MARCH 5, 1981
Ontario and the Constitutional Proposals
AN ADDRESS BY The Honourable William G. Davis, PREMIER OF ONTARIO
CHAIRMAN The President, Reginald Stackhouse
Ladies and gentlemen: Our distinguished speaker today has addressed The Empire Club of Canada on six previous occasions, and is surely the best known citizen of Ontario.
So your President has a problem.
How do I introduce a man who needs no introduction? How do I do it without reiterating the redundant? Or without fathoming the familiar? Or without outlining the obvious?
One way is to follow the example of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. When introducing his chief of government, he says simply, "the President of the United States." No fuller elaboration is necessary; no greater distinction is possible.
Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, to introduce a man who needs no introduction, I will simply say I deem it a great honour, and it gives me great personal pleasure, to present to you the Premier of Ontario.
THE HONOURABLE WILLIAM G. DAVIS: Ladies and gentlemen: I very much appreciate this invitation to address the Empire Club, for this forum provides a singular opportunity for me to comment on concerns that have always dominated the interests of this club: Canada, and her evolving national responsibilities and opportunities.
Ontario's willingness and ability to face the challenges posed by the political structure and the changing circumstances of this country go without saying. Confederation has always been a justifiable obsession for Ontarians. For we have, traditionally, always looked upon ourselves as Canadians first and, I would like to believe, we have never hesitated, when it was required, to put national interests ahead of those of a more parochial nature.
The historical role that such a commitment represents is more than a passing political fancy. From generation to generation, Ontarians have demonstrated a fundamental concern for Canada--a commitment to the Canadian ideal which is part of our very character, part of the essential spirit of Ontario.
I recognize that the two difficult and interrelated problems facing Canada today, the supply and cost of energy and constitutional reform, vex many, including those from all parts of Canada whose commitment to this nation is no less than our own. Clearly, no province, no region, and certainly no Canadian, has a monopoly on national conscience. I do not suggest, therefore, that those who disagree with the basic positions adopted by the government of this province care less deeply for Canada than we do. I would only ask that those who oppose our views recognize that the government I have the privilege to lead takes its position from the same deep concern for our country.
But let me stress that, even as the debate becomes more heated and the related problems seemingly more complicated, perhaps even threatening, I intend to pursue my commitments in these two areas--namely energy and the constitution--with continued vigour and determination. These are commitments which run to the heart of my view of Canada and my responsibility to Ontarians. As a Conservative in the Ontario tradition, I am unrepentant in my belief that Canada must have a strong national government that can speak and act for all Canadians. Sir John A. Macdonald, as the key Father of Confederation, strove to turn the vision of such a government into a reality. He recognized that there must be an overriding national voice on those matters that touched the lives of all the inhabitants of British North America.
Almost without exception, his successors have attempted to maintain the goal of an effective national government within our federated structure. And they endeavoured to do so within the context of changing circumstances, many of which were not contemplated by the provisions of the British North America Act. Similarly, while there have often been federal-provincial arguments and tensions, few premiers, until recently at least, have openly sought to undermine federal authority.
This has been particularly true in Ontario. For example, my distinguished predecessor, John Robarts, never lacked the courage to carry the flag of national concern. At the opening of the constitutional conference of February 10, 1969, he said, "We support a strong federal government. We have always done so. We believe it is absolutely necessary for the interests of all Canada. The diversity of our country requires that we have a strong central government to hold the diverse parts together."
Now, it goes without saying that as a premier who has actively campaigned against the Liberals in Ottawa alongside John Diefenbaker, Bob Stanfield and Joe Clark, I hold some strong opinions as to which party I would prefer to see form the government in Ottawa. But my commitment to supporting strong national government relates to my view of Canada and the needs of our nation and not to any partisan affiliation. As Premier and as a Canadian my duty is to sustain, without equivocation, the national vision of men like Macdonald and Robarts and I will continue to do so.
I took that position in Quebec when I campaigned against René Lévesque and the separatists there. I took the same position when I felt that the interests of Canadians were threatened by a revenue distribution and pricing system related to the energy situation in Canada.
This now highly controversial energy issue, I would assert, is fundamental to the kind of choices Ontarians must make. There are those seeking support in this provincial election campaign who have flirted with accepting the notion of world price. We, on the other hand, are asking Ontarians to reflect on our consistent championing of what we regard as fair Canadian energy pricing and the effective sharing of the national fiscal burden by all regions. We believe that this is the basis upon which all Canadians can derive some of the benefits of the good fortune that has befallen this country because of our real and potential energy resources.
Now, I am well aware that some in our country would accept, with equanimity, a very significant crude oil price increase. And I assume that a significant percentage of those who would, could easily adjust. In fact, some may think it would be good for the soul. But much more is involved.
In the first instance, with energy and food prices already expected to rise by approximately twenty per cent and fifteen per cent respectively this year, the additional loss of spending power, and consequently jobs and growth, caused by a big jump in prices now would be dangerous and unnecessary. But fundamentally, a long-term settlement of oil and natural gas pricing demands that we come to grips with the immense challenge of agreeing on a fair sharing of our natural resource revenues.
