Mr. Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to speak on third reading of Bill C-18, an act to suspend the operation of the electoral boundaries readjustment process in Canada.
I listened with interest to the speech made just now by the hon. member for Kingston and the Islands, and I am sure he will want to show the same interest in what I have to say about this bill at this particular stage.
When considering a bill that has long-term implications for the future of the Canadian federation, it is always necessary to define the role of the sovereigntist member with respect to such legislation. I have never made a secret of the fact that I was elected by the constituents of Bellechasse to defend and promote the interests of Quebec, which includes promoting the sovereignty of Quebec.
As was pointed out, not by the hon. member from Kingston and the Islands but by the hon. member for Calgary West and also by the hon. member for Fraser Valley West, the seats in this House are ours on a temporary basis. We have them in trust, as it were. We do not own them. It is up to our constituents to determine who will sit in those seats. Of all the members sitting opposite during the 34th Parliament, only one member is left in this House, and this happened when constituents across Canada freely expressed their will that it should be so. It is always useful to recall that this House is not owned by anyone, that these seats are not anyone's property and that we occupy them on a temporary basis, until we are recalled by our constituents or decide otherwise or reach the end of our career.
That being said, I may be a sovereigntist, but it would be irresponsible of me to deny that a decision on the sovereignty of Quebec is still a decision that must be made by Quebec voters in a referendum that will be held in a few months, in Quebec. It will be held after the Quebec elections which, according to the Canadian Constitution, will have to take place in the fall, at the latest.
Since we, on this side of the House as on the other side, of course, are all in favour of supporting the rule of law, the very essence of democracy, we must operate within the confines of the present legislation.
At the present time, we still belong to the Canadian federation, and we must think ahead in case our ultimate goal-we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, since the Quebec referendum is only a few months away-should that light fade away for one reason or another, these seats will still be Quebec's. That is why we cannot afford to ignore the implications of this bill, if there were a change in the membership, since the Bloc Quebecois was elected for a specific term. That is why I took an active part in the study of Bill C-18 at every stage.
I must point out that once again, the government has acted belatedly in presenting this bill. They could have presented it 10 or 15 days earlier, so that it could have followed the normal process. But they chose to wait until the last minute when provincial commissions, especially in Quebec, had already started to hear witnesses or were about to hear them. As a matter of fact, these commissions are operating at the present time.
The way the debate has been going on has forced the government to bring a motion for time allocation, commonly called closure. My colleagues from Calgary West and Kindersley-Lloydminster rose in opposition to that motion. They were protesting against closure, and rightly so, I think. We did the same, even though we support the bill, because we will never accept closure on such a bill. We have been just as vocal as our colleagues from the Reform Party in opposing it.
The bill was passed at second reading and referred to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs which tabled its report in the House. Then my colleague from Kindersley-Lloydminster, seconded by the hon. member for Calgary West, proposed three amendments at report stage. And curiously, the party which complained so bitterly about time allocation, because debate was cut short, hardly intervened on its own motions. It is the Official Opposition which had to do the job of the Reform Party, which is a bit ironic. Why did they complain about time allocation, and choose not to speak yesterday? There is a logic there that I do not get. Could it be that their caucus meeting, Monday night, caused a number of them to lose their voices? I do not know.
Anyway, we will do our job at third reading. I do believe that Bill C-18 is necessary if we want to review the 30-year old rules on electoral boundaries readjustment. In my humble opinion, we should start this review process, immediately after the bill is passed, by studying carefully section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867.
It is the basis for the entire decennial readjustment process provided for by our Constitution. It will no doubt be the first section we will have to consider in hearing testimony and debating various amendments to provisions of section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867. We may also have to review section 51( a ), the so-called senatorial clause, which prevents a province from being represented by fewer members in the House of Commons than senators in the Senate and which presently applies only to Prince Edward Island.
Perhaps there should also be a section 51( b ) forcing the government to take a member from Prince Edward Island from within its ranks and make him or her a cabinet member, which is presently lacking. Why does a province with such a glorious history as Prince Edward Island have no Cabinet members in this government?
There is another question, but I will not get into it either. We can ask ourselves the question anyway. The criteria have not
been reviewed since 1964. I have no intention of going through the whole list, but it is high time that they we review them.
In 1964, the government of the day, the Pearson government, had the brilliant and worthwhile idea of taking the electoral boundaries delineation process out of the hands of Parliament and members of Parliament and putting it in the hands of independent commissions.
Grasp all, lose all, the saying goes. Perhaps the right balance has not been struck between the role of the legislator and that of the commissions. These are also questions we have to ask ourselves because a number of members have risen in this House to disagree with plans currently before the various provincial commissions.
We need to act, not hurriedly, but swiftly nonetheless, as we are facing some form of danger, a constitutional danger I would say. As I see it, the danger results from the fact that, during the 24 month period when readjustment is to be suspended under Bill C-18, during that time, the Procedure and House Affairs Committee will have to continue to work. The government will make its bed and eventually present a bill or accept the one proposed by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. But we should not face the next federal election with a seat distribution based on the 1981 census.
