First Ministers Conference on the Constitution, Statement of the Prime Minister of Quebec, Mr. Rene Levesque (30 October-1 November 1978)

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Date: 1978-10-30
By: Rene Levesque
Citation: First Ministers Conference on the Constitution, Statement of the Prime Minister of Quebec, Mr. Rene Levesque (Ottawa: 30 October-1 November 1978).
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(TransIated from the French)

Ottawa, October 30, 1978


If we are here today, officially, of course, it’s because
we were invited to again examine certain projects for constitutional
change proposed some months ago by the Ottawa Government.

But what really moves us are preoccupations which have
existed much before these projects and which, may I say, indeed go
much further. It has been clear for a certain time now that the state
of the present constitutional framework, as well as federal practices,
have become increasingly less suitabie to a growing number of pro-
vinces which have made this fact known with as much frankness as firm-
ness. One can but appiaud this deveiopment.

There is still another reason which one avoids mentioning,
as much as possibie. If there exists a constitutional maiaise, and
such a serious one, it is, above all, because Quebec poses a fundamental
problem for Canada as a whole and it has been so for many years, if
not for generations. And this problem is the inability of the exist-
ing political system to meet the deep and constant aspirations of
Quebec, of the peopie of Quebec. we are not saying that this dis-
satisfaction is necessarily more visible than that of the other pro-
vinces. Since it is essentially of another nature, one even has the
impression that it always has more difficulty expressing itself
clearly enough to be understood.

But, let us try one more time anyway, if you don’t mind.

For Quebecers of the past century, the establishment of
the federal system was to be a guarantee of their political autonomy.
They perceived the new system as an insurance against centralization.
The federal pact which had come to replace the Union of Upper and
Lower Canada made them hope that they would be able finally, in the
areas which seened vital to them at that time, to fully assume the
mastery over their own affairs. And for a long time, a throng of
their heirs continued to believe this — or at least to hope that
this was true.

The illusion was even so tenacious that one still meets
people, today, who still try to hold on to it.

And yet, the proof has long been established that in the
other society, that of English Canada, from the very outset people
had understood federalism in a quite different way. Since they
neither felt the same needs nor suffered the same anxieties as Quebec,
the English-speaking Canadians had desired, or accepted, this system
essentially because it permitted the birth of a new nationality, the
existence and development of which required, in their view, a central
government which was as strong as possible. A maximum of provincial
autonomy on the one side, a maximum of federal power on the other:
thus was Canadian federalism launched, based on a tremendous mis-
understanding the best symbol of which is perhaps the perfectly
inaccurate name of “Confederation”, with which we pretend to describe

Is it necessary to say that over the years it was not the
decentralized concept which prevailed in Ottawa? Territorial ex-
pansion, the addition of new provinces, the emergence and the entrench-
ment of a big federal bureaucracy, all these factors have served to
strenghthen and, in the long run, to make dominant the centralizing
perspective of the system. From that time forward and increasingly,
Quebec, which already was the “province not like the others”, necessa-
rily took on the appearance of the square peg in the round hole. In
the name of the principles of federalism, Quebec saw itself constantly
obliged to fight the policies which Ottawa persisted in setting forth
with the same constancy, relying of course on its own version of the
same principles. And the law of the strongest being usually the best,
proposing often amounts to imposing.

After 111 years, one must perforce conclude that this con-
fusion — so well maintained that a multitude of citizens have, for a
long time now, given up trying to find themselves in it – did not
favour the development of normal relations between the two nations
of Canada.

The force of circumstances

On one side and on the other, fundamental tendencies, which
were absolutely contradictory, thus confronted each other all along
the way and, almost without interruption, Quebec has had to fight
against the one systematically favoured by the Anglo-Canadian majority,
for reasons which we can respect. The result of this was that for us,
in order to safeguard our constitutional powers, we have always had
to devote energy, resources and time which elsewhere in Canada one had
the leisure to use for purposes which were more inmediately profitable.
To such an extent is this so that one could say the system is set up
so as to leave us only one alternative: either to neglect essential
rights or to be forever disadvantaged while defending them.

For some time now, of course, opinions have changed in the
other provinces, partially meeting with the decentralizing and auto-
nomous views of Quebec. A good example of this is currently being
furnished in the field of natural resources and some among us have
thus known the exquisite frustrations which can ensue. But, overall,
may I say that the potential solutions which one has seen appear would
only modify matters superficially without really modifying the historic
tendency of English Canada; at the very most, they would rearrange
it by trying to give it a little more flexibility.

