum held just about anywhere in the world.

There are lessons to be drawn from this. Newfoundland defined its own democratic exercise.

Furthermore, when the courts appeared before them as an obstacle on their path, once again the premier of Newfoundland, who happens to be a former federal minister, decided to go to the people. For him, the voice of the people was more important than the voice of the courts. Here again, this was a wise course of action.

Hopefully his former colleagues here will remember this, because it is evident that they wish to have courts and judges step in to define the process soon to occur in Quebec. Once again, there are interesting precedents in the case of Newfoundland.

Even the first time, when 54% of the people voted yes, and 53% of the population participated, so that in absolute terms it was about a quarter of the population that gave its approval, the government sincerely and clearly had the intention to proceed. Such was the case also with the federal government, as was seen with the motion in this House. Why is it that the democratic will of the people of Newfoundland can be recognized in this instance, but not the democratic will of Quebeckers in other instances?

There is an issue that they have to deal with here. It is a fact that they are debating this in their caucus and that their party is divided on this at the moment. They could be seen the other night on television rising in committee to defend the interests of anglophones in Quebec who feel threatened and persecuted by the constitutional amendments that are on the way for the denominational system in Quebec.

It is a funny business. Imagine finding yourself in a situation that could repeat itself if the Reform Party decided to oppose Newfoundland's amendment too and the government having to turn to the Bloc Quebecois to pass the constitutional amendments in the case of Quebec and perhaps even in the case of Newfoundland. The presence of certain Quebec sovereignists will compensate for the lack of political courage of certain Liberal members. This will clearly be the case with Quebec's constitutional amendment. The only way they can be sure at the moment that things will move ahead is to count on the massive and unanimous support of the people in the Bloc Quebecois. As their majority is very fragile, this is their best assurance of being able to proceed.

Let us hope the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and the people lobbied by Alliance Québec and others will not back down. We will see. The next few weeks will enable us to judge.

They have a double challenge. If they fail, they will sadly once again have to admit their failure to substantially amend the Constitution to bring it up to date. The amendments are not as basic or as objectionable as all that. In the case of Newfoundland, it is democratically supported, and yet they are having an impossible time proceeding on it.

Just imagine if, one day, we were contemplating a division of powers, what sort of debate we would have. Imagine if we were to redefine power in Canada. Just imagine all the pressure, the division within the Liberal Party. Already we can see a lack of support for this sort of thing.

This is why this Constitution has been called a yoke. I am pointing this out, because people may have forgotten. The Liberals must always be reminded that the Canadian Constitution was patriated by a Liberal government, something for which they are still paying the price in Quebec. There is a blank line at the bottom of the document, because Quebec never signed it.

Liberals will say: “Lucien Bouchard will never sign the Constitution”. But they should remember that, before Lucien Bouchard, René Lévesque, Pierre-Marc Johnson, Robert Bourassa, Daniel Johnson and Jacques Parizeau also refused to sign it. Six Quebec premiers, one after the other, have refused to sign the Constitution. The Liberals must live with this. Canada can hardly boast about its Constitution to the world when there is still a blank line at the bottom because it was never signed by Quebec. Yet, our province is a key player, a founding people, as they said at the time. Such language was quickly dropped in favour of “a bunch of people who are somewhat unique”. This is where we stand now.

Since my time is almost up, I will move on to another issue. As mentioned earlier, we will support the establishment of the committee. We will do so, but I want to point out another strange idea, namely to set up a joint committee with our dear senators. These people, who are not representatives of the democratic process, will get involved in a process they already unduly impeded once in the case of Newfoundland. They will form a committee with members of Parliament.

I always have a problem sitting on a committee next to someone who does not represent anything, who is a friend of the Prime Minister or of a former Prime Minister, who shows up whenever he or she feels like it, who is definitely not a workaholic and who is not a symbol of pride, certainly not in Quebec and, I am convinced, not in several other regions of the country either. Our senators are no great source of pride.

