Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise on a matter on which I last addressed the House on May 31, 1996.
We are dealing with an issue of constituent power. That is basically the constitutional amending power and to some extent it is terra incognita, or better said, the law in the making because there have been so few precedents to date that what we do creates the precedents of future conduct.
I did make several observations that are perhaps worth repeating. I will not forget, by the way, the useful intervention by the Leader of the Opposition because I think that deserves some special comment in light of what has happened since the debate in May 1996.
On the issue of what this amendment stands for, I think it can be established as a constitutional duty of the federal government to respond with all deliberate speed to requests by provinces made under section 43 of the Constitution Act of 1982, for changes in the Constitution. Section 43 relates to what we might call bilateral amendments to the Constitution. They concern the federal government as Canada and the government of one province only. It might be said that by definition the significance of an amendment made thereto is limited to the federal government for Canada and the the province concerned. It does not bind other parties.
Since this was a matter of some concern to people in provinces other than Newfoundland 18 months ago, and many of us including myself were visited by very distinguished religious and other authorities, I felt it necessary to make some comments which I will repeat again.
This proposal for amendment relates to a request by Newfoundland for change of term 17, of the terms of the union of 1949 and it is limited to that. It has no legal implications for other provinces.
Second, as a matter of constitutional interpretation, the Supreme Court of Canada gives a deference in the interpretation of the Constitution to what are called the travaux préparatoires, the parliamentary debates. They have a significance they do not have in relation to ordinary legislation and I built into my own statement my reasons for voting 18 months ago that I was voting on an amendment limited to Newfoundland, and I would recommend to other members to do the same. This would help create the precedent that this does not apply to other provinces where other considerations apply.
There are legitimate considerations in all provinces, in Ontario obviously, but in British Columbia where the issue of funding for schools including church schools is a relevant political issue.
As a further matter I would also say that there have been significant changes here since the matter was first presented 18 months ago and this House voted overwhelmingly to approve it. The matter originally approved by this House went to the Senate and the Senate did not act with all deliberate speed. It took perhaps a certain amount of time longer than I think the constituent process envisaged. It then went to hearings by the Senate which I commended, by the way, to a number of people who had written to me as a chance to have their views expressed. It also went to the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and a single judge gave a ruling. It was at that stage that the premier of Newfoundland called for a referendum.
I said I would comment on what the Leader of the Opposition has proposed. I have said to him at times only half in jest that I feel these parts of his thinking may be borrowed from some of my earlier writings. I know the Leader of the Opposition is opposed to a non-elective legislative chamber. I think it is hard to deny the question that the constitutional legitimacy of a legislative body depends on its being elected.
Nevertheless I think we should recognize that the Senate and the Senate committee in this case, which was a strong committee, performed a useful and constructive role in the months that followed on this House vote.
When the premier of Newfoundland appeared in Ottawa to defend this measure 18 months ago some asked him if there had been full consultation and could he give them assurances here because they are getting representations from voters in Newfoundland and people in other provinces. He undertook to have discussions and consultations with them. I think that was an important undertaking. I read this again into my address in the House of Commons so that it would be a matter of record that under the principles of constitutional comity it would be understood that the premier approaching for a constitutional amendment under section 43 might find it proper to give undertakings of this sort which could in a sense become constitutionally binding.
What I am simply saying is that the extra time, including in this the Senate role, I think has been helpful and we come to this matter again 18 months later with a very substantially augmented case.
I think these figures, because they have been passed over perhaps rather too obliquely, are startling. There is an overwhelming majority, 73% of the Newfoundland population, that has approved this measure in a province-wide referendum vote. That is an astonishing figure for referenda. It goes even beyond the majority that rejected the Charlottetown accord throughout Canada.
If we say what is the significance of a referendum, we can go to the Prime Minister of Great Britain and we will see that this is participatory democracy in action. It is so much becoming part of constitutional thinking that it would take a good deal of courage to say let's write off the 73%.