One thing is certain, for the legal security of all Canadians. With all due respect, I wonder whether it is appropriate for the government to submit Bill C-18 with all its consequences, namely that we still have a distribution based on the 1981 census and that the 2003 election could still be based on 1981 census figures. Are we not in violation of section 51 of the Canadian Constitution, which provides for a decennial census and a readjustment of representation after each decennial census?
The Constitution is there for a reason. If it requires us to conduct a census, a census will be conducted, and then we will say, "We need a readjustment". If every time we are about to undertake such a readjustment, some bill cancels or postpones it, it is as though this provision were no longer enshrined in the Canadian Constitution.
I urge the Canadian government to use the authority of the Governor in Council to refer the constitutional problem to the Supreme Court of Canada for advice, so that any challenge is not left to ordinary Canadians already overburdened by taxes, and so that it can be dealt with as quickly as possible.
Bill C-18 also provides for the abolition of existing provincial commissions, a measure which we fully support since we cannot keep on standby-in spite of the comments made by the hon. member for Kindersley-Lloydminster, which will certainly be corrected later-and pay the members of those commissions to do nothing.
This provision should also apply. We can start all over again later. When I say "we" I mean this House, because we do not know what the situation will be in 24 months, and what the House will look like. Who knows, there may be 75 fewer seats. It is pointless to discuss the architecture of this House. After all, if the 75 seats from Quebec disappear, there will be enough room for larger desks, to accommodate those who have put on some weight because they do not have time to exercise in the Wellington or Confederation building. This could prove a lot cheaper than tearing down walls, as suggested by our friends from the Reform Party.
We Quebecers will do an immeasurable service to this House by freeing a little more than a quarter of the seats here.
Of course, I am pleased because I did not hear any terms such as break up or collapse. Things went smoothly and I was able to discuss the issue. In fact, I wonder why, when I raise the issue of sovereignty for Quebec, I hear some hon. members use those expressions- but not everyone, far from it. In fact, fewer and fewer do so, and it may be because they understand more and more that Quebec's sovereignty is not directed against anyone: rather, it must be done for our own good. As I mentioned yesterday to the hon. member for Stormont-Dundas, Quebec will always be as open as it is now with its neighbours, and particularly its Ontario friends, who are very close, not only from a geographic point of view but also in terms of the affinities which we have developed. Quebec is a state which tomorrow, just as it was yesterday and is today, will remain open and receptive to the world around it.
Again, Quebec's sovereignty is not directed against anyone. Let me give you an example. If, tomorrow or in the near future, the people of British Columbia decided to become sovereign, I will not get frantic. I will simply say: very good, this is your decision as British Columbians. That is fine, let us try to make some agreements, this is an emancipation for you, this is your choice and I see no point in criticizing it. I will not say that someone is trying to dismantle the country, to tear it apart, to blow it up or whatever. I think that we will have to consider very calmly the implementation of new structures for this country which has already gone through several structual changes. Since 1763, it has been known as Canada, but during the period when it was made up of Upper and Lower Canada, and even before that, at the time of the Quebec Act and the Royal Proclamation, it was a small country. It grew quietly, over the years.
My comments are totally relevant to the debate, Mr. Speaker. In 1949, Newfoundland joined the Canadian federation, but Newfoundland was not destroyed because it decided to give up its status as an independent Dominion. Newfoundlanders were never told that they had destroyed their country. They were congratulated on choosing to join the Canadian federation.
In the second 1949 referendum, because there were two of them, Newfoundlanders voted 52.34 per cent in favour of joining Confederation, while 47.66 per cent voted against. However, that referendum was somewhat special, and we will not have the same kind of referendum in Quebec.
For instance, in the riding of Labrador, the number of registered voters in the second referendum on July 22, 1948, was 2,886. The number of votes cast was 3,447, which means a participation rate of 119.44 per cent in favour of union with Canada. The people in the riding of Labrador were way ahead of the riding of Ferryland, where 3,791 voters were registered but 3,965 cast their votes, which meant a participation rate of 104.59 per cent in the second referendum, which is not bad!
The first referendum was held on June 3, 1948. There again the participation rate showed that the people of Newfoundland, and probably their ancestors as well, were interested in voting in the referendum, because as they say, we have to vote, not just for our own sake and our children's, but for the people in the cemetery. I think that is what happened there!
If we look at the riding of Grand Falls, in the first referendum on June 3, 1948, the number of registered voters was 11,458, but the number of voters on June 3, 1948 was 12,580, which gives us a participation rate of 109.79 per cent, which is quite good! Grand Falls had the best rate, closely followed in second place by Humber, with 10,745 registered voters and 11,588 people who cast their votes, producing a very respectable participation rate of 107.84 per cent. St. John's West was a close third with 19,586 registered voters and 19,880 votes cast, producing a participation rate of 101.5 per cent.
