Madam Speaker, I rise to speak to the motion put forward by the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs on the establishment of a joint committee of the House of Commons and the Senate to study matters related to the proposed resolution respecting the amendment to section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867, concerning the Quebec school system. That is just to be clear on what we are addressing today. We seem to be wandering a little bit.
I commend and congratulate Madam Speaker on her appointment as speaker. The Right Hon. John G. Diefenbaker once said to parliament “Parliament is more than a procedure. It is the custodian of the nation's freedom”. Madam Speaker, you are charged with a very important duty in the House as members seek to serve their constituents. I, on behalf of my constituents, look for your assistance in the pursuit of serving Canadians.
First of all, I want to thank the constituents of Compton—Stanstead who entrusted me with the important task of representing them in the House of Commons. It is an honour for me to be their MP.
Compton—Stanstead is a half urban, half rural riding. It is a dairy farm region. It is also an area full of lakes and hills where one can do some sailing, boating and trekking during the summer and ski or go on snowmobile tours during the winter. Finally, it is a region where everybody loves the great outdoors.
I would like to invite all the members to visit this wonderful region where people have never stopped working towards a stronger Canada, a part of Quebec where anglophones and francophones have rubbed shoulders for many generations and have learned to live and work together.
As a representative of this Eastern Townships region, I have some experience in the issue before us today.
The Eastern Townships have been used as a test area for linguistic schools in Quebec for the last 10 to 15 years and I must say we are very pleased with the results so far.
Linguistic schools were tested in the Eastern Townships in preparation for their implementation all over Quebec. At first there were some real concerns, because people did not know how this system would work and they wondered if it would be fair.
In fact it worked. It worked quite well. We were the test case. We went through it. At present I have lived through the experience personally. It has been a good working system.
This committee, however, will examine something a lot larger than the test case of linguistic schools in the eastern townships. At present the rights of minorities are guaranteed in the Canadian Constitution. They are guaranteed under the Constitutional Act, 1867 and 1982.
It remains my opinion that amending the Constitution is a very serious matter that should not be taken lightly, which presents the House with a dilemma.
The National Assembly in Quebec City has voted overwhelmingly in favour of instituting linguistic school boards as soon as possible. It is desirable for that purpose to amend the Constitution Act, 1867, so that Quebec has full capacity to act in matters of education.
As I said earlier, in my experience this probably makes good sense. Yet it concerns me. Is it the role of the House to stand in the way of what seems to be the overwhelming will of the people of Quebec? Or, is the role of the House to ensure that the rights of all Canadians are protected under the law? Can it do both?
I am new to this debate. I have much to learn about the Constitutional nuances of my country. What I do know is that the Reform Party's proposal to have a referendum on this question is without merit.
At some point we have to trust elected officials. On this particular matter there seems to be consensus in the national assembly. The Reform Party is proposing to have a constituent assembly comprised of the entire province of Quebec.
As a constitutional amendment must not, it seems to me, be made with a nod of the head, I intend to ensure that the committee examines all the repercussions of the proposed amendment on Quebec and on the Constitution of Canada.
I would like now to speak of my immediate concerns and the questions this committee must answer.
The matter is a complicated one, but it concerns a very basic right. I believe that, in the context of the debate on these issues, we must first and foremost answer the following question: will these decisions best serve the interests of young Canadians?
Still on the subject of education, let us look at a few other concerns. First, minority rights and specifically the rights of the anglophone minority in Quebec.
The legislative report of the Government of Quebec indicates that, in order to protect the rights of linguistic minorities within denominational school boards, the bill would have language councils in each. I quote:
The parents of students of the linguistic minority in question will sit on these councils. As appropriate, the language councils will have sufficient authority to ensure constitutional guarantees to anglophones are honoured.
The language councils are to be consulted prior to the establishment of the schools needed for the students of the linguistic minority. They will ensure the school boards provide the minority with an equitable distribution of human, material and financial resources. In the event the school boards conclude service agreements, these agreements shall also be approved by the language councils.
All that seems reasonable. The minorities will have their language councils. That seems perfectly reasonable. However, the document continues, and I quote:
The foregoing provisions are contained in a specific section of the bill, which indicates clearly that denominational school boards and the right to dissent shall remain in force until such time as the Government of Quebec regains its full legislative powers in the field of education.
In other words once the Constitution is amended that is it for language councils.
Second, it is important to note that not all francophones are in favour of linguistic school boards. I have a stack of letters in my office from very pious, observant francophone Protestants who are concerned they will lose their own schools and no religion will be taught.
I will read one letter as an example.
Dear Mr. Price,
We have three children, two of whom have attended and one of whom still attends a French Protestant school called Le Sentier. I am writing to express my disagreement with the request of the Quebec government to amend section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867 to make school boards non-denominational in the province of Quebec. I am very satisfied with this school for which we fought for well over 15 years before it finally opened six years ago. I am totally opposed to the fact that we can be denied our right to an education that is tailored to the needs and aspirations of our community.
Therefore, I urge you not to allow our Constitution to be amended, particularly section 93.
I want to keep the right to dissent, which to me is synonymous with freedom, and I am counting on you.
And this letter is signed by Mr. and Mrs. Béliveau of Rock Forest.
In my experience in the eastern townships there has been a chaplain in all the schools. These chaplains are trained to teach and handle issues arising from different religions. This will satisfy the needs of very religious people, but will there still be chaplains?
Another concern raised by some is that without religion in the schools there is nobody to teach and instil values in Canada's young people. This has to be addressed by the committee.
The last concern to which I will speak today is crucial. The Government of Quebec is devoted to independence for Quebec. It is imperative that any decisions regarding this issue be made for the right reason, not to appease that government or because we feel threatened by the separatist government in Quebec.
Similarly we should not make a decision that only serves to frustrate the Government of Quebec. The interest of Canada's young people must be the guide.
I would like to point out something that I found very interesting. When the Quebec minister responsible for education, Pauline Marois, issued the notes for the press conference to introduce the bill she made reference to several objectives in it.
The number one objective in notes of the Quebec minister was to promote the integration of immigrants into the francophone community. While it is important and necessary to ensure immigrants are welcomed and integrated into the Quebec community, it seems that bettering the education of Canada's young people might be a more important first objective for a government serious about education, not just talking about taking Quebec out of Canada.
I would like to address the differences between the situation in Quebec and Newfoundland, and I say differences because there are very few similarities. The people in Newfoundland have spoken clearly on the issue. There has not been full public consultation in Quebec. The public needs to be consulted and this committee will ensure that the public will be consulted.
In Newfoundland two school systems are being combined to create one public school system. In Quebec it is proposed that two school systems change dramatically to create two new school systems. While the principle might be similar, the realities vary. For this reason it is important to look at the issues of Quebec and Newfoundland separately.
I am pleased that the House is getting around to considering this matter in a serious fashion. It was completely unacceptable for the government to forgo any real consideration of the last constitutional amendment that came its way. Thankfully the Senate did an admirable job last year in travelling to Newfoundland to hear all the views and concerns of interested parties. The House should not have dispensed with its constitutional duty so cavalierly, without debate and without concern.
A last concern is that it has come to my attention that this committee will not be permitted to travel. This seems strange. I hope I have succeeded in outlining the importance of this committee. It should be given the resources to conduct its job properly and efficiently. This will almost certainly mean hearing from witnesses who would not come before committees if it meant being unreasonably inconvenienced.
The eastern townships was a test case and it worked out quite well.
Let us look now at what we can accomplish together for our country and especially for our youth.