First Ministers’ Constitutional Conference – Statement by Mr. Robert Bourassa

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Constitutional Conference
Ottawa, September 14 and 15, 1970



Constitutional Conference
Ottawa, September 14-15, 1970


I- Constitutional Revision 1

II- Objectives 3
Québec’s Identity
Economic policy
Social policy
Cultural life

III-Questions under study 16
The working document of officials
Spending power
Taxing powers
Regional Inequalities
Income security and social services
Official languages
Fundamental rights

IV- Impending work 24


This is the first time since its election to office that the
new Government of Québec is broaching the constitutional question
at a federal-provincial meeting. Even if this meeting is, in fact,
a working session on very specific matters, we felt it was not out
of order in this statement to indicate the attitude our government
intends to adopt regarding constitutional revision.


Discuss ons concerning constitutional revision have now been
held for nearly three years. Since the “Confederation of Tomorrow”
Conference held at Toronto in November 1967, and the first Con-
ference in February, 1968, meetings and committees have multiplied.
By now considerable work has been none, but if we consider the
magnitude of the task to be done we must admit that concrete
results still remain rather modest.

Special attention has been paid to problems concerning official
languages. A new review has been undertaken of the overall fiscal
and economic relations between the two orders of government; from
it we can hope for tho birth of a new economic federalism, better
adapted to the realities of our times, and more likely to lead to
a better allocation of wealth among the members of the federation.

At the conference of finance ministers in Winnipeg, last
June, I maintained that improved fiscal and econonic relations
between the governments were a prerequisite to constitutional
reform since it would make it possible for us to create that
atmosphere of relaxation and understanding which is essential
for the success of our discussions on constitutional structures.

The improvement in the present mechanisms ensuring econo-
mic coordination and wealth redistribution is part and parcel
of the process of constitutional reform. In fashioning effec
tive means of fighting regional inequalities, we shall give
federalism a positive meaning. The same applies to the means
which wiil allow us to influence economic conditions. This is
why our government wishes to attach major importance to the im-
mediate establishment of a true economic federalism. In this
connection we have, among other things, suggested the idea of
a stabilization fund which would complement the action of the
present mechanisms ensuring economic coordination and regiona
lization of federal fiscal policies.

I stress the importance we attach to improving the present
machinery, especially in the economic and fiscal areas. Yet,
such an improvement would not be enough if it did not lead to
a reform in depth of our constitutional structures.


Constitutional revision is forcing us to discover and invent
new ways and means of doing things, capable of men ing the dual
requirement of our federal system: respect for the two founding
communities and balance of powers when dealing with the great
pursuits of tomorrow.

Québec’s identity

we want an invigorating federalism, one that decentraiizes,
one that places confidende in the governments that it joins to-
gether. we believe that between secession’s easy-sounding truths
and the pure and simple abandonment of our responsibilities to
another government, the federative formula is the best one. To
be sure, this is conditional on a strict respect for the special
characteristics of our culture and the aspirations of the Québec
community. This requires, therefore, a flexible federalism, which
will express our true freedom as Quebecers within the structures
of a dynamic participation in the great plans involving Canada as a
whole. we consider that such an option is to be preferred to the
constraints which might well be the consequence of a political
suvereignty severed from the realities of our times.

Our choice is made. But at the same time, it forces us to
prove our case that it is the best suited to ensure the most
favorable conditions of existence for the citizens we have the
honor to serve. Not only the economic but also the social and
cultural conditions of their existence.

I have confidence that the new federalism which will arise
from our discussions will stimulate the flowering of our individual
as well as our collective freedoms. Freedom of association, of
participation, of voluntary delegation of powers, indeed, but
also freedom to withdraw, not to commit ourselves when we deem
that any given jurisdiction can be exercised in a better way,
with more efficiency and greater coherence,by this or that order
of government.

