Last fall, René Blondin retired as Secretary
General of the Quebec National Assembly. In this interview Mr. Blondin recalls
his career and shares his impressions and comments on the evolution of Quebec's
legislature over the past twenty years. He was interviewed by Gaston Deschenes
of the National Assembly Library.
What circumstances led you to become
Secretary General of the National Assembly?
I joined the staff when Jean Lesage was
Premier of Quebec. I had already met Mr. Lesage on several occasions and had
worked for him during the leadership campaign. I had also been involved in
politics, having run unsuccessfully in the provincial election of 1952. I also
ran at the federal level in 1957 and was defeated again. I supported Mr. Lesage
during the leadership race in Quebec and served as his guide through Nicolet
County. I did not run in the elections that followed, nor in 1962, but
campaigned for Mr. Lesage and his candidates.
At the time I was the notary for the
government when General Trust of Canada purchased a substantial piece of land
in Bécancour for the Government of Quebec in 1963 and 1964, land which later
became the "Parc industriel du centre du Québec". On April 1, 1965,
(I took it as an April Fool's joke) Mr. Lesage called to offer me the position
of Clerk, to replace Antoine Lemieux who was ill at the time. Jean Sénécal had
been Acting Clerk in the interim. I had seen Mr. Lemieux previously as I had
attended a few sessions at the Assembly, but the Clerk is not the focus of
attention at the Assembly. I did not knew exactly what his duties were.
Mr. Lesage was with his Chief of Staff,
Alexandre Larue, when I reported to his office. He briefly described to me the
duties of the Clerk and said: "Obviously, you cannot become Clerk
immediately, first you must learn the job. I will appoint you Deputy
Clerk." This had been Mr. Sénécal's title. I took up my duties on May 5,
1965 after having liquidated my business, sold my office and moved to Quebec
City. Four and a half years later, upon Mr. Sénécal's retirement on October
1st, 1969, Mr. Bertrand, then Premier of Quebec, appointed me Secretary General
of the Assembly.
Would you say that there were few
candidates for that position at that time and even today?
Training takes place on the job. It cannot
be learned at the university. That was the case then and is still the case
today. Now more people are learning the trade as secretaries of commissions or
as employees of the Parliamentary Law Counsel Branch. Mr. Sénécal had learned
the trade during his years as Clerk of the journals. He loved parliamentary
procedure and the life and work of the Assembly. In order to avoid mistakes
(because there was no Hansard at that time), he would follow the debates from
the gallery. He was thus able to take over from Mr. Lemieux when he became ill.
What were you first duties as Clerk?
My first duties? I knew absolutely nothing.
I was given the rule book, the Code Geoffrion with some 812 sections. I
attended the sessions to see how things were done and I plunged headlong into
the study of the rules reading books on parliamentary law by Erskine May,
Bourinot and Beauchesne. However, these works were all in English and I did not
speak English very well.
I took up my duties on May 5 and began to
attend the sessions. The Members debated appropriations in May and considered
legislation from June to August. The session ended on August 6. I took a few
days of vacation and in September, enrolled in an intensive English course with
Berlitz. The course lasted four months and I practiced my English by reading
books with my dictionary.
During the sessions, were you sitting at
Mr. Boutet, the Deputy Clerk, retired around
the 10th of June at which time Mr. Sénécal asked me to take over his duties. I
learned the names of the members and would call them during it division. A
second chamber, the Legislative Council, existed at that time and much paper
work had to be prepared when Bills were referred to the Council. It took a lot
of time and Mr. Sénécal would stay in his office. I remained in the House and
hoped that I would understand the proceedings. I got into trouble a few times!
It takes three to four years before one really knows parliamentary law. When I
was Secretary General I would sometimes phone officials of the House of Commons
in Ottawa to find out if they had come across the same procedure. They always
treated these calls in confidence.
Were you surprised by any aspects of
parliamentary life or your work environment? Well, I found working at the
Legislative Assembly radically different from a notary's office. A great number
of the legislative procedures were very inefficient. When I started,
about half of the appropriations were debated in plenary at the Assembly. Each
time it was moved: "Mr. Speaker, I move that you leave the chair and that
the House go into committee of supply", someone was likely to call for a
non confidence motion or a "grievance" as it was called at the time.
When I arrived in 1965, the Union Nationale had just held its convention in
March. It was ready to fight an election and, often toward the end of the
session, a member would rise and say: "Mr. Speaker, I move rather that you
not leave the chair immediately but that the House decide on the
question". The motion would be voted down of course but I used to say to
myself: "What a senseless waste of time. There was no limit. Each time the
House went into committee of supply, a member could make the same familiar
motion. The Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Johnson, and the Premier had
unlimited time to speak. Lord knows they could speak a long time! Other members
could speak for an hour on the principal motion or on any amendment. The
Opposition could easily block the entire work of the Assembly if it refused to
play the game, for it was a game in those days.
Mr. Johnson played the political game but
knew when to stop. It was the same with Mr. Lesage. The fact that there were
two parties whose leaders had great respect for the parliamentary, system may
explain the beginning of parliamentary reform at that time. They both killed
themselves by sitting at impossible hours, always on the go, defending their
Did the Premier and the Leader of the
Opposition take part in the debates of Bills and appropriations in the House on
a regular basis?
Yes. Mr. Lesage came regularly, but he would
often work in his small office at the back so that he could enter the House any
time. He would come in when his troops were in difficulty. Mr. Johnson would do
the same thing. When they debated Bills in plenary, they made very few
amendments and they never settled for second best. They were perfectionists and
amendments were very well prepared by the legal advisors. At that time, the
laws were not amended much. There had to be an excellent reason for making an
amendment and no amendment was ever readily accepted. If an amendment was
admitted, it was referred to the legal advisors. There was much more attention
paid to legislative drafting than today.
