At the time this article was
written John Fraser was Speaker of the House of Commons having been first
elected to the House in 1972 and elected Speaker in 1986 and re-elected in
The constitutional debate has
legal, political and economic dimensions. But ultimately it is a matter of
national will. On November 25, 1991 the Speaker of the House of Commons
delivered an address to the Rotary Club of Ottawa. His comments dealt with both
decorum in the House and the national unity issue. The part of his speech
calling for a resolution to the present constitutional impasse is reprinted
It is fashionable nowadays to say
that Canada began on a sunny July 1 in 1867. That is a convenient date and it
marks a constitutional bringing together of the people that lived in British
North America, or at least a lot of them. But it is folly to say it was the
beginning of the country because people who speak English and people who speak
French had lived together for several hundred years. In addition, our
aboriginal peoples were here. Surely, looking back on it now, we must confess
that they should have been included in 1867 and it is to our shame that they
were not. It is our hope now that they will be included. But the reality of
life in Canada is that we did live together for a long time. We lived together
with certain understandings.
Let me take you back a little bit
in history. We cannot go back far enough with accuracy on the aboriginal history
of our country, but we can remember when our French speaking citizens came to
North America. We can also remember that in those days the relationship between
the Europeans when they got here and our own native people was one of
friendship. We have to go on a bit and remember the British conquest of Quebec
in 1759, not because we want to open old wounds, but because we want to
remember what happened after 1759. The British in their wisdom at that time
guaranteed to our French speaking citizens on the St. Lawrence their language,
religion (and religion was a much bigger thing then than it is today) the
education of their children and the civil law. I am not here to debate the
semantics of the words "distinct society". But most certainly that
was the beginning of it.
One can say, "Well, so
what?" Let us take a look at 1776, the start of the American Revolution.
Does anybody really believe that British North America could have survived that
enormous upheaval if the French in the St. Lawrence had decided to join that
Let us come a little farther along
to the war of 1812. It is a war that Americans do not like to remember because
they lost it! We ought to remember it because we won. But can anybody really
believe that if our French speaking citizens had not stayed loyal we would have
been able to turn back the American armies coming up into Canada? Have we
forgotten Chateauguay where a British commander with 500 British troops turned
back an army of 7,000 Americans. Of the 500 British troops, 90% were French
speaking. Have we forgotten so quickly the rebellions of 1837 and 1838? If
those rebellions had the full support of our French speaking citizens in the
St. Lawrence, does anybody really believe that by 1867 we would have put
together, a constitution that brought together most of the English speaking and
most of the French speaking people in Canada?
I could go on. We went through
World War I with difficulty. There were great strains on this country but there
were not sufficient strains to break it apart, as fragile as some historians
have said our unity was.
My father enlisted in World War I.
Before he became a pilot he was a stretcher bearer in a unit called the Fourth
Field Ambulance in the Canadian Army. The first two days he was in action in
1915 he was on the right flank of a French speaking Canadian infantry regiment.
He said, "600 of them went into the line and 300 came back and I carried
half of them out."
Consider the depression; consider
the fact that we came through that together; consider also World War II and the
number of people in this country that took on our obligations to meet the
terror, the anger and the awesome force of Nazism. We did it together. Have we
forgotten so quickly that we put nearly a million men and women in arms? Have we
forgotten the reasons for it?
I saw a text on current world
history a few weeks ago when I was hunting in Alberta. I was hunting with a
young lad who said this is the book he was studying in school. It was written
by Americans and published in the United States. It had a comment in it that it
had been adjusted for Canadian schools. There was a one page insert on the
whole of World War I.
It is because we are forgetting our
history that when we have difficulties now we have nothing to turn to. We do
not have the memory of what we have done together, how brave our people have
been, how remarkably unselfish, and how wise at times.
One can carry on after World War
II. We met the challenge of the Korean conflict, 25,000 Canadians served there.
If my memory is correct, the enlistment rate for the forces in Korea were
higher on a per capita basis out of the province of Quebec than any other
province. I served modestly in the armed forces at that time. Of the officer
cadets and later officers that I served with, one third were French speaking.
We went through all of the difficulties, the changes in Quebec and then the
changes in Canada. We brought hundreds and thousands of people here from all
over the world and we found a way to live together, and for the most part to
leave our resentments behind. After many years of hard work and unselfishness
on both sides, both English speaking and French speaking, we had the referendum
of nearly ten years ago in which Quebec voted 60% to stay with the country.
Yet we are told by some people,
including historians and others, that the only hope for Canada is to split up.
It seems to me a very strange way to talk about the future when you consider
what we have done together and what we still have to do together.
I have been running, with a lot of
help, a Parliamentary Exchange Program, bringing into Canada Members of
Parliament from the Eastern and Central European countries, including the
Soviet Union, I have just come back from Czechoslovakia. I have been in Poland
and Hungary and the Soviet Union. And of course they are interested in the
constitutional debate which we are having amongst ourselves. But wherever you
go in those countries they will tell you the same thing. They will say,
"We will trade our problems for yours any day. How could it be a people
who have done so much and are still so favoured could put their country at
risk?" Perhaps some of us have had it too good, but a lot of us have not.
