Extinct or Distinct Society?
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 5 Dec 1991, p. 256-263
Chaput-Rolland, The Hon. Solange, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
The speaker's reactions to recent events, especially with regard to Quebec. Personal background and views of the speaker, with many literary and political allusions. An affirmation and confirmation of the importance of a Distinct Society. Distinct Society as an interpretive clause, not a new concept of federalism. The historical and political context of the term Distinct Society.
Date of Original
5 Dec 1991
Language of Item
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.

Views and Opinions Expressed Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the speakers or panelists are those of the speakers or panelists and do not necessarily reflect or represent the official views and opinions, policy or position held by The Empire Club of Canada.
Empire Club of Canada
Agency street/mail address:

Fairmont Royal York Hotel

100 Front Street West, Floor H

Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3

Full Text
The Hon. Solange Chaput-Rolland, Senator and Author
Introduction: John F. Bankes
President, The Empire Club of Canada

Humanity owes much to Woodrow Wilson. He's remembered in particular for his vision of a world ruled by popular consent. According to Wilson, aggression is to be prevented or punished by the collective action of the international community.

The Wilsonian vision has a codicil: the doctrine of self-determination. "Every people," Wilson said, "has a right to choose the sovereignty under which they shall live." This principle seems unexceptionable and, in fact, quite logical. Self-determination appears the inevitable deduction from the whole idea of democracy and self-government.

A recent headline in The New York Times read: Spain's Nationalists Press for Independence. This political development provokes some interesting questions. If Armenia is independent, then why not Catalonia? If the Lithuanians enjoy self-determination, why can't the Basques? And why not Slovakia? Corsica? Brittany? Wallonia? Jersey? Scotland?

Canadians need little reminding that the passions of self-determination are hardly confined to Europe. Many Canadians have deep loyalties to their own communities--to a language, to a region, to an aboriginal group, to a distinct culture, to Quebec as a Distinct Society, or to ethnic roots.

Today's luncheon meeting focuses on the recognition of the distinctiveness of Quebec Society.

The recognition of Quebec's distinctiveness is not new. It was first acknowledged in the Quebec Act of 1774. It was retained in the Constitution Act of 1791 two centuries ago. And it was recognized again by the provisions of the British North America Act in 1867.

Despite the historical basis for recognizing Quebec's Distinct Society, there is still considerable debate and controversy surrounding the appropriateness of giving Quebec the added security and assurance that its language and culture will be protected.

Our speaker today, Senator Solange Chaput-Rolland, has played an important and high-profile role in the dialogue on this issue. A former member of the Quebec National Assembly, Senator Chaput-Rolland was a commissioner on the Task Force on National Unity. She was also one of the leading figures in the No Campaign during the Quebec Referendum.

As a political writer, radio and television broadcaster, and playwright, Senator Chaput-Rolland is a leading voice in Quebec culture. She is an Officer of the Order of Canada and was decorated with the Ordre national du Quebec by Rene Levesque. She was appointed to the Canadian Senate in September, 1988.

The Senator has a very lengthy and detailed curriculum vitae. Although, as Dizzy Dean once said: "It ain't bragging if ya done it." In sifting through almost four pages of accomplishments, publications, awards and honours set out in the Senator's resume, I am reluctant to focus on one item. However, as an alumnus of Queen's University myself, I am proud to mention the Senator's honourary law degree from that institution.

I ask you to welcome Solange Chaput-Rolland.

Solange Chaput-Rolland:

Monsieur le President, ladies and gentlemen, I am deeply honoured to address The Empire Club of Canada. As many Ontarians and Canadians, I am fully aware of its prestige. I am grateful for your invitation, but I do not come here to argue, threaten or to say bluntly: "This is what Quebec wants, take it or leave it."

I shall, in homage to the great moralist of the 17th century, Michel de Montaigne, attempt to repeat one of his famous thoughts. "I do not impose, I do not propose, I expose," he wrote in one of his famous essays.

Therefore, I shall attempt to expose some facts as I lived them, in recent days, simply because I was there. I had first decided to explain how I feel, as a French Quebecer, to be part of the evolution of my Distinct Society. But last week, I perceived that already my topic was obsolete, out of touch with our present crisis. So I took upon myself, to expose selon Montaigne, how I react to the recent events.

Why? Because there are limits to lies, distortions, simplifications, by a few hysterical journalists who may not be in the majority on Parliament Hill and elsewhere in Canada, but who are in high tonality among us.

