Notes for an address at the colloquium “The Quebec Conference, 1864: 150 years later, understanding the founding of the Canadian federation”

Auditorium of the Musée de la civilisation - Québec City, Quebec, October 16, 2014
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Good evening,

First of all, I would like to thank the colloquium organizers for asking me to speak to you. I humbly accept their invitation. I am not a historian, but my history studies had a profound effect on my approach as a journalist and as Commissioner of Official Languages. I therefore see myself more as a perpetual history student than a historian. I am not a constitutionalist either, although I was privileged to witness the constitutional debates of 1980 to 1982, Meech and Charlottetown, and I am now the agent of a quasi-constitutional statute.

Let me tell you a bit about my background as a history student. I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto and took Ramsay Cook’s fourth year course, called French-Canadian Nationalism. My research paper was on the Radio-Canada strike of 1956–1957, which enabled me to do my first interview with René Lévesque and to introduce him to Professor Cook.Footnote 1 It was an interesting time to be a history student in Toronto. Donald Creighton and Maurice Careless were still teaching, Cook was still there, and the department attracted students—who are still friends—like Margaret MacMillan, Robert Bothwell, Norman Hillmer, Irving Abella, Donald Smith, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. I subsequently did an MA that included a course in Canadian intellectual history with Carl Berger.

That stimulating intellectual experience taught me a number of things. I learned that Canada’s history is a rich subject that is worth studying, and that Canada’s history includes the history of Quebec, whose dynamic between English Canada and French Canada is an essential element.

I also realized that it is a multi-faceted and diverse history, invariably made up of different versions that change and evolve.

However, you may reasonably ask, “What is the Commissioner of Official Languages doing here, at a colloquium on the Quebec Conference of 1864?” The only reference to language in the resolutions adopted in Québec City on October 10, 1864, was in article 46: “Both the English and French languages may be employed in the General Parliament and in its proceedings, and in the Local Legislature of Lower Canada and also in the Federal Courts and in the Courts of Lower Canada.Footnote 2 That, of course, became article 133 of the British North America Act, now the Constitution Act, 1867.

Of course, there were differing interpretations of what had been achieved even before the Fathers of Confederation had left Québec City. George Brown was triumphant in a letter to his wife. “All right!! Confederation through at six o’clock this evening—constitution adopted—a creditable document—a complete reform of all the abuses and injustices we have complained of! Is it not wonderful? French Canadianism entirely extinguished.Footnote 3George‑Étienne Cartier, on the other hand, saw the potential emergence of what he called “a political nationality with which neither national origin, nor the religion of any individual, would interfere. In our own Federation, we should have Catholic and Protestant, English, French, Irish and Scotch, and each by his efforts and his success would increase the prosperity and glory of the new Confederacy.”Footnote 4

During the constitutional debates in the early 1980s, I came across a copy of the Confederation Debates in a second-hand bookstore and was struck by the fact that language was mentioned at the very beginning of the debates—and at the end.

The beginning was not auspicious. When Premier Etienne‑Pascal Taché finished reading the Quebec Resolutions in the legislature on February 3, 1865, the debates record the following: “Having read the motion, the hon. gentleman commenced to speak in French, when Hon. Mr. Ross requested he should address the House in English.” The Honourable Mr. Letellier thought, as there were two members of the government in the House, one who spoke best in French (Taché), and one who did the same in English, it would be better for the Honourable Premier to speak in French, and then his colleague could do the same in English; but Taché concluded that as there were English members who did not understand French at all, while the French members all understood English, it would be best for him to speak in the latter language, and proceeded to do so.Footnote 5

Consequently, this dynamic of Canadian bilingualism, which would continue for a century, was in place from the outset—Francophones had the right to use French in the House, but not to be understood. That principle prevailed in the House until 1959, when simultaneous interpretation was introduced, and before the courts until 1989, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Beaulac case.

George Brown, a dogged critic of Lower Canada’s role, noted nonetheless the civilized nature of the debates, and suggested that it could be a model for other countries.

Here is a people composed of two distinct races, speaking different languages, with religious and social and municipal and educational institutions totally different; with sectional hostilities of such a character as to render government for many years well-nigh impossible; with a Constitution so unjust in the view of one section as to justify any resort to enforce a remedy. And yet, sir, here we sit, patiently and temperately discussing how these great evils and hostilities may justly and amicably be swept away forever.Footnote 6

Near the end of the Debates, Antoine‑Aimé Dorion raised the question of the guarantee that French could be used in Parliament and the Quebec legislature, pointing to the danger that this might be eradicated by the English-speaking majority. John A. Macdonald replied that this risk had been identified, “and it was assented to by the deputation from each province that the use of the French language should form one of the principles upon which the Confederation should be established, and that its use, as at present, should be guaranteed by the Imperial Act.Footnote 7

George‑Étienne Cartier immediately got to his feet to say that “it was also necessary to protect the English minorities in Lower Canada with respect to the use of their language, because in the Local Parliament of Lower Canada the majority will be composed of French-Canadians.Footnote 8

Since Confederation, we have witnessed the evolution of the “schools” of history—in Quebec, the “Montréal school” and the “Québec City school,” as well as broader trends in the rest of the country.

