A debate over reasonable accommodation necessary to integrate recent
immigrants into society has been taking place in Québec and in other parts
of Canada. This article argues that Canadian history is replete with examples
of pragmatic compromises made to reconcile various interests and groups.
The same pragmatic approach has been apparent in the development of our
The story of our development as a country, and the parallel evolution of
our parliamentary institutions, is a story of pragmatic accommodation through
adaptation and innovation. And make no mistake: accommodation was often
passionately resisted. There have been tensions, setbacks, and bumps along
the road. But from the very beginning, there was one overriding fact: for
early settlers of an unknown and often hostile new continent, accommodation
was a fundamental condition of survival.
When it comes to pragmatism, adaptation and innovation, Canada has been
particularly successful. We need to remember that this phenomenon originated
in necessity, and was often controversial. Efforts to accommodate competing
interests and minority populations were not always successful. When accommodations
were made, they were often made begrudgingly. But over time, pragmatic
accommodation became more than just a successful strategy for survival.
What was once a distasteful and unavoidable imperative evolved into a cultural
value that we have come to treasure. Pragmatic accommodation has entered
our collective mindset and has become part of our way of life, indeed,
part of our very identity as Canadians.
This legacy has roots early in our history. The successful government of
New France and the security of settlements like Québec depended on
coming to an arrangement with aboriginal peoples in the region. And so
it was that in 1701 that the governor of New France, Louis-Hector de Callière,
signed the Great Peace of Montreal with 39 First Nations, among them members
of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Huron and the Algonquin. Callière chose
accommodation over long-term counter-insurgency. It was a choice that would
define the evolution of Canada ever since.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 was another important landmark in the development
of a relationship with the Aboriginal peoples. It recognized the First
Nations and established the constitutional framework for negotiating treaties
with them. Indeed, it is regarded as the Aboriginal Magna Carta. It is
now entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms, which guards
against the abrogation or derogation of any Aboriginal, treaty or other
rights including the Royal Proclamation of 1763. It is important to acknowledge
that there remains much to be done to accommodate First Nations in our
country. The Royal Proclamation serves as the base for concluding land
claims and honouring other treaty rights.
From the moment it acquired this new territory in 1763, Britain also had
to confront the French fact. Of necessity, its colonial policy often had
to be more flexible and more pragmatic than its own domestic policy. The
Old World assumption that inhabitants of acquired lands would automatically
be assimilated did not apply in this case. The New World imperative of
pragmatic accommodation would take over in 1774 with the adoption of the
Québec Act, an extraordinary measure in many respects. The Act would greatly
expand the territory of Québec. It would restore the civil law and the
seigneurial system which had been displaced by common law in the years
following the French and Indian War. The Act also made Québec unique among
British colonies in North America in that it would be governed by a governor
and a legislative council, but would not have a representative assembly.
Most notably, the Québec Act allowed the free practice of Catholicism in
Québec, and modified the oath of allegiance in order to allow Catholics
to hold office in the government. It was another 50 years before Catholics
in England would be granted the full freedom provided under the Québec
This pragmatic approach turned out to be effective in Québec, but it was
definitely contentious elsewhere. The Québec Act was among the provocations
that led to the revolution in the Thirteen Colonies to the south. It was
denounced both by the First Continental Congress, and in the text of the
Declaration of Independence itself. But the challenges of governing a New
World territory such as Québec simply could not be ignored, and the Colonial
administration wisely chose the controversial but pragmatic solution that
included religious tolerance and minority accommodation. In a sense, this
policy was vindicated to the extent that the colonies that would later
join the Canadian confederation declined to participate in the revolution
that broke out in the American colonies.
The new strategy of accommodation was contrary to Old World instincts.
When it first came about, it was the product of survival or absolute necessity.
While this new way of doing things began as a tactical device to which
there was no practical alternative, it gradually came to be seen as a wise
strategic approach to New World realities. Ultimately, pragmatic accommodation
has gone beyond its purely self-interested beginnings, and has come to
form part of our core values as a society.
Not long after the passage of the Québec Act, the establishment of the
United States and the resulting migration of the United Empire Loyalists
brought new demands for representative government. This led to another
illustration of the pragmatic accommodation of the French fact: the Constitutional
Act of 1791, which divided Québec into Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower
Canada (Québec). It also guaranteed French-speaking inhabitants the same
rights as British subjects in every part of North America.
As a guarantee of their political rights, the Constitutional Act provided
for an elected Legislative Assembly. It also continued the strategy of
pragmatic accommodation, preserving rights for Catholics.