Now all of this was obscurely predictable ever since 1867,
in the mind of Quebecers. without, for all that, rejecting the
existence nor the action ofa central government, they had serious
doubts that, at the very best, their influence there would never be
other than a minority one. In order to show that they were not
wrong, one can but recall that the demographic evolution reduced
their parliamentary representation of 36% of the total in 1867 to
some 26% on the morrow of the next elections, notwithstanding the
fact that there has, at times, been in the very forefront in Ottawa,
political men from Quebec, certain of whom were of great stature.
But at the same time, the French-speaking Québecois know that it was
in Quebec only that they could form and remain a majority. For this
reason – and who could reproach them for it? — they have very natu-
rally established there the true base of their political power.
And that is also the reason why, in the collective perception as in
reality, it is in Quebec that quickly was situated and is still found
the government which for us is our national government. It is there,
and there only, that Quebec power has a guarantee of permanence.
And I ask you to believe that I have no provocative intention what-
soever in saying this: I am simply stating an undeniable historic
and psychological fact.

As time goes by and our society continues to grow, this
reality becomes more and more striking. It was not born on November
15th, 1976.V what happened two years ago is, in fact, the consequence
of an old situation which change renders less and less bearable.
The Quebecois are in fact more and more proud of their roots, more
and more self-confident. From a passive, one might even say a
resigned state, in which they found themselves heretofore, loyalty
to their origins has gradually become more dynamic and determined,
and increasingly, without forgetting the past,it is toward the future
it is mostly looking. This society shall not be able to accommodate
itself any longer with the obstacles of all sorts which the congenital
confusion of the system imposes upon it. Henceforth, it demands
that be translated in political terms its need for clarity and coherence.

A false approach

This need, which was not felt just yesterday, was almost
completely neglected during past attempts at constitu?onal revision,
particularly that of 1968-71. I would even say that its very existence
was kept as well masked as possible.

For example, it was deemed advisable to approach the Canadian
constitutional problem and, consequently, that of Quebec via an
increase in bilingualism in Canada and by a modification of certain
federal institutions; in so doing, the real question was being
very simply ignored and bypassed.

what Quebec asked for, above all, and incessantly, was
actually that the constitution guarantee the fully autonomous
exercise of all the powers necessary for its development as a
distinct society.

Following many others, including Messrs. Duplessis and
Lesage, these views were expressed from 1968 to 1971 by three
successive Prime Ministers, Messrs. Daniel Johnson, Jean-Jacques
Bertrand and Robert Bourassa. And, after many federal-provincial
meetings and task forces at all levels, the result was the disappoint-
ment of Victoria. Ottawa considered that the positions of my pre-
decessors went against its concept of Canada and that, consequently,
there was no question of doing anything about them. And yet, those
who defended them were trying as well as they could to readjust the
federal frame and not to replace it.

Needless to say, Ottawa’s attitude, as much in 1968-71
as previously, has contributed enourmously to the emergence in
Quebec of a new political approach and has led to the questioning
of federalism itself.

But past experience does not seem to have borne fruit
since, again today, the approach remains essentially the same.
If the same causes produce the same effects, there does not appear
to be any reason for the pillars of the system to expect the major
breakthrough which certain people seem to expect from the exercise
which is beginning again. It is by now conmon knowledge that one
should not necessarily equate the holding of a meeting with a meet-
ing of the minds.

Faithful to our orientation, and also to pure and simple
logic, we thus believe that our main contribution to this conference
shall not rest in a point by point discussion of the federal project
but rather in the quiet reaffinnation – and I may add, without too
many illusions – of what has been called the “historic continuity”
of Quebec demands. In this context, we thus table as a reference
document at the very least, a list of the constitutional positions
stated by the governments which have preceded ours regardless of
their Party affiliations. It is by inspiring ourselves with this
continuity that we were able to subscribe to the unanimous declaration
of the provinces at the Regina Meeting. It is the same attitude
which guides us also in the points of view which Quebec formulates
at the different federal-provincial conferences. It is, of course,
understood that we cannot assume all the formulations of these
demands since they were set forth at different times and in different
contexts. One must thus seek continuity elsewhere.

