Confederation in Perspective

by Honourable Duff Roblin

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 24, 1967-68 Season

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As we meet on this January 11th, [1968] with Hugh and Nancy Gainsford, grandson and great-granddaughter of Sir John A. Macdonald, it is perhaps easy to believe that in a country like Canada, in a Province like Manitoba, there are some aspects of history which assume rather a personal nature.

If I may offer a personal reflection on this situation I recall in contrast, to this rather typical winter's day, it was on a beautiful prairie morning in the spring of 1877 that a young man of United Empire Loyalists stock from the Bay of Quinte in the old Province of Ontario stepped down from a paddle-wheel river boat to the edge of this city at Lombard Street to try his fortune on this new western frontier in a new Canadian nation. I am sorry to tell Manitobans that his destination was not Winnipeg at all, but really Fort Edmonton.

My grandfather spent a few days as the bottom man in a saw pit sawing Manitoba maples into planks of lumber and then set off with a friend on foot following a brigade of Red River carts to begin the trek across the great Northwest. But as Browning would say, his reach exceeded his grasp and he proved to be temperamentally disinclined to an 800-mile stroll across the virgin prairie. He managed to get as far as Headingley but decided there that the part of discretion would be to hand over his revolver and other things thought to be necessities of the journey to his undaunted companion and to return to Red River, which he did, winding up as a trader with the Swampy Crees in a place which later came to be called Carman, where the staple of exchange was fur, buffalo hides, and seneca root.

Two years later without any assistance at all from him (I presume he was still trading) some of his fellow citizens incorporated this body as the Historic and Scientific Society of Manitoba. I rather suspect that the Roblin family and this organization, at least intermittently, have been keeping an eye on each other ever since. So you can judge my natural interest in an invitation to follow another politician and another premier of this province, Mr. D. L. Campbell, in joining this gathering of friend,: and members of the Manitoba Historical Society tonight, a he did on a former occasion.

I am not sure that Mr. Campbell would entirely share the satisfaction that I feel that we are here on January 11th, because that is as we know so well, the day in which we celebrate the memory of that master Canadian politician, that nation builder, one whom I claim as my political-ancestor, John A. Macdonald. But I think both Mr. Campbell and I would undoubtedly share the same appreciation of the important role which this Society plays in our community. It is your task to summon up the remembrance of things past, to recall to this community - government and citizen alike - what our reactions have been to the nature with which we are surrounded and the men with whom we come in contact, in the days that have gone by, and to relate our prairie currents to the whole of Time's ever-rolling stream.

The study of history is indeed one of the great absorbing interests for me. I think of it as one of the handmaidens of Theology because it is a subject of contemplation that can take us out of ourselves and of the immediate concerns for the present moment, employing as it does the flickering reflection and the uncertain light of the past to shed its rays on our own days as we seek to illuminate the human relationships of man and his universe.

I recall the days when I had leisure to read the works of H. G. Wells, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, delineating the picture of man's upward climb from three of the most extraordinary and startling points of view of life and spirit, boundlessly stimulating to those who read; Donald Creighton giving us the great story of our own national consolidation and renewal of 1867 (a task which we must duplicate in our own time) when he writes of the life and work of John A. Macdonald; and W. L. Morton, our own man, who has depicted the story and the history of our own neighbourhood and this Society, are the means by which we provide a focus. A focus by which local memorabilia, local contributions and records may be added to the art and science of the study of history and the story of our land. Your work is a vital part of this intellectual activity, and I trust that it will grow in value and in worth.

I hope, Mr. Chairman, that this is a good time and a good place and I believe the right people, to talk about the problem of Canadian contemporary history and to offer some reflections on the topic of relationship between the great French and English-speaking language groups in our country; also to try and offer some assessment of the impact that these may have upon our national future and indeed, I believe it not too much to say our national existence. There is nothing but the plain truth to tell that we have arrived once again at that same central juncture of Canadian history, when we are challenged to re-order the constitutional and human relationships of the two great language groups of our country, groups that fate has brought together within the embrace of one federal state.

