Madam Speaker, I would like to share my experience as a member of the special joint committee charged with examining the resolution to amend section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867.
I believe we have no choice but to pass the resolution as tabled in the House of Commons on October 1, 1997.
The committee heard over 60 groups and individuals and, in my opinion, the message was clear.
As I said in the House at the beginning of this debate, as a member of Parliament from the Eastern Townships, I have some experience of the issue before us today.
The Eastern Townships have been a lead region with regard to linguistic school boards in Quebec for more than 15 years and, I want to say it again, the experiment was a success. It is a good system that works well.
This has not always been the case, however. I remember, when I was young, the priests used to rule people's lives. When, as a young anglophone, I was going to school, I was not called an anglophone because it was understood that all anglophones were Protestants and all francophones were Catholics. I was simply called a Protestant. My French speaking friends were not allowed to enter a Protestant church, under penalty of eternal damnation.
However, I used to go to the francophone church, the Catholic church, and I realized there were more similarities than differences between us. But the priests kept the anglophones and the francophones, the Protestants and the Catholics, apart.
The Catholic Church put religion into the hands of the schools, into the hands of the State. In my opinion, it has been a bad decision. Why? Because most of the teachers used to be brothers or nuns and Quebeckers were already beginning to move away from the Church, a big issue in terms of family values.
Fortunately, things have progressed. Canadian history is a succession of negotiations and partnerships. These negotiations are still going on nowadays.
Just like what made up the 18th century was taken into account when the Quebec Act was negotiated, what makes up the Canadian and the Quebec societies must be taken into consideration as Canada heads into the 21st century.
In fact, the Quebec society is not made up only of French speaking Catholics and English speaking Protestants. The Quebec society is like the Canadian society, but with a little something extra.
Bearing this reality in mind, the Quebec National Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favour of linguistic school boards. A lot was said about protecting the rights of English speaking Quebeckers. In fact, English will be better protected with linguistic school boards.
I would like to come back to one of the most crucial issues I have addressed before, because it deals with what remains a major concern, which is the fact that the Quebec government is dedicating itself to the independence of Quebec. It is important that decisions made on this issue be based on reasonable grounds, and not made only to assuage the provincial government or because we feel threatened by this separatist government in Quebec.
Also, we should not be making any decision only to frustrate the Government of Quebec. This is an important decision that will affect the children and their parents as much as schools and communities.
I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to sit on this committee and to learn a lot about the Constitution of my country. The House must vote in favour of amending section 93 to make all of this possible.
I want to take some time now to address the dissenting opinion from the Reform Party.
When parliamentary debate began on this subject on October 1, I admitted quite candidly that I had much to learn about the constitutional nuances of my country. Today I can say that I learned quite a lot while I sat with the committee, both from my colleagues and about my colleagues on the opposition side and the government side and, of course, from the witnesses who appeared before the committee. However, I will say again that I have much to learn.
I do not want to say outright that the Reform Party has no feel for my country's history. I do not relish telling the House that the Reform Party has no sense of what Canada is and how Canada came to be. I have gone through the Reform Party's dissenting opinion and I feel that it is my obligation to the House and to my constituents to share my findings.
First, the Reform Party writes “the proposed amendment will eliminate the right to denominational schools, a right that has been protected since 1867”. I expect that Reform members will not know about how that great event in 1867 came to pass. Accommodation and recognition of the need for accommodation predates 1867. In fact, the Quebec Act of 1774 provided accommodation between the partners of what we now call Canada. There has always been negotiation in Canada. Indeed, that is what Canada is all about. Of course, I am no expert so I do not think it is my job to say that the Reform Party does not know what it is to be Canada.
Second, the Reform Party writes that changing the constitution should never be done lightly or in haste. This puzzles me. Is this is the same party that when addressing the issue of changing the constitution to address Newfoundland schools in this House just over a year ago led the chorus of “dispense, dispense”? The Reform Party and, in all fairness, the government were in a rush to change the constitution then. As an opposition party, the Reform Party did nothing.
Third, the Reform Party mentions the need for democratic consent to protect minority rights. Does its version of democratic consent not mean majority rule? Is it not the party of referenda?
Must I remind the Reform Party that there was democratic consent in the national assembly, and for this to pass there will be democratic consent in this House and in the other place. I was quite sure this must have slipped in there by mistake. Those things happen. But then I started to think that maybe what the Reform was trying to say was assent of the minority. This, of course, is not the same thing as its version of democratic consent at all.
However, defending minority rights is not what the Reform Party is known for. In fact, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say the Reform Party has a bad reputation with minority groups right across Canada. Of course, defending minority rights cannot be the message Reform wants to send out. That leads me to number four.
Reform says that it would prefer a provincial referendum. Having just defended minority rights, this one is difficult to figure out. In the same dissenting opinion it defends minority rights and then calls for a referendum.
Of course, I am no expert but does the majority not always win referendums? Is this some sort of joke? Of course, the leader of the Reform Party is not known for his rapier like wit but more his rapier like logic. I think his party has written an illogical dissenting opinion and I do not think it is very funny.
To continue with number five, “It is incumbent on its proponents to show beyond a reasonable doubt that an informed majority of the people of Quebec approve the amendment”. Until this point, the Reform Party's dissenting opinion was just a series of contradictions and a little sloppiness.