When Canadians travel abroad, they do not boast about their country saying: “Come and see us. We have a great Senate that is part of our assets”. On the contrary, we are all somewhat uncomfortable because the Senate, this sad travesty, is costing us some $50 million per year. I will not feel comfortable sitting on the committee next to or opposite a senator.

However, we sometimes have to put up with things we do not enjoy, and I will do so to speed up the process. As for the two constitutional amendments that are the subject of the debate, we will, as I said, help the government ensure that things move quickly and efficiently. It was not necessary to set up a committee, but we will live with the decision and hope the government will not get scared when a few opposition members express their views on either of these two closely related issues.

I feel there is reason to be concerned today with the attitude of the leader of the Reform Party who is starting to qualify his support in all sorts of ways, so that in fact it no longer is support, and who continues to pile the objections on to justify his opposition to the other constitutional amendment. We know very well what he is up to, and furthermore, he draws a very clear parallel with a possible referendum in Quebecon sovereignty.

There is an overlapping of these issues and, as things move along, this will become increasingly obvious. It is clear that the Liberals are in a very uncomfortable situation because of this, and are having a lot of difficulty keeping order in their caucus. But we are here to tell them, and I am telling the parliamentary secretary who is here, that at least they know that 44 members will compensate for the several Liberals who will run wild and disappear along the way, and that they will have difficulty getting support from the other parties.

I will end with this. We will have the opportunity to discuss this issue again in committee, as this involves a constitutional amendment under section 43, chapter 5, whereby the Constitution can be amended bilaterally by a provincial government and the federal government. If only one provincial government is affected in the matter, once the committee has finished its work, it will not be necessary to discuss this again in Parliament. So this is probably the last time I will be speaking on this issue here, I hope. I also hope that everything will proceed normally and that, by Christmas, all of this will be a debate of the past.

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12:50 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. McClelland)

Before we proceed further, I would like to inform the House that the amendment of the hon. Leader of the Opposition is in order.

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12:50 p.m.


Bill Blaikie NDP Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, I rise to support the motion to refer this constitutional resolution to a committee. However, the NDP caucus reserves the right to listen and to pay attention to what goes on in the committee and to make a decision on how we will vote on the final outcome of the committee's deliberation when the resolution comes before the House in the future, depending on what we perceive as the appropriate position during that process.

I do not think that it would be appropriate for all of us to make up our minds before the committee is even struck, although I know that is often the case with respect to ordinary legislation. In the case of this constitutional resolution there are a lot of things that need to be considered. There are a lot of conflicting values, conflicting priorities. There are conflicts between our respect for provincial autonomy and our respect for the democratic process as it is reflected in referendums. On the other hand, there is our concern about whether it is ever appropriate for minority rights to be overcome by a majority vote in a referendum. There are the matters that have been raised by others on the floor before I came to my feet having to do with the rule of law and whether this is in fact constitutional.

In that respect, I am very sympathetic to the view that perhaps this matter should be referred to the supreme court before it proceeds any further. I know the government does not seem to be inclined to do that. I recall other constitutional debates in the House where a reference to the supreme court was helpful and where the government was found to be wanting in its position.

I think particularly of the patriation package in 1981-82 where the matter was finally referred to the supreme court and the supreme court ruled that the government—at that time it was the federal government that was acting in a particular way—was acting in contravention of the conventions of Canadian constitutional change.

It might well be useful for all of us to know, rather than debating it endlessly, whether what the Newfoundland government proposes to do is constitutional or found to be so by the supreme court if it were referred to the court.

Just a little bit of history. Some members may recall when term 17 came before the House in the last Parliament, the official NDP position at the time was one in support of passing the resolution but that we were not unanimous in that regard. There were NDP members of Parliament who voted otherwise because they were concerned about many aspects of this change.

