Gary Levy is Editor of the Canadian
Arthur Beauchesne resigned as Clerk of the
House of Commons in 1949 at age 73. Despite his age he was not ready for
retirement. The last decade of his life was marked by the same energy and
enthusiasm for public affairs that had characterized his earlier years. He ran
for the House of Commons in 1953, wrote a new book on procedure at meetings,
revised his book on rules of the House of Commons and played a leading role in
establishment of an Ottawa Branch of the English Speaking Union. Perhaps his
most unusual activity was acting as advisor to Maurice Duplessis, Premier of
Quebec, in constitutional negotiations with Ottawa.
In 1936 Maurice Duplessis became Premier of
Quebec. Originally a Conservative, Duplessis had formed a coalition (known as
the Union Nationale) with dissident Liberals led by Paul Couin. Duplessis soon
out manoeuvered Couin to take complete charge of the party and served as
Premier of Quebec (except for one term during the war) until his death in 1959.
Duplessis based his party on strong advocacy of provincial autonomy. He was
known for questionable, but highly successful, electoral tactics and a
restrictive approach to the rights of communists and Jehovah Witnesses.
Legislation directed against them was eventually declared unconstitutional by
the Supreme Court of Canada.
Beauchesne, who never hid his affection for
the Conservative Party, had always been a great admirer of Duplessis. During
the 1930s and 1940s he sent flattering letters inviting the Premier to address
the Canadian Club or other organizations to which Beauchesne belonged.
Duplessis invariably pleaded previous commitments. In 1939 Beauchesne sent the
Premier a letter praising his political acumen and the dexterity with which
Duplessis disposed of his opponents. Beauchesne included a clipping from the
New York Times noting that the Milwaukee City Council had passed a law giving
themselves the power to revoke licences and close restaurants which allowed
meetings of secret societies. I hope you cite this case someday when your
government is being accused of limiting the freedom of its citizens. It
occurred, not in Quebec City, but in one of the great cities of the American
Republic. So the 'padlock' is used in the United States!"1
As long as Beauchesne was a federal civil
servant he could only admire Duplessis from afar but the situation changed in
August 1949 when Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent announced the appointment of
Léon Raymond to succeed Beauchesne as Clerk of the House of Commons. Raymond
resigned his seat in the House to accept the position.
Although his retirement has been pending for
some time Beauchesne was not prepared to become a man of leisure. He set up his
office at his residence on Laurier Avenue and began looking for ways to keep
himself busy. In 1949 Prime Minister St. Laurent was anxious to secure an
amendment to the constitution making old age pensions universal and bringing
them under federal rather than provincial responsibility. The proposal was
agreed to at a federal-provincial conference in December 1949. The success of
this meeting encouraged the federal government to seek provincial agreement in
other areas, including the old problem of finding an acceptable formula for
amending the constitution.
Beauchesne had often acted as an advisor to
federal delegations on constitutional matters. He immediately offered his
services as a consultant to the federal government. The Minister of Justice and
former Premier of Manitoba, Stuart Garson, informed him that he had already
hired Judge J.H. Lindall of Winnipeg to act in this capacity.
Following this rejection Beauchesne wrote a
long letter to Duplessis, warning him of the centralist designs of the federal
government and offering to act as a "special agent" to keep Quebec
informed of any developments in Ottawa which could affect the upcoming
constitutional negotiations. Beauchesne said he was familiar with the ideas of
the Deputy Minister of Justice, F.P. Varcoe, who would have a key role in the
As you are no doubt aware, there is a school
of thought that favours legislative union. Had it not been for your staunchly
held attitude, the government in Ottawa would long ago have reduced the
provinces to the status of municipalities. Without you to champion autonomy the
premiers of the other provinces, all of them English speaking and with nothing
either to protect or to lose, would long since have made concessions; and the
MPs who represent Quebec in the House of Commons do not see the precipice to
which they are being led by the domination of political hacks who have never
understood our traditions.2
In return for information and consulting services
Beauchesne asked for a retainer of $12,000 per year.
The idea was accepted by Duplessis although
the contract agreed to was for only $4,000 covering the period from May to
November 1950. Beauchesne would also have to share the advisory role with Sir
Mathias Tellier the 89 year old former provincial Conservative Leader and Chief
Justice of Quebec. Beauchesne said it would be an honour to work with Tellier
who had been party leader when Beauchesne ran for the Conservatives in 1912.
Now committed to working for Duplessis,
Beauchesne thought he could still make Ottawa pay some of his expenses. The
Justice Department had translated a memorandum on the constitution he had sent
to Garson when looking for a federal contract. Beauchesne now requested payment
for use of this material.
I am greatly honoured by being asked to
co-operate with that Committee but I cannot see why I should do so without
remuneration. As your Department is now using my work, I submit that I should
be paid for it. I need not insist on the fact that I have as much right to be
paid as the members of the above mentioned Committee. The monograph is worth at
least $100.00. Trusting in your well known sense of fair play.3
Garson replied that the monograph was
borrowed under a personal arrangement by Judge Lindall who then requested that
it be translated for him. "This was done by the Translation Bureau and a
copy of the translation was sent to the Judge and another retained here. No use
has been made of this monograph and if you wish, the copy of the translation
will be returned to you."4
Beauchesne sent a copy of Garson's reply to
Duplessis with a list of the civil servants working for Varcoe on the
government's constitutional position: E.A. Dreidger of the Department of
justice; Norman Robertson, Clerk of the Privy Council; A.M. Hill, Deputy Clerk
of the Privy Council; Charles Stein, Under Secretary of State and Maurice
Ollivier, Parliamentary Counsel of the House of Commons. He added some comments
on the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Beauchesne accompanied Duplessis to the
premiers' conference in Quebec City on September 26-28, 1950 when the amendment
issue was discussed. He also attended the conference of Attorneys General in
Ottawa on November 23-24. They were to come up with draft proposals to be
considered when the premiers' resumed discussion of the constitution at the end
of their fiscal conference in Ottawa on December 4.
