Spicer Commission
Commissiners' Comments

Comment by Richard Cashin

The Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future was set up to engage Canadians in a discussion of the vital issues affecting the country's future development as a political community.

From the outset there were those who expressed the hope that this process would do more than just solicit the views of Canadians. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, we were unable, as some commissioners would have liked to "deepen the dialogue."

I have three basic concerns, the first of which is the limitation of this process. Public opinion must be respected for its complexity, and we must recognize that people's views on subjects change with the information they have and the thoroughness of the debate.

The people who spoke to us expressed opinion on many matters. We have no way of knowing how their opinions on one matter were related to their opinions on other matters, or what priority particular issues may have had in their thinking. Nor do we have any way of knowing how representative the opinions we hear may be of the opinions of all Canadians. This is because the process of participation was self-selective.

My second concern has to do with the continuing emphasis which was given to American-style concepts of direct democracy.

These are not new ideas - they have been around since the time of the Progressive movement in the United States and Canada. Some of these notions were adopted in the United States but they were rejected in Canada. They were rejected because they do not fit well with our parliamentary system.

Consider, for example, the effect on our system of responsible government if a small but well-organized single issue group were able to use the recall to force by-elections in several ridings at the same time. Or, think what mischief a small group could do if it had the power to initiate a referendum on bilingualism or on equalization payments. Moreover, as the American experience shows, the referendum is a process that favours the wealthy and single issue groups.

Many of the proposed suggestions which reflected this agenda have been altered. But my concern remains. it is that we not allow the exercise through which we have gone to be used to legitimize notions of governance so at variance with the principles of British parliamentary democracy.

My third basic concern relates to the fact that, because of the multiplicity of issues that were raised and because of the breadth of our mandate, we might lose sight of the importance of focusing on the central issue, which is national unity.

I say this because, in the light of what we heard, it is by no means certain that Canada will stay together. if it does stay together, it could be a country that is dramatically, irrevocably and substantially altered.

The basic question is how does the rest of Canada accommodate Quebec and how does Quebec reconcile itself with the rest of Canada. How can this be done? From what we have heard, there are two ways to do it: either Quebec is recognized as a distinct society with certain arrangements (constitutional or otherwise) that are different, or federal power is devolved to all provinces.

Thus there is a real dilemma for those who believe in the need for a strong federal government and who, for this reason, are reluctant to recognize Quebec as a distinct society with different arrangements (constitutional or otherwise).

Some people advocate the devolution of power for reasons other than the constitutional agenda. Devolution, to them, is part of a whole different approach to governance, one that is rooted in a philosophy that puts emphasis on market forces.

This approach has important implications in respect to the fundamental principles upon which the Canadian political community was built. One of the distinctive characteristics of Canada has been the federal government's role in equalizing opportunities among regions and individuals. A general devolution of power to the provinces would clearly weaken the federal government's ability to perform this role.

Notwithstanding the conflicting views which we heard, it is my opinion that there would be a large number of people, particularly in Atlantic Canada, who would accept a different relationship with Quebec which would recognize it as a distinct society with different constitutional arrangements rather than put at risk those principles of governance which ensure equal opportunities for all Canadians.

We heard about many different issues and many different views about those issues, but before we can deal with them we have first to establish what the political community is - is it to be a political community with Quebec or without Quebec?

The resolution of that question will shape the kind of society we will be in the future. Its resolution will determine the respect we give to diversity, to minority rights ' to collective rights and to differing regional interests.

The principles which we are discussing go to the very heart of what distinguishes Canada from the United States. It is therefore more than just a question of how Quebec is accommodated. It is also a question of how we deal with aboriginal issues. It is a question of how we deal with the ethnic pluralism of our society, and it is a question of how we deal with the economically disadvantaged citizens and regions. Explicit in this approach is a recognition of the concept that our society values collective rights.

We are not dealing here with choices among policies for the short ten-n. We are dealing with the underlying values of our political community.

From what we heard through the Forum and from what national and provincial leaders are saying, there is a great preoccupation with process and personalities. I believe there is a danger that this preoccupation will divert our energies from dealing with the fundamental issue of whether or not there is a reconciliation with Quebec and whether or not that reconciliation will allow our nation to build for the future on the principles of our past.