I am sad to say that this is where the Reform Party becomes insulting. Is the Reform Party suggesting that officials elected to the national assembly cannot represent informed opinion in Quebec? If this is what the Reform Party is saying, I find it insulting and inappropriate.
I am no expert but I believe it is my job to represent the people of my riding in Quebec just as it is the Reform members' job to represent their constituents.
My constituents are informed. They inform me. I inform the House of their concerns. During the last federal election, the Reform party insulted Quebeckers and politicians from Quebec. Is that the pot it is trying to stir now?
Number six, Reform says that those who oppose should be given a clear opportunity to express their view. This is new for Reform. I am curious to know if the new Reform principle extends to aboriginal people, visible minorities and homosexuals.
This new Reform principle allows minorities not only to express their point of view but to be heard in a proper forum. Not being an expert but knowing the Reform Party as I do, I wonder if this too slipped in here by mistake.
If it is meant to be there, I am happy to hear this and I will be watching to ensure the Reform Party upholds its new values.
Number seven, Reform says that the committee should not be expected to decide this matter in haste. I am in complete agreement with that statement. I am happy to see the Reform Party finally sees merit in considering important matters fully.
I wonder if now it has changed its position on the necessity of the Senate of Canada and the sober second thought it brings to parliamentary matters.
The other place has what is called a suspensive veto. This provides for the opportunity for revisiting constitutional endeavours. As long as there is a Senate there are no artificial deadlines. Thank goodness for the Senate of Canada. I am thankful that the Reform Party sees eye to eye with me on this.
Number eight, the Reform Party complains that there was not enough time to study this matter, that it was done lightly and in haste. It suggests that a court decision would have settled the legal issue.
Again, I am no expert but I do not want to unfairly criticize anybody. It is becoming obvious that the Reform Party does not understand the role of Parliament. Parliament makes law. That is what it means to be a legislator.
It seems to me that the call for a court to decide on this issue is a complete abdication of governance and a complete abdication of leadership.
Number nine, in addition to number eight, Reform calls for the best legal advice available. I am sorry to hear that the Reform Party leadership is not confident in its ability to obtain or produce good legal advice.
In our caucus we have good legal advice. We have parliamentarians who meet their responsibilities head on. I am personally grateful to Senator Gerald Beaudoin, a noted constitutional expert who has been most helpful on the committee, helping everyone better understand the issues.
The Reform Party should have listened to him more closely. However, if the Reform Party is looking for the best legal advice available, I invite it to call on our House leader or even our party leader.
Number 10, the Reform Party mentioned guarantees that were vital to the passage of the British North America Act. Again, I do not want to point out Reform's complete misunderstanding of Canadian history, but as far as I know the passage of the BNA act took place at Westminster and quite frankly there were very few people there.
Perhaps what the Reform Party means is that it was vital to the negotiation of the BNA act, but if that is what the Reform Party meant to say, then why did it not say that?
Number eleven, I do not mean to tell the Reform Party what it surely already knows. Although if the Reform Party was aware of this, I do not know how the following got in here. Maybe just another error. These things happen. Once again I quote “provincial statutes are clearly inferior to constitutional provisions protecting minority rights”. It obviously should not be me informing the Reform Party of this.
Less than two weeks ago the Supreme Court of Canada listened to a case, Vriénd v Alberta. In this case the province of Alberta, and if I am not mistaken the Reform Party draws much of its strength from there, stood before the Supreme Court of Canada to defend its refusal to extend protection against discrimination in its human rights legislation. In short, the province of Alberta is arguing that its provincial statute is clearly superior to constitutional provisions protecting minority rights, prohibiting discrimination.
Either there is a blatant area in this dissenting opinion or the Reform Party is in direct opposition to the province of Alberta. In one two-page document the Reform Party insults Quebec and contradicts Alberta.
Number twelve, the Reform Party says compelling reasons for amending the constitution have to be made and then adds no such case was made to committee. Again, I am no expert but I do recognize when a two page document contracts itself over and over.
Earlier in the same document the Reform Party says “we do not question that an overwhelming consensus has been shown”. I do not want to say that the Reform Party does not know what it is talking about, so I put the question forward. Which one is it, an overwhelming consensus has been shown or no such case was made? Surely the Reform Party understands that it cannot be both.
It is not my place to say that Canadians are used to the Reform Party's contradicting itself, but in a two page document you would think that it could get it straight.
It appears its left hand—no, let me get this straight—its right hand has no idea of what the other right hand is doing. The committee heard from more than 60 organizations and individuals, anglophones, francophones, Protestants, Catholics, Jews and aboriginals. There was a strong case made to amend section 93. I suppose the Reform Party was not watching. Maybe it was not listening. Maybe the translation was not working.
I am still learning in Ottawa. It seems to me that Canada is not some box, all segmented, neat and tidy. Canada is messy, Canada is confusing. We are all here to better understand Canada and to make Canada better.
I do not want to say the Reform Party does not understand Canada, but the Reform Party's dissenting opinion is contradictory, uninformed and without merit.
I hope this helps the Reform Party reflect on its dissenting opinion. I invite the Reform Party to reconsider its position and make the recommendations of the committee unanimous.