Mr. Speaker, allow me, as is the custom, to congratulate you and all the others who will sit in the Chair and play such an important role in this House. I have been here just a few days, but I can already appreciate the tact and the competence of the Chair.
I especially want to thank the hon. member for Burin-St. George's for his eloquent speech on the right to self-determination. The member is himself from a nation, in fact the only nation to do so in this country, which has freely and voluntarily decided, through a referendum held in 1948, to join the Canadian federation. If a referendum is the process used to join the Canadian federation, it is now clearly established that a referendum is also the proper way to create a sovereign State.
Since the House started sitting, I have not been surprised by the fact that our Liberal friends across the floor keep referring to their red book. This book was their election platform and they won a majority of seats by referring to it. As well, I am not surprised when I hear my friends from the Reform Party talk about changes, even cuts-we are not yet dealing with the details regarding social programs-and talk about reforming the voting process or adopting a different approach regarding ministerial responsibility. Indeed, this comes as no surprise since the Reform Party's campaign was based on that theme. Therefore, why should you be surprised to see a Bloc Quebecois member, who campaigned on the sovereignty of Quebec, come in this House and talk about Quebec's sovereignty? We were elected to do just that. It is our raison d'être. It is the mandate of our party to defend and promote Quebec's sovereignty, a sovereignty which is not directed against anybody but, rather, which is premised on the self-determination of our nation in order to be able to treat on an equal basis with any other nation, including our Canadian friends and neighbours, who are of course particularly close to us geographically, but more importantly because of our common past which has promoted the development of such strong friendships over decades and even centuries.
We asked ourselves the question raised by the hon. member for Papineau-Saint-Michel who said: "But who speaks on behalf of Quebec?" I disagree with a lot of comments made by the hon. member for Papineau-Saint-Michel, but it is true that this question will have to be answered.
The hon. member for Burin-St. George's said earlier that this is not the place to decide over Quebec's sovereignty. I agree with him. The decision will not be taken here; it will be taken in Quebec, by Quebecers, who will be asked to vote on the issue following a debate which we hope will be as open and as enlightening as possible. So, we need to hold a referendum to settle once and for all the issue of the legitimate right to speak of Quebec, because Quebec never was a truly sovereign state, unlike the Dominion of Newfoundland, which, before 1949, was as independent as the Dominion of Canada.
Without going back to ancient times to establish the rights of aboriginal people, we know that Canada existed before 1867. We can describe the institutions which have made Canada what it is today. I will touch briefly on some of the events.
Our first very own institution was set up in 1663 and was called the Sovereign Council of New France. Of course, this council emanated directly from the French monarchy, an absolute monarchy which did not stand for any division of power with a Parliament.
We were governed by the Council for nearly a century. Until September 1759, we were subject to the authority of the Sovereign Council of New France, and as we know from our history books, then came the battle of the Plains of Abraham. One party's victory was the other's defeat, so that the victory by General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham ushered in a British military government.
For four years we lived quite peacefully under the authority of a military government. Historians do not mention any rebellion. The "Canadiens", today's Quebecers, although in the majority, tolerated and accepted this British military presence.
The war between Britain and France ended in 1763, when by royal proclamation, Canada was ceded for all time, if there is such a thing in this world, to Great Britain.
The proclamation of 1763 vested authority in a British governor appointed by His Gracious Majesty, the King or Queen of Great Britain. Without parliamentary institutions, Quebecers became subject to British private and public law.
In 1774, the Quebec Act entitled us to the restoration of our civil law and to certain parts of British criminal law, which have expanded over the years. This was probably the most enduring legacy of the British: the principles of British criminal law, criminal procedures, habeas corpus and trial-by-jury, which we did not have under the French regime. This is a legacy we intend to preserve in a sovereign Quebec, Mr. Speaker.
Around 1778-80, Americans who had remained loyal to the British Crown left the American republic and came to Canada. Some settled in New Brunswick, others in the eastern townships in Quebec and some Loyalists emigrated to Upper Canada, today's Ontario.
Subsequently, Loyalists in Canada decided to ask Canada, the Parliament in Westminster and the British government for the same institutions they had in the American colonies. Parliament and the British government were in a poor position to refuse their loyal subjects, who had often given up land and property to come and settle here, to refuse them these institutions.
But so as not to put the minority, which was then English-speaking, under the French speaking majority, Canada was divided in two, Upper Canada and Lower Canada, with a legislative assembly for each part that was elected by the people. This was the first time that we had a legislative assembly directly controlled by the people and answerable only to the people. What a fine step in our historical progress!
Neverthless, at that time we did not have ministerial accountability as it had existed in Great Britain since the 1750s or thereabouts. The governor still held most of the powers and there was also the legislative council, which he appointed and which could object to measures coming from the legislative assembly.
Problems arose fairly quickly. In the 1820s, conflicts between the governor, the legislative assembly and the legislative council easily degenerated. As we sadly remember, these led to the events of 1837, the Patriots' Rebellion, when twelve of our people were hanged following a trial by a court martial composed of fifteen members, none of whom was French speaking.
This was a far cry from trial by jury. Those people were hanged under the Durham government and the special council of 1837.
After studying the situation, Lord Durham, as his mandate from the British government required, submitted a report saying that in order to assimilate the Canadian nation, today's Quebecers, the British government should pass a law merging the two Canadas.
Although we had some 150,000 to 200,000 more people, the Union Act of 1840 gave equal representation to both parts. Moreover, the Constitution of 1840 said that English was to be the only official language. There were no provisions regarding ministerial responsibility. We would get that in 1848, at the same time as the repeal of the constitutional provisions banning the use of French.
