Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak on this motion to amend section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867 concerning the Quebec school system. I feel, however, that amendment is understating the issue. It is in fact an extinguishment of sections 93, 1 to 4, for Quebec.
As a freshman member of Parliament, a member of the class of '97, I am particularly honoured to be speaking on such an important subject as amending the Canadian constitution. Such weighty matters have a tendency to give members of Parliament an exaggerated sense of their own importance. They can start to see themselves in terms of their own place in history.
Amending the constitution is a serious exercise, one that should not be done lightly or in haste. In Canada it is something not done with ease. It took Canada 115 years to bring home the British North America Act and create a Canadian constitution that could be amended at home. Lest we forget, the clock is still running on its ratification by the province of Quebec.
Here we are in 1997, 130 years since Confederation, and the process has still not been completed. That is not such a bad thing. There are countries in the world which have gone through a dozen constitutions in the same amount of time. They tend to be places where such documents are often not worth the paper on which they are printed.
In Canada our constitutional process seems to move at a pace that we could describe as glacial. We have a document of which we all can be proud, a statement of our individual and collective rights and responsibilities. It represents a careful balancing of individual rights and collective responsibility to protect the rights of minorities. As such it is an important part of our identity as a caring and compassionate people.
I have good reason to be concerned when the government of the day pulls out all the stops to accelerate the constitutional process. I have good reason to be uncomfortable when the amendment in question is being proposed by a provincial government that has not ratified the constitution. I have good reason to seek greater clarity on the process when there are legitimate questions being asked about the legality of the amending process being used. I have good reason to listen carefully to thousands of Quebeckers who asked us not to ratify the amendment.
There are times when the glacial pace of constitutional change makes sense. I find it worrisome that the Liberal members of the special joint committee from the other place, who are required to provide sober second thought, would be in such a hurry. As a member of the special joint committee, I have listened closely to the witnesses who have appeared before the committee. I have considered carefully the opinions and views they have expressed and those expressed by the hundreds of people who have written letters and signed petitions on the subject.
I am not persuaded that this amendment must be ratified now. Let me give my reasons. They stem from a simple test consisting of three questions.
First, does the constitutional amendment have the democratic agreement of the people? Second, does it conform to the rule of the law? Third, are the rights of minorities protected?
On the first the answer is quite clear. There has been no public consultation in Quebec. In contrast to Newfoundland, which is also pursuing constitutional reform with regard to its educational system, there has been no referendum.
Unanimous consent to a request for the school board amendment by the Quebec national assembly does not in turn reflect unanimous consent by the people of Quebec.
The hundreds and thousands of Quebeckers who signed petitions opposing this amendment are proof of that. I cite as an example the petition of the coalition for denominational schools, a petition signed by 235,000 people.
It is shameful that some members of the government have been questioning the validity of this petition. The people of Quebec who signed this petition cannot be ignored because they demonstrate that there is no consensus in Quebec for an amendment to section 93 of the 1967 constitution.
The solution to this is reasonably straightforward. The Government of Quebec must do a better job consulting with the people of Quebec. It has a model to study in Newfoundland. It needs to present clearly the implications of the amendment.
I would not doubt that greater understanding would reduce the level of distrust and fear. Among other avenues, the Government of Quebec could have had its ministers involved in the process earlier rather than relying on quiet passage.
The answer to the second question of whether it conforms to the rule of law is less straightforward. The committee should be certain that what is being proposed respects the rule of law.
Are we using the appropriate amending formula? The Government of Canada and some legal scholars say yes. Other voices have challenged the bilateral process. The committee should not be expected to decide this question in haste under an artificial deadline. I would like to point out that the ink is not even dry on this motion and I have been made aware of a court challenge already.
This court challenge asserts that the legislature of Quebec and the Parliament of Canada do not have the authority, acting pursuant to the bilateral amendment procedure foreseen by section 43 of the Constitution Act, 1982, to proceed to amend section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867 by repealing subsections 93(1) to (4) as they apply to Quebec.
The petitioners assert that they have persons directly concerned by the repeal of section 93 and invoke their individual right to and interest in the integrity of the process to amend section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867.
A court decision could settle the legal issue. Without such a decision, the committee should at least have received a full legal brief on the issue so it could consider the matter in the light of the best legal advice available.
The answer to the third question is crucial. The question of minority rights has been at the soul of Canada for its entire history and the rights of minorities to control their own education have been established in province after province.
How well a country protects its citizens from the tyranny of the majority is a measure of its democracy. I think we all can be proud of how far we have progressed since the Manitoba schools debate of 100 years ago.
When the dividing line is language, emotions tend to run high. This is one reason why the protections in the constitution are so clear about the education rights of linguistic minorities.
Of course, this brings to mind one concern. It is not clear that the Government of Quebec believes section 23 to be in force in that province, as that province has not ratified the constitution.
This puts a much greater burden of proof on those who want to fast track this amendment but, to add to this burden, it is not just linguistic minority rights that are in question, it is religious minority rights.
The Government of Quebec wants an amendment to Canada's constitution so that Quebec can rearrange its school board system from one based on religious denomination to one based on language.
Although there does seem to be a consensus for linguistic school boards, there is equally a strong voice contending that rights to have religious schools would be violated with the abolition of the denominational school provisions in section 93.
Quebec wants to change the school board structure next year once the existing guarantees for Protestant and Catholic boards in Montreal and Quebec City are removed. Many people would agree that boards organized along denominational lines may not make a lot of sense. They only need to look a little farther west to the province of Ontario to see a system where boards organized along both linguistic and denominational lines seem to work.
Is it not strange how much more sense things make the farther west we go?
The guarantees provided are far from perfect, but unless they are replaced by some other form of constitutional protection removing them would erode the education rights of the English speaking minority. The move to linguistic boards should not be used to weaken minority rights. Does the amendment risk leaving Quebec's English minority with less protection than it has now? I think it does and I am not alone.
To sum up, I asked three questions. I was hoping for three yes answers but I received two noes and a maybe. It was hardly a passing grade. Let me be more generous and propose an easier question. What harm would be done if the amendment were not passed by the House today? We all know the answer. None. The children of Quebec would still receive an education. The circumstances that have prevailed for 130 years would prevail a few more and the sky would not fall.
About the worst thing that can be said about the clause in section 93 is that it is anachronistic and inconvenient. It is unfortunate the constitutional chess game and the government's strategy of appeasement will continue.
Let me be clear. Returning the process of constitutional change to its normal pace does not mean that change is not possible. Let me make it clear that the Reform Party supports the appropriate use of the amending formula if it is supported by an expression of the will of the people. The constitutional process has to come out of the back rooms and the realm of the power brokers and deal makers. Surely we learned this from Meech and Charlottetown. There is nothing stopping a reconsideration of the amendment in a few months time under only slightly different conditions.
Let me suggest the following to the Government of Quebec to improve its chances next time around. It can consult its citizens. It can hold a referendum with a clearly worded question. It can state clearly in writing that minority protections of section 23 are in place. May I suggest that the easiest way of doing that would be to ratify the Constitution of Canada.