Canada and the Constitution
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 13 Oct 1992, p. 67-76
Rae, The Hon. Bob, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
A joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada and The Canadian Club of Toronto.
An address focusing on three famous philosophical questions: If I'm not for myself, then who is for me? But if I am only for myself, then what am I? And, if not now, when? Discussion follows in an attempt to answer these questions, with regard to the speaker's record in government. Subjects covered during this discussion include the following. An equal Senate. Ontario's role in the Social Charter. The Constitution. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Reform of the Supreme Court. Aboriginal self-government. Quebec's sense of place. A moment of reconciliation in Canada.
Date of Original
13 Oct 1992
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Full Text
The Hon. Bob Rae, Premier of Ontario
Chairman: Isabel Bassett
President, The Canadian Club of Toronto


Today, as you know, we are welcoming the Premier of Ontario, who is going to speak to us on Canada and the Constitution. The present constitutional crisis in Canada has wiped out political party lines so that representatives of the three major parties in Canada, both at the federal and provincial levels, are seeking every opportunity to speak across this nation to urge Canadians to vote Yes in the referendum on October 26th.

Premier Rae, who represents our great and beloved province of Ontario, took an active part and played a highly significant role in the political discussions which resulted ultimately in unanimous agreement among the federal government, all the provincial premiers and representatives of the Aboriginal peoples.

What took place at Charlottetown on August 28, 1992, is a remarkable achievement. We welcome Premier Rae here, not only as Premier of Ontario, but as a key player in the Charlottetown Accord. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Premier Bob Rae.

Bob Rae

Thank you very much Isabel. It's a great pleasure to be here this morning. Let me also say that I am somewhat nervous speaking in front of my mother who's here from Ottawa. It's not often that a 44-year-old Premier gets to be reprimanded or congratulated by his mother depending on the quality of his speech.

Let me also say, Isabel, that I am not just doing this because this is rebroadcast three times on cable television in Brampton. It is a particular honour and pleasure for me to be speaking in the presence of the former Premier of Ontario. I can't think of anyone who better represented the common sense of Ontarians during 14 exciting and turbulent years and represented the province in two rounds of constitutional negotiations at Victoria and in Ottawa.

One of the particular pleasures of being Premier is that those who've had the job know what a constant joy and delight it is; it involves no difficult decisions. Without giving anything away, I want to say to this former Premier that I have deeply appreciated his advice. I have not followed all of it, but with respect to the Constitution, I think it's fair to say I followed most of it. And I very much appreciate the support that he has given to me personally and to my family. I'm just very proud that he's on the platform today.

Let me make it clear that I'm not calling on him to return to public life; I will leave that to others.

My text today is a very simple one. The Rabbi Mymonides used to ask questions rather than give answers in an attempt to elicit wisdom. And he asked three famous questions which, it seems to me, will lead us to one conclusion with respect to the issue which is upon us.

The three questions: If I'm not for myself, then who is for me? But if I am only for myself, then what am I? And, if not now, when?

If I am not for myself then who is for me? One of the difficult things that a Premier has to do in these discussions is to recognize that if you don't speak up for your own area or your own people or your own region, no one else will.

And so one of the tasks that I took into these discussions, as Premier Davis took into earlier ones, and Premier Peterson did into the Meech Lake Round, is to try to represent the province in a balanced sensible way, recognizing that we are 10 million people, an economy that drives over 40 per cent of the GNP of Canada, and that we are seen by all the other provinces, as having a lot of power and, therefore, a lot of responsibility.

Sometimes people say to me: Premier how could you have accepted an equal Senate? And my answer is we accepted it on terms and in ways that I believe adequately protect the critical interests of this province. I did so, I can tell you, after much soul searching and much discussion. I realized that it would be seen as an act of enormous goodwill by those provinces who have seen the benefits of such a Senate.

But I also have to recognize that there was no point in doing that if I did so at the expense of the support and understanding of the people of this province for such a major concession.

