Chapter 8
A Future Together

Change In a democratic society

Let us, in concluding, return to the beginning. It was Quebec and Quebec's relations with the rest of Canada that brought us together as Commissioners of the Task Force on Canadian Unity in the first place, and set us on the extraordinary journey which is only now drawing to a close. It is our belief that the country has been given an opportunity, if its citizens, within Quebec and elsewhere, have the imagination to seize it. There are profound changes under way in Canadian society and the difficulties of adjustment will be considerable; but the changes carry with them the promise of a future in which the country and its people will come fully into their own, seasoned by the years of trial and matured by challenges conquered. It is frequently out of such periods of torment and crisis as this that stronger countries are constructed.

We wish, however, to underline one thing unequivocally: if it turns out to be the clearly expressed and settled preference of Quebecers to assume a sovereign destiny, none of us on the Task Force would wish to see their right to do so denied. Because the question of Quebec's right to settle upon its own destiny is so critical in determining the outcome of Canada's crisis, we find ourselves compelled at this point in the report to speak as frankly as we can about the principle of self-determination.

The specific question which we intend to address here is the following: Does Quebec possess the right of self-determination? It is evident that in a technical sense, the departure of Quebec from the Canadian Confederation would require an amendment to the BNA Act for it to have legal validity. In responding to the more general, political sense of the question, scholars and students disagree; some say that the case of Quebec meets the requirements necessary to lodge such a claim under international law, while others deny it.

There is however, one thing about which virtually all agree, namely, that so far as self-determination is concerned, principles and rights are usually subordinate to political events and to the hard facts of success or failure. People who succeed in establishing themselves as distinct political communities will generally secure appropriate international recognition in due course; people who fail will find little succour or comfort in the knowledge that their claim was deemed to be a valid one in international law.

We believe that this practical consideration carries us to the heart of the issue, for in our judgement it is not a question of deciding in the abstract whether Quebec possesses a right of self-determination, but rather determining in the most practical manner possible what principles ought to govern Quebec's discussions with the rest of Canada as it faces the largest political decision it has had to make in the last century. If, in the course of the next few years, Quebecers decided, definitively and democratically, to secede, ought that decision to be respected and accepted by the rest of Canada?

To that question we answer an unequivocal yes. Our response is a virtual corollary of our acceptance of the democratic process. Given a community of the size and character of Quebec society, we believe that the clearly expressed will of the population must prevail, and that it would be both unwise and ethically questionable to deny or thwart it. Practically speaking, this means the renunciation of the use of force to maintain the integrity of the Canadian state and a commitment to seek to construct political institutions which reflect the will and aspirations of the citizens concerned. We believe most Canadians and virtually all of the country's political leaders would share our view.

Canada's current political situation encourages, indeed requires, sober reflection upon such matters, Quebecers are soon to take a critical second step in the decision-making process that will lead eventually either to independence or to a fresh association with their fellow citizens within the framework of the Canadian political order. The first major step was the provincial election in November 1976, and the second is the provincial referendum on sovereignty-association which is likely to be held before the end of 1979.

On one point, however, we would insist: it is for the people of Quebec to declare themselves on their political and constitutional preferences, and not the country as a whole. We recognize that both the government of Quebec and the government of Canada, as a result of the democratic process, represent the people of Quebec in their respective spheres of jurisdiction; it is important, therefore, that whatever process is employed to determine the will of the people of Quebec is accepted as legitimate by both governments. But it is the Québécois themselves who must make the decision.

The point on the other side is also clear. The provinces and communities of English-speaking Canada have interests which must be respected and they have an equal right to determine what arrangements suit them best, should Quebec wish to secede. English-speaking Canada does not speak with one, but with many voices, so they are sometimes difficult to hear, but our study and consultation do not lead us to believe that sovereignty-association as advanced would have great appeal in the other nine provinces.

At this point we cannot but say that all this seems excessively cold-blooded and remote when what we have been speaking about in the last few pages is the possible collapse of our country. Very few countries dissolve themselves in an atmosphere of sweet reason; economic hardship, social turmoil and violence almost always accompany changes of this magnitude and, whatever their positive achievement, such changes commonly leave behind them a legacy of failed dreams and shattered hopes.

