Canada after February 18, 1980
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 6 Mar 1980, p. 280-292
McMurtry, The Honourable Roy, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
A troubling mood within Canada, one of weary resignation. A party division in the House of Commons projected into an apparent national schism. Why we can't afford complacency. Complacency as a weapon for the Parti Québeécois. The belief in a future for Canada with Quebec. Rising to the challenge of preserving and strengthening our nation. A new constitution. Whether or not we can make a new constitution work. A new constitution as a symbol of our will to live together. The need for compromise, cooperation and accommodation. The relationship between the federal and provincial governments and how they have changed. Regional tension. Ontario's position with regard to Quebec. Proposed reforms on economic policy. Formal recognition of basic human rights, including language rights, for all Canadians. The need to develop a new model of Canada. New ways of achieving the goal of diversity in unity.
Date of Original
6 Mar 1980
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Full Text
MARCH 6, 1980
Canada after February 18, 1980
CHAIRMAN The President, John A. MacNaughton


Ladies and gentlemen of The Empire Club of Canada: Our guest of honour today, the Honourable Roy McMurtry, Attorney General for the Province of Ontario, was first scheduled to address the Empire Club several weeks ago. However, when the leader of a national political party approached the club to see if we could offer him a platform during the election campaign on the date already held for Mr. McMurtry we approached the Attorney General's office to see if he would agree to a delay. Not surprisingly, he graciously accepted a postponement.

For those of you in the audience who cynically think that Roy McMurtry played politics and stood aside to accommodate the leader of his national party, Joe Clark, I hasten to tell you that you are incorrect. Roy McMurtry's postponement was to enable us to provide a forum for Ed Broadbent.

And because it is important to us as an organization to be viewed in the community as a platform available to all major political parties, on behalf of the members of the club I begin today by thanking Roy McMurtry for agreeing to delay his visit so that we could hear from the New Democrats during the recently concluded general election.

Roland Roy McMurtry is one of Toronto's best known native sons. He was born and raised and educated in this city. Since his graduation from the University of Toronto and Osgoode Hall and his call to the Bar he has practised law in Toronto and served his community as a Member of the Legislative Assembly and his province as Attorney General.

Mr. McMurtry is one of those rare politicians who had a high profile before entering public office. While at the University of Toronto he was a prominent athlete. Through his law practice he established a reputation, not only as a skilled professional, but also as a champion of such diverse causes as support for the Metro Police Force and opponent of the 1970 imposition of the War Measures Act. Over the years the Toronto Sun has published columns by many politicians who, on their defeat, became journalists. Roy McMurtry reversed the pattern--he was a Sun columnist first and a politician second.

Mr McMurtry is an issue-oriented Attorney General who has spoken out on such matters as violence in hockey, drinking drivers and seat belts. On each issue he has sparked a public debate. His view of his role as a legislator was included in an article in the February 7, 1976 edition of the Canadian Magazine:

I'm not trying to ram laws down people's throats, but my job--as I see it--is to raise issues of concern and get people thinking about them, talking about them. An expression of opinion, that's what I want. I don't believe that the purpose of getting elected is to get re-elected. I don't believe in burying my convictions in the interests of not offending somebody or hurting the party. To hell with that, I was elected to do a job, to lead.

Mr. McMurtry is also a well-regarded weekend painter who has won compliments from artist Harold Town.

His judgment on the Attorney General's paintings confirms that our guest's artistic style is much the same as his approach to politics. Mr. Town observed: "McMurtry's work prefers direct colour and avoids muddy middle tones."

Ladies and gentlemen, the Empire Club last heard from an Ontario Attorney General in 1951 when we were addressed by one of Mr. McMurtry's distinguished predecessors, the Honourable Dana Porter. It is our privilege to again be host to our province's chief law enforcement officer and I ask you to welcome him now, the Honourable R. Roy McMurtry who will address us on the topic "Canada After February 18, 1980."

THE HONOURABLE R. ROY MCMURTRY: Mr. President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for that welcome. I am delighted to have the opportunity to address the Empire Club.

I am told by those familiar with the history of the Empire Club that though you have provincial politicians as guest speakers fairly frequently, only very occasionally have you let an Attorney General address you. I admit that we do constitute a unique breed among politicians. Indeed it has been almost thirty years since an Ontario Attorney General has spoken here. In 1951, the Honourable Dana Porter addressed the club on the subject "What's Wrong with the Canadian Constitution?" Plus Ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Thirty years later and we are still talking about the same question.