At that time some members of Parliament, not just in the NDP but other members of Parliament, shared the concern of the religious communities outside Newfoundland that this action might have a precedent setting effect, if not legally at least politically in terms of how minority or denominational rights could in future be changed.

There was a great deal of concern that, at that time, just the changing of these minority rights by virtue of a referendum might set unwanted precedents. It would seem to me that that concern is amplified in this case where the referendum and the subsequent constitutional resolution do not propose to change, but rather, to eliminate those denominational rights.

I would hope that this is something that the committee would take very seriously, whether or not this is, in fact, something of which we should approve as a Parliament. An interesting question that I would recommend to the committee—this is where the question of minority rights and democratic process interact—is where those minority rights reside. Do those minority rights, in this case, the rights of denominations to set up their own schools, reside in the churches as institutions or do they reside in the people who might send their children to these schools?

If the rights reside in the institutions and it is the Catholic church or the Pentecostal church or the Seventh Day Adventist church or any other church that has these rights, if it is the church's right to set up these schools then it seems to me that the outcome of the referendum is not as relevant.

If these rights reside in the people rather than in the institutions, then one has to look at the outcome of the referendum and ask a variety of questions. On the one hand one has to ask the question about the turnout which some have described as high but which in some respects is still low.

On the other hand and given that it is low, one has to ask the question why. If these denominational rights are being taken from everybody in Newfoundland because the vast majority of the population has the right to attend denominational schools, why did they not turn out in force to protect these rights? I asked myself this question.

Having met with representatives of the Catholic and Pentecostal churches, I think they make a decent argument that there is a small proportion of Pentecostal and Catholic schools in smaller communities that will be disproportionately affected by this amendment.

One still has to ask why the entire Catholic community in Newfoundland did not come out and vote to save the schools of their Catholic brothers and sisters. I have to ask that question. Perhaps there is an explanation for it.

The argument is that people demonstrated their willingness to support denominational schools by virtue of the great numbers that registered their children in denominational schools after the last change. Registering a child in school is a public thing, something the church and neighbours know about, that everybody knows about.

Voting or not voting in a referendum or a secret ballot is perhaps a more anonymous way of sending a message that one might not want to publicly send. This is another thing that occurs to me as I try to analyse the outcome.

At the same time it seems to me what we have or may have—and this is something the committee would want to look into—is a case where certain groups had these rights under the constitution and the terms of union. These rights were changed by virtue of the last change to term 17. These groups saw fit, in the course of implementing those rights, to exercise their rights by taking the government to court on the constitutionality of the implementation of the previous change.

When they did that the response of the provincial government, as I understand it having been found by the courts not to be implementing the changes properly or constitutionally, was not to say that perhaps they could do it better or perhaps do it differently. The response of the provincial government was “You are exercising these rights in the courts. You are irritating us. You are getting in the way of our implementation. We have a solution. We will have a referendum and take away these rights from you altogether”.

It is not a stretch to imagine, without knowing the mind of the premier, that this could be characterized as a form of retaliation or bullying. I do not know but I can certainly see where some people may have a legitimate case for perceiving it as such. That is another concern the committee should look at in its deliberations.

I listened very carefully to my Bloc colleague. He was making an argument which assumed that there was no difference between an amendment such as the one before us to change something with respect to education and minority rights in Newfoundland and a constitutional change that would follow on a referendum in Quebec, the question which would pertain to the separation of Quebec and the destruction of Canada as we now know it. I do not accept the equivalency of these two amendments.

In the case of an amendment whereby Quebec would propose to separate from the rest of Canada and bring the rest of Canada and Canada as we know it into danger, there is such a thing as the Canadian national interest.

I would argue that this does not necessarily mean a sovereignist or separatist outcome of a Quebec referendum would have to be disregarded in the Canadian national interest. The response to a clearly worded question might be so overwhelming that it would be in the Canadian national interest to respect that particular outcome rather than try to keep Quebec captive in a country it no longer wanted to belong to.