What corrective measures were taken
during the time you were at the National Assembly?
I recall as if it were yesterday a speech
by, Paul Gérin-Lajoie who wanted to reform parliamentary committees so that
members would have well-prepared documents at their disposal. When he presented
his legislation on education, each member of the committee who had worked on it
had all the necessary information at his disposal. He stressed the support that
should be available to members and the committees.
The members elected in 1962 prepared the
ground work for reform but the Opposition that arrived in 1966 was also a
powerful force. The backbenchers in what was called the "pool room"
included people like Victor Goldbloom, Jérôme Choquette, Yves Michaud, Maurice
Tessier, François Aquin, Jean-Paul Lefebvre, Gilles Houde and other influential
members from the sectors of education, communications, journalism and the trade
In 1967, a special committee was formed to
examine ways of improving parliamentary work. This committee was made up of
Rémi Paul, who was the Speaker of the Assembly Gerard Lebel, the Deputy
Speaker, Maurice Bellemare, who acted as House Leader without officially
holding the title, and on the Opposition side, Cliche, Hyde and Le Chasseur all
of them former Speakers, Jean-Paul Lefebvre, who showed a great deal of
interest, and Pierre Laporte who had proposed the committee.
The committee had three resource-persons:
Jean-Charles Bonenfant, Director of the Library, Mr. Larue from Premier
Lesage's office and Édouard Laurent, a legal advisor to Mr. Bellemare. Of
course, there were Mr. Sénécal, Mr. Lessard and myself; Raymond Desmeules
joined us later as secretary.
The Legislative Council which had a certain
conservative influence in matters of parliamentary procedure was abolished at
the end of 1968. In 1969, the parliamentary reform committee proposed certain
amendments to the Rules including limiting the duration of speeches and
reducing the length of question period. Royal assent would henceforth be signed
in the office of the Lieutenant Governor instead of in the Chamber. The former
standing committees were abolished. There were some fifteen of them, ten of
which hardly ever convened. These committees were abolished in order to create
others to correspond with the ministries and to facilitate the work of the
backbenchers. It was felt that any member interested in a certain ministry
could become an expert on it. The committees were smaller in terms of
membership because it was found that the larger committees did not work all
With the arrival of several opposition
parties at the beginning of the seventies, what reforms were made to deal with
the new situation?
Had we kept the old Rules, the Assembly
would have been blocked completely. The Liberals took power in 1970 and faced
three opposition parties: the Union Nationale, the Parti Quebecois, which had
won 24 percent of the vote but had only seven representatives, and the
Ralliement créditiste (Social Credit Party) with twelve representatives. Each
party was trying to enhance its image. I recall, at the end of March 1971,
supplementary estimates had to be voted to cover the cost of the east-west
autoroute in Montreal. The Parti Québécois objected to passing the legislation.
It was assumed, as in the past, that there would be no problem in adopting
supplementary estimates to pay, for work already done. By. the 31st of March,
the legislation was still not passed. There was no end to it. The Lieutenant
Governor advised me that if the legislation was not passed by midnight March
31, he would not sanction it. The legislation was finally adopted at 11:30 p.m.
after "negotiations" between the leaders and it was sanctioned at
11:57 p.m. I This situation was an eye-opener for the elected members, the
government and the people involved. Everyone had talked about amending the
Rules for a long time but the task had not been tackled seriously. A committee
was formed, made up of the Speaker, the Deputy Speakers, the House Leaders and
advisors; however, it led nowhere. Then, a subcommittee was formed, made up of
the Speaker, Mr. Jean-Noel Lavoie, Jean-Charles Bonenfant and myself, with Mr.
Desmeules as secretary. This subcommittee drafted new rules. We submitted our
work to the committee on a regular basis, but the basic work was made by three
people. Finally, the committee met for three days at La Sapinière in Val-David
to approve new rules which came into effect in February 1972.
How was this new code of procedure
adapted to the situation?
The discussion period for supplementary
estimates, provisional estimates and even the main estimates was limited. The
number of non confidence motions allowed each time a motion was made to go into
committee of supply was limited to six. Previously, a member could move to
adjourn the debate of a question and propose the debate of another question.
Now, the debate was limited.
You left your position as Secretary
General in October 1984. What major years, from the parliamentary as well
differences were there between your duties and responsibilities at the end of
the sixties and those of the past few as administrative points of view?
From the parliamentary perspective, there
have not been too many. changes. The role of Secretary, General has remained
relatively, the same. During the days of Mr. Lesage and Mr. Johnson the
sessions began in January and ended in August. The members sat 100 days, often
110 or 115. Today, the sessions are slightly shorter and they begin and end at
a fixed date. There were no fixed dates in the seventies and I once had to be
at the Table between Christmas and New Year's.
From an administrative point of view,
everything changed after 1976. The arrival of the Parti Québécois in 1976
coincided with the report of a task force that had been formed by Mr. Lavoie.
He had barely received the report when he had to pass it along to a new Speaker
after the 1976 elections. The new Speaker, Mr. Clément Richard, was responsible
for implementing the report. The House sat in December 1976 to take care of
urgent business, and on the first of January 1977, I was told: "You are
now in charge of administration, like a deputy minister in a ministry".
In terms of personnel, there has been a big
change. When I started, there was only the Hansard and Library staff. Today the
Secretary General's is also responsible for the staff of the broadcasting
service, reception and information services, the financial services even the
parliamentary restaurant, which in 1965, was under the Ministry of Tourism!
May I ask what your plans are for the
next few years?
I am writing a book on the evolution of
parliamentary procedure in Quebec and my experiences in the Assembly. I have
noticed the works already published do not adequately mention the effect of
social change and no connection is made between parliamentary reform and
external factors which influence the reforms.