Nevertheless, one of the interesting phenomena of the recent election was that while our nation is facing one of the most formidable challenges in our history, no less than the future of our Confederation, no leader really wanted to talk about it. Certainly historians will reflect on the curious fact that the electorate appeared much more interested in whether or not they were going to pay eighteen cents more a gallon.

Certainly in many people's minds the future of Canada is a tired subject. They are weary of calls for change and bored with talk of a new constitutional bargain. Doubting a clear solution to the nation's ills, they start to doubt whether indeed there is a real problem which requires a solution. That attitude was found repeatedly by Mr. Robarts and Mr. Pepin in their study.

And since February 18, I detect a troubling mood within Canada, a mood which to me is disquieting and dangerous. The mood appears to be a weary resignation in the face of the problem of a nation divided. A party division in the House of Commons is being projected by many into an apparent national schism.

But this resignation is a form of complacency that we simply cannot afford. Firstly because it can deny the will to change. But more importantly because it may encourage politicians throughout Canada to take rigid, inflexible attitudes to change. If each government makes its own particular concerns non-negotiable items at any conference table, complete frustration and immobility will result. The temptation to play confrontation politics, to play to the grandstand, is the worrying consequence.

To the Parti Quebecois, such an attitude in the rest of Canada is an invaluable weapon. Mr. Levesque's rhetoric is almost plausible and often reassuring to his audiences. His speech at this club a few weeks ago was a masterly demonstration of how he can charm an audience, how he can sugar-coat the dismemberment of a nation.

Yet we here all believe that our future lies together, that despite our cultural and linguistic differences, despite the rigours of climate and the tensions of regional disparity, we will continue to share a common destiny. This destiny has often demanded courage, compromise and tolerance from us all and that simply is the record of our nation's history. In this I am reminded of Ernest Renan's classic definition of a nation: "A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle, to have a common glory in the past, a common will in the present. To have done great things together, to want to do them again--these are the conditions for the existence of a nation."

These are not easy days for Canada or Canadians. Sometimes it seems as if all that we have built together, the institutions and traditions which we cherish, are being called into question. Our national fabric is under attack. The strains of Confederation are felt everywhere, in our sister province of Quebec, in the bustling, energy-rich west, in the Atlantic Provinces where grievances descend from generation to generation, and in the cold frontiers of the north.

We are all of us called to rise to a formidable challenge--a challenge which will require the utmost sympathy and goodwill. It is, indeed, the challenge of preserving and strengthening our nation. We often speak as if this is a question that comprehends simply the making of a new constitutional settlement, and the enactment of a truly Canadian constitution. But, of course, it's much more than that. A new constitution is important. But it's simply an outward and visible sign of our efforts to strengthen Canada. Any written constitution is essentially a legal document that must rest upon and gain its force from the acceptance and generosity of each individual Canadian.

One of our great constitutional scholars, Dr. J. Alex Corry, put it well recently. He said:

What can we reasonably expect a constitution to do for us? First, it is never a guarantee of good government. If the constitution is a good one, in the sense of fitting well with the balance of opinions and attitudes in the country, it makes good government that much easier to achieve. But the main service of a good constitution is to put obstacles in the way of bad government. If the constitution safeguards an area of freedom that is generally congenial to the people and gives them the means and processes for asserting their rights, an alert people eager to conserve their freedoms will use the constitution to thwart bad government. But a stream cannot rise higher than its source, and a people not capable of governing themselves well will not rise to the opportunities a good constitution affords.

The important thing is perhaps not so much the elegance or the technical virtuosity of a new constitutional arrangement, but whether or not we can make it work and whether or not we want to make it work. The Fathers of Confederation put together a constitutional instrument which no one thought perfect. Yet it has worked because they and successive generations have made it work. With a few changes and many working adjustments, our constitution has served us pretty well for over a hundred years. It has not always been easy. It has involved conflict. It has involved hard bargaining. And above all it has involved compromise and accommodation.

A new constitution is important as a symbol of our will to live together. At the same time meaningful progress need not wait for the grand design of a new constitution. If the will to change is truly there, much can be done by normal political and legislative action so long as the spirit of co-operation prevails. If our constitution reflects any single set of principles, they are principles of accommodation and compromise. It was clear in 1867, as it is today, that Canada could survive only with the consent of each region, each major cultural group, in each province. That basic and continuing historical fact means now, as it did then, that we must be willing to share fairly in the burdens as well as the benefits of the partnership we call Confederation.