This cannot be avoided. At stake is the viability of our federal system, as well as our capacity and, indeed, our willingness to pursue common goals.
Our policy statement of August 1979, was straightforward. We did not ignore, in fact we documented, the array of factors pressing for higher prices. However, we warned that if prices did rise substantially a basic change in distribution of resource revenues was absolutely fundamental if we were to:
- achieve national oil self-sufficiency;
- avert an unnecessary recession;
- avert undue hardship to the consumer;
- enhance industrial adjustment for all regions.
That, in my view, remains the dimensions of the challenge. Rather than inflict economic harm on each other, we must get on with serious and candid discussions and set aside evasive rhetoric and escalating distrust. I am not without understanding of the difficulties and the seriousness of the current situation. Further, as I have said earlier, it is both sad and of deep concern that a provincial government, presiding over the most rapidly expanding economy in the country, should respond to this prolonged disagreement by imposing serious economic penalties on the people who live in the rest of Canada. Surely that is unacceptable to the vast majority of Canadians, including those who live in the western provinces.
The government of Ontario has neither the authority to set oil prices nor control over oil production. The people of Ontario, however, as Canadians, have every reason to expect that the national interest will govern the ultimate resolution of this matter. That interest requires that the federal government and Alberta get on with serious discussions to resolve the situation without delay.
For our part, we intend to develop our attitudes and undertake our activities with that same national interest in mind. And, if I may say so in your midst, Ontario will play its role more effectively and to greater purpose if, after March 19, it is represented by a government that has been given a clear and precise mandate by the people of this province to speak and act on their behalf.
And now let me turn to the closely related issue of the constitution. I say closely related because the troubles associated with energy clearly overlap with those now facing our country in regard to the constitution. Indeed, I remain absolutely convinced that if the questions arising from energy pricing and supply had been resolved, we would not have a "constitutional crisis" in Canada today.
As to my own position on the constitution, I am again shaped by the tradition that I have inherited as an Ontario Conservative. It is a tradition that serves Canada first and well. There is much about the present constitutional issue that is unsettling for a Premier from Ontario. I am not particularly glad of heart that I am, except for New Brunswick, somewhat isolated in my support for constitutional reform as it is currently being proposed. As is well known, the Prime Minister of Canada shares neither my politics nor my approach to the art of politics. There are many things he has done that I would have done differently. Ontarians know that confrontation has not been my style, nor my preference. Yet, we in Ontario must keep in mind that there are no confrontations without excess on both sides. We should also remind ourselves that in a free society important change is not likely to occur unless there is some resistance and even bitter debate.
In 1979 and again last September, I proposed to the first ministers of this country that we get constitutional reform underway by at least taking the step to patriate our constitution, with an amending formula if possible, but without it if no agreement could be reached. As far as I can determine, we could attain almost complete unanimity on that proposal today but, unfortunately, few were willing to act on it at the time.
We support the existing proposals for constitutional reform because they represent our traditional priorities and loyalties and because they are consistent with our overall views as to what is best for Canada--views that we have supported at constitutional meetings for well over a decade.
What are the key elements we have championed for over a decade?
A strong national government is preserved. The monarchy is protected.
Human and political rights are enhanced.
The right of Canadians to move from province to province freely to pursue their own future is enshrined. The right of parents to educate their children in whichever of the two founding languages they choose is protected where numbers warrant.
The continuing capacity of the provinces to protect private property remains unchanged.
A fair amending formula is proposed to meet the country's future needs for change.
Much of this, of course, was set out in the so-called Victoria Charter of 1971. That charter, you will recall, originally received support from all provinces. Indeed, even though it was not perfect, one Toronto newspaper said:
... what is in the charter, in fact, is of almost no importance. It is the idea that is important.
The particular surge of discussions which peaked in Victoria has continued over four years and eight conferences. It must reach a point of decision now or fail for years, perhaps forever.
The present constitution can be amended, where both federal and provincial governments are concerned, only with the consent of all eleven governments. The charter would make this possible with the consent of only six of the eleven. It would be, by that much, more flexible than what now exists: that much more capable of accommodating difference ...
The Globe and Mail meant what it said on June 23, 1971, just as I did when I spoke on behalf of Ontario in support of that charter almost a decade ago.
It would be possible, of course, to comment at length on each of the various elements of the constitutional package now before the federal Parliament. I shall not try your patience by doing so. There is one matter, however, in which Ontario has featured prominently, that of language rights, on which I feel compelled to make this brief comment. To those, both here in Ontario and elsewhere, who would attack me for not making Ontario officially bilingual I offer a simple and direct response. Unnecessary excess that corrects no injustice serves no purpose. Understanding and commitment to fairness, on the other hand, breeds tolerance and co-operation. We will not, in Ontario, be stampeded to repeat the mistakes of others. We will chart our own path, in fairness and understanding, in the broad interest of all Ontarians.