Our prime and pressing need is to find ways and means to continue a happy and a successful association. It is not simply ironic as some might feel, but I believe supremely providential that we come to such a critical turn in these great affairs, in the after-glow of centennial celebrations, because I put it to you that the centennial has helped us to understand our country better than we have ever done. Expo 67 bears the label made-in-Quebec and you go to Montreal to see it, but it is the pride of every Canadian.

The student exchange, in which Maitland Steinkopf has been such a moving spirit, has provided for scores of young Canadians getting to know their own country, and almost as important, to tell their elders what they have found, an experience in human communication that is exhilarating and an inspiration for all who have been touched by it. This is Nation-building at a level of individual human understanding.

In my memory of centennial year perhaps the highlight was that July the 1st Dominion Day morning when we were waiting for the Centennial Voyageurs, the Courier-de-bois, in the middle of the river in a York boat watching the canoe brigade sweep down the water to where the Red and the Assiniboine meet. I was seized with that sense of the history of our nation, that sense of Canada, which I am sure has been repeated in the experience of so many other Canadians else-where that year. The depth and focus of these Centennial events help to give us that background of fact, and what is more important that emotional force, to move constructively into the future.

In work, Centennial, our history gives us a perspective of Canada. But perspective for the future requires some knowledge of that record of the past. Knowledge of those achievements help us to be confident for our future. We know the story of the four small colonies under the leadership of the man whose birthday we celebrate tonight, grouped together on the Atlantic seaboard and the St. Lawrence Valley of British North America, joined together to save their identity and their independence. A consequence of that act joined together for the first time, I suggest in the history of the west. two of the greatest tongues of Europe, English and French, seeking to live and to grow together within a single country.

Today we see that new state for which they hoped, free from the burdens and suspicions of the super-powers, free in the eyes of the world, of unreasonable self-interest, able to contribute to peace much more than they do. A nation with resources approaching wealth able to eliminate poverty and need (as we have known it) in a reasonable foreseeable future; a nation where freedom for the individual in political terms and economic terms, is perhaps unmatched, and where there are possibilities for personal and individual self-fulfillment which are the envy of less happier lands.

What we are called upon to do now after the jollification is over, is to make Canada, the whole of this nation, even more the homeland of all Canadians: in other words to continue and to perfect the work that was begun, and so well begun, by John A. Macdonald in 1867. At the head of the list, in a sense which he is particularly qualified to understand more urgently now than ever before, is the challenge to refrain our bicultural and bilingual partnership.

Now there are many cultures in our land. We respect, we regard culture pluralism; this is something that you may well expect Manitobans more than most Canadians to understand and support, and in Manitoba in certainly one cultural sense there are no majorities, but only cultural minorities. We understand the special way how many different cultures may flourish together to contribute to the good life and to a more comprehensive Canadianism. But together with this diversity at the cultural level we recognize also that at the constitutional and national level there are the two great tongues English and French.

When our ancestors came to Canada from places outside Great Britain or France, among whom in the long prospective of history I must classify my own, they did not abandon or disregard their cultural inheritance but brought it proudly with them. They understood very well however, the need to adapt themselves to one or both of the two languages of our country English and French, as the constitution provides.

Let us be clear, of course, that constitutional provision of 1867 was in a limited degree only as we had, I think, elegantly exemplified here last year. The constitution of 1867 provides language equality between English and French and the Federal Parliament and Courts and the Institutions of the Province of Quebec, but in terms of Canada today, I put it to you that the fuller development of the Canadian idea requires consideration in principal that there shall be the same treatment of the French language outside Quebec, in the future, as there is now for the English inside Quebec.

Let us be quite clear, also, that bilingualism in the sense of all Canadians speaking the two tongues is most certainly a complete non-starter. I don't know anyone who advocates it or who expects it. The law of social utility, if I may invent such a rule, limits the possibilities because there is no more social utility in speaking French in the city of Victoria, than there is in speaking English along the banks of the Saguenay, and we know as well that the French-speaking population in many provinces is too small for there to be practicable application.