I believe, however, that two historians dominated and marked these two societies in the 20th century: the Abbé Lionel Groulx, and Donald Creighton. In the preface to a book published in 1978, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Abbé Groulx, François‑Albert Anger described him as “the great man of our history.”Footnote 9[translation] The then premier René Lévesque said that he was “a man who, driven by a great ideal, gave us, through his work and actions, a practical and enlightened lesson on patriotism that guides us in our choices today.Footnote 10[translation]

And, of Donald Creighton, Paul Romney wrote that “no English Canadian did more to shape his compatriots’ sense of their past than Donald Creighton. He was the foremost Canadian historian of his day and was acutely aware of the political significance of his work.Footnote 11 Carl Berger pointed out that Creighton was a critic of “what he called the ‘Liberal interpretation’, sometimes ‘the authorized version’ of Canadian history,” adding that “his books gave the Conservative party an ancestry and reinstated it in the mainstream of Canadian political history.Footnote 12

It is not surprising, then, that these historians and those whom they influenced had different points of view about the linguistic protections incorporated into the British North America Act.

In 1927, Abbé Groulx wrote “Official language rights will come under section 133, which would seem to be all-inclusive in its protections. Minority education rights will be defended by the very detailed section 93.Footnote 13[translation]

Groulx saw French Canadians’—and the clergy’s—support for Confederation as an act of faith based on “English-Canadian goodwill,” a faith that had been betrayed by what he called “persecutions regarding education and countless unkept promises.[translation]

Of course, we do not wish to deny the illusions or the lack of foresight of the leaders of the day,” he wrote. “However, we take the fact that they did not seek more guarantees to mean that they did not feel that more were needed between citizens of the same country.Footnote 14[translation]

Despite his disappointment, in 1927 he encouraged French Canadians to maintain and expand their role in Confederation.

The French Canadian race did not enter into it to die—it intended to live within it and endure intact. So, now is not the time to undermine or weaken the federal spirit. It is more urgent than ever that it be strengthened and spread across Canada, especially since contact between the two races is increasing.Footnote 15[translation]

Creighton, on the other hand, saw the issue very differently. He felt that the idea of Confederation as a bilingual compact was “completely imaginary,” calling the resolutions that dealt with language “few, very precise in their wording, and limited in scope.

There was nothing that remotely approached a general declaration of principle that Canada was to be a bilingual or bicultural nation,” Creighton said. “All the intentions of the Fathers of Confederation concerning language are summed up in Section 133 of the British North America Act.Footnote 16

Bilingualism, he said in a full-blown rant on the subject in 1966, is constitutionally limited to the Supreme Court of Canada and the Exchequer Court in Ottawa, and the acts, records and journals of the Canadian Parliament and the Quebec legislature. He continued:

There is no constitutional requirement that the Canadian government should use both languages in any of its other publications, or in any of its administrative activities. There is no evidence that the French-speaking delegates at the Conference, or the French-speaking members of the Canadian legislature, were dissatisfied with these provisions. There is no evidence that they tried to extend these language rights to the legislatures, courts, schools of any or all of the other provinces. If any such proposals had been made, one can be reasonably certain they would have been rejected.Footnote 17

As Carl Berger explained, Creighton had nothing but contempt for any constitutional reform that would give Quebec special status. “At bottom, he believed that the concern with linguistic rights and culture had been exaggerated out of all reasonable proportions, and that the ‘obsession’ with the Quiet Revolution was distracting away from dangers that threatened the nation as a whole.Footnote 18

Creighton, who detested Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson, the Liberals and the welfare state they proposed, included bilingualism and biculturalism in his vision of Canada’s virtually inevitable decline.