In summary, we have a package of constitutional changes that are consistent with Ontario's traditional views as well as our perception of current needs. I regret that many of my fellow Premiers do not share that overall view but to wait for unanimity would be to wait forever. Canadians deserve better.
During the Confederation debates of 1865, Macdonald issued this invitation:
I would again implore ... not to let this opportunity pass. It is an opportunity that may never recur.... If we do not take advantage of the time, if we show ourselves unequal to the occasion, it may never return, and we shall hereafter bitterly and unavailingly regret having failed to embrace the happy opportunity now offered ...
That invitation was taken up by George Brown, a man of political persuasion quite other than Macdonald's, who said on February 8, 1865:
There is one consideration, Mr. Speaker, that cannot be banished from this discussion, and that ought, I think, be remembered in every word we utter: it is that the constitutional system of Canada cannot remain as it is now. Something must be done. We cannot stand still. We cannot go back to chronic sectional hostility and discord ... Such words, uttered by two Fathers of Confederation over 116 years ago, strike me as being very appropriate today.
Surely there can be no doubt that all reasonable Canadians are anxious to see the current constitutional wrangle put to rest. Having believed for many years that constitutional reform required certain basic elements, and being now presented with a package that includes many of those basic elements, I, for one, cannot and do not believe that it is the content of the proposed package that is causing the bulk of the difficulty.
Rather, in terms of provincial resistance, it is what each regards as the missing elements that is causing the majority of the Premiers to oppose the current proposals. When they see constitutional arrangements that they believe are essential being ignored, and when they see what they feel is the Prime Minister's "unilateral action" on this package, their resistance grows in all dimensions and the arguments become even stronger. And that situation, in turn, complicates the process and leads to the constant debate and court actions that are all part of the current drama.
This is all extremely disturbing to the Canadian people, including the citizens of Ontario, who would like to believe that their politicians, on behalf of their people, could settle such issues in a somewhat more civilized and even-handed way.
Unfortunately, we have not met their expectations. Indeed, some have moved so dramatically in the other direction that process and substance are now completely intertwined in the thinking of many of the Canadian people and they are both upset and confused.
For Ontario's part I see nothing to be gained by adding to the confusion. I am not, quite frankly, happy with the process and, while I may be reflecting the benefit of hindsight, I believe that it could have been handled in a more effective, less provocative way. The debate was necessary; voices on all sides deserved to be heard; there was and is no need to hurry the process to the extent that anyone is denied his opportunity to speak or have his point of view considered.
But the fact that events have not unfolded as smoothly or as effectively as one would have liked is not, in itself, justification for (if I can use a very Canadian phrase) "moving Ontario off the puck"--that "puck" being a package of constitutional reforms which we feel is sound and support for which had been part of the Ontario position long before I became your Premier. And I sincerely believe that when the constitutional changes are in place and an acceptable energy package has been completed, the nature and dimensions of the current debate, with all its apparent bitterness, will not have permanently divided the country.
Arriving at this conclusion, quite frankly, has not been easy. For all kinds of reasons, not the least of which were political, Ontario could have abandoned its support in the face of the growing storm. Particularly disturbing, I might add, has been the reported possibility of the difficulties the package may encounter at Westminster and the subsequent impact that such difficulties could have upon our relationships with the United Kingdom and, indeed, the monarchy.
As you know, with respect to the monarchy there is no equivocation as to Ontario's position. It is the basic symbol of our British democracy. It is, therefore, non-negotiable. Her Majesty the Queen will reign as the sovereign of this nation, and as the sovereign of this province, as long as I have a role in the public life of Ontario. That commitment is fundamental to everything I have ever stood for.
In summary, let me stress that I am not here today to make excuses for my vision of Canada. I am here to say that a strong Ontario--supportive of the national interest, conciliatory to its sister provinces, true to its loyalties and principles, envigorated by appropriate programs of economic growth and expansion--is the instrument for national unity we all have the power to help shape.
What kind of voice will Ontario bring to the national table? What mandate will those who speak for Ontario have? Who will speak for the vision of our people, the aspirations of our children, young Canadians all who believe desperately in one Canada, strong, democratic and free? Those are among the more serious decisions Ontarians will be making on March 19.
As they ponder that choice, I can only offer this one, simple pledge. No challenge can overwhelm us as long as we believe in ourselves. No threat to national unity can prevail as long as we, the Canadians of Ontario, stand resolute and firm. No Prime Minister and no other provincial Premier can weaken the goodwill that binds Canadians, if we, the Canadians of Ontario, sustain our goodwill to all who share this magnificent nation with us. No economic difficulty need be left unchallenged as long as we have adequate self-confidence and do the best we can.
The future will belong to those in this country who are not too timid to believe in it, and thereby affirm their faith in themselves as Canadians.
All across Canada the economic and political leadership we choose will determine our capacity to sustain that pledge.
The great people of this historic and loyal province have always played their part. That will not change. To that end, led us dedicate our efforts and our hearts. To that end, let us all, as Ontarians and as Canadians, leave no stone unturned.
The thanks of the club were expressed to Mr. Davis by Arthur Langley, a Past President of The Empire Club of Canada.