Subject to these obvious practicable problems let English-speaking Canadians, I suggest, accord a newer and wider and more generous recognition and support to both languages in the word "equality." Go as far as we possibly can to make French-speaking Canadians feel at home everywhere in Canada, just as English-speaking Canadians would like to do themselves, and this is a first and I profoundly believe an immediately essential step that we must face.

We must do this to respond to the needs of French-speaking Canadians outside Quebec. We must do it to frustrate the separatists ambitions, which would induce Quebecers to accept the defeat of the linguist ghetto within their present provincial boundaries, and we must do it, and anyone who watched the Confederation Conferences in Toronto a little while ago will understand what I mean when I say, we must do it to join forces with the wise and modern majority that still exists for Canada in the Province of Quebec that see Quebec as their centre, but hope for all of Canada as their homeland.

The application of this principal in the schools and the courts and the Army and the governments is a challenge not only to the Federal authorities but to the Provinces and their municipalities as well. In Manitoba for example, from 1870 to 1916, French was recognized as a language of instruction in our schools (1870 to 1916). In 1916 we unwisely abrogated that right. In 1967, I am bold to say, we sensibly restored with the full support of the legislative assembly of this province (the unanimous support of that assembly) French as a language of instruction within our schools. Similar progress has been made in that respect in the Province of Ontario to what I profoundly believe to be the general advantage of the nation.

It is quite clear as well, that we must give our hearty approval to reforms of the national capital so that French-speaking Canadians will be able to deal in French in their national capital, just as English-speaking Canadians wish to do in English. Priority to improve the linguistic equality of the centre of the nation is a necessary gesture of comradeship and of goodwill in Canadian nation-building in 1967 and we must approach these problems with that same spirit that Sir John expressed so well when he outlined to the people of this nation his view on the right way to deal with French-speaking citizens in this country. This obvious move in the field of language has yet to be wholeheartedly accepted by English-speaking Canadians and I suggest that the time to do so is now.

In these concerns for the reconstitution of our nation there are other areas of interest. Some would like to examine the original purpose of the Senate as the guardian of provincial rights; others see reforms in the nature of the constitutional tribunal in this country as being necessary and these are no doubt areas where discussion and action may proceed without delay. These are matters which are horizontal in their nature in that they effect all Canadians as citizens of Canada rather than as citizens of any particular province.

There is another set of problems in Canada nation-building today and these are not horizontal in that they effect the country from one end to the other; they are rather problems of a vertical nature. They are problems that effect the provinces and that effect Canadians as citizens of a province and these so-called areas of vertical concern and certainly not least in the Province of Quebec, because for French-speaking Quebecers, Quebec is not a province like the rest. For them it is the homeland and heartland where they who are nationally the minority are provincially the majority, where they can protect the linguistic and cultural personality that is theirs. They feel that they need a base in Quebec to support this personality and it leads to seek what is now being referred to as special status which is a phrase that is probably likely to give us just as much trouble as its predecessor's "two nations" did just a little while ago.

With respect to special status there is in fact nothing new in principle, because in 1867 the civil code, the regulations for property and civil rights (language provisions in themselves) were special arrangements for special areas and indeed to a lesser degree every province has a special status today. This Province of Manitoba has a special status with respect to the Federal Government and the other Provinces of Canada in so many ways. The A.R.D.A. programme in the inter-lake is, I think, an outstanding example. But so far this idea of special status has been relatively confined to petty care limits and while it is possible that the concept of special status may develop further, certainly it has to be open to objective discussions.

There are at least two areas that we must approach with caution. The first of these is surely that special status must not go so far as to threaten the Canadian idea itself. The national government for example, must continue to be able to perform its functions, it must have and must continue to have power and authority to act like a national government in the interests of all Canadians, wherever they live. If special status for any province begins to encroach upon these powers, upon this idea of Canada, then indeed let us approach with caution, and secondly if special status gives to Quebec or to any other province powers and rights not readily available to others, if desired by them, here again let us take note that we are moving into unchartered territory. The danger is that if followed too far, special status of this kind, may prove only the long way around to associate state or to separation, so the warning is all too clear.