The balance that we struck was to establish a link between an increased representation in the House of Commons and a mechanism by which we resolve the disputes that take place between the Senate and the House of Commons. We did not add to the number of politicians in Ottawa. We did not increase the level of bureaucracy or duplication. We have, however, struck a balance.

It is this element of striking a balance and hearing who it is that's speaking on the other side as well, that apart from all the technicalities always has to drive a discussion about federalism in Canada. We're a federal country; we're not a unitary state.

We couldn't survive if we were a unitary state. We could only survive by being a federation in which we recognize the needs, the aspirations, the differences, and also recognize what pulls us together. Every one going into these discussions has always brought a concern about whether it will sell, whether it represents a balance. On an open-line radio show the other day, a woman said: "Mr. Rae I thought you believed in the banning of the Senate."

And I said I hold no particular candle or brief for the current Senate. I have no aspirations to belong to it. I don't think it's a very effective body in the modem federal state.

She said: "But you said you were going to abolish it and now you come back and you've got a Senate which is equal, which is elected and which is as effective as the people we elect to it. Aren't you just nothing but another old fashioned hypocritical politician because you've gone along with this?"

And my answer is, as long as the principles which take all of us into these discussions remain intact, the way in which we achieve these principles must be negotiable. There is nothing wrong or shameful in negotiation.

It would be a tragedy for Canada if we were to simply be a country in which everyone had their grievance and in which no one had the imagination or the vision or the courage to expand their understanding beyond their sense of grievance.

So there's nothing wrong with being for yourself. I resent, not at all, the fact that the Native people came to the table with a very long list of demands and with a very strong sense of grievance. None of us should resent that.

None of us should resent the fact that Quebec has felt left out and that Mr. Bourassa represented his own province with great distinction and with great vigour. And with great determination.

You know, there are parallels for this and one doesn't only have to go back to 1981 or 1971. We can go back to the origins of Confederation itself. Let's not forget that there was a dramatic problem in the legislature of the two Canadas in about 1861.

Partisanship was very high. The issues were enormously divisive. Language, religion, some of the toughest issues that we have to deal with as a country were at their most emotional and rawest point. And it was George Brown, senior representative of Upper Canada, who had very strong views on a number of subjects, who said let us all together form a government and let us all together work on this idea of federation.

And sure enough a coalition government was formed which included everybody. And sure enough the recognition was that it's important to have your sense of grievance and it's important to have a sense of what it is you're seeking.

There are those who call this blackmail. What more inappropriate or unthinking way to describe the political process in Canada It is rather the simple and fundamental reality of this country that people representing a variety of interests will always come together speaking for those interests. And there is nothing shameful or wrong in that.

It is healthy for people to speak up and insist on their place at the table. It's how we make reform; it's how we make progress.

But as Mymonides points out, that's the first question. It's worth remembering. Nothing wrong with speaking up for yourself.

But if I am only for myself then what am I? And that to me is the critical question. I listen to the comments that are made with respect to the No option; it's so easy to be against. Because you can always pick and pick and pick and pick. We have developed a political culture now to the point where the sense of grievance is sometimes so great, the sense of focus on a single issue or a single interest so great, that we miss the point of the exercise--that we're trying to build something. If we went into that discussion and I said "this is what I want," and Ovide Mercredi said "this is what I want," and Robert Bourassa said "this is what I want," and when the microphone came back to me I said again "this is what I want" the discussion would go on endlessly.

And we miss the point of the exercise if people simply seek to pursue their own self image, without thinking of the larger whole. Then, we would have failed and then we would have been worthy of the criticism of Canadians for failing to do our job and of failing to bring it forward.

I had calls from people in March and April questioning how 17 representatives, 17 governments could possibly agree on anything. And I said: Because I believe that there's a common sense that will grow in the country, that there has to be a spirit of accommodation and reconciliation large enough that we can walk a mile in the shoes of other people. And that's what we have to do.