Should anyone insist upon putting a tag on the attitude our
government will take for as long as it retains the mandate of
managing Quebec affairs, I would say that it will be a sober one,
a firm one and one free of bias. We do not want to become the
prisoners of slogans and miracle formulas, shortcuts which are
sometines alluring but which prevent a fair appraisal of concrete

Our only guide will be the highest interest of the citizens
who expect from us something other than endless palavers and
perpetual studies. With a view to maintain and develop our
identity, whenever the calm examination of a particular problem
reveals that citizens will best be served by such or such an order
of government, there will be our stand, a stand we shall defend
without electioneering concern and without ulterior motives.

I can already appraise all the efforts that we will have to
make towards reassessing the situation during the coming months.
For it is obvious that the present structures of the Canadian
federation are ill-suited to our requirements.

We will therefore have to conscript our energies in record
time in order to arrive quickly at concrete solutions. We are given
another chance to ango some of the particularly antiquated and
inoperative aspects of the type of federalism we now have. But
was fellow-citizens will not tolerate any longer either the
excessive slowness of the revision procedure of our constitution,
or the lingering chaos which stems from it.

Our government will adhere less to the symbolic value of
words than to the substance of problems and their rational
definition. We shall not claim additional powers for the simple
pleasure of winning a battle or extort a concession from the central
government, for this would be engaging in a political childishness

poorly consistent with the interests it is our mandate to protect.

However, we expect from those with whom vw deal enough
political maturity to appreciate what the stakes are in this federal
challenge we put before our fellow-citizens on the occasion of the
April 29 election. A challenge whose one of the elements is the
necessity to have the participation of the Quebec government in
the process of decisions of the central government which have a
significant impact on the economic, social and cultural develop-
ment of Quebec.

It is from this general point of View that the present Quebec
Government is approaching the task of constitutional revision.
Against an illusory sovereignty, it proposes instead a full freedom
of action within federal structures respectful of the distinctive
character of Québec, its particular cultural traits but also its
great need of catching up in the economic area.

The new federal contract, therefore, must satisfy these
pressing requirements.

Indeed, this is the best way to attain one of the fundamental
goals of the Canada of tomorrow: the preservation and development
of the bicultural character of the Canadian federation.

When we talk about biculturalism, we are forced to acknowledge
that, without Quebec, there would be no French fact in Canada. For
it is in Quebec that we find the roots of this reality. Consequently,

if we want Canada to maintain this bicultural character, we must
make sure that Quebec is in a position to ensure that conditions
will favor the flowering of French fact. It will succeed in this
by a maximum use of the jurisdiction it already has as well as
by the exercise of certain powers which will increase the effect-
iveness and radiance of its linguistic and cultural personality.
In addition, it is also undeniable that all Quebecers want
to organize their participation in social life and the improvement
of their environment first of all within the framework of insti-
tutions conceived by them and in which they participate fully.
Quebecers are holding on firmly to the possibility of expressing
themselves collectively through public structures,hence a govern-
ment,they control fully; they will never agree to give this up.
The constitutional policy of our government will therefore
hold to the premise that Quebecers require and want, on the one
hand, to manage their own government in order to be allowed to
develop their own cultural entity, where the whole of Québec is
involved, and on the other hand, to participate, where the whole
of Canada is involved, in a prosperous bicultural federation,
capable of managing its own affairs and ensuring a minimum of
equality between its citizens and regions while making a
contribution to the progress of the international community.

Some basic attitudes will guide the people of Québec in the
vears to come just as they have already begun to influence the
people of today. They will insist on attaining greater participa-

tion in decisions likely to affect them. Much more than in the

past, they will also be concerned with the quality of their environ-

ment and of their social life. Finally, they will attach greater

and greater importance to everything connected with the equality

of the country’s citizens and regions. In my opinion, it will be
to the extent that the Canadian federative formula will permit
them to answer the questions of participation, of the quality of
the human condition,and oi equality, that Quebecers will be able,
while affirming their own identity, to contribute to the life and

growth of the country as a whole.

Yet, achieving each of these objectives which everybody is
willing to accept without questioning them, I am sure, will have
a powerful impact on the constitutional framework and the division
of responsibilities between the two orders of government.
I shall here limit myself to the major aspects.