No, the movement to reconstitute Canada in the interest of bilingualism and biculturalism can have only one probable outcome—the creation of a separate, or virtually separate, Quebec,” he concluded. “Separation would probably mean the loss of political independence for both English Canada and French Canada. It would also mean the rapid decline and eventual extinction of the French language in North America.Footnote 19

A year later, in 1967, Ramsay Cook speculated that English-Canadian historians would have changed their interpretation of the meaning of Confederation depending on the context of their time: one during World War I, another ten years later, a third during the Depression, and so on. “The French-speaking historian would have maintained, at each of the dates mentioned, that the objective of Confederation was to guarantee the survival of la nation canadienne-francaise,” Cook wrote. “He would have then gone on either to defend or to criticize Confederation according to his view on how fully this objective had been served.Footnote 20

Cook’s answer was that Confederation was a balancing act. “Confederation was an agreement, pact, or entente, whichever of those words best describes the political rather than the legal character of the events of 1864–7,” he wrote.

And the terms of that entente were that a new nation-state was to be founded on the basis of an acceptance of cultural duality and on a division of powers. The unceasing responsibility of Canadian political leaders since 1867 has been to ensure that the equilibrium between survival and la survivance, between the legitimate goals of Canadians and of French Canadians, should not be destroyed. It has never been an easy assignment.Footnote 21

And today, nearly 150 years later, we are still here. Canada and the French fact continue to exist. The Official Languages Act is a quasi-constitutional statute; its key elements are entrenched in sections 16 to 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter of the French Language declares French to be the official language of Quebec. There were 5.1 million Francophones in Canada in 1961, of whom 4.3 million lived in Quebec; in 2011, there were 7.1 million Francophones in Canada. Of that number, 6.1 million resided in Quebec. The rate of bilingualism rose from 12% in 1961 to 18% in 2011. In Quebec, it went from 26% to 43%Footnote 22.

And here we are, gathered in Québec City, to discuss the Quebec Conference of 1864. I am particularly impressed by the variety of participants the organizers have attracted to this colloquium. At one point, I thought I could make a brief reference to each one and the contribution they have made to the debate and my understanding of it. But there are too many, and their work is too rich and complex for that.

However, let me mention two in particular.

In her memoir Discovering Confederation: A Canadian’s Story, Janet Ajzenstat describes her career-long journey of discovery of the texts of the Confederation debates, by way of Allan Bloom, Lord Durham and John Locke. Her close reading of what we now must call the “ratification debates” has turned the conventional view of the Fathers of Confederation on its head.

Despite the many differences in interpretation of the meaning of Confederation, there was an overwhelming consensus that, in contrast with the philosophers who debated the founding of the United States, the Canadian Fathers of Confederation were down-to-earth, practical men who had little time for abstract debates about rights, language or otherwise. In a lengthy footnote, Peter J. Smith quotes Edwin Black as arguing that “Confederation was born in pragmatism without the attendance of a readily definable philosophic rationale,” Peter Waite as stating that “Confederation had a ‘fundamentally empirical character,’” and J. K. Johnson as observing that “the scholarly consensus has been that [John A. Macdonald] was not a man of ideas at all.Footnote 23

Instead of seeing Ramsay Cook’s “pragmatic lawyers” and Frank Underhill’s sense of their “lack of philosophical mind,” Ajzenstat peels back the texts to find echoes of John Locke, Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill, and arguments about popular consent, rights and privileges, and whether Confederation represented a revolutionary change of regime.

In her reading, the Fathers become Founders, and the Confederation Debates become the ratification debates or, as the remarkable collection she co-edited with Paul Romney, Ian Gentles and William Gairdner has it, Canada’s Founding Debates.Footnote 24

In that modest, polite, Canadian way, her co-editor, Paul Romney, entitled his book on Canada’s constitutional history simply Getting It Wrong. In the book, he restores the validity of the compact theory—which Creighton so dismissively called a myth—and revives the provincialist, anti-centralist interpretation of Confederation first established by Oliver Mowat. He describes what he calls “the lost tradition of English-Canadian thought . . . recounting its rise, its bearing on Confederation, and its displacement by the nationalist interpretation of their country’s history that prevailed among English Canadians for most of the twentieth century. The compact theory of Confederation is a crucial part of that story, but not the whole story.Footnote 25

Guy Laforest, a political scientist who describes himself as a constitutional historian, tackles everything he does with passion and fervour. It was his text on André Laurendeau and Frank Scott that led me to the personal diaries that the two men kept during the years of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.Footnote 26

He wrote, “Here we have two remarkable men, both writers and politicians, artists and teachers—two nationalists who articulated visions of Canada that were wholly representative of the majority English-Canadian opinion on the one hand and Quebec’s opinion on the other. Taken together, Laurendeau and Scott, with their respective visions, embody this concept of duality that has characterized Canada.Footnote 27[translation] That perception greatly inspired me and led me to discover their debates and their divergent interpretations of the country as the fundamental tension within the Commission.