I would certainly reject what I take to be the view of the Bloc in this debate. It finds one of the criteria in the Reform amendment, Canadian national interest, to be objectionable on first principles. I do not think that is something we can accept.

Having said all these things, we look forward to the deliberations of the committee. On the amendment by the Reform Party we may want to have somebody speak to that later today. We will see about that, but I do not see anything objectionable in much of what is contained in the Reform amendment.

Certainly the idea that the committee should go to Newfoundland is a worthy one and one we would want to support. I do not see anything wrong with the three tests the Reform Party wishes to embed in the criteria by which the committee is to judge the appropriateness of the constitutional resolution.

I do not see anything wrong with an amendment which separates the House of Commons from the Senate and which makes the point many of us have been trying to make. Some parties have been making it since 1933. It was a party called the CCF, a predecessor of the NDP. It is inappropriate and a blemish on the Canadian democratic process to have constantly intertwined with the House of Commons, whether it is in the form of a special joint committee or in any other way, this undemocratic appointed body at the heart of our democratic process.

If we were to run into this in the third world we would say “What a banana republic. They have all these guys appointed for life and they never have to face the electorate”.

I do not know, Mr. Speaker, if you have ever been on a international delegation where you have had to try to explain this to people and say he is a senator or she is a senator. They immediately assume the American model of a senator where the senators have even more status than members of the House of Representatives because they are elected for longer terms, there are fewer of them, and so on. You say “No, that is not the case in Canada. They are appointed at age 42, 55 or 63 until they are 75”. Trying to explain that is sometimes really tough, particularly when we are the ones who are leading seminars around the world to try to instruct people on the democratic process and at home we have the Senate. This is really embarrassing.

We should go beyond the point of being motivated simply by embarrassment or by our commitment to democracy. We should realize it is high time the Senate was reformed to make it elected and to make it a place where the regions of the country could have more clout at the centre and more meaningful and equal participation in the deliberations of our country.

I did not rise to make a speech on Senate reform, so I have to watch that I do not get off track.

I go back to saying that we support the motion to refer it to committee. We look forward to hearing witnesses in committee, watching the issue unfold and making sure that all things I have raised today are taken into account by the committee.

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1:10 p.m.

Simcoe North Ontario


Paul Devillers LiberalParliamentary Secretary to President of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs

Mr. Speaker, in his comments the hon. member referred to the amendments of Leader of the Official Opposition and his position.

In his comments the Leader of the Opposition referred to a court reference, whether the issue should be referred to the courts. I wonder if the hon. member could share with the House his thoughts on whether there should be a court reference. Or, should it depend on what the committee hears by way of expert legal and constitutional opinion?

Is the member prepared to accept the committee's decision on that, or does the New Democratic Party have a position with respect to the court reference?

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1:10 p.m.


Bill Blaikie NDP Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, I thought I said that referring it to the courts might be a good idea. In the absence of this happening before going to committee, it is obviously something the committee should look at.

We will take advice from whatever convincing arguments the committee has to offer collectively or what our member on that committee advises us in respect of the committee's deliberations on the particular topic.

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1:10 p.m.


Ken Epp Reform Elk Island, AB

Mr. Speaker, I have a question for our colleague from Manitoba.

During the course of his speech he referred to one of the amendments put forward by the Reform Party, namely the one on Canadian interest. He commented then on the Bloc member's response and concluded by saying that they certainly agree with that.

I did not know whether he was agreeing with the Bloc member's evaluation of it or the principle of Canadian interest. I would like him to clarify that for my benefit.

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1:10 p.m.


Bill Blaikie NDP Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, it must be Monday. I thought I made it perfectly clear. I thought the argument about things having to be in the Canadian national interest was a good one.

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1:10 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Norman E. Doyle Progressive Conservative St. John's East, NL

Mr. Speaker, let me first say that I am pleased to see that the particular resolution will be sent to a committee of the House. This is the second time in this sitting of the House that I have stood in my place to voice my profound concern for the resolution coming from the Newfoundland House of Assembly.