Economic policy

In the economic field, the action of central government,
often very technical in nature, and sometimes carried out in
circumstances where decisions have to be taken rapidly, has

specific effects which can be very diverse on the economic structure
of one part of the country.

It must be stressed here how direct the influence of certain
decisions concerning monetary policy, fiscal policy, or trade policy,
including customs duties, can be on the economic activity of our
regions. The interest of the federation as a whole requires us to
search at once for flexible ways and means to participate in the
formulation of policies regarding these matters. Already, information
and basic data are more readily available than they were in the past.
But it must be clearly understood that for our part, we shall have
to continue our efforts of research and analysis in order to have
complete files at our disposal. This should not be interpreted
as an attempt to make it difficult to reach decisions. On the
contrary, only when we shall clearly know those aspects of economic
reality which deeply in luence our development, even if they cons-
titute fieids outside our administrative competence, shall we be
in a position to contribute to consultation effectively.

No one should be astonished if we insist more and more, on
the basis of definite facts and concrete propositions, upon a better
coordination of federal decisions. In this way, sterile discussions
useless suspicions will be avoided once policies have been

Social policy

The qualitative aspects of the physical environment and
social life will also influence the division of tasks between
governments. How shall we define their action in planning
human resources, in solving urban problems, in adding to the
value and worth of leisure, so that provinces can play in
these areas the predominant role which is theirs. This is
especially important in Quebec where the social environment
should mirror the cultural dimension which represent the
fundamental distinctive trait of our federation.

Changes occuring in the Quebec environment will depend in
a large measure on the social policies we shall apply. We know
the latter are necessarily made up of interrelated and varied
in1tiatiVeS whose complexities are bound to intensify, whether
they involve income support programs, social services, manpower
training and employment, health services, including health
insurance, youtf, and housing. This obvious interrelation is not
presently adhered to; two government sectors are active in these
areas of jurisdiction, and there is no guarantee, in spite of all
efforts to achieve coordination, that what one is doing will

not impede what the other is doing.

It will be enough, as an example, to make specific reference
to health and social services, as well as income security.

No one would dare deny that policies in matters of health
services and social services come primarily under the jurisdiction
of the provinces. Nevertheless, in actual fact, the federal
government has always set priorities and fixed available
resources through the means of rigid financial programs.
whether such restrictive financing procedures such as conditional
grants are involved (hospital insurance, health insurance, the
Canada Assistance Plan), or more flexible mechanisms such as
the setting up of assistance funds (health resources fund, de-
monstration project fund) they have none the less the same
fundamental drawbacks.

As for income security, we deem it essential that the
provinces be given a predominant position in the formulation of
they are indeed to be cohesive and take into account
manpower policies and regional characteristics of the economy.
Indeed, income security policy could not be drawn up without
regard to the objectives of social and manpower services.

If we claim for Quebec priority in responsibility for
policies in matters of health, social services,
income security and manpower, we nevertheless acknowledge the

essential role played by the federal government in providing
acceptable living standard for all Canadians. This is why,
in the field of income security, we would be willing to study a
formula whereby the financial participation of the federal
government would be determined for each province on the basis
of social indicators reflecting adequately regional inequalities.
Such a participation could, for instance, take the form of supple-
mentary payments to equalization and of benefits paid under
programs which the government of Canada would continue to ad-
minister. other formulas for the federal financial participation
could also be studied. All we wish, is to make sure that all
possible avenues are explored.

The administration of income security programs is too
closely linked to empirical methods, in our opinion, to be the
criteria for determining the jurisdiction of one order of
government in one field of activity or another. Such adminis-
tration ould be entrusted to the federal government, or to
provincial governments, according to whether the programs defined
by each of the provinces are of a type better suited to a cen-
tralized administration or, on the contrary, require a decentralized
management, or again whether they differ too widely from those
current in other provinces as to their objectives and methods.

The important thing is that in the case of programs administered
by the federal government, they be compatible with income
security policies laid down by the provinces and that a satis-
factory link be established with the services.

