At the time this article was
written Pierre Lorrain was Speaker of the Quebec National Assembly
Quebec's Parliament is not the
oldest in Canada. That distinction belongs to Nova Scotia, where Canada's first
legislative assembly met on October 2, 1758. When New Brunswick separated from
Nova Scotia in 1784, the people of that new province formed their own assembly,
which met on January 3, 1786. In the meantime, representative institutions were
also set up in Prince Edward Island, in 1773.
Nonetheless, Quebec's Parliament is
almost two hundred years old: it sat for the first time on December 17, 1792,
-- one year after the Constitutional Act of 1791 was proclaimed.
The establishment of a
parliamentary system in Lower Canada marked the culmination of a long struggle
in which English-speaking inhabitants figured prominently. The parliamentary
institutions created in 1792 bore obvious signs of their British origin: there
was a bicameral Parliament, consisting of a Lower House elected by a
single-ballot majority vote, and an Upper House whose members were appointed
for life. In both its organisation and its operation, this Parliament was a
carbon copy of the British institution.
It is easy to imagine a
French-speaking majority imparting to its institutions peculiar characteristics
different from those in the province whose majority spoke English. I leave to
others the task of examining this question in depth and confirming or denying
this hypothesis. My own feeling is that, until the early sixties, the people of
Quebec were no more interested in altering their British traditions than were
those citizens of other provinces.
The British-type parliamentary
system survived 1867, both at the federal and at the provincial level. A
hundred years later, no less respected an observer than Jean-Charles Bonenfant
worried that our parliamentary institutions were operating under obsolete
rules, with outdated methods. By the mid-sixties, there was no longer any
doubt: parliamentary reform had become an urgent necessity.
On February 25, 1967, Jean-Marc
Léger of Le Devoir wrote that, in a world where transformation
had become the order of the day, parliaments tended too often toward the
anachronistic the dry and dusty.
Quebec's parliamentary reform got
well and truly off the ground when the Legislative Council was abolished in
December 1968. With this gesture, Parliament lost much of the
"dramatic". The ceremonies surrounding the opening and prorogation of
sessions were simplified, as was that accompanying the assent to Bills. Cast
aside was the traditional "pro forma Bill", which showed that Members
were ready to legislate even before the Speech from the Throne. At the same
time, the Assembly made some changes in its terminology: from now on, the
Speaker would be President of the Assembly, and the Clerk its Secretary
This first step was followed in
1969 by adoption of a series of sessional amendments to the Assembly's code of
procedure. These amendments marked the first stage in an overall reform of
parliamentary procedure, intended to shorten debates, to curtail the number and
duration of interventions, and to abbreviate Question Period. The reforms also
did away with appeals from the President's decisions.
One of the foremost ambitions in
the minds of the members at that time was to give a boost to the parliamentary
committees. Reform of these committees took fifteen years, and drew its
inspiration from Britain, France and the United States. Today, thanks to their
structures, their powers, their operating rules and their resources, the
committees truly can make an effective contribution to the work of Parliament.
I will not enumerate all the
changes which have taken place over the past twenty years, or describe in
detail the operation of our parliamentary institutions. Still, there are some
major innovations that I simply must mention.
In 1978, the National Assembly
began to set dates for its June and December adjournments. Until that time,
nothing of the sort had existed in any British-type parliamentary institution.
This reform was finalised in 1984, when dates for Sessions were fixed in
advance, making it easier to plan the work of the National Assembly.
In legislative matters, the
National Assembly imposed certain restrictions on the executive, with a view to
making sure bills were more closely examined. No longer could the Executive
enjoy the freedom to table bills in the closing days of a session. Now, under
the rules of procedure, one week must go by between the day a bill is
introduced and the day it is studied in principle. Parliamentary committees
have made extensive use of hearings to learn what various individuals and
groups think of the bills introduced in the Assembly.
The reformers developed new methods
of parliamentary supervision: in 1969, the study of financial commitments, and
in 1977, interpellation. Under reforms introduced in 1984, Committees can now
examine delegated legislation and study the activities and orientations of at
least one government agency each year.
The member's role has also changed.
Today's parliamentarians come from the most widely varied backgrounds, whereas
in the past they were drawn from the more restricted sectors. Our political and
administrative practices have been tidied up, so that Members now have less to
do with administration, though they remain heavily committed to representing
those who elect them. Moreover, with the reform of the committees, the way has
been opened for Members to do great things, both as legislators and in
controlling the Executive.
In 1987, it can no longer be said
that, of all the Canadian Parliaments, Quebec's is the most faithful replica of
the "Mother of Parliaments" in London. For the parliamentarians of
Quebec have brought their institutions into line with their tastes, their attitudes
and their political culture. Not enough people have an opportunity to compare
and discuss our legislative institutions. As we study all the Canadian
parliamentary assemblies, perhaps the principal lines of their evolution can be
determined. Then, possibly, we shall be able to speak not of one tradition but
of several traditions, differing according to the age of the institutions, the
number of members, the culture of society or similar factors.