The 1830s saw tensions on the rise throughout British North America. In
Lower Canada, the growing French Canadian middle class demanded more power
and challenged the authority of the executive. The 1830s saw an agricultural
crisis that left many French Canadians on the verge of starvation. Meanwhile,
immigration from the British Isles was increasing the proportion of English-speaking
residents, particularly in the urban centres of Québec City and Montreal.
The improvements of 1791 made meaningful progress towards effective parliamentary
institutions, but did not fully meet the expectations of either the English
or the French residents of the colonies.
In 1837, rebellions broke out in British North America. They were not limited
to French-speaking residents of Lower Canada. Rebellions occurred both
in Lower Canada and in Upper Canada, and many of the rebel leaders in Lower
Canada were English-speaking. In the aftermath, the British government
sent Lord Durham to investigate colonial grievances. His report made a
number of recommendations for reforms.
Lord Durham arrived in Québec City on May 27, 1838, bringing with him an
Old World perspective on a New World situation. His career up until that
point had been as a member of Parliament in London, and a 2-year posting
as ambassador to Russia. His term in Canada would last only until September
1839, a scant 15 months. With this very limited experience in colonial
life and colonial policy, he approached the French fact by advocating
assimilation. To this end, he recommended the union of Upper and Lower
Canada which was accomplished by the Act of Union, 1840. It established
a single parliament in which Upper and Lower Canada were represented equally
despite Lower Canadas larger population. The French-speaking residents
of Lower Canada went from being a majority in their own territory to being
a minority in the newly united province. Regrettably, the Act also made
English the only official language for government use, even in the new
As we know, Durham resisted the already centuries-old New World custom
of pragmatic accommodation, opting instead for an Old World strategy of
assimilation. Predictably, this plan failed utterly. But something lasting
did come from his report, for he had been involved in the electoral reforms
that took place in Britain in the 1830s. So it is not surprising that
he also recommended instituting responsible government in British North
This year we will celebrate the 160th anniversary of responsible government
in Canada. It was first instituted in Nova Scotia in February, 1848, with
the swearing in of the first cabinet chosen exclusively from the majority
party in the elected chamber. In fact, this was the first responsible government
to take office anywhere outside of London. This example would soon be followed
in March in the united Province of Canada with the swearing in of the Lafontaine-Baldwin
government. I would add that Lafontaine restored the use of French in the
legislature that same year.
Responsible government was a tremendous development in and of itself. But
it also helps to illustrate the evolving Canadian phenomenon of pragmatic
adaptation. Once the colonial governors had to choose the leader of the
largest party as premier, it became imperative for premiers to take electoral
considerations into account when making a cabinet. This went well beyond
the already strong tradition of English-French alliances among the great
leaders of the day. The imperative of having an inclusive, regionally balanced
cabinet also evolved over time. The gradual embracing of pragmatic accommodation
as a Canadian value explains why we would eventually see the first woman
in a provincial cabinet in 1921, the first Jewish cabinet minister in 1950,
the first woman in a federal cabinet 1957 and the first Aboriginal person
in a federal cabinet in 1976. Cabinet making in Canada is a microcosm of
a central organizing principle that now animates all our institutions:
namely, the inclusion and accommodation of regional, sectoral and minority
This phenomenon is not limited to cabinet making. Through various public
offices, notably Governor General, Lieutenant Governor and the judiciary,
we have seen the appointment of people from every walk of life, from every
background, including immigrants.
The next milestone in the development of our institutions was, of course,
Confederation. In many ways, the negotiated compromises and institutional
designs that came about as part of the Confederation agreement demonstrate
that pragmatism, accommodation and innovation were at the core of our first
act as a new country.
Let me focus on one aspect that I have had the privilege to come to know
very well. The Parliament of Canada is the very illustration of my theme
today. The Fathers of Confederation adapted British institutions to fit
the needs of a Canadian reality. They were dealing with a federation, not
a unitary state, and they were operating in a new situation of crafting
a written constitution to co-exist with the unwritten tradition, what we
now refer to as constitutional conventions.
They created a House of Commons, but they gave it democratic characteristics
that had yet to be achieved in Britain, such as the use of a regular census
to ensure strict representation by population and the approximate equality
of constituencies in terms of population. Because they were establishing
a Parliament de novo, they were able to surpass Britain, which would not
implement these democratic changes for decades.
They made provision for a Supreme Court as a general court of appeal. It
would not only decide simple questions of law, as British courts had always
done, but that would also have to deal with jurisdictional disputes about
the legislative competence of the two levels of government. This was a
major innovation, creating a domestic court that would have power not only
to interpret the law, but to strike it down on constitutional grounds.