We believe that revising the Canadian constitution should
make it possible to use an entirely new approach in the field of
social policies. Just as the magnitude and origin of social
inequalities differ, so should the sttategy used in the fight
ageinst these same inequalities vary from one province to
another. From these objectives and this strategy will emerge
the priorities, the content and the methods most appropriate
to the programs.

An equitable distribution of collective wealth between
citizens and regions of Canada has always been one of the implicit
objectives of our federation. We must admit, however, that we
are a long way from having reached that objective. It can even
be said that in 1867 there was greater economic equality between
the four founding provinces than is the case now. It is therefore
necessary to take a resolute stand so that the economic growth
of the country may achieve a better balance. This implies that

the search for equality, or if one prefers, the lessening of
inequalities, will be one of the clearly mentioned objectives
in the new Canadian constitution, and that powers will be
distributed between governments in such a manner that this
objective can be achieved.

Cultural life

I am also thinking about certain important sectors of
our national life in which methods of close participation
between the central government and the members of the federation
will have to be defined. They involve communications, immigration
and external relations.

Quebec wishes to play a part in the formulation of public
policies in these areas because they directly affect the
existence and the future of its society.

where communications media are concerned, satellites,
television, radio, whether by air waves or cables, it would be
illogical for our government to remain aloof from activities
involving these powerful instruments of information, teaching and
popular education, Thus, we are willing to consider any formula
of effective participation in the working out and definition
of government communications policies. This is required not

only because of our specific cultural needs, but because of the
very nature of federalism whose primary function is to feature the
prevailing traits of the conmunities that it associates. In this respect,
we believe we are in a position to make a highly valuable contri-
bution, simply due to the fact that our government, at its own
level, is perforce the interpreter closest to Quebec’s socio-cultural

As for immigration, the federal government would gain
by making sure it has the participation of the members of the
federation, in a better position to know about their requirements
concerning manpower and the type of immigrants they wish to
accept. Quebec will have concrete propositions concerning this.
There is also no doubt that Quebecers will wish, among
other objectives, to keep an open window on the outside world
d benefit from a coming together of the nations. In many cases,

the Canadian contribution entails matters concerning which the
members of our federation, because of their present or future

constitutional powers, are or will be the only ones having the
know-how and technical skills. This is why it will be necessary
to adjust our means of operation through which the Canadian and
Quebec contribution to international progress becomes the result

of the common efforts of our governments.


The new Quebec government believes it is fitting it should
give its opinion concerning the progress achieved in revising the
constitution since it was undertaken nearly three years ago.

(1) The working document of officials

Quebec representatives on the Continuing Committee of Officials
on the Constitution tabled, more than two years ago, a working
document which was subsequently made public and has been used as a

general frame of reference concerning Quebec’s position in consti-

tutional matters. Even if this working document was never designed

to represent the official position of Québec, it has received a

certain amount of publicity and it is necessary to define more
accurately the position of the new Quebec government with regard to

A few remarks on certain specific aspects of this working
In its opening pages, propositions
are found concerning the monarchy, parliamentary government,
the official name of the federation, the existence of the two
nations and the right to self-determination, which have pro-
voked a flow of comments and proved highly controversial. The
present Québec Government would like all its partners to make a
thorough study of each of these propositions, but it wants to

emphasize that it is not interested in starting a quarrel around
words or symbols. What does interest us is the substance of the
constitution and the possibility of arriving at a better distri-
bution of powers and resources. To be sure, we wish that on these
different matters there may develop in Canada a consensus which
would agree with that prevailing in Quebec; that would be a
remarkable achievement towards a new definition of the Canadian
identity. But we do not believe this should be a prerequisite to
a study in depth of all aspects of the constitution; at any rate,
we can come back to this when discussion on essential points has
made greater progress.

As for the distribution of powers suggested in the working
document, it must first of all be emphasized that even though it
is very detailed, it remains incomplete: for instance, such
important matters as the criminal code, unemployment insurance,
fisheries and interprovincial trade are not dealt with. In
addition, not enough attention, it seems, has been paid to certain
problems concerning the future such as the quality of the environ-
ment, research and communications. In that respect, it will be
necessary, therefore, to complement the propositions already made.
This necessary updating process is now underway and in certain
cases more explicit proposals will soon be drawn up.