We can change the letter of constitutional law as much as we like, but unless we rekindle the fundamental spirit of compromise, co-operation and accommodation, any new constitution, any new arrangement for Confederation, may well be an empty form of words.

A good friend and colleague of mine, Roy Romanow, Attorney General of Saskatchewan, put it well recently, talking of the slow and arduous process of reshaping our constitution. He said: "I know how difficult it is to generate public enthusiasm for such a slow process so lacking in drama. It seems like a very dull way to revive a nation. Yet this is exactly how Canada was born. It was born through accommodation and compromise. It was born through hard bargaining on the economic, social and cultural realities of the time. Perhaps it really is an uniquely Canadian approach to nation-building."

The February 18 election marked a new stage in our political development. It also underscored the difficulty which all our political parties have in making themselves truly national, in establishing their ability to speak for every province and region.

This difficulty, added to the traditional "Bunker mentality" of the Ottawa bureaucracy, certainly does present a grave potential for the exacerbation of regional differences and tensions. While constitutional reform must continue to be a major goal, its achievement will be of little value if it is not accompanied by a fundamental change in attitude, not only in Ottawa with respect to the provinces but how the provinces themselves view one another and Ottawa.

Firstly, the federal government has demonstrated enormous difficulty over the years in recognizing the maturing of the provincial governments. This problem is undoubtedly aggravated by the essentially inward-looking attitude of a bureaucracy that "is the only game in town."

While I do not wish to be overly partisan on this occasion, the fact is that the federal bureaucracy has not changed fundamentally for most of this century. One can only express the hope that the re-election of the present government after so brief an interregnum will not encourage the perpetuation of an enormous amount of insensitivity to the fundamental diversity of our nation. At the same time political leaders in all provinces must demonstrate a greater capacity to cool the rhetoric, whether it relates to the federal government or to one another.

As well as toning down the rhetoric, it is also essential that provincial politicians communicate not only more with one another but perhaps more importantly with the citizens of all provinces. I find it rather ironic that members of the P.Q. government have probably spoken in more provinces than have members of the other nine provincial governments in total.

The recent election has certainly increased the level of regional tension. We hear angry voices in the west, and I can understand their anger. I've talked to westerners about the remoteness of Ottawa and about the grievances which they've felt almost since they entered Confederation. I've talked to Newfoundlanders about their economic dependence and the fact that thousands of their sons and daughters have to leave home for the mainland for jobs. Now with an oil boom of enormous potential off their coast, some Newfoundlanders are talking about closing their borders to our sons and daughters who would find employment there.

What we have in these cases is a frightening mood of revenge, of punishment, for real and imagined sins of the past. Too often those grievances seem to be elevated into a conspiracy theory of Confederation, with Bay Street, Ottawa and Montreal combined to deprive the rest of Canada of its inheritance. That's nonsense and we should say so.

We in Ontario have no proprietary notions about the economic and political decision-making that governs Canada. I believe that we see our role as that of providing balance, leadership, and above all, in shaping and encouraging the mood of reconciliation so vital to national survival. Ontario and Quebec share some historical relationships which are critical in cultural and social terms to the ultimate success of the Canadian partnership. Quebec, Ontario and Alberta share some mutual economic dependencies which are critical to national viability.

Certainly, we in Ontario have always known of the strains and stresses that have faced Confederation and we will carry at least our share of the responsibility in resolving these challenges. Our position, therefore, will continue to be relatively straightforward. Every province is our friend. All share with us a common destiny with Canada. We share a common purpose and there also is a common link to our aspirations. The challenge for Ontario and for all Canadians lies in our building a common front on the issues of understanding, minority rights, and national reconciliation.

We've got to abandon old myths and concentrate on what we can do well together, and be resolute in keeping our eye firmly on the larger horizon. Sensitivity, tolerance and understanding must be the watchwords in Confederation after February 18.

I cannot emphasize too strongly that this fine country of ours is not an abstraction, and should not be spoken of that way, for it is filled with good people the majority of whom I am confident are eager to find and affirm constructive ways of living together in all their rich diversity.

I worry, however, about some widely circulating myths which I see cropping up far too often, in language that is grossly distorted, and in a manner that is so careless, to put it charitably, that it promotes deeper misunderstanding precisely at the point that we should be cultivating greater sensitivity towards one another. We all know that the last few years in our country have been no picnic. The world started to shift rather dramatically around us, and in retrospect Canada has probably not responded to these significant changes in a sufficiently vigorous and imaginative way. But internally, domestically, we sure went to town on each other. Ironically, we showed a lot of vigour and imagination in that department!