I, too, am a journalist, and proud of my career. But I was taught to inform, not to transform. And though I did not always retain my objectivity, at least I did not take my words for The Truth, and the only truth. Nowadays, I am shocked by what I hear and see on my television; the facts reported have little to do with what I have been witness to, for the simple reason that I was there when some events exploded in our midst.

Let me state my case. I am first a political commentator, then a Conservative Senator who has complete faith in Minister Clark's quest for unity. If I were a Liberal or a member of the NDP, I would feel the same loyalty for the same man. He is far from being perfect but has acquired over the years an inner maturity which permits him to retain his calm when facing daily crises in Ottawa and all over Canada Once again, I do not ask you to accept my expression of loyalty, as Montaigne, I am trying to expose some of my own feelings to you.

We are presently at an explosive moment in history. We, Canadians, should unite our efforts to extinguish the fire of animosity instead of stoking fire with the oils of wrath. Nevertheless, it is imperative to say that no one in our country should accept the shocking concept of armed violence against any region of Canada.

Some constitutionalists and so-called experts have put forward the idea that the Canadian Government might send the army into Quebec if, in a moment of elusive despair, we should choose sovereignty as the ultimate goal for our Distinct Society. Our compatriots have an instinctive belief in our peaceful democracy.

Why? Some of you may remember the words of The Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson when he rebutted General de Gaulle's famous "Vive le Quebec libre." "All provinces," he then said, "are free to belong to our Canadian federation."

If they are free to belong, it stands to reason that they are free to leave. Thus, in my view, the right to self-determination is granted implicitly to every province. Yet, can a country resist incitements to violence without ever wanting to quell them? Why should we almost blindly believe that we are better in Canada than in other countries? Oh yes, we talk about our alleged tolerance, but in fact are we that tolerant?

Ask French Canadians outside Quebec, immigrants, black citizens, aboriginal people, French and English Quebecers, whether they live among tolerant neighbours. If we were that tolerant of our times, would we not understand that a federalist regime must meet the problems of tomorrow and not cling to past traditions?

Traditions are essential to the vitality of a nation but should we let them impair our social, cultural and constitutional evolution? Are we satisfied in 1991 to relive the compromise of 1867, instead of shaping our destiny to meet the challenges of the next century?

Norman Webster wrote in The Montreal Gazette last Saturday these words which I endorse fully. "All the bickering is among the politicians. Relations among people are surprisingly harmonious." They may not be as harmonious in words, in discussions, in meetings, but yes most of our compatriots, though they are tired, and rightly so, of these endless commissions and seminars on the Constitution, are at peace with one another.

For example, my family is not the only Quebec family who has English-speaking relatives (sister-in-law, nieces, cousins). When I am living at home, I live with French friends, but also with English-speaking Quebecers. Not by chance, by choice. We enjoy each other's company and no one minds in which language we talk to one another.

Nevertheless, confrontations and tensions exist between the two solitudes but not to the extent reported. For me, I find it very tragic to observe how French Quebecers are fighting among themselves, not quite understanding what a tragic drama they are writing for English Canada.

Yes, as Mr. Webster noted: "Politicians are fighting also among themselves." But is this a new fact within our political society, whether provincial or federal? Yet, what we perceive, and it is a sad fact of life, is that some of them, but not all of them, are forgetting to fight for a country and choosing to fight only for a party. The ambitions for power are a necessary evil; it is even a way to enhance democracy.

But the time is more than ready to put the interest of a country above the interest of a party. There is a time to remain silent when facing quarrels and feuds, yet there is a time to speak. For me, the time is now. If we continue to refuse to build a future together simply because the proposals for unity emanate from a Conservative Government, and if we refuse solutions offered by the Liberals or the NDP simply because we do not like Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien or Audrey McLaughlin, then we do not deserve the human and natural resources of our country.

Have we lost a national will to survive, to acquire a national suspicion of all politicians? Then, why did we elect them? Some of them deserve our scorn, but not all of them. Some citizens deserve to be heard in this debate, but not all of them. Yet all of us deserve better from most of us. Are we going to fracture Canada because Mulroney wears Guccis, Chretien speaks bad English and Madame McLaughlin is quick to anger?

Is this what your ancestors from Great Britain and mine from La Nouvelle France expected from their descendants? Quarrels over commas, semicolons, hyphens, "nonobstant" and "notamment"?

As a writer, I am in love with words, be they French or English. As an older woman and une Quebecoise, I despise the use and misuse of words in our political vocabulary. Are we going to turn our back on our future because we do not understand every single line of the proposals from the Canadian Government?

