Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Dauphin—Swan River.
Today we again speak of Canada's constitutional change. Today we speak of Newfoundland's term 17 amendment. Last month the House addressed Quebec's section 93 to permit the arrangement of the education system along linguistic rather than religious lines.
In terms of the significance of these debates on both constitutional amendments this has been an historic session. I am so very honoured to represent Edmonton East in this debate. I am particularly honoured as the representative of my constituents to have been a member of the official opposition on both joint committees at which these amendments were debated.
I take pride in being a Canadian in a country where any so-called commoner can aspire to a legislative role. Two short years ago, devoid of political stripe, I held my breath with millions of others as Canada barely survived Quebec's referendum vote. Today I take part in a debate on the Constitution that guides our nation's laws and which helps to bind us together as a country.
Constitutional amendments affect us all. They alter our national rule book which forms the guiding principles for our provinces, territories and our nation.
Our Constitution is not carved in stone. Our Constitution is penned on fragile pulp. Our Constitution has a permanency of time. Our Constitution is the will of our nation's constructors. Our Constitution forms a framework supporting our national fabric. Our Constitution has the respect of our judiciary and our courts. Our Constitution supports provincial aspirations.
Should constitutions for all in Canada retain a permanency at the will of our elected majority if the majority be polled by national referendum? The answer to this question is a resounding yes. Democracy and Canada are synonymous.
The key to my previous question was the term “for all”. Our Constitution is important as a protection of the rights of all persons. We must also remember that constitutions also exist to protect the some. It is the some or the minority provisions that elevate Canada in the eyes of the world, that set Canada gloriously aside from all other nations on earth.
I have great concern at this moment that what is before us is wrong. Should we extinguish a minority with the power and might of all? The process must include an expression of the will and in particular of the acceptance of the minority in order to consider the extinguishment of constitutionally protected minority rights.
It has been made abundantly clear through the course of the special joint committee meetings which I participated in that at least one of the minority groups, the Pentecostals, are not in favour of having their constitutionally entrenched minority rights extinguished by the majority. It is this matter that I do find troubling and I express my concerns that it may be precedent setting.
Minority rights have been entrenched in our Constitution to both reflect our diversities and to protect them. Members must carefully consider whether this request to extinguish minority rights is the beginning of the slippery slope starting a slide toward general ambivalence with respect to the protection of minority rights, be they constitutionally protected or otherwise.
I urge all members to please vote with their conscience. We parliamentarians must always remember we are charged with the awesome task of being the defenders of the rights of all of our citizens, be they minority rights or otherwise.
I am not persuaded that this change should be made now. It has not passed the litmus test of satisfying all of three questions: Does this constitutional amendment have the democratic agreement of the people? Does this constitutional amendment conform to the rule of law? Are the rights of minorities protected? The question that is not satisfied is the protection of minority rights.
The Newfoundland government held a referendum on the issue of school reform. I am concerned however that the actual wording of the question was not finalized and published until 16 hours before the advance vote. Government paid advertising was not clear and specific on the implications of voter choices but instead was warm and fuzzy causing difficulties in responding no.
I would have been more comfortable if the Government of Newfoundland had obtained a ruling from the supreme court on whether the rights and privileges of minorities are prejudiced in any way. The question of minority rights strikes at the fabric and soul of Canadians. The rights of minorities for education has been a well established fact in Newfoundland for years. How well a country protects its minority citizens from the tyranny of the majority is a measure of the quality of its democracy.
The protections in the Constitution are clear with respect to the education rights of linguistic minorities. Court rulings in Alberta in 1990 and in Manitoba in 1993 based on constitutional interpretations clearly established the protections for francophone minorities in those provinces affecting numbers as small as 300 persons. We have not been as vigilant in our protection of religious minority rights.
A petition was signed in 1993 by 50,000 Catholics requesting that Catholic religious education be maintained. Fifty thousand parents stated, “We support Catholic schools and want to keep them”. The petition was tabled by Dr. Ben Fagan at the special joint committee which studied the amendment to term 17 of the terms of union of Newfoundland, a committee which I was privileged to be a member of. In my view this remarkable expression of minority collective will should not be ignored.
I also note that the protections for the education rights of Pentecostals are not yet 10 years old. Former Premier Peckford extolled the virtues of Pentecostal schooling and encouraged the legislature to enshrine for all time Pentecostal education rights. He said: “Today we are going to make sacrosanct, if you will, make guaranteed in the Constitution of Canada, the recognition of educational rights to the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland and Labrador”.
He went on to further state: “I would only add one more thing. As time goes on I would hope that the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland with their start into education over the last couple of decades will not be tempted and will not fall to temptation, that what they have now as an approach and a philosophy to education will not get diluted over time as we progress as people”.
All available information indicates that the majority of Pentecostals do not support the constitutional amendment. In fact a petition tabled by Dr. Regular at the special joint committee was signed by 4,300 people opposing the amendment. Again this is a remarkable indication by Pentecostals of their wish to retain their denominational education rights which were so very recently accorded to them under constitutional protection.
It has been demonstrated that there is a will by Catholics and an overwhelming will by the Pentecostals to retain their rights to denominational education. It is very troubling that consideration of this will was not asked to be expressed denominationally in the public referendum. We parliamentarians must be ever so sure that what we say and do is acceptable to our collective conscience and in accordance with our nation's constitutional contract with its citizens. Let us not fail in this purpose.