This was the product of merging the best of both the common law and the
civil law traditions, a written constitution that is at the same time a
living tree, to use the now famous words of Lord Sankey.
The Fathers of Confederation also followed the example of having an upper
house of Parliament, but they took what was, in Britain, an aristocratic
institution entrenched to protect landed interests and wealth, and gave
it the role of defender of regional and minority interests. This innovation
was an imperative in adapting British institutions, which served a unitary
state, to ensure their relevancy and proper functioning in a federal system.
Blending Old World traditions with the exigencies of the New, they envisioned
an institution filled with what the British call the great and the good
that would include stakeholder representatives who would help build a new
country. And again, Québec shows us the extent to which this pragmatic
The Senate balanced the pure principle of representation by population
in the House of Commons by providing equal representation to each of the
three original Divisions, regardless of population. This was an important
protection for the less populous partners in the new venture. In addition,
the seats for Québec were given territorial dimensions, in an effort to
guarantee representation to the English-speaking minority in that province.
Another major difference was a fixed number of seats. This would of course
preserve the careful balance struck for equal representation among the
regions. But it meant more than that. Unlike the situation in Britain,
where the government of the day could overwhelm opposition in the Lords
with the power to create an unlimited number of new peerages, a Canadian
government would be limited by a finite number of Senate seats. These innovations
brought about a new, uniquely Canadian institution designed to respond
to the needs of a new country. The result was a parliamentary chamber that
bore little resemblance to the upper house in London.
Accommodation of Minorities
Since Confederation, there are many examples of the accommodation of minorities
and of the disadvantaged, an impulse that had already become a Canadian
phenomenon. Again, I do not want to paint too rosy a picture. There were
stumbles along the way, but the long-term trend of accommodation is unmistakable.
Not long after our new country was formed, religious and language rights
suffered a major setback in Manitoba. This new province had been created
in 1870 by federal statute. In 1890, the provincial legislature abolished
French as an official language and ended funding for Catholic schools,
which were the primary vehicle for French-language education at the time.
These moves were supported by the Protestant majority. In advocating the
creation of a new school board for Catholics, contrary to the position
of his own caucus, Conservative Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell effectively
sacrificed his leadership. After the subsequent federal election, Bowells
successor, Liberal Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier, engineered a compromise
with Manitoba Premier Greenway, based on a formula that we would today
characterize as where numbers warrant. French-language instruction was
restored in public schools where there were a minimum of 10 francophone
pupils, and a new Catholic school board was created, although it did not
receive government funding. The result was mixed. The impulse to accommodate
was evident, but in this case, resistance to complete accommodation was
very strong, and would not be overcome for nearly a century.
Accommodation has been a theme not just in our constitutional negotiations
and in the design of our institutions. From the beginning of our Confederation,
fiscal equalization has been a feature of the relationship between the
two major levels of government. This arrangement was purely informal in
the years following Confederation, but in 1957 equalization was given a
statutory base. The principle behind the transfer program was to ensure
that Canadians in every part of the country, regardless of economic circumstance,
would have a provincial government with the fiscal capacity to provide
basic public services on a par with every other province. This fundamentally
Canadian way of accommodating disadvantaged or economically challenged
regions was later entrenched in the Constitution in 1982.
In 1915, the Constitution was altered to create what is commonly called
the Senate floor. This new provision was a pragmatic compromise on the
rule of representation-by-population in the House of Commons. It would
ensure that lesser-populated provinces would have a guaranteed minimum
number of seats, a critical mass if you will, and that a declining share
of the national population would not threaten their interests in the elective
chamber. This change to the makeup of the House of Commons was done even
though the Senate had already been established as a means of ensuring regional
The evolution from accommodation as necessity to accommodation as an embraced
ideal and a shared value was clearly evident in the establishment in 1963
of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (the B&B Commission).
Its final report in 1969 recommended that Canada become officially bilingual.
As we all know, this recommendation was implemented, and continues to enjoy
widespread support. The Commission also made recommendations respecting
minority English and French populations throughout Canada. In the wake
of this important report, Ottawa would not only take steps to protect and
promote the two founding linguistic cultures; it would also embrace a policy
of multiculturalism. That policy continues to be vital today, as it is
founded on the pragmatic need to accommodate the immigrants who are so
essential to our long-term success.
In the same year as the B&B Commission reported, New Brunswick became officially
bilingual by virtue of a provincial statute. Its bilingual status would
later be entrenched in the Constitution in 1982.