But despite the forbidding dangers that secession presents, it is not sufficient to build one's future on fear of the unknown. In saying this we believe we are at one with the citizens of this country, whether they live in Quebec or elsewhere in Canada. We discern a widespread frustration among our fellow citizens with the aimlessness and lack of common purpose that characterizes much of Canadian public life, and a strong desire to commit oneself to some projects and purposes that are held in common among large groups of citizens. We have unabashedly capitalized on that sentiment in this report. The Task Force on Canadian Unity is neither by its mandate nor by the inclinations of most of its members primarily an advisory body on constitutional issues. Although our analysis justifies, and our recommendations provide, a comprehensive set of constitutional changes, our purpose from the start has been to address the crisis of Canadian unity, not to devise a possible new constitution for Canada. We stress this because we believe that it will be easier to change the constitution than it will be to create unity among Canadians. These two difficult tasks are both necessary, and they very frequently overlap, but they require somewhat different approaches.

Moreover, we also share the conviction that constitutional change that is not predicated on a careful reading of the current crisis could easily undermine rather than enhance Canadian unity. Consensus on constitutional patriation and amendment plus a limited number of matters unrelated to Canadian duality and regionalism would not, in our judgement, be a sufficient response to the constitutional implications of the present crisis.

So far as our own report is concerned, we do not believe that it is enough to have made numerous recommendations on numerous issues, leaving to the fates all consideration of how these, or indeed how any others, might be realized. The question of implementation is vital. Indeed, sometimes we have been tempted to think that the real issue in Canada is not so much what is to be done, but how we are to do it. For not only must difficult, sensitive, and complex matters be imaginatively dealt with over the next few years, but they will have to be dealt with in a time of acute tension and stress.

Our observations and recommendations fall into two categories. First, there are those recommendations designed to give shape and substance to the restructured federal system that we are proposing. Most of these would depend for their implementation on the established processes of bargaining and negotiation between representatives of both orders of government.

The second category includes recommendations and observations which are not concerned so much with the restructuring of Canadian federalism as with the spirit which should underlie it and the practices which would give it life and movement. The proposals in this category do not require formal intergovernmental agreement to be implemented. They relate on the one hand to the attitudes and behaviour of the various governments, and to the policies which they independently develop and administer, and on the other to the attitudes and behaviour of citizens and private organizations. Thus these proposals can be handled directly by the government, public agency or private organization concerned, or considered and attended to by citizens themselves.

The process of constitutional reform

We would like to turn now to the broader question of change and implementation namely, the process of constitutional reform. Constitutional change does not come easily or cheaply in Canada. The historical record compiled by the federal and provincial governments in their many attempts to achieve constitutional change reveals some successes but many failures. Why is this so?

We would suggest that Canada's efforts at reaching a comprehensive constitutional settlement have been bedevilled by two highly significant factors that have contributed in no small measure to the inability of our political leaders to reach broad agreement.

First, for several generations there has been a remarkably consistent and coherent constitutional point of view shared by a broad majority of French-speaking Québécois. This has served both to support and to limit the freedom of action of Quebec's political leaders. No Quebec politician can afford to stray far from this collective will; the most graphic example of the application of this rule occurred in 1971 when then Premier Bourassa was on the point of accepting the draft constitutional charter at Victoria, but repudiated it upon returning to a storm of opposition in Quebec.

The second significant factor which has rendered the achievement of constitutional reform difficult is the general apathy of English-speaking Canadians on the subject. This has left English-speaking Canada's political leaders with quite extensive freedom of action, but with little popular incentive or pressure to come to terms. The benefits to be derived from the achievement of constitutional reform have been modest, and the costs of failure slight. Given the diversity of English-speaking Canada and its provinces, it is little wonder that no coherent will has manifested itself.

Putting these two factors together, it is perhaps not surprising that Canada's recent efforts at constitutional reform have not yet borne fruit. Does this mean that Canada's traditional procedure for securing agreement on constitutional change, namely, federal-provincial negotiation, is inadequate to our current needs?

The more we considered the alternatives to federal-provincial bargaining and negotiation, the more we came to appreciate that any procedure would probably work-so long as the political will to make it work was present; there is no magic formula which yields finality, or leads directly to a new constitution for Canada.

We have concluded that the indigenous Canadian tradition of intergovernmental discussion has much to be said for it. If it does not involve the people of Canada directly, it nevertheless does employ the legitimately elected political representatives of the people. Beyond that, the governments of Canada and the provinces encompass neatly the main sources of conflict which have created the present crisis.

