At the time this article was written
Arthur Donahoe was the Member for Halifax Citadel in the Nova Scotia House of
Assembly. He was Speaker of the Assembly from 1981 to 1991.
Canada is going through yet another
round of constitutional soul-searching. Like it or not, and many do not, we are
again faced with the need to re-think and re-make the political structure of
Last fall, shortly before his
death, the Canadian literary scholar, Northrup Frye set out in a powerfully
reasoned essay his view of Canada, in particular Canadian culture. In his view,
there are three aspects of the word "culture".
First, there is culture as a
lifestyle, shown by the way a society eats, drinks, clothes itself and carries
on its normal social rituals. The British pub and the French bistro represent a
cultural difference in lifestyle of this sort. Second, there is culture as a
shared heritage of historical memories and customs, carried out mainly through
a common language. Third, there is culture in the shape of what is genuinely
created in a society: its literature, music, architecture, scholarship, and
Frye traced developments from the
time of Confederation – a point at which he said that Canada could hardly be
said to have had a culture in any of these areas, to the present time. He
argued that directly in front of us lies a primary need for what he called
re-Confederation, which he though of essentially as providing a cultural
skeleton for the country that fits its present conditions.
He went on to argue that the best
political context by far for re-Confederation is a renewed political
Confederation, which means in his view, abandoning all the jockeying for power
that proposes trade barriers or separate currencies.
Frye's entire speech is an
exceptionally well-reasoned plea for cultural tolerance and understanding,
concluding with the thought that Canada has now become cosmopolitan to a degree
that would have been incomprehensible fifty years ago. Society must have
loyalty, he said, but in a democracy there are no uncritical loyalties. There
must always be a tension of loyalties, not in the sense of opposed forces
pulling apart, but in the sense of one feeling of belonging attached to and
complemented by another, which is very often the relating of a small ethnic
community to a larger one.
It is through some such process
that the cultural development of Canada must make its way, he concluded.
Despite Northrup Frye's distaste
for what he called "continued political tinkering of the most futile
kind," there is no question that if political restructuring does not take
place in a form of renewed federalism, Canada will cease to exist.
As has been said by many recently
in our region of Canada, Quebec separation, which will be the inevitable result
if the rest of the country does nothing in response to Quebec's recent
constitutional initiatives, would be disastrous for those of us who live in
Atlantic Canada. This is not fear mongering, it is simply a statement of fact.
Last summer's failure of the Meech
Lake Accord has been overwhelmingly interpreted in Quebec as a rejection of
Quebec by English Canada. This attitude, wrong though I believe it to be, is
nevertheless so prevalent now in Quebec as to be almost sacred dogma.
Developments in that province subsequent to the failure of Meech Lake have made
this a watershed time for Canada and Canadians.
I am among those who believe firmly
that significant change is certain – it is necessary if Quebec is to continue
in Canada, and it is inevitable if Quebec chooses to leave. We have to be very
aware of the sense of deep rejection felt in Quebec at the failure to ratify
the Meech Lake Accord.
A great sadness, followed by anger,
overtook those Quebecers who were strongly saying yes to Canada, when it became
apparent that the agreed-upon accord would not be adopted. But this real
sense of hurt over a constitutional failure is, in my view, not sufficient
reason for Quebecers to give upon Canada.
As importantly, the proposals now
coming out of Quebec following the Meech Lake Accord must be looked at by those
of us in other parts of the country in a clear-headed, rational manner. They
should not be rejected out of hand. One need only read the Allaire Report and
see therein the numerous references to the failure of Meech Lake to recognize
that its proposals are born out of a real sense of frustration and rejection.
Those who simply say in response to
what is now coming out of Quebec, things like "Let them go" or
"They've already gone and it's just a matter of negotiating the separation
agreement" add nothing constructive to the situation.
Retaliatory messages produce
nothing but more of the same. I for one, am not among those who are ready to
throw in the towel. I have been struck recently by the common threads beginning
to appear in speeches made by politicians of all political stripes from the
rest of Canada in addressing constitutional reform.
Among these are the recognitions
that: 1) constitutional changes must reduce the number of overlapping
jurisdictions which make our country one of the most over-governed in the
world; 2) changes should bring about economic policies which lead to a more
prosperous country and that to achieve this goal, some matters in provincial
jurisdiction should perhaps be transferred to the federal government just as
some matters should be transferred the other way; 3) there is also a clear
indication that certain national standards must be maintained in the interest
of all Canadians, for example, pensions must be portable and health care must
be accessible to everyone.
In my view, it must also be
recognized that the federal government has an obligation to provide the
necessary means to cover the costs of maintaining these national standards; 4)
there also appears to be a need to move decision-making closer to people and to
involve citizens in the decision-making process itself. This could be done in
part by including mechanisms for more effective communications among Canadians
and allowing for the expression of the various cultures about which Frye spoke
so eloquently; 5) support for the fundamental rights and freedoms for Canadians
as expressed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is for many, a first
principle; 6) happily, there appears to be a willingness to deal with the
special circumstances of our aboriginal people.
As I mentioned earlier, we in
Atlantic Canada have a special stake in this process. I do not intend tonight
to get into any partisan political discussion. And yet the process about which
I am speaking is very clearly a political one. And the political lines are
being drawn and becoming clear. The decentralizing forces represented in large
measure by western reformers, Quebec sovereigntists and economic small-L
Liberals will be ranged against Atlantic Canadians, most Ontarians, people from
the Territories and some Westerners who believe in the necessity of maintaining
a strong national presence.
Professor Wade MacLaughlan of
Dalhousie Law School put it well recently when he wrote:
"Two critical elements will
determine how the balance is tipped. The first, and most ironic, is the
position of the "macho" federalists. If they insist on "ten
equal provinces", they may make common cause with decentralists. If they
opt for a strong national dimension, they may accept an asymmetrical
relationship with Quebec. Most likely, they will persist in the line that we
can have both a strong central government and ten equal provinces, a position
that will only lead in this round to separation. Unless one still believes, as
many of the macho federalists appear to do, that Quebec is bluffing."
We should make no mistake, Quebec
is not bluffing. Another important point which I believe should be made,
particularly in light of the presence of the Acadian community in the Maritime
provinces, is that this is not the time to turn against bilingualism.
We are culturally richer as a
country with two official languages. There is historic justice in maintaining
this policy and while perhaps different approaches to recognizing the
bi-cultural fact can be taken, the basic thrust of the policy should in my view
Finally, I believe, as I am sure
all of you do, that whatever changes are made, we must maintain Canada's
constitutional concept of the Queen in Parliament and Legislature.
This concept, containing as it does
the unique feature of "Loyal Opposition" has a proven track record of
evolving to meet legitimate demands for accountability of government to
citizens within the framework of the Crown's sovereignty.
Those who would substitute for it
some sort of "sovereignty of the people" or "will of the people"
must remember that at best, there can only be the will of the majority. The
proposition that there is a "will of the people" is a logical
absurdity for as we all know will is singular, people are plural.
Those who endeavour to adopt the
legal concept of sovereignty of the people generally show little tolerance for
legitimate dissent and often regard any opposition as putting oneself against
As it has been put, the first
victim of "the people" is invariably "the person". So
whatever constitutional changes and adjustments we make in this country, our
traditional Canadian sovereignty of the Queen in Parliament and Legislature and
its corresponding institutions must be retained.