Just about a year ago the House passed a resolution to amend term 17 of Newfoundland's terms of union with Canada. The amendment at that time diminished the right of parents to have any kind of a meaningful say or role in the religious education of their children.

Today's proposed amendment sponsored by Premier Tobin and the current federal government will eliminate or wipe out forever—and I think that is what we have to be clear on—the right of Newfoundland parents to have any kind of a choice in their children's religious education.

Some people will argue—and it has been argued here today—that in both cases the resolution sent to the House enjoyed majority support of the people in Newfoundland and Labrador as expressed in a referendum. To these people I have to say that a referendum is a very blunt instrument with which to amend the constitutional rights of minorities. In any such battle the minority will lose by definition.

To add insult to injury—and I would like to concentrate for a moment on the referendum process—the Tobin government called the referendum in the middle of summer vacation, which is not against the law. He kept it short. It was only a 31 day period, which is not against the law either. He spent roughly about $350,000 to $400,000 on advertising his position extensively and did not advance even $1 to the no side.

He allowed any citizen in any part of the province to vote anywhere at all in the province. He would not allow scrutineers to be present when the vote was being counted and he released the text of term 17 only 16 hours before the actual vote was taken in the advance polls. That to me is a prime example of somebody wanting their cake and eating it too.

We have to ask what has brought this issue to Ottawa twice in a one year period. As I indicated earlier, there was a stormy debate on the Hill on this matter about a year ago. Premier Wells did hold a referendum and with a 54% vote he sent his amendment off to our nation's capital. That amendment to term 17 saw all schools being declared interdenominational with a provision for unidenominational schools if the numbers warrant it.

Earlier this spring all schools in Newfoundland underwent a school designation process. The parents of nearly 30,000 students voted to keep their children in a unidenominational Pentecostal or a unidenominational Catholic school system. That caused some concern among groups of people and led to a court challenge by a group of parents which ground the school designation process to a complete halt.

As tensions mounted on the issue, our new premier Mr. Tobin saw his chance to take advantage of the public mood and he held his own referendum. And it was very much his own referendum. He picked the time, he wrote the question and he made up the rules. The outcome was a foregone conclusion with 38% of the province voting yes on the premier's proposal.

I have been roundly criticized in my home province for continuing to speak up on behalf of these people who did not vote to give up their rights to have a say in the religious education of their children. The resolution we are dealing with in this House today has passed the Newfoundland House of Assembly unanimously. I do not think it is healthy in a democracy for fundamental constitutional change to be made in the air of parliamentary unanimity. This is especially so when we are about the business in this House of wiping out for ever and a day the constitutional rights of minorities.

When term 17 was last before this House, Cardinal Carter of the Toronto Archdiocese wrote to the Prime Minister. This is a good quote from the letter: “The amendment process under the Constitution requires your government to play the role of guardian of minority rights, and if your government rubber stamps an amended term 17, how can it in principle resist similar requests from voting majorities in Alberta, Quebec and Ontario?” He asks: “Would French language rights survive outside of Quebec if they were subject to a referendum?” He goes on to say again: “There is a natural reality that occurs because of population imbalance and that is why minority rights have to be protected in the Constitution of Canada”.

It seems the cardinal felt there was a danger in altering minority rights in response to public opinion. His concerns are more than justified when we reflect on the atmosphere in which the referendum was held.

Under Premier Wells' amendment, if parents did not have sufficient numbers to set up a full fledged denominational school, they could at least avail themselves of a religious course particular to their own faith. Under the proposed amendment parents will be offered only a generic, state run, state designed religious course. It is basically a sociology course about religion. It will have no basis in Christian religion which is why there is such an outcry from some people on this issue.