I should now like to explain the stand of our government
concerning discussions already held at the level of the Prime
Ministers or ministerial committees. In doing so, I have no wish
to criticize or endorse the arguments used by our predecessors:
I simply want to set the record straight on a few points dealt
with at prior conferences and meetings.

(2) Spending power

The federal proposals regarding the spending power were
examined at the working sessions of June 1969 and at the third
Constitutional Conference. First of all, they propose to subject
the federal power to make conditional grants to the prior consent
of a certain number of provinces. Quebec continues to believe
that ideally, this federal spending power in fields under the
exclusive competence of the provinces simply should not exist end
that the federal government would do well to simply give it up.
Nevertheless, Québec would be ready to accept the federal proposals
provided that the form of compensation for non-participating
provinces be improved in such a way that these provincesd are not
really affect in exercising their constitutional right of non-

(3) The taxing powers

The principle that both orders of government have access

to all taxation fields seems to us clearly admitted. This is
a major improvement compared to the present situation. Certain
exceptions, such as customs duties reserved to the federal par1ia-
ment and property taxes reserved to the provinces also seem to us to
be rightfully established. Broadly speaking, we might say that the
only major point of discussion concerns succession duties: whereas
Quebec argues that it is practically impossible for a iederal act
on succession duties to respect at the same time both civil and
common law institutions, the federal government maintains that
it is technically possible. Quebec would be ready to revise its
stand on the matter if, before the end of the constitutional dis-
cussions, the federal government were to succeed in amending its
present law on succession duties in such a way as to make it conform
to the spirit of our civil law.

We must not forget, however, that it remains to translate
these principles into reality. Taxation questions soon become
very technical, with their own, often forbidding language.
Constitutional principles will not solve the whole question.
Access to several revenue sources will not automatically settle
the fiscal problem as a whole. Indeed, fiscal decisions have
their effect on economic development. It is not enough to have
the power to tax if the economic circumstances of the moment are

such that it is preferable not to do so. Access to all taxation
fields does not solve the thorny question of the relative place
of each order of government within the whole tax base. For, we
can only achieve a workable equilibrium if, within the framework
of general principle, we can ensure the necessary flexibility so
that each order of government may find in the exercise of its
fiscal powers the receipts it needs and this, without disturbing
the overall economic growth or the sectorial equilibrium of the

(4) Regional inequalities

Nobody doubts that the fight against regional inequalities
is urgent; it is one of the objectives of federalism and I have
already made reference to it. On this subject, the work of cons~
titutional revision seems fairly advanced. we are in agreement
with the trends that have started to emerge. As I have said
previously, it is clear that this question should be given spe-
cial mention in the text of the country’s constitution. It
remains to be determined if such mention should be part of the
preamble of the constitution or be a separate article in it. Since
these questions are presently being examined by our permanent
officials, we can revert to them later.
(5) Income security and social services

At the third Constitutional Conference the question of


social policy was brought up or, more specifically, the question

of income security and social services. This was the first public
discussion of a complicated question on which it was known that
initial positions would be highly divergent. It is therefore not
surprising that agreement could not be reached on every aspect of
this problem. As far as our government is concerned, it, at
present, sees no serious reason to change the position held until
now by Quebec. Moreover, we expect to give effect to the resolution
of the last Constitutional Conference urging that the ministers
responsible for problems concerning manpower should meet in order
to examine in depth the allocation of tasks in this field.

As I said elsewhere in this statement, social policy is
for us a matter of capital importance to which we give priority.
(6) The official languages

The new Quebec Government has had occasion to make known
its position on the non-constitutional aspects of this question
at the meeting of the Ministerial Committee on the Official Languages
held in may 1970. I shall merely recall here that our government
attaches great importance to the use of French as the working
language in Quebec, to its official use in federal public agencies
and to its use as the language of instruction for French minorities
in the other provinces.

