At the time this article was published Gary
Levy was Editor of the Canadian Parliamentary Review.
After nearly fifteen years in the
journalistic and political wars in the province of Quebec (see previous issues)
Beauchesne moved to Ottawa in 1913 to take up a position in the Department of
Justice. In 1916 he was appointed Clerk Assistant of the House of Commons and
became Clerk in 1925. He held this position until 1949. Appointment to high office
did not stop Beauchesne from speaking his mind on a wide variety of political
issues including the question of amending and patriating the Canadian
In traditional Chinese society privileged
and powerful Imperial officials were known as mandarins. The term is used today
to designate certain influential civil servants who advise political
decision-makers. A recent study examined the lives of O.D. Skelton, Clifford
Clark, Graham Towers and sixteen other Ottawa mandarins who, from 1924 to 1957,
"made the Canadian public service a model of policy innovation and
efficiency – conceivably the very best in the western world."1 Nowhere
does the name of Arthur Beauchesne appear.
By virtue of his position and
accomplishments Beauchesne would seem to have merited attention although the
traditional Canadian mandarinate was, like that of Imperial China, drawn from a
very narrow segment of society. Mandarins were overwhelmingly English and
protestant with more or less strong ties to the Liberal Party and Keynsian
economic policy. They worked mainly for a few key government departments such
as External Affairs, the Bank of Canada, the Department of Finance and the
Privy Council Office. They were policy-oriented with expertise essential to the
efficient conduct of government. "Did anyone believe that a harried
cabinet minister beset on every side by difficulties and facing election after
election was going to become an expert in foreign policy or agriculture or
railways simply by virtue of taking the oath of office? Experts were essential
to the government whatever its policies."2
Beauchesne's expertise in parliamentary
matters was beyond question but his French-Canadian origins and his
Conservative background distinguished him from those who held the greatest
power in the Ottawa bureaucracy of his day. Mandarins also excel in the
exercise of patience and tact. They do not engage politicians or even fellow
mandarins in public debate. Beauchesne loved controversy and debate,
particularly if he was in the middle of it.
A typical example of his outspokenness
occurred in 1935 when a Special Parliamentary Committee was established to
consider the problem of amending the British North America Act. The committee
called seven expert witnesses including Professors Frank Scott, Norman McLeod
Rogers and W.P.M. Kennedy; Deputy Minister of justice W.S. Edwards; Law Clerk
of the House of Commons Maurice Ollivier and Under Secretary of State for
External Affairs O.D. Skelton. The seventh witness was Beauchesne.
Skelton, considered by many to be the first
and quintissential mandarin, gave a learned presentation on how previous
amendments had been passed and on the methods used in certain other
federations. He then gave three options for consideration by the committee for
future amendments: intergovernmental agreement between Ottawa and the
provinces; holding of referenda with votes counted by province; or by
resolution passed by Parliament and a majority of provincial legislatures.
Skelton favoured the latter since agreement by the Senate, the House of Commons
and five or six of the nine provinces would be sure "to express a clearly
felt national need". He also thought that sections of the constitution
regarding minority rights should require unanimous agreement. (This is essentially
the formula eventually adopted forty-five years later).
Beauchesne's testimony proved to be more
provocative. He said the old constitution should simply be scrapped. "The
time has come, in my humble opinion, when the British North America Act, except
as to minority rights, should be transformed and a new constitution more in
conformity with present conditions should be adopted. Amendments here and there
would be mere patchwork which could not last. The people of 1935 are different
from those of 1876. What we want is a new constitution."3
The creation of a new constitution would be
entrusted to an independent body composed of all elements of the nation.
"I submit that a Constituent Assembly, chosen by the provincial legislatures
and by the House of Commons, representing the main political parties and groups
in proportion to the votes given at the last general elections, should meet ...
and discuss the constitution from all its angles."4 The debate should be
public for he felt intergovernmental conferences behind closed doors would
never satisfy, public opinion.