The Canadian Constitution as well provides for the freedom of religion. However once this resolution passes, Newfoundland will be the only province in Canada where the state sets the religious education program. We all remember what former Prime Minister Trudeau said in the House that the state has no place in the bedrooms of our nation. In the proposed resolution the state is coming dangerously close to ensconcing itself in the churches of our nation.

Term 17 was placed in our terms of union in recognition of the very prominent role that the various Christian churches played in the development of education in Newfoundland. Term 17 has been amended twice already.

In the mid-eighties it was amended to include constitutional recognition of the Pentecostal faith. There was no fuss at that time because we were including a longstanding reality. In the two referenda since that time the Pentecostal groups have voted overwhelmingly to retain their rights in education. They are a minority. They represent only 7% of the population of Newfoundland. They have voted twice already to retain their rights in education.

Last year's amendment diminished denominational rights, but parents still had a right and they still had a choice with regard to the religious education their children would receive. Should we now one year later be eliminating that right and that choice altogether? Should last year's amendment not have been given a little time to settle into the social order? Should constitutional rights be subject to the ebb and flow of public opinion? The ultimate question is, is a constitutional right for minorities really a right if it can be altered or eliminated so easily?

These are questions which are not being widely asked in my province and I feel that I have a duty to raise them. I feel that this Parliament has an obligation to wrestle with these questions before the final vote is taken. I firmly believe that the latest amendment to term 17 is something we will live to regret in the long run.

Parents in the rest of North America are fighting for the right to bring religion back into the public schools. In Newfoundland we are about the business of kicking religion out of our school system. I am very concerned about this. People have indicated that I should vote with the majority on this issue when it comes time to vote in the House. That would certainly be the easy way out, but I do not think it would be right.

It is a good thing a joint committee of the House and the Senate is being formed to look at the resolution. I sincerely hope there will be an opportunity for the committee to go to Newfoundland to hear the no side, to hear the yes side, to hear all of the concerns that people have about this particular resolution.

I hope all members of the House will look at this particular resolution very carefully and will do some research on denominational rights in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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1:20 p.m.


Pierre Brien Bloc Témiscamingue, QC

Madam Speaker, there was an element in the reasoning of the hon. member from the Conservative Party that I had trouble following. I would appreciate it if he could explain it to me.

He seems greatly concerned with the fate of minorities, a praiseworthy attitude, but he seems to fear the precedent of a constitutional amendment which, he feels, would restrict the rights of a minority group, and he also feels that a referendum is not sufficient. Even if the majority wills it, it is not sufficient, as there must be constitutional protections somewhere. Taken to its extreme, following his reasoning, these protections would have to be in place perpetually, forever.

He quotes someone as saying: “For example, if a referendum were held on French language rights outside Quebec, one could assume these rights were threatened”. But there is a fundamental problem. Are they telling us that minority rights are opposed by the majority? That would be assuming they are given any, but that the population is against those rights, which is extremely worrisome.

It means that Canadian public opinion might be opposed to the rights of francophones, which is the example he gave. And these are the same people who have just told us how they love us, and so on, and how they need our understanding, the love-ins and all that stuff. There is a basic contradiction here.

People in general, I am convinced, are in favour of minority rights. Quebec is a fine example, with its anglophone minority. If there were a referendum in Quebec on anglophone minority rights, I am convinced that the population would vote in favour. Why, then, use this argument and play out this debate against a backdrop of language minority rights, when this does not appear to be pertinent in the least?

There are people who want to modify an education system in order to create one that appears to them to be more modern, more in conformity to reality and to the needs of today. How can the two debates be mixed? Is he trying to tell us, when it comes down to it, that the majorities allow minority rights, but only unwillingly? This demonstrates a substantial underlying problem, and a profound intolerance that appears to exist within the majority groups in Canada.

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1:25 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Norman E. Doyle Progressive Conservative St. John's East, NL

Madam Speaker, it appears to me the hon. gentleman is asking whether constitutional rights should be perpetually available to all minority groups even though it seems to be evident that they have relinquished these rights. People have asked me that question on a number of occasions. That is not the whole case in Newfoundland.