Perhaps some people over the past decades have lost track of how hard so many
of us worked and so many of our ancestors worked to build the country. It was
not done by defeatism. It was not done by meanness. It was done by generosity.
It was done because people believed in something and they believed in each
I sometimes say to people, look
around you. Look at each other. You know each other. You know what you believe
in. You know what you all believe in. Every poll seems to show that if one can
get off the particular annoyance or grievance, most Canadians want to keep this
country together. But it cannot be done by just complaining. It cannot be done
just by finding fault with everyone and everything about this place. It is
astonishing to me that even in the political sphere, and here I have to tread
cautiously, there are politicians who seem to think that the only purpose for
electing a person is to represent that particular riding or that particular
region. If that is the only purpose for electing anybody to the national House
of Commons, then one may as well send a delegate.
The task of government in our
democratic system is greater than that. Because when we are elected to the
House of Commons, yes we have to represent our riding and yes we have to
represent the views of the people in our region, and most of us understand that
and most of us have done it again and again. But we also, in doing that duty,
have to look after, or have to worry about the public interest of people in St.
John's, Toronto and Ottawa, Mississauga, Montreal, Trois Rivières, Regina,
Edmonton, Winnipeg, Yukon and the Northwest Territories. This is something that
the best people that you send to the House of Commons learn. Most learn it
pretty rapidly. Most try very hard at it. But it is just not enough to do it in
the House of Commons. As citizens we have to be able to think that way also,
that it is not just the grievance of our own backyard that must take up all our
time and our attention, and sometimes our vocal annoyance. We have to think in
terms of each other. If we do we suddenly see an extra dimension to being
Anybody could do a bookkeeping
account of this country. It would not be very difficult to find accountants and
learned men and women who have given different versions over the last couple of
months about what might happen if this country broke up. It is not very
difficult to get economists to give different versions about what is going to
happen to the country if it stays together. As a matter of fact I once took
economics and I have never really trusted economists ever since. But that is another
My point is if we want to save this
country, and I think most of us do, we have got to start remembering our
history, remembering what we have done together and remembering that what
brought us together is that we did care for each other and that we thought it
was better to be together than to be separate and apart. It is important that
all of us say this. It is not enough just to argue about the different
constitutional proposals that are floating about the country. The question that
has to be asked is to what degree will they maintain our unity? To what degree
will they make sure that all Canadians are cared for, and to what degree will
they secure our future? If anybody thinks that anyone is going to come up with
an absolutely perfect set of constitutional proposals then they are living in
an academic dreamland.
The British North America Act
was not perfect, but it served us very well. The British do not even have a
written constitution. We have to remember that the Lord put us imperfect into
an imperfect world. We have to get enough down and on paper that we can agree
on. There may be some things we will have to agree on later. But nobody should
be approaching this on the basis of it is "either/or" because, after
all, if that is what my ancestors and some of yours had in mind, we would have
never put the country together in the first place. We have to think of this
country in terms that make us realize how intensely fortunate we really are.
One could say that does not sound so complicated. It is not complicated. But it
is a matter of spirit, not just academic or intellectual nitpicking. What it
amounts to is saying, "Yes, we are Canadians. We have been Canadians a
long time. We know why we are Canadians. We know how lucky we are to be Canadians.
We are not going to let it slip between our fingers and we are not going to let
anybody talk us into having it slip between our fingers."
Sir John A. Macdonald once said:
"We are a great country and shall become one of the greatest in the world
if we preserve it. We shall sink into insignificance and adversity if we suffer
it be broken."
Sir George-Étienne Cartier said in
1867 when Canadian Confederation was achieved, "All it took was fairness,
justice and some compromise on both sides." Then he said, "I hope
that if it" (meaning the British North America Act) "must be amended,
it will not be to narrow the principles of fairness on which it is founded, but
rather to enlarge them even more."
Surely that is our task. There are
people who have been left out. It is now time to bring them in. There were
things that were not put in the original British North America Act. It is time
to include them. There are aspects of life today that were not thought about a
hundred and twenty-five years ago, or in some respects even ten or eleven years
ago when we had our last round at the Constitution. These things should be
considered. But always they must be considered on the basis that we have a
country we are proud of, that has been a model to most of the world, that has defied
all the prognostications of failure which met its early beginnings and which
can be maintained if we remember what put us together in the first place.
There are the faint of heart; you
have heard them and so have I. They say it is not worth it and cannot be done.
There will always be those people. But they are not the people to take counsel
from at this time in our nation's history.
It will take courage and, at times,
a lot of courage. But let us remember what Churchill said, when he was asked
"What is the greatest quality a person can have?". He said,
"Courage, because it secures all others."