1977 Task Force on Canadian Unity

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Established in July 1977 and chaired by former Liberal cabinet minister Jean-Luc Pépin and former Ontario Conservative premier John Robarts, the Task Force on Canadian Unity was a response to the election of the Parti Québécois in 1976. Its mandate was to travel across the country to promote Canadian unity, encourage unity among social movement organizations, and advise the government on unity issues.

Published in three volumes, the task force’s report dealt with the most fundamental structures of the Canadian federation. It made recommendations on the distribution of powers, suggesting that the provinces be given more authority in the field of cultural development, that federal-provincial relations be improved by making the Senate more representative, that the Supreme Court of Canada’s jurisdiction be increased, that the House of Commons be expanded by introducing a form of proportional representation, and that a more democratic appointment process for judges and an amending formula for the Constitution be established.

The first volume of its report, published in 1979, concluded that, for Canadians, a “sense of individual and collective confidence in the security of their rights would contribute positively to Canadian unity.” Thus, it recommended that fundamental freedoms and human rights be entrenched in the Constitution, including language rights. Taking this step would place the state in a better position to deal with individuals’ concerns regarding the increasing impact of the government on their lives and would appease the desire of Quebeckers to ensure collective security while placing French on par with English. Constitutional rights would also act as a tool for educating the public and promoting awareness of human rights.

The task force’s recommendations on language rights mirrored suggestions already put forth by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Ideally, the government would entrench language rights by placing French on par with English throughout the country. Parliament would be fully bilingual. All government literature intended for public use would be printed in both languages. In court, they could give evidence in either language and would have access to radio and television in both. Other recommendations included placing the onus on the provinces for determining their own official languages and entrenching bilingual rights if they requested it. Children would also have a constitutional right to be educated in English or French.

The following are excerpts from the report:

“Reacting to the Constitutional Amendment Bill, the provincial premiers stated in Regina in August 1978 that “while some [provinces] support the entrenchment of basic individual rights, others believe they are best protected by constitutional tradition and the ordinary legislative process . ” In the fall of 1978, Ontario and the Atlantic provinces appeared to be favouring a degree of entrenchment of individual rights. The western provinces generally preferred to leave the last word in these matters to their own legislatures . The government of Quebec was not “against” as long as provincial language rights were “not affected .” Some provinces were of the view that the rights entrenched should initially be kept to a minimum in order to facilitate the widest possible acceptance by governments.

The Ontario Advisory Committee on Confederation has recommended that basic political, legal, and democratic rights be entrenched . The Committee on the Constitution of the CBA has recommended entrenching political, democratic, and legal rights, protection against discrimination, certain linguistic rights and the right to public information. A potentially important proposal has also been made which would entrench individual rights but include an “exculpatory clause .” The clause would enable legislative bodies to contravene entrenched rights for specific reasons which would be expressly laid down in the contravening legislation . The expectation would be that such a clause would be invoked only in extreme cases and that, consequently, entrenchment would be operative most of the time .” 66-67

“The views of the provinces on language rights have been expressed in a number of instances . In 1976, in Toronto, provincial premiers were looking for “a confirmation of English and French language rights along the lines discussed at Victoria in 1971 .” However, at Regina in 1978, “some premiers [felt] that the proposed language guarantees [of the Constitutional Amendment Bill] might present practical difficulties in their provinces, particularly in respect of provincial government services and courts . ” In the fall of 1978, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan appeared favourable to the entrenchment of various degrees of language rights ; Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec appeared not to be so inclined . Many provinces appeared to support, however, the entrenchment of the principle of English and French language equality .

The provincial premiers signed a joint statement at the 1977 St . Andrews annual conference by which they committed themselves to ensure schooling in French or English “wherever numbers warrant.” They also called on their ministers of education to conduct a study of minority language education in their respective provinces . Finally, each signing province agreed to formulate a program to further minority language education. Quebec had hoped to win at St . Andrews acceptance of reciprocal and bilateral agreements between provinces which would provide for education in the official minority language wherever feasible and guarantee education in English to Englishspeaking Canadians moving to Quebec and education in French to French-speaking Canadians who live in provinces other than Quebec. This idea was rejected by the other provinces.

In Montreal, six months later, all provincial premiers agreed on the following formula: “Each child of the French-speaking or English-speaking minority is entitled to an education in his or her language in the primary or the secondary schools in each province wherever numbers warrant . . . . It is understood, due to the exclusive jurisdiction of provincial governments in the field of education, and due also to wide cultural and demographic differences, that the implementation of the foregoing principle would be as defined by each province. ”

Prime Minister Trudeau`s Constitutional Amendment Bill, in section 21, would recognize the jurisdiction of provincial legislatures to define the meaning of “where numbers warrant,” but would give to the courts the right to decide whether the definition was “reasonable” so that in case of dispute the courts would have the final word. The bill would entrench the right of anglophone and francophone parents, citizens of Canada and minority residents of any province, to have their children receive their schooling, in public school facilities, in the other official language than the one “primarily spoken . ”

Indians were given special mention in section 91(24) of the British North America Act which places them under exclusive federal jurisdiction . The central Parliament has complete liberty, however, to legislate for “Indians and lands reserved for the Indians,” an expression that includes Inuit and their lands . There are no entrenched rights for native peoples spelled out as such in the constitution . Such protection has been requested by many native groups, some proposing that reference be made to native rights, at least in the preamble of a new constitution .

It would be wrong to leave the impression that the protection of fundamental rights is exclusively a legislative, judicial, or constitutional question . The best protection is still an alert public opinion aware of infringements and prepared to oppose them. But legal recourse is nevertheless the main instrument of protective action .” 67-68

Further Reading

Canada. Coming to Terms: The Words of the Debate. Hull: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1979.


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