Let me go a step further and say that 47 of the 48 Newfoundland electoral districts have voted to support this measure. That is an astonishing figure, let us face it, in terms of any of our votes in any of our own provinces.
Let me look at the breakdown which has been made for me of the votes analysed constituency by constituency in an attempt to determine the particularity of the vote. In the St. George's Bay region, which is 74% Roman Catholic, 59% of the population voted yes.
In the Burin peninsula, which is 48.5% Roman Catholic, 72% voted yes. That is an astonishingly high percentage. In the Avalon peninsula, which is 48.5% Roman Catholic and Newfoundland's most heavily populated region, 72% voted yes. That again is a remarkable figure.
When we go to the Pentecostal vote in the four electoral districts where Pentecostals are most heavily concentrated, the resolution carried with majorities of 57% to 64%. If we are looking for participatory democracy, if we are looking for popular consultation, I would defy anybody to find a more startling affirmation of public support.
These are matters in this contempory era that Prime Minister Blair of Great Britain calls the second modern period which have implications not merely for the economy but also for the political processes. There is, I think, a clear support for what is normally our duty in acting on a request under section 43.
It seems to me that the federal government, unless there is a direct conflict with the charter of rights or some other constitutional fundamental provision, is bound to act on a provincial request. When we get this support in terms of the popular majority, it seems we are bound to act.
The Leader of the Opposition did raise the issue as to whether this should be discussed or considered by a joint Senate and House committee. As I say, I have sympathy with the viewpoint of the paramountcy of the elected House. I would simply say that we have already had the opportunity of the Senate participating in this process. In my view it was not necessarily surprising that the particular senators delegated to that committee before were exceptionally talented people. I think their role has been constructive and useful. There is a body of accumulated experience and I see no point in disturbing it at this stage, although I understand the point of the Leader of the Opposition there.
Back again to this issue, I think it is necessary to reaffirm the point we have basically made. This is a proposition limited to a change to term 17 of the terms of union of Newfoundland with Canada.
Second, we are normally bound as a federal government to act on a resolution presented in good faith under section 43 by a provincial legislature unless there are overwhelming constitutional reasons to the contrary. We did not see those 18 months ago and I do not see them today.
Third, the support of the people of Newfoundland, expressed in the only way in a constitutional democracy it can be expressed, through a vote, is overwhelming. I do not see that we would be justified in rejecting it.
On the implications for other provinces, as I have said, I read into my own vote, and I commend to others to do this, a limitation to a particular constitutional amendment proposed under section 43. This is without prejudice to a position that I and others may take on a request from Quebec for an amendment or a request from other provinces. However, I see no implication here for perfectly legitimate political requests or demands that religious groups in other provinces may make for various actions by their government, whether it be in the form of state aid to education of religious schools or otherwise. Those must be fought on their political merits within those provinces and they are not affected by what we are doing today.
Are there any other matters here? I would take note of the fact that I believe the premier of Newfoundland has discharged, in good faith, the undertaking he made that he would consult with religious groups within the province. I think he has acted in good faith on that. I am impressed by the guarantees that he is giving here that religious education will be made available in the province in what will become non-religious schools.
He has also carefully read the constitutional precedents and none are better developed than those before the United States supreme court. He has built into that guarantee guarantees of the rights of parents of children who might wish to opt out of their religious instruction.
I think there has been a great deal of thought given to this by Newfoundland. I think it indicates the value of the constituent processes, the bilateral nature of the dealings. Newfoundland has listened to objections that were made here by members of this House on both sides who may have supported the measure but had some objections to the way it was being done but who may have voted for it nevertheless.
The premier has responded well. I think we should take this as an example of good faith on his part and we should respond equally to that.
I will be voting for this measure. It has been considerably improved over the measure which I voted for before.
I am also impressed with the extra degree of constitutional legitimacy it has by the very overwhelming vote that the Newfoundland people expressed in democracy's most direct way, the direct voting of the people.