Sir John Macdonald and the Fathers of Confederation were political innovators of a remarkable nature. It is not, sometimes I think, sufficiently realized how ingenious and inventive they were in devising new constitutional forms, new methods of nation-building quite unlike anything that had preceded them, in order to devise a machine a 100 years ago by which the problems of the four provinces could be reconciled within, in the famous phrase, "The Bosom of a Single State." So I say to you that the challenge to us today is to be just as open to innovation and just as ready to consider new initiatives which will help us to square this apparent circle for the conflict between views of one or many of the provinces, and the necessity to maintain the essential integrity of Canada as we know it.

I think there is a field of immense importance to the province of the central government. We are not only the province of Quebec, but other provinces, indeed the centre itself, is beginning to see the need for the development of new institutions of co-ordination and co-operation and decision-making. Perhaps you will allow me to suggest that this problem has been epitomized in the call that I have been making for priorities among the public spenders and for discipline and co-ordination between the tax-machines of the nation.

I will not rehearse here the obvious considerations which have led me to state my views except to say that, given our present situation of two great and uncoordinated centres of public finance and economic management (the provinces and the federal government) given the recent projections of the tax structure committee about which you may have heard, indicating clearly that the costs of government in Canada are leading to a tax system completely out of control, and given the ambitions of the provinces and the central government in the fields of public spending and economic development, the need for inter-government priorities and co-ordination is over-whelming and our challenge, indeed our necessity, is to invent if we must, the institution to which this function of consultation and co-operation and co-ordination may be entrusted.

I have a feeling that we have been groping our way through to such a solution in the Dominion-Provincial conferences though we must all agree on the need to proceed beyond the present rudimentary consultation that takes place there and the basically unilateral decision-making to some better-articulated and affected means because consultation to be any good must mean something. It must be an effective exchange between governments, about priorities and co-ordination, and we must move to there to an acceptable decision-making apparatus, especially in the fields where the provinces and the federal government find themselves jointly responsible and jointly sharing.

I have no illusions about the complexity of this task made doubly difficult by the need to make sure that it works in so far as the English-speaking majority is concerned, but also that it creates for the French-speaking minority a climate of confidence to assure for them the development within the system of their legitimate aspirations in the fulfillment of their community. If we add to this idea perhaps the possibility of a more flexible delegation of present constitutional powers from the centre to the provinces, from a province to the centre, we may find the room we need for those new initiatives and fresh institutions that are able to preserve our federation and to underwrite our future in the 21st century as in 1867 it was underwritten for the 20th.

Because confederation must reflect a nation on the move, the constitution will change either in statute or in practise, or in both, and we must be prepared to deal with change fairly and objectively and constructively. We must be prepared to do all we can without harm to the essential fabric of nationhood to make other Canadians (and I mean specifically French-speaking Canadians) feel fully at home everywhere within their own country.

Beyond and behind all this, there is a higher loyalty to which we must evoke the constructive response: a loyalty that is higher and better within our allegiance to any province or to any region, however justified that may be; our loyalty to the Canadian idea which fundamentally is a concept where many cultures and two great languages join together in the development of one nation.

Our call in the second century of our national existence is to reinforce our common consent and determination to continue together in this one state, with the government at the centre adequate to discharge the national function, and provincial governments able to effect their constitutional purposes with the full and deliberate intention that our consideration and our confederation can in the future so express itself to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of all who call themselves Canadians.

Tonight, Mr. Chairman, I thought it perhaps fitting that I should lay some consideration of these affairs before the Manitoba Historical Society, men and women who understand how the record of the past may be crowned by the achievements of the future. Men and women who understand how the inheritance that we have received from John A. Macdonald gives perhaps the lesson of history through which we approach the given task of our time, in the restoration and the reconstruction and the renewal of the unity of our country and of the brotherhood of Canadians from sea unto sea.

Page revised: 22 May 2010