Perhaps it is an old custom among some Canadians to have a real go at one another when the going gets tough. And we have had some great wrangles in the past few years--be they over resources, languages, unemployment, rising prices and falling real incomes. You name it. We've wrangled about it.

Grievous times can produce grievous words. I understand that and as no one promised me a bed of roses in public life I also understand the difficulty in finding an acceptable consensus on thorny issues over which reasonable people can and do disagree.

But when one has said all that, then perhaps we can reflect that it is time for responsible people to pick up the pieces, and gently but firmly to begin to repair a treasured possession--in this case, our country and all its people who have been given the privilege of living in it.

Now is not the time for politicians or governments to adopt inflexible positions, or to confront one another in the hope of satisfying a parochial constituency. This is 1980. The stakes are too high. This form of posturing must be avoided at all costs by all levels of government. Now is the time when all governments must look to positive solutions to their problems and redefine their particular identity in the national mosaic.

Where does Ontario stand? Ontario's position is clear. ,,Ontario maintains an open and flexible attitude to confederation. We are unbending in our dedication to the integrity of Canada, and we will not be parties to the dismemberment of our nation, either by the secession of a province, or by the evisceration of that central authority which is vital to national economic and social progress.

On the economic front we have proposed reforms to make sure that Confederation works to enhance the development of our potential in all regions, rather than hinder it, including a precise definition of the powers needed by the federal government to run the national economy.

We have asked for formal recognition of basic human rights, including language rights, for all Canadians.

We think a new constitution should set out clearly provincial ownership and legislative power over natural resources.

We have asked for a clarification of the roles and responsibilities of the two levels of government together with some flexibility to accommodate differing provincial goals and to eliminate overlap, waste and confusion.

Ontario's commitment to reform is a broad one. It shows unequivocally that Ontario feels that Canada's parts can be strengthened, while at the same time the nation as a whole must be truly effective in those areas of concern which touch us all.

In a country as regionally diverse as Canada, building the future must be based on working out joint solutions. We believe that our system of federalism is flexible and adaptable, and can meet reasonable demands from the various regions of the country, while at the same time leaving the federal government with sufficient authority to protect and enhance Canada's interests in the world and our common interests at home.

We in Ontario can and do sympathize with many of the concerns expressed by other provinces. We can support the direction of the proposals made by the Quebec Liberal party which offer the possibility of a new kind of relationship, while preserving the overall structure of Canada. The debate currently taking place in the Assemblee Nationale on the referendum question clearly demonstrates that there is ample ground for innovation between the extremes of sovereignty association with its unknown future, and the sterility of the status quo.

We face the need to develop a new model of Canada, which allows each region enough flexibility to nurture its own special identity and culture, and which maintains a strong central government fully capable of pursuing the national interest. We must find ways of reconciling regionalism and the multiple identifications of people with a focus on the nation as the primary focus of loyalties and as the principal actor in the international sphere. The challenge is to accommodate diversity in unity.

Canada may yet show the world new ways of -achieving this goal. The drama is still continuing to unfold, and we cannot guess at its conclusion. It is a drama of law, and of politics and of commitment too. That commitment is to something intangible--a spirit--something called Canada.

Let me end with the words of Professor Jacques Monet, a distinguished Canadian historian, and a Quebecois: "The challenge of brotherhood, of an experiment that bursts through the limits of nationalism to embrace men of diverse ways and diverse tongues, is what it means to be a Canadian. You see, it is not a question of economics or common sense: it is a question of the heart."

The thanks of the club were expressed to Mr. McMurtry by Joseph H. Potts, a Past President of The Empire Club of Canada.

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Canada after February 18, 1980

A troubling mood within Canada, one of weary resignation. A party division in the House of Commons projected into an apparent national schism. Why we can't afford complacency. Complacency as a weapon for the Parti Québeécois. The belief in a future for Canada with Quebec. Rising to the challenge of preserving and strengthening our nation. A new constitution. Whether or not we can make a new constitution work. A new constitution as a symbol of our will to live together. The need for compromise, cooperation and accommodation. The relationship between the federal and provincial governments and how they have changed. Regional tension. Ontario's position with regard to Quebec. Proposed reforms on economic policy. Formal recognition of basic human rights, including language rights, for all Canadians. The need to develop a new model of Canada. New ways of achieving the goal of diversity in unity.