I keep referring back to the Pentecostal assemblies of Newfoundland which comprise only 7% of the population and which voted overwhelmingly to retain these rights in education. Is the hon. gentleman saying to me that even though they are a minority, even though they have their rights protected under the Constitution of Canada, that we can subject these people to the tyranny of the majority, if he wants to put it that way, and wipe out these rights at will? I do not think so.

If you are going to alter a minority right in this country, one of the responsibilities you have is to at least consult the groups whose rights are directly affected. In this instance these groups have not been consulted. They have had their rights subject to the majority without any consultation whatsoever. That is a grave concern. Minorities should be widely consulted when their rights are at stake but in this particular instance that has not been done.

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1:25 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Charlie Power Progressive Conservative St. John's West, NL

Madam Speaker, to understand what we are doing, we are simply voting on a resolution to set up a joint committee of this House and the Senate to further study this issue.

I thank my colleague from St. John's East for sharing his 20 minutes with me. Under the strange rules of procedure, we know we are not going to discuss a lot in our 10 minutes but we do want to make our point. I assure you we will be taking a very active role in committee.

As the leader of the opposition has suggested, we would like to see the committee travel to Newfoundland to take presentations and to listen to the people most directly involved. I know we have a December 5 deadline and it does not provide very much time. The issue is crucial and important to many people in Newfoundland and I think we should have the courtesy of allowing the joint committee of the House of Commons and Senate to visit Newfoundland.

In 10 minutes it is pretty hard to discuss an issue that takes into account minority rights, majority rights, the responsibility of government to govern as it sees fit and to take into account religious rights and freedoms which may or may not be impinged on by this whole process. One also has to take into account a group of people I do not often hear very much said about and that is the students of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The issue debated first by the government of Premier Wells and later by the government of Premier Tobin is on who controls what, who has the power and who has the authority. These matters have become all-encompassing for the individuals involved, both on the church side of the argument and on the government side. In many cases the persons who are lost are the tens of thousands of students in Newfoundland schools. They are the ones that first and foremost must be considered.

I agree with my colleague from St. John's East on certain of the points that have been made. I do not believe the referendum process was done fairly. It was not done the way it should have been done. The referendum was held quickly and in the middle of the summer. It was held in great haste because the public opinion polls of Mr. Tobin showed that this reform could be rushed through to get it over and done with. I do not think that was fair to the churches, to the parents or to many of the other participants in the program.

The result did get the objective that the government wanted at the time. It did get a reform vote that said 73% of those who voted were in favour of reform. They wanted the system changed. A lot of people did not vote. In our democratic system we really have to discount those because, as we often say, if you do not vote you really do not have a say. We cannot come back here and say in total only 54% of the people voted. This House of Commons could never be filled if those were the rules. No one would ever be elected. It is not just who voted, it is how they voted. We have to take that into account.

The referendum passed. However, one thing the referendum showed loud and clear was that a lot of people wanted change. They wanted reform. The other side of the coin was that Newfoundland, under the Liberals in 1989 of Premier Wells and later Premier Tobin had gone through very significant cost cutting measures in the Newfoundland education system.

People are very sceptical of a government that says “Give me this great new power so I can reform the system” when it spent nine years gutting the system, laying off teachers, closing down schools and raising the pupil-teacher ratio. It did not support the Newfoundland Teachers Association requirement for teacher retraining or for students to have access to decent equipment, which you now need in schools.

Newfoundland has many schools. My district has 800 students and 30 computers. That did not happen overnight. These 800 students in the high school system are expected to compete in this new information age. It simply will not happen. It is substandard.

Part of this might be the responsibility of the churches or their bureaucratic system and the waste that went on in the denomination educational system. The fact is they did not co-operate nearly as much as they could have or should have. We do have an integrated system in Newfoundland where Anglican, United and some other Protestant faiths work together. They have an excellent system of education. When that was established back in the 60s and 70s a lot of people thought an integrated system was going to be terrible for Anglican and United students. It did not happen that way. The teachers are still Christian, the community is still Christian and the teaching is done in a slightly different way.