If we don't want to belong to a federation, then we can forget about that. We can just say this is what we want, this is what we're going to do and we can forget about anything else. There's nothing easier than negotiating in a mirror.

The world is full of perfect constitutions written by one person. In fact listening to some of the critics, I suspect that they have the perfect idea. And any sense of accommodation is regarded as appeasement or a complete failure to recognize the importance of principle.

Well I'm sorry. A successful country, a successful federation, a country in which we take these balances seriously, is a country that can only work if we deal with this question: If I'm only for myself then what am I?

So, to explain part of Ontario's role, we want the Social Charter. We don't want the Social Charter for us; we want it for Canada. We think it's important to have a strong statement of value about our social economic union in the Constitution.

Ontario is a very vigorous advocate on behalf of a reconciliation of the Aboriginal people of Canada. And I'm proud of that role. We tried to deal constructively and effectively with the agenda that was presented to us by the province of Quebec. And we listened to the sense of grievance and concern that exists in Western Canada, in Atlantic Canada. Because if we go into these discussions saying it's my way or the highway, we can't succeed.

And then we come to the last question. If not now, when? Well, we have all kinds of arguments about the Accord coming from all kinds of people. I watched television the other night and there was a state of angst from the Nos, all kinds of people coming and saying no. And what troubles me more than anything else is this dangerous sense of illusion--that if we say no, it'll go away.

I saw Mr. Parizeau in the debate last night. He said that if we say No, then the issue can be put aside and we can get on with the economy, which is the real issue in the country today. It's a real issue for Quebec and it's a real issue for Canada.

And I said to myself: What does he take us for? The idea that the party committed to the dismantling of the country and to independence for Quebec is going to take a No vote as an indication to put that aside for a while!

Let's talk directly to the Canadian public about what is really at stake here. I've never been one who says that this will happen or that will happen. All I can tell you is anybody who thinks that a No will have a positive impact on any part of the country is dreaming in technicolour and is peddling an illusion to the Canadian people. They call it straight talk. Well it's not straight talk, it's nonsense. We have been at this as a country for generations.

First, there was the squabble about whether or not to patriate at all and that took years and years and years. Finally we get the Charter of Rights and patriation, at a price which I was prepared to pay. Premier Davis was prepared to pay and I think we were right; we had to get the Constitution home.

But now the next step is to make sure that everyone feels included. And we have done that on the substance of the legal text. We have made advances in terms of Quebec's Distinct Society. We have made advances in terms of Aboriginal government. We have made advances in terms of Senate reform and Supreme Court reform.

We have made advances in terms of ensuring less duplication, less mismatch of tax dollars and spending, greater efficiencies in the way we deliver programs. And we have done this without taking anything away from the strength of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It's not a miracle and it's not a conspiracy. And it's not Mr. Mulroney's deal. Mr. Mulroney's not on the ballot. This isn't some personal document which flowed from his head or his agenda. And it didn't just come from the Premiers, didn't just come from men in a room. Let's blow these myths right out the door. It came as a result of people and their elected representatives, women and men working together for months and months and months trying to find the basis for reconciliation for this country. That's what it represents.

And when you look at it, even if you find a paragraph or a phrase that you don't like, even if you feel that there's been something left out, the question you have to ask yourself is: "If not now, when?" And does anybody think that it's going to be easier after a No?

When I hear these comments, I am left feeling that it's time we have to talk with passion and we have to talk with directness and we have to talk with enormous common sense.

Set the issue of patriotism aside. I'm not saying that anyone who votes Yes or No is a better Canadian or a better patriot than anyone else. I don't believe that.

What I do believe is that it's a whole lot wiser and smarter and more sensible for us to vote Yes than for us to vote No. And when you look at what a referendum represents, it represents an example of saying to the Canadian people: We are trusting your judgment. Exercise that judgment with the same prudence you would ask of me.