During the next few months Beauchesne worked
diligently preparing memoranda for Duplessis on a variety of constitutional and
political issues. In most of them he argued that the federal government was
determined to trample the rights of the provinces. For example he said an Act
Respecting Materials and Services for the Purpose of Defence and National
Security, adopted on September 15, gave the cabinet virtually total control
over a number of areas which, in peace time, belonged exclusively to the
The only reason given for allowing Mr. Howe,
the Minister of Trade, to make off with the civil rights of the provinces, is
that Canada has approved the obligations imposed by the Charter of the United
Nations and that we must act in consequence to preserve national security and
come to the UN's assistance. During the debate the ministers refused flatly to
say there was a national crisis or emergency occurring.
The act does not specify our obligations,
nor that we are in a state of war. It simply authorizes the minister, in
peacetime, to take over matters and substances that according to the Governor
in Council are indispensable for defence purposes.6
Another memorandum dealt with the amendment
of the constitution. Any amending formula, he argued, should recognize that the
constitution is essentially a treaty among the provinces. He submitted his own
draft version in which:
The federal government's initiative would be
completely done away with and replaced by that of the attorneys general: the
Minister of Justice would have only one vote and thus not be superior to the
rest, which is important. The proposed amendment could not be altered by the
government in Ottawa before it had been introduced in the House of Commons;
furthermore, not only would there be the vote by the two federal Houses to be
considered, there would also be that of two-thirds of the legislatures. Under
this system, constitutional amendments would differ markedly from ordinary
legislation, and the party in power in Ottawa would have its hands tied. It
could not indulge in politicking or francophobia as the fancy took it.7
He also suggested some symbolic amendments
to eliminate colonial terms such as "Governor General" and
"Lieutenant Governor" from the constitution. He claimed they should
be replaced by Chief of State and Governor respectively. The word province also
had to go.
In 1867 we were a colony, and like all the
colonies we were governed by a ministry in England which had control of
everything we did. This is no longer so, and we now have a population of
14,000,000. The word "province" no longer applies to the Canadian
provinces. Besides, the term implies a certain degree of inferiority. The
French Academy's dictionary says that a person is a "provincial" when
he has not yet acquired the style, the manners, the speech, of those who live
in the big city. Let us stop being provincial. The word "state" is
much more fitting. A state with 4,000,000 inhabitants is not a province.8
After his original agreement with Duplessis
expired Beauchesne continued to send in reports on constitutional and other
matters. On February 20, 1951, he sent a copy of constitutional amendments
proposed by the federal government along with his comments on each clause. In
April of that year a Royal Commission on Transportation (Turgeon Commission)
presented its report. Beauchesne prepared a summary arguing that the report was
setting the groundwork for a complete centralization of transportation,
particularly by road, which had always been a matter of exclusive provincial
jurisdiction. "A study of the Commission's conclusions will give you proof
of Ottawa's intention to centralize."9
In September 1951 Beauchesne provided a
critique of the Massey Report on the Arts and Sciences which he saw as further
federal intrusion into areas of provincial jurisdiction. He added a memorandum
for Duplessis to use against the Leader of the Opposition in Quebec, Georges E.
Lapalme who had been criticizing Beauchesne's role as advisor to the Quebec
government. He called Lapalme a puppet of St. Laurent and an upstart on the
Quebec political scene who had made virtually no impact during his years in the
House of Commons.
Mr. Lapalme had no understanding at all of
his duties as a federal MR He did not seem to have understood our constitution
or to have grasped how much influence for the public good an energetic MP could
exert in the nation's parliament. To entrust the government of Quebec to such a
man would be not only absurd but dangerous.10
Beauchesne's work for Duplessis made him
persona non grata in certain circles in Ottawa. He cared little what most
Liberals thought of him although he felt it necessary to justify his work for
Duplessis to a few old friends like Caspard Fauteux, former Speaker of the
House of Commons. In a letter inquiring about Fauteux's absence from a
testimonial dinner for Beauchesne, the former Clerk said his work for Duplessis
was nothing more than the usual duties of a lawyer on behalf of a client.
My position as constitutional advisor to the
government of Quebec had no more political significance than my appointment as
Clerk of the House of Commons by Mackenzie King in 1925.... I will do my duty
in Quebec as I have always done it here.11
1. Public Archives of Canada, Beauchesne
Papers, Beauchesne to Duplessis, April 24, 1939. The letter must be seen in
the context of one written a few days later asking if Duplessis could find a
job for his brother who had recently been fired by the Mayor of Montreal.
"I do not enjoy making such a request, but I am taking the liberty of
doing so in the hope that one day I may be able to be of use to you, Ibid.
May 9, 1939. The Premier was defeated a few months later and Beauchesne could
only write to his brother that Duplessis has fooled me as he had disappointed
all my friends, Ibid., Beauchesne to Clovis Beauchesne, November 14,
2. Ibid., Beauchesne to Duplessis,
January 24, 1950.
3. Ibid., Beauchesne to Garson, April
4. Ibid., Garson to Beauchesne, April
5. Beauchesne missed most of these
discussions when he fell off a table during a picture taking ceremony in the
Railway Committee room and had to be rushed to hospital.
6. Ibid., Beauchesne to Duplessis,
September 14, 1950.
7. Ibid., November 15, 1950.
8. Ibid., November 8, 1950.
9. Ibid., April 11, 1951.
10. Ibid., September 17, 1951.
11. Ibid., Beauchesne to Gaspard
Fauteux, July 4, 1950.