We now come to 1855, the year of reversal. This is a date we should never forget. That was the year that English speaking people outnumbered French speaking people for the first time. What happened then? As soon as English speaking people realized they were in a majority they asked for proportional representation. From 1855 on, and increasingly until 1867, they were asking for what was refused to the "Canadiens", today's Quebecers, in 1840. The demand was so pressing that, in 1867, the parties agreed on what I call a compromise based on a misunderstanding.
On one side was Sir John A. Macdonald, who wanted a legislative union of all provinces of British North America, with a single Parliament. On the other side, representing the Quebec way of seeing the issue, was Sir George-Étienne Cartier who wanted strong, autonomous provincial governments sovereign in their field of jurisdiction, a fact acknowledged in 1883 by the British Privy Council in its decision respecting the Hodge v. Regina case.
This compromise based on a misunderstanding resulted in a single document, then known as the British North America Act, and now as the Constitution Act of 1867.
It so happens that to reconcile two visions so diametrically opposite it became necessary to play around with sections of the Constitution so that people would be on opposite sides. It is no wonder that the courts are constantly being asked to give their interpretation of the Constitution. Indeed, the Constitution cannot reconcile black and white, cannot say yes and no in the same breath.
Every time a province is granted a power, somehow, somewhere another section gives the federal government more power. The judicial power is a case in point.
Under subsection 92(14) of the British North America Act, 1867, the constitution of provincial courts, both of civil and of criminal jurisdiction, is a provincial responsibility; it is very clear. However, if you read beyond section 92, you will see with great surprise that under section 96, the Judges of the Superior Courts, of criminal and even of civil jurisdiction, are appointed by the Governor General. A province can set up a court, even a superior court, but cannot appoint the judges to that court.
They even took further precautions since, in 1867, we did not have a Supreme Court. Appeals were launched directly from provincial appeal courts to the Privy Council in Great Britain.
As a further precaution, section 101 of the British North America Act gave the Parliament of Canada sole power for the constitution of a general court of appeal for Canada, without the consent of the provinces. A few years later, in 1875, the Supreme Court of Canada was constituted; the judges there are appointed by the governor in council, without having to consult the provinces.
Which led one of our former Quebec premiers, the hon. Maurice Duplessis, to say that in view of the way judges were appointed to the Supreme Court, it was akin to the tower of Pisa as it was almost always leaning towards the same side.
A referendum was never held, despite the repeated calls for one by the Leader of the Opposition at the time, Antoine-Aimé Dorion, who also happened to be a Liberal. Over and over he introduced motions calling for a popular referendum to ratify the agreement reached by the Fathers of Confederation, but such a referendum was never held. Newfoundland and Labrador were the only ones to hold a popular referendum on the issue. Soon there will be a referendum in Quebec. Events will run their course and we are betting the Quebecers will make the mature decision. The fact of the matter is that we have been excluded from the process since 1981 when this House asked the Parliament of Westminster to amend the Constitution without Quebec's consent and in fact over the virtually unanimous objections of the National Assembly.
Of course, we had reached an impasse at the time. The 1980 referendum had failed to give the Quebec government a mandate to negotiate sovereignty.
On the other hand, the Prime Minister who had been elected in 1984 promised at the time to do everything he could to bring Quebec into the federation and to make it possible for it to ratify the 1981 and 1982 agreements with honour and dignity. For some, this was the last chance. All of the Bloc members are sovereignists, but we did not all follow the same path to get here. Some of us were members of the RIN, the Rassemblement pour l'indépendance nationale back in the sixties, while others became sovereignists following the failure of Charlottetown. They saw that the minimum conditions set out by Mr. Bourassa-and we know the meaning of the word "minimum" when it comes from Mr. Bourassa's mouth-really amounted to very little. Some came to it on October 26, 1993, when they saw that it was no longer possible to renew this country and that the time had come to make a choice, as the hon. Leader of the Opposition and some of our colleagues mentioned the other day. The time has come to choose between the status quo as we know it, since there will be no further amendments to the Constitution, and an opening to the world, a willingness to consider all possible arrangements, including and mainly, of course, arrangements with Canada, since we have already so many things in common.
We cannot afford to miss this historical opportunity, because for our generation and probably the next, it is the last chance. It is somewhat like a spacecraft that has to be put back in orbit or to get back to Earth: if it misses its window of opportunity, it might have to orbit a long time before getting another one.
So we have to work very hard in Quebec as well as here in this House, where we belong of course. And here I digress for a moment to say that I was asked recently in a survey whether I sing "O Canada". But of course I do, for this anthem was the work of Calixa Lavallée and Basile Routhier, referring to the French version of "O Canada". Read in French, it is the national anthem of Quebec. The English version is something entirely different. We used to sing "O Canada" when our friends opposite were singing "God Save the King" or "God Save the Queen". There is a gap between the two versions, through nobody's fault though. We followed parallel courses, each people created its own destiny.
Whether we decide to become sovereign, whether we now want boundaries, because we feel that our territory has been encroached upon a bit too much, that will not keep us from being good friends. Boundaries with your neighbor do not necessarily make an enemy of him. When the hedge is put in, you know the limits of your territory, you know when you must give and take and when you can do whatever you like within the limits of decency and acceptability in a free and democratic society.
Therefore, it is to this great gathering that I am inviting Quebecers, the referendum gathering that will soon take place, the first step being the Quebec election where, in all likelihood, a sovereignist government will be elected in Quebec City, and then, a provincial referendum that will be, we are all hoping in this side of the House, in favour of Quebec sovereignty, but in keeping the friendship of Canadians from anywhere in Canada.