Put yourself in the shoes of the Premier who's sitting at that table having to make concessions and having to give and having to take--having to weigh, in balance every day, what the measures are.

We are not talking absolutes here. We're talking about the real world of compromise. And imagine, if you can, taking 17 citizens at random and putting them in a room and asking them to represent the places and provinces and interests from which they came. Do you think you'd come up with something dramatically different from what's here?

I honestly believe the answer is no. It might be different in a few phrases here and there. And there's nothing that says that once this is done, it can't be improved.

Let's be straight and honest with the Canadian people. There's one heck of a difference between constantly negotiating the very foundation of the existence of the country, and the way in which it's going to be reformed, and having the every-day discussion that goes on between all of us with respect to how we're going to run and organize our lives.

There is one great difference between that process of give and take in everyday life and the constant return to the agonizing, existential questions about Canada itself. There's only so much time we can spend in this particular rut. There's only so much time we can spend on this couch. And then it starts to become dysfunctional.

And that is the challenge that we face. We have been working hard and we have negotiated; we have come up with a reasonable accommodation. A Canada Clause which does not subordinate the Charter of Rights, does not devalue the Charter of Rights. It simply recognizes that Canadians are equal before the law but there are also differences between us which have to be accommodated and we ask the courts to take that into account when we interpret the rest of the Constitution.

Everyone can see some sense, some common sense in Senate reform. Reform of the Supreme Court, reasonable. Division of powers, a reasonable balance. Aboriginal self-government, reasonable in the way it's been done, and necessary historically, a reconciliation which must take place.

Responding to Quebec's sense of its own vulnerability in the changing world, in a North America in which they are a very tiny minority, reasonable. But an insistence, as well, that there is a federation and that we are all members of the federation. And that we all participate in the federation. A reasonable accommodation.

I believe profoundly that this is a moment of reconciliation. And I also believe, as profoundly as I believe anything, that anyone in public life who says they know what will happen if there is a No vote is nothing but a pedlar of illusions and snake oil.

No one knows.

We do know what will happen if we vote Yes. We do know that it will lead to a process of Constitutional reform. We do know that it will provide the basis upon which other positive things can happen. We do know that it will represent a sense to Canadians that we have worked hard at something, that we've produced a compromise.

Canada can be a success story. It doesn't have to be a constant sense of grievance and a constant sense of the eternal search for the picayune. It can be a chance for us to reconcile ourselves with one another and then get on with what it is we expect our governments in most mature countries to spend their time doing.

And that, it seems to me, is the common sense basis of the support of the Accord which leads to a Yes. I think the Accord deserves your whole-hearted enthusiastic support. I think the package that it represents is a very successful accommodation. It is in the best spirit of Macdonald and of Cartier. It is in the best spirit of reconciliation which has always brought Canadians together at critical points in our history.

It is also, if I may say so, from a strategic point of view, the smart and canny thing for us to do. It is the wiser course. It is the more prudent course and it is the better course, if what you are looking for is not so much an assessment of each clause but the overall impact.

So take it either way, I really believe that we have to speak to this directly and personally and with this level of concern and attention to each and every Canadian.

The referendum is about all of us. It's about our Canada and it's about our common sense of freedom and our common sense of opportunity. Let's take it while it's there. Thank you very much.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Robert L. Brooks, President, The Empire Club of Canada.

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Canada and the Constitution

A joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada and The Canadian Club of Toronto.
An address focusing on three famous philosophical questions: If I'm not for myself, then who is for me? But if I am only for myself, then what am I? And, if not now, when? Discussion follows in an attempt to answer these questions, with regard to the speaker's record in government. Subjects covered during this discussion include the following. An equal Senate. Ontario's role in the Social Charter. The Constitution. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Reform of the Supreme Court. Aboriginal self-government. Quebec's sense of place. A moment of reconciliation in Canada.