After referring to American and French
experience with constituent assemblies Beauchesne suggested that in the case of
Canada the federal and provincial Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition
would form an executive committee to organize the agenda but there ought to be
no government side and no official opposition in such a body. The members would
take up systematically every constitutional question that has been discussed
over the past few decades. For instance, the question of reducing the number of
provinces, the electing of senators, the question of fisheries, the Companies.
Act, insurance law, etc., could all then be considered. Decisions would be taken
by a majority vote of the constituent assembly but before a new constitution
could come into force it would have to be approved by the Dominion and each
province as well as by Great Britain.
Under questioning from Ernest Lapointe about
the relative powers envisaged for the federal and provincial governments in a
new constitution, Beauchesne replied:
It is not absolutely necessary that the same
powers be given to each province. Suppose you have a province, for instance, in
the west, which claims that it cannot afford to manage all its social
legislation. What prevents it from giving part of it to the Dominion, provided
there is some compensation given for it. If the Dominion manages some of the
province's affairs it should get revenue or should be compensated for it. But I
think these things should be settled by each province and each province should
be an independent country with power to do whatever it pleases. And I would
have no appeal, no veto, and no remedial appeal, none of all that misery we
have had here since Confederation, and each province would own its own courts.5
Beauchesne made it a practice to send copies
of his speeches to a number of friends, former parliamentarians, journalists
and in French and English Canada as well as abroad. His advocacy of a
constituent assembly failed to gain much support except from one Social Credit
backbencher, Walter Kuhl, who referred to it as the "Beauchesne Plan"
whenever he spoke about the constitution in the House over the next decade.6
English language newspapers tended to
concentrate on other aspects of his speech such as the idea for a National
Capital Region extending 25 miles on both sides of the Ottawa River and a
National Park to the north of the city.7 From Quebec's point of view the main
problem with a constituent assembly, was that it would put the future of the
constitution in the hands of a group in which French Canadians would be a
minority. This point was made most succinctly, by Dollard Dansereau in the
nationalist newspaper L'Ordre owned by Olivar Asselin.
Beauchesne wrote to his former colleague to
complain about the way Dansereau took his comments out of context in a
deliberate attempt to make him look foolish. Beauchesne said he was well aware
of the imminent financial demise of the newspaper but hoped that even in its
death throes it would not stoop to calling him anti-French-Canadian.8
Beauchesne never changed his mind about the
need for radical constitutional reform. In 1944 he told a Saskatchewan
barrister that I have long been of the opinion that the B.N.A. Act has served
its purpose and should be repealed. It cannot cope with existing conditions and
we have evidence in this conscription muddle that it is a source of disunion.9
Ten years later he was still advocating a constituent assembly.
Some of the provinces are living beyond
their means and economic legislation is more difficult of introduction in
Canada than in any other country in the world on account of our dual system of
There is more reason today to revise our
Constitution than nineteen years ago when a select House of Commons Committee
looked into the matter. Besides the direct taxation tug-of-war which is now
creating animosities, the Constituent Assembly could take up appointments to
the Senate, the flag question, transportation, radio, film services, the scope
of civil rights, the establishment of a Federal District, the procedure
required to amend our own Constitution, and many, other less important matters.
We have outgrown the British North America Act.10
1. J.L. Granatstein, The Ottawa Men: The
Civil Servant Mandarins 1935-1957, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1982,
2. Ibid., p. 24.
3. Canada, House of Commons, Special
Committee on the British North America Act, Proceedings and Evidence and
Report, King's Printer, 1935), p. 125.
4. Ibid., p. 126.
5. Ibid., p. 134.
6. See for example Canada, House of Commons,
Debates, February 10, 1938, pp. 346-347; March 9, 1939, p. 1180; May 3,
1939, pp. 3518-3520; July 3, 1944, pp. 4476-4477; November 9, 1944, pp.
1944-1945; and June 20, 1946, pp. 2665-2666.
7. See the Ottawa Journal, April 17,
1985 and the Ottawa Citizen, April 17, 1985.
8. Public Archives of Canada, Beauchesne to
Asselin, April 25, 1935.
9. PAC, Beauchesne Papers, Beauchesne
to George Barr, November 27, 1944.
10 The Gazette, April 9, 1954.