Comment by Robert Normand


I cannot subscribe to the content of the Forum's report without expressing the following reservations.

Firstly, let me say that I find deplorable the fact that the Forum was unable to get Canadians to express their thoughts regarding the future of the country in a broader perspective and that it basically limited itself to gathering only the superficial views of those Canadians who addressed it, in a fashion similar to that of openline radio shows. In this context, citizens had a tendency to limit themselves to stating first impressions, often based upon erroneous information that was not corrected, and adopted radical positions without first evaluating their possible consequences. The information thus gathered is not devoid of interest, but it will have to be put into perspective in all cases where it is to be used as the basis for developing political solutions.

Several commissioners however, myself included, had asked, as early as January 1991, that the dialogue be "deepened," but the desire to put on a show for the media took precedence over the substance. Further, no commissioners' meeting was held between March 3 and May 7, in other words during a two month period (out of an eight-month mandate), despite my requests. This deliberate hiatus did nothing to improve matters!

I also deplore that the relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada, in the context of an in-depth political restructuring, was trivialized, especially during the first few months. I would further like to underline that in most cases, the majority of participants at the Forum's group discussions I attended, tired after more than an hour's discussion on their own concerns and on native issues, were no longer up to speaking out as dispassionately on their vision of Quebec and were often tempted to apply to Quebec the outlines of solutions they had just previously sketched for native issues.

The positive suggestions made by citizens (Part II of the report) and by the commissioners (Part III) are either too convoluted in form or too timid in content to be adequate for resolving the problems at hand; on the contrary, they might well contribute to maintaining the divisions that now exist in the country, as they bring out the lack of urgency English Canada attaches to the need to accommodate Quebec rapidly and responsibly. In this regard, the Forum's contribution is far from meeting my expectations.

It is also unfortunate that the Forum did not devote more attention to the situation of the some 800,000 francophones living outside Quebec. Only a few observations in Part II are devoted to them. Furthermore, while the need for some form of bilingualism in Canada is underlined, what is being requested is a revision of the federal policy in this area, which revision could probably serve to water it down. Views were expressed against Quebec's Bill 178 that is considered as limiting the rights of anglophones, without at the same time paying enough attention to language laws applicable to francophones living outside Quebec. Here again, the report underlines the "political lyricism" of Canadians regarding the some 500,000 natives whose situation troubles them, and rightly so, but fails to deal with the appalling rate of assimilation of some francophone communities outside Quebec.

Though I found the Forum experience worthwhile in certain aspects, it was an unpleasant exercise for me in others.

I have never accepted, and I still bitterly resent, that a "preliminary report" was released in March, without the text drafted by Forum staff having first been approved by commissioners and without even having given commissioners advance notice of its publication. Indeed several of us learned of it in the newspaper! I can understand that, further to my remarks and pressured by members of parliament, those in charge of the Forum wanted to latch on to any available lifesaver in the hopes of not sinking in the quagmire, but I find it inadmissible that the process resorted to resembles manipulation tactics aimed both at the commission and parliament.

I also find that the cost of the Forum was much too high, given the quality of the final product. Its hefty price tag is for the most part due to the administrative shambles surrounding the first few months of its work, that was based upon unclear orientations that had not been properly evaluated as to their cost and that were often contradictory.

If I decided to stay on as a member of the Forum and to sign the final report, it is because this exercise did, nevertheless, enable us to feel the pulse of Canada, despite its obvious diagnostic failings and its too weak remedies, given the sickly state of the country. In my view, Part I gives a rather honest but slightly pompous description of what the Forum accomplished, while Part II is a quite faithful reflection of the perceptions gathered by or through the commissioners, and Part III, though it doesn't go far enough, does no harm. I did not want to add my signature without bringing these few reservations to your attention.

A minister has been appointed to deal specifically with constitutional issues. Given the bitter confusion concerning the country's constitutional future, as brought to light in the report, and the Forum's inability to put forward satisfactory solutions, let me say: "Good luck to you, Mr. Clark."

Last HTML revision: 10 May, 1996

William F. Maton