For these reasons, and despite the historical record, we are inclined to believe that it would be premature at this time for us to recommend a specific departure from the process of federal-provincial discussion on constitutional matters which has developed over the last decades, and which is currently in operation.

Nevertheless, there are alternatives, and should the intergovernmental discussions break down decisively the country may be driven to consider what other procedures are available.

One idea that has been advanced involves the creation of a "constitutional commission" which would be composed of some government representatives and some representatives elected directly by the people and which would work with strict terms of reference and a strict timetable to produce a draft constitutional document for disposition by the governments and people of Canada. This procedure would supplement or extend the traditional intergovernmental process, rather than supplant it.

Another procedure, which was suggested to the Task Force on several occasions, would supplant the existing process of constitutional discussion in federal-provincial conferences and replace it with a constituent assembly-that is to say, a fairly large, representative body of citizens which is convened with the authority to produce a new constitution to be approved or rejected directly by the people. Needless to say, there are complex problems with the composition, role, decision-making procedures and disposition of the product of such a constituent assembly. Indeed, there is a sense in which the very problems which a constituent assembly is designed to address have to be resolved before it is created, because the composition of such a body is crucial in determining the outcome of its work.

The Task Force does not believe that Canada is yet at the stage where such a radical by-passing of governmental authority must be considered. We take this position because our present situation does not warrant or permit so extreme a measure, because it is alien to our political traditions, and because we see little evidence that it would be more effective than any other method in securing for us a new or substantially revised constitution.

However, we recognize that those most actively involved in the discussion of Canada's future are frequently inclined to concentrate almost exclusively on the political arena-on the relations between the federal and provincial governments, on the policy intentions of the government of Quebec, on efforts at constitutional reform, and so forth. Yet these matters derive their significance from the community out of which they spring, and one could with some justice argue that it is the attitudes, preferences and state of mind of Canadian citizens that is the most important consideration of all in determining how the crisis in Canadian unity is to be resolved. The concept of a constituent assembly is illuminating here, because it is concerned not only with preparing a constitution, but also with constituting or re-constituting a "people," that is to say, with re-establishing a popular consensus or political community upon which a political order can then be built. It is a real question whether, in a democratic age, significant agreements struck between or among governments will endure in the absence of broad popular acceptance and support.

These reflections lead us to the following conclusion. While we support the continuation of federal-provincial conferences as the forum for constitutional discussion, we believe that there should be a popular ratification of the results, along the lines of our proposed constitutional amendment procedure. This would mean that, after an agreement on a new constitution arrived at by the federal and provincial governments, a Canada-wide referendum would be held, and approval of the new constitution or the set of constitutional amendments would require a majority vote in each of four regions of Canada-the Atlantic region, Quebec, Ontario and the western provinces. Thus, final responsibility for constitutional change would rest with the people themselves.

Some will argue that this simply imposes another block on constitutional progress, and makes it even more unlikely than it already seems to be that significant constitutional reform will be achieved by the normal processes of change. We do not think so, for we believe that one of the reasons for the difficulties constitutional reform has encountered has been the absence of popular interest in it, in English-speaking Canada in particular. Wide-ranging political agreement seems unlikely to be achieved without strong supporting consensus among the people generally, and we believe that citizens who are asked to declare themselves directly on a proposal are more likely to interest themselves in it than those who are not.

This point may in fact be of broader application, for in a democratic age it is probably necessary, in order to establish the unity of a country, to secure some measure of concord among its citizens. The citizens, as well as their political leaders, must take responsibility for the welfare of their country and the vitality of their collective life.

A final note

After months of study, analysis, discussion and at times, sharp disagreements, we, the Commissioners of the Task Force on Canadian Unity, are unanimous in our recommendations, and unanimous in our convictions that not only have we "come to terms" with the words of our debate, but more so, with ourselves. Looking back on our incredible journey in quest of a country, we have found faith in our collective will to walk together into our future.

We are not sure that our vision of Canada will meet the approval of all Canadians, but we have become convinced, over the months we have met as a task force, that our three principles of duality, regionalism and the sharing of benefits and power form the Canadian trilogy of our collective saga. But the very last words of this debate do not belong to us, they belong to you, our compatriots from the east and the west, from the north and the south. Now once again as we did, months ago, we are listening to all of you...


Last HTML revision: 10 May, 1996

William F. Maton