Do we know of any other country which leaves its Constitution to be amended by lobby groups, by angry citizens? Since when does a government resign from its responsibilities by giving up its obligation to come to terms with the will of its population? Are we silly enough to pretend that today we still ignore what the West, the North, the East and Quebec really need and want?

Yes, we in Quebec won a referendum in May 1980 against Sovereignty Association as defined by Rene Levesque, but subsequently, through an imposed patriation, we lost the country. And we lost Meech, thereafter, in spite of the fact that these Accords, easy to understand and to accept, were the logical conclusions to the shattered hopes and promises made during those hectic weeks by a Canadian Government.

I would not want to relive a referendum because I have not yet, as many others in Quebec, forgotten these words of President Kennedy to his brother Robert: "Change your scars into stars." My scars are still visible, and they are still burning in our collective memory.

In Quebec, we are wary of another referendum, afraid to see once again, our family torn apart, our sons and daughters against their fathers and mothers, our friends against their friends. What do you know in fact and in reality about referendums if you live kilometres away from Quebec in distance and centuries behind in historical perspective? You might find out the terrible ordeal of a referendum if and when you live one.

But let me affirm clearly that last week, there was no bitter quarrel between Joe Clark and Benoit Bouchard during the Quebec Caucus of November 26th. There is a great difference between MPs stating their cases to the Minister, explaining their riding's feelings, and wild attacks against Joe Clark. As I read the unbelievable accounts of these discussions in the press and listened to radio and television, I wondered if I had suddenly turned deaf.

Yes the meeting was tense, difficult, but Minister Bouchard is not a provocative man, nor is Minister Clark. Later, Minister Clark decided, wisely I thought, to delay the timing of the referendum law. But he did not abandon the idea of holding one at a proper date.

Why should Canadians be deprived of the right of expressing their faith or their lack of faith in their country because Quebec has given itself a law to hold one? Can we be naive enough to imagine that Quebec and the Federal Government will hold their referendums on the same day. Can we be that naive? Isn't there a gulf between what we think and what might happen in reality? Nevertheless, English Canada should be more sensitive to the very notion of a referendum and understand why Quebec is less enthusiastic about reliving a second one than the other provinces.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I will come back to my initial topic to say this: Let us affirm and confirm the importance of a Distinct Society whose experience and solidity, wisdom and emotions go way back to the first morning of La Nouvelle France.

I believed in 1978, with a great Canadian, a prestigious figure in your own Provincial Government, that precise answers to our Canadian dilemma had been given by the Pepin-Robarts Commission, of which I was a member. Does any Ontarian or Canadian believe that a man as great as John Robarts, nationally beloved and respected, would have signed the recognition of a Distinct Society had he thought that such a recognition would dismantle Canada and weaken the central government?

Had he not believed in our recommendations, he would have said so, and loudly at that. In fact, the Distinct Society is an interpretative clause and not a new concept of federalism. Furthermore, the word Distinct has no connotation of superiority in any of the numerous dictionaries I have consulted before coming here.

Quebec is therefore not superior, nor inferior, to individuals and collectives; it is equal but distinct from the rest of the country because of its history, its laws, its education and its collective memory of the past.

Many Quebecois do not accept this definition nor believe in the importance of the Distinct Society. For them, only sovereignty offers the answer to our problems. I would even go so far as to say that if the Federal Government would propose sovereignty to separatist members of le Parti Quebecois, they would refuse it because this offer would appear to them to be a federalist one offered by the Canadian Government.

This statement is probably the ultimate absurdity, but it is a fact of the political quarrels in my province. Please do not play into their hands by refusing all suggestions to amend, correct, rewrite the constitutional and economic proposals, if you believe that Canada should emerge from this crisis more powerful and more at peace with all its citizens, be they from Quebec or from other regions.

I will now end my conversation with you by quoting a very beautiful book on Champlain by Joe Armstrong. The author writes: "The St. Lawrence is a river of dreams." How beautiful, how very touching, how deep a thought. Will we, at long last, acquire the courage to navigate together on this beautiful river of dreams and leave behind the sea of hatred, animosity, which sets us against one another within Canada? Will we positively begin to fight for a country instead of for a party? Canada is in need of answers to its numerous problems. Who will give them? And when? Today is already tomorrow. Merci.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Catherine Charlton, President, the Charlton Group and a Past President of The Empire Club.

Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit
Privacy Policy

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.


Extinct or Distinct Society?

The speaker's reactions to recent events, especially with regard to Quebec. Personal background and views of the speaker, with many literary and political allusions. An affirmation and confirmation of the importance of a Distinct Society. Distinct Society as an interpretive clause, not a new concept of federalism. The historical and political context of the term Distinct Society.