In my view, the patriation of the Constitution was the culminating milestone
of the process started centuries earlier with the founding of Québec. Pragmatic
accommodation is now enshrined in our Constitution, recognizing it as a
core value embraced by Canadians everywhere. It acknowledges what Canada
had become and the common values her citizens have come to share. From
the inclusion of a set of constitutionally guaranteed human rights, to
the embracing of bilingualism and multiculturalism, to the entrenchment
of fiscal equalization, to the achievement of our full self-determination,
the 1982 patriation is a defining moment in our history.
The best-known part of the 1982 changes is the establishment of the Canadian
Charter of Rights and Freedoms. From our perspective now, looking back
25 years to the advent of the Charter, we can see that it was a kind of
tipping point. In a way, it made concrete something that, as I have been
explaining, has always been a feature of our political evolution: the pragmatic
accommodation of minority interests. Somewhere among the examples of France,
with its civil law heritage, Britain with its common law and unwritten
constitution and the United States, with its melting pot and its near-absolute
framework of rights, Canada forged its own unique constitutional settlement.
In doing so, it honoured a proud New World tradition of pragmatism and
accommodation. Moreover, these initiatives went beyond lofty pronouncements
in constitutional documents. Commissions and tribunals were established
to ensure that citizens whose constitutional rights had been violated could
obtain a meaningful remedy.
But pragmatic accommodation does not always involve grand institutional
design or the balancing of complex legal equations. Many examples are every-day
occurrences that demonstrate just how much this Canadian principle is now
ingrained in our national psyche. We all see instances of this every day,
but may not consciously recognize them as such.
I am thinking of the extent to which our parliamentary institutions have
strived to ensure the accommodation of persons with disabilities both
for members of the public and members of the assembly. We see the use of
sign language in television broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings, level
access to public areas and to the Chamber alike. In the Senate, I recall
the example of Senator Gauthier, whose full participation in debate in
the Chamber and in committees was accommodated by the provision of real-time
transcription, which allowed him to overcome his severe hearing impairment.
I think of my colleague in the House of Commons, Steven Fletcher, the first
quadriplegic Member of Parliament in our history. He has been elected,
and re-elected, in Winnipeg. The House of Commons took steps to ensure
that he is able to participate fully as a member in the Commons and in
its committees, and as a Parliamentary Secretary to a Minister. Making
this possible required pragmatic accommodation on a micro level. This
included modifying the rule that excludes strangers in order to allow
an assistant to sit with Mr. Fletcher on the floor of the House. These
are specific cases, but they are not merely anecdotes. They are illustrations
of the extent to which the impulse to accommodate has entered our collective
consciousness not just on an abstract and theoretical plane, but in every
day real-world situations.
Even such initiatives as holding committee proceedings by videoconference
show the extent to which we are willing to adapt. Canada is a huge country
with a dispersed population. Committees often need to reach out to far-flung
communities in the course of their work, but cannot always take on the
cost of travelling across the country. Videoconferencing has emerged as
an important alternative to travel. Such developments are evidence of our
urge to accommodate, making our democratic processes inclusive of people
in every part of the country. At the same time, in the micro level, this
evolution in our institutions has also obliged us to confront the challenges
posed by ancient concepts of parliamentary privilege, to adapt old principles
and values to new realities.
And that trend continues. The Nunavut Assembly facilitates the use of the
Inuit language in addition to English and French. The use of Aboriginal
languages in debate is an issue that we are currently grappling with in
the Senate. We have Aboriginal members whose first language is neither
English nor French, and there is concern that our arrangements do not allow
them to participate fully. Discussions are under way in our Rules Committee
to determine how best to address the matter.
Each of the cases of pragmatic accommodation I have mentioned today shape
and define our national character. In the struggles of our cultures to
maintain their individual characteristics, a new national identity was
forged. The whole would be greater than the sum of its parts. Each of the
conflicts and disagreements we have encountered in our history has become
a knot that ties our federation together. Resistance to accommodation was
originally overcome by the basic need to survive. In the end, resistance
has become acceptance.
We cannot know what challenges the future will bring to our established
constitutional and parliamentary traditions. Whatever comes our way, we
know that we have the means and the creativity to adapt. Our institutions
have shown themselves to be both resilient and reliable in the face of
the evolving demands we place on them.
Moreover, we have an even greater asset in the New World approach to change.
Canadians have a willingness more than that, we have a desire to accommodate
every segment of a constantly changing society. That pragmatic adaptability,
began as a necessity, but has become a core value and a source of national
pride. It is the legacy of our founding cultures.