The Government of Newfoundland deserves a significant amount of blame for the confusion. It did not say in one simple way what it wanted to reform toward. All it has done is find a way to lay off some teachers, balance the books, cut the deficit. But the government has not done what it wanted to do for education which was to reform it. The Newfoundland system is in significant need of help.

Everyone in the House knows what the Newfoundland economy is like. We have the highest unemployment rate and the lowest per capita income. Newfoundland is always at the wrong end of every scale. Education, a lot of us believe, is probably the only way matters can be resolved. It will not be resolved by putting more money into income supporting programs like TAGS in the long haul. We will not solve that problem by simply allowing Newfoundlanders to out migrate and become a problem in Calgary or in Toronto or somewhere else. We will not help Newfoundland society unless we give the Newfoundland students the tools to contribute and compete within Newfoundland.

That is really what the whole reform business is all about. It is about how we get a better school system. I have come to the conclusion, having looked at the referendum results of 73%, that the majority of Newfoundlanders are willing, albeit with some significant question marks attached, to give the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador the responsibility to deliver and implement a new education system.

For the benefit of all Newfoundlanders, it has to work. If it does not work, then an awful lot of Newfoundlanders are going to be very seriously handicapped in the future by not being able to earn a decent living, not having the educational tools to do it.

With no side voting 27%, it is a grave concern. Many of them are in my riding. Many of them have previous concerns about the trust they can place in any government, that is, the government in Newfoundland or the government here in Ottawa.

In my case, I am willing, as I think most Newfoundlanders are now ready to give them the benefit of the doubt, that a new system has to be implemented in Newfoundland, but it has to be a new system that is significantly reformed.

If anybody is going to be on the hook after the amendment and the resolution are passed by the House of Commons and the Senate, it will be the Government of Newfoundland and Premier Brian Tobin. If a better system cannot be delivered, if a higher percentage of people do not finish high school, if the university participation rate is not higher, if the unemployment rate is still high after the education system is reformed, it will be a terrible shame to all those persons involved, in particular the Newfoundland government.

I just hope there is a willingness in the Government of Newfoundland to forget the idea of deficit reduction at all cost. That deficit reduction means our schools are going to be much less better served. If it is just going to be deficit reduction, laying off more teachers, then this reformed school system in Newfoundland, I assure all the people in this House of Commons, will not serve our people any better.

It is important for everyone in the House of Commons to realize that every Newfoundlander wants to contribute to Canada. However, they cannot contribute unless they have the tools so to do. One of those fundamental tools in our modern society has to be an excellent education system.

As a former teacher, I am convinced that we can have a better education system. It is most unfortunate that we have to come this route to get it. One advantage is that we are here, in a democracy and basically we have a chance—as the member for St. John's East and I disagree on this issue—to come here to express our ideas, our values and our viewpoints. We will make the decisions and live with them as best we can. At least we can do it that way.

I can only say again that I am voting in favour of the resolution because I think it will give a better school system to the students of Newfoundland and Labrador.

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1:35 p.m.


Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Madam Speaker, my question is for the two hon. members for St. John's East and St. John's West.

As my colleague from Winnipeg mentioned earlier, this is a concern of such very great importance not only to Newfoundland but across the country. Yet a few years back the same question was asked of the people of Newfoundland.

The Pentecostal and Catholic organizations got together and mobilized their forces and came within a few percentage points of defeating the original motion. This time the question was asked again and received overwhelming support of those people who voted.

Of an issue of this importance—now I am receiving all kinds of letters and all kinds of phone calls regarding this—why did the people not get out this time and vote? So many people stayed home. I would like those people from Newfoundland to answer tell me why people stayed home and did not vote on this very critical and very important issue.