And last but not least among the ridings with a participation rate of more than 100 per cent-something not even members of the former Soviet Union have been able to do, the best record so far being 99.9 per cent in one of the former Soviet republics-the riding of St. John's East, with 16,313 registered voters and 16,322 votes cast, producing a participation rate of 100.5 per cent. A number of ridings reached 95, 98 or 99 per cent. But in spite of all that, the final result was 52 to 48. That did not prevent the Right Hon. William Lyon Mackenzie King, then Prime Minister of Canada, from saying in this House, after the results of the second referendum in Newfoundland were announced, that "It was clear from these figures that the majority of the huge number of voters who cast their votes were in favour of Confederation. It would seem that the outcome of the plebiscite was "definitely beyond a shadow of a doubt" a sign of support for union between the two countries. The government, and surely the Canadian people as well, welcomed the results of this plebiscite".
I trust that with the standards now in effect and Quebec's legislation that is almost unmatched for its rigour, a result of 50 per cent of the vote, plus one, will be accepted when Quebec makes its decision.
That being said, you will no doubt allow me to say a few words about my own riding, which is also affected by the bill as all other ridings are. Several of my colleagues in the Official Opposition spoke about their ridings yesterday and I did not yet take the opportunity to talk about mine in the other stages of the debate.
Mr. Speaker, I invite you to visit my riding of Bellechasse. You will always be welcome and I will be pleased to host you if you do not have anywhere to stay, but there is excellent accommodation almost everywhere. Anyway, it will be a pleasure for me to receive you when you come. The limits of the federal riding of Bellechasse are as follows: it is bounded on the east by the riding of Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup, represented by my hon. colleague. On the west, it is bounded by the riding of Beauce; on the east, by the State of Maine in the U.S., and on the north, by the St. Lawrence River, although my riding also includes some islands in the St. Lawrence, one of which is Grosse Île, where thousands and thousands of Irish families stayed on their migration to Quebec or Canada.
The riding of Bellechasse could now be described as a rectangle going from Saint-Pamphile in the southeast to Lac-Etchemin in the southwest, and from Saint-Jean-Port-Joli in the northeast to Saint-Anselme in the southeast, Saint-Anselme being the parish adjacent to my own parish of Sainte-Claire-de-Dorchester.
With the new electoral map as proposed, which takes into account regional county municipalities or RCMs, the riding of Bellechasse would include two more parishes in the RCM of L'Islet, namely Saint-Roch-des Aulnaies and Sainte-Louise, which are now in the electoral district of Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup, so that the whole RCM of L'Islet would be in the riding of Bellechasse.
More to the west, the riding of Bellechasse would gain the municipalities and parishes of Saint-Cyprien, Saint-Louis-de-Gonzague, Sainte-Rose-de-Watford, Saint-Benjamin, Saint-Prosper, Sainte-Aurélie and Saint-Zacharie, which are all located in the RCM of Etchemins. My federal riding of Bellechasse would then include every parish of the RCMs of L'Islet, Montmagny, Bellechasse and Etchemins, for a total of about 64 parishes and enormous distances we still measure in miles because the numbers are too high when they are measured in kilometres.
The homogeneity is very nice, but the distances are a little ridiculous as a single member of Parliament responsible for such a vast area cannot properly serve all of his constituents. The criteria for readjusting electoral boundaries in Canada must be reviewed.
In closing, since we are talking about redistribution, it would be interesting to say a few words on the redistribution of seats in the other place. We would be in favour of an immediate and total redistribution of the 104 seats in the other house where unelected people are highly paid to sit. I think our friends in the Reform Party would wholeheartedly agree with us that we should abolish, in their present form, all the constituencies in the other house of the Parliament of Canada. We do not need a second house whose members would be working as they are now.
I for one am in favour of the proposal put forward by the Reform Party, namely a triple-E Senate, an equal, elected and effective Senate. In my view, that respects the principle of equality among provinces, where all provinces would have the same number of representatives and all regions would be represented.
Even though I said I would be in favour of such a proposal, I do have one very fundamental reservation. The proposal would probably be acceptable to English Canada, but never to Quebec. Quebec does not belong in another house where there would be equal representation of all provinces. Quebec will have nothing to do with that, nothing at all.
In 1965, the premier of Quebec, or the man who would become premier the following year, in 1966, Daniel Johnson Sr., the "real one" as some people call him, wrote in a book entitled Égalité ou Indépendance that Canada will be binational and biethnic or it will not exist.
It is up to my colleagues and of course to you, Mr. Speaker, to determine if Canada has become binational and biethnic. Not only do we not hear the word biethnicity anymore, but outside the province of Quebec, a lot of people even deny the existence of the Quebec nation-and I use the word nation in the English sense of the word, in its sociological sense, where it means people rather than country. No matter what Mr. Trudeau says in his private meetings, the word nation in French can apply to the existence and values of the Quebec people today, a people who have demonstrated their collective willingness to live in a given territory, to prosper there in their own language while respecting their minorities and to create within this territory a national state, a home for francophones in America.
That is the goal that we, the Official Opposition, along with Quebec sovereignists and nationalists, will continue to pursue until we succeed, hopefully within a few months, in convincing our friends and colleagues in Quebec that Quebec sovereignty is as good for Quebecers as Canadian sovereignty is good for Canadians and as American sovereignty has been good for Americans. Quebec sovereignty is the affirmation of a people who have finally achieved political maturity. In that spirit, we will vote in favour of Bill C-18 at third reading.