Thus, everything that one finds in this document concern-
ing municipalities, education or culture had no other purpose than
to oppose the repeated attempts of Ottawa to nibble away at respon-
sibilities of provincial jurisdiction. In other cases, those of
comnunications or the environment, for example, it was rather a ques-
tion of obtaining for Quebec a priority responsibility in sectors
which the 1867 agreement could not foresee. Finally, one finds here
a multitude of claims in fields of activity which are but the natural
extension of responsibilities already recognized as belonging to

These positions of our predecessors have this characteristic
in conmon, that they all aimed at defending the constitutional rights
of Quebec against centralization in Ottawa of the important political
levers without which a society such as ours finds itself deprived of
essential instruments for its own development. This means that they
all went very definitely in the direction ofincreased power for
Quebec. And I am sure that I shall not be contradicted by any res-
ponsible adversary if I assert, again today, that beyond differences,
the positions of all the parties in our National Assembly continue,
in the present context, to tend toward this same objective. Through
hundreds of groups and associations, representing all the sectors of
Quebec life (the most striking example being without doubt that of
the “Estates General”), it is the same will which has expressed itself
so often in formulas of varying intensity but of the same inspira-
tion going from “Particular Status” to “Associate States”, while
the governments went from “Masters in our own House” to “Equality
or Independence”.

This is the continuity which one shall find evoked in
detail in the document which I have tabled. If any substantial part
of these claims, concerning sharing of powers and the benefits of
power, in particular those which have met with the unanimous approval
of the provinces, finally became the object of a solid and concrete
consensus around this table, we are not here to refuse it. There is
nothing more legitimate in the present framework.

It does seem to us, however, that after so many negative
years and with the feeling of urgency which, just recently, the Speech
from the Throne pretended to reveal, not only is the ball in Ottawa’s
camp, but the return should be inmediate. There is no question of
again getting lost in those labyrinths which lead interminably from
conferences to committees and from committees to conferences for, if
such should be the case, we must express right now a skepticism solidly
nurtured on past experience.

And one will readily understand that, no matter what happens,
there is no question of giving up the important consultation of the
referendum, where Quebecers will, for the very first time in their
history, have the opportunity of freely expressing themselves
concerning their future. And until then,we shall not cease to pro-
pose this option of Sovereignty-Association which seems to us, the
only truly modern and logical way of reorganizing essential relation-
ships between us. Of course, between this solution and the reform
of the status quo, there is a fundamental difference, a difference
which would represent the acceleration but not at all a contradiction
of the permanent course of our history and our aspirations. Even
if, in the past. we did not dare or could not admit to ourselves
that it would be its most normal result.

In a word, Sovereignty-Association is, we are sure, a
legitimate expression of Quebec continuity and a less equivocal one
than any other.


But this national affirmation would, on the other hand,
not contain any desire to timidly shut ourselves off in a spirit of
ethnocentrism or introversion. As Quebecers have become more self-
assured, the internal continuity became interfaced with a growing
willingness to be open to others and it is more apparent today than
it ever was in the past. Quebecers are neither an aggressive nor a
vengeful people. Obviously, they hold fast, as any other people
would, to defending their rights and interests and see to it that
their government not neglect that duty. But if they wish to be
respected by others, they are fully disposed to extend the same to
all others and, most particularly, toward those of the rest of Canada
with whom there have been established, over the years, relationships
as numerous as they are varied.

Our government completely endorses this further aspect of
the Quebec tradition because it is both positive and productive.
we are and we want to remain open to those who surround us. If we
ask our Quebec compatriots to approve the replacement of the federal
system by another fonn of association among ourselves, it is precisely
because we seek to reconcile that which appears to us of vital inter-
est to the people of Quebec, with this other required continuity,
that of Canada. when we shall have the mandate to speak of it again,
officially, I ask you to believe that it will not be stubborn egoism
nor a cramped and closed nationalism which will have led us to this

We are sufficiently realistic to know that a negative or
narrow-minded attitude on our part or on the part of the rest of
Canada would, in the short and the long term, be prejudicial to every-
one without rendering the least service to anyone.

For this reason we shall, all of us in the years to come
and starting today, have to free ourseives on both sides from con-
venient prejudices, over-simplifications as well as facile and
superficial slogans. It seems to us that in Quebec we have been
nurturing,since the very beginning of our collective memory, a pro-
foundly legitimate objective – that of building for ourselves, with-
out hurting others, an environment, institutions and means of action
which can finally permit us to counter excessive dependence, in a
word – to be masters in our own house. In the same way, however,
we perfectly agree that our growth should in no way prevent our part-
ners of other provinces from developing as they see fit. Conse-
quently, we are convinced that it will be possible, once the political
future of Quebec has been determined, to co-operate together without
bitterness and with mutual respect, better, perhaps, than we have
ever succeeded up to the present time.

When one thinks of the future, there are so many possibilities
which are open to Canadians and to Quebecers that we would be wrong,
in the face of History, if we did not try together, while frankly
recognizing our differences, to resolutely correct the present so that
it cease, once and for all time, from sterilizing the promises of the


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