(7) Fundamental rights

The present Quebec Government is favorable to the adoption
of a constitutional charter of human rights which would be binding
on both the federal government and the provinces. In our opinion,
such a charter would not prevent the adoption of supplementary
charters at the federal or provincial level particularly on such
matters as rights to equality or economic rights where administra-
tive action is often necessary. As has already been agreed,
the adoption of such a charter should in no way alter the dis~
tribution of constitutional powers between governments.

(8) The Judiciary

Quebec has proposed to the Ministerial Committee on the
judiciary that the court of last resort be so constituted as to
give every guarantee of impartial arbitration between governments,
that jurisdiction of last resort in provincial matters should
remain at the provincial court level,and that the judges of these
courts be appointed by each province. Our government believes
these proposals should continue to be discussed with a view to
their eventual inclusion in the text of the new constitution.
At the same time, it wishes to reiterate the importance it attaches
to the creation of a court of last resort in constitutional matters.

Although the practical difficulty of establishing what constitutes

a constitutional matter has been stressed, Québec believes that
such a court is an essential element in maintaining the new
constitutional equilibrium.


The discussion on the constitution ought to be car-
ried on speedily. Above all, it should be brought to a prompt

We should be looking for a constitutional framework
better suited to solve our present problems and more in harmo-
ny with our individual and collective aspirations. In order
to attain it, we shall have to enter a phase of intensive dis-
cussions,where will emerge consensus and solutions. I am therefore
most happy that the present working session is tackling, for
the first time, two new subjects of major importance: manage-
ment of the environment and financial institutions.

With regard to impending work, I would like to make
three suggestions.

(1) Firstly, I believe we must continue in depth
discussions concerning the distribution of powers which is, in
fact, a fundamental question. rn this connection, it would be
appropriate to give particular attention to the implications
deriving from the necessary respect for the oistinctive charac-
ter of Québec and from the demands for participation, for the
creation of a social environment suited to our aspirations and
for the fight against inequality – questions I have dealt with
in the second part of this statement.

(2) Within the range of discussions pertaining to a
new distribution of legislative competences, I further suggest
that we examine most attentively the possibility of including
in the revised constitution a clause to allow delegation of le-
gislative powers between the two orders of government. The de-
legation of legislative powers offers several advantages. It
introduces an element of flexibility in a distribution of powers
which are often too rigid. It allows for correction of any ju~
dicial interpretation which does not respect the spirit of the
constitution. It makes possible the elaboration of programs on
a regional basis. In addition, the delegation of powers is in
conformity with the flexibility of federalism, since it sets up
varying degrees of centralization or decentralization in the re-
lations of the central government with the members of the fede-
ration. This provision, moreover, exists in other federal cons-

(3) Finally, it seems to me that it would be essen-
tial to give greater attention to the problem of intergovernmen-
tal relations. This is a pressing problem, particularly in the
fiscal and economic fields. I already suggested at Winnipeg
that instructions be given to the Continuing Committee of Offi-
cials on Economic and Fiscal Matters to analyse the present

machinery of intergovernmental cooperation in the light of
studies so far conducted on the subject. This suggestion met
with the approval of must of the’de1egations. Thus, here

again, it would be easy to speed up discussions.


The new government of Quebec intends to make a dynamic
contribution to constitutional revision, and this in the res~
pect for its present constitutional powers and through its
will to share in the policies of Canada as a whole. At one
and the same time, it will make a double Contribution by the
enrichment of the Quebec personality, which it seeks faith-
fully to mirror, and by the effectiveness of its initiatives
at the Canadian level.

Finally, our government sees in constitutional revision
an unparalleled opportunity and, taking into account the
circumstances which prevail in Quebec, perhaps the last op~
portunity to build a country that will match the aspirations
of Canadians.

A country where citizens and governments will, in complete
good faith and without reservations work together in the pursuit
of the aims which I took the liberty to outline briefly in the
present statement and which seem to me to correspond to the
highest interests of Quebec and of Canada.

(translated from french)

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