Somewhat of an ally of Ajzenstat and her counterparts, Guy Laforest, together with Stéphane Kelly, produced a French-language edition of Canada’s Founding Debates. It is, to a degree, paradoxical that there is a French-language version of the Debates, but not of the outcome—there is still no official French version of the British North America Act. Their painstaking efforts testify to their commitment to debate and dialogue.

I could, and possibly should, be referring to all of the many other panellists who have contributed so much to our understanding of Confederation, and I am looking forward to hearing their presentations.

But I think the most important element of this colloquium is that it is bringing together the different traditions of interpretation of Canada’s history.

There are several points worth underlining.

The first, in my view, is the most obvious: the value of using anniversaries as a vehicle for the public discussion of Canada’s past.

Canada is a welcoming nation: since the 1990, it has been taking between 200,000 and 250,000 newcomers each yearFootnote 28.

That translates into roughly six million Canadians who did not experience the Meech Lake constitutional debates, and five million who did not witness the 1992 and 1995 referendums. This means we have to use these anniversaries to better inform Canadians about their past.

For that to occur, it is essential that these debates and discussions not be restricted to academic conferences like this one, but overflow these halls to become part of a broader public discussion.

The present government has used the anniversaries of war to promote a particular vision of Canada’s past—a vision of warriors and monarchs. But we are fortunate to live in a society in which the state does not control the public space. These debates need to take place on the pages of newspapers, on television, on websites and on blogs.

There is another development I would like to applaud—the powerful comeback of political and constitutional history, which has found its place again after being squeezed out for a time by social history, along with its union, feminist and immigrant components. The devaluation of political history went hand in hand with the devaluation of politics itself and, inevitably, a devaluation of democracy.

Despite that, it must be recognized that the political narrative continues to dominate the popular imagination. In his painstaking review of the discourse of Quebec students, Jocelyn Létourneau was clear and unequivocal: “That which young people remember about Quebec’s history and which constitutes their historical awareness, minimalist and incomplete though it is, has mainly to do with the national politic.Footnote 29[translation]

To finish, I would like to say a word about the importance of an inclusive approach to the study of Canada’s history. Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson often tells immigrants that Canada is not a buffet, where you choose what you like and leave behind what you don’t like.

In the same vein, I would say that it is very easy to weave a negative narrative of Canada’s history that includes the Conquest, the Rebellion of 1837, Lord Durham, the hanging of Riel, the elimination of rights to education, the conscription crises and the October Crisis. Those are important aspects of our past that we must address and understand.

But there is also a positive narrative of inclusion and respect that includes Lord Elgin and the Rebellion Losses Bill, Sir John A. and his principles of political accommodation of French Canada, the Bonne Entente group that campaigned against Regulation 17, and the spirit of accommodation and compromise that animated the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the Official Languages Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As the 150th anniversary of Confederation approaches, I hope that the breadth and depth of discussions at this colloquium can be a model for the debates, discussions and celebrations that lie ahead.

Thank you.


Footnote 1

Ramsay Cook recalls this in his introduction to Watching Quebec: Selected Essays, Montréal and Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005, pp. xiii–xiv.

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Footnote 2

Parliamentary Debates on the Subject of the Confederation of the British North American Provinces, 3rd session, 8th Provincial Parliament of Canada, Québec City, Hunter, Rose & Co., Parliamentary Printers, 1865, p. 4.

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Footnote 3

Public Archives of Canada, Brown Papers, George Brown to Anne Brown, October 27, 1864. Quoted in Cook, Watching Quebec, op. cit., p. 161.

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Footnote 4

Parliamentary Debates, op. cit., pp. 60–61.

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Footnote 5

Ibid., p. 6.

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Footnote 6

Ibid., p. 85.

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Footnote 7

Ibid., p. 944.

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Footnote 8

Ibid., p. 945.

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Footnote 9

Maurice Filion (ed.), Hommage à Lionel Groulx, Montréal, Leméac, 1978, p. 13.

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Footnote 10

Ibid., p. 143.

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Footnote 11

Paul Romney, Getting It Wrong: How Canadians Forgot Their Past and Imperilled Confederation, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1999, p. 7.

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Footnote 12

Carl Berger, The Writing of Canadian History: Aspects of English-Canadian Historical Writing, 1900 to 1970, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1976, pp. 228 and 232.

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Footnote 13

“Les Canadiens Français et l’Établissement de la Confédération,” l’Action française, May-June 1927, in Notre Maître le Passé, Montréal, Librairie Granger Frères, 1936, p. 242.

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Footnote 14

Ibid., p. 253.

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Footnote 15

Ibid., pp. 253–254.

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Footnote 16

Donald Creighton, “The Myth of Bilingualism,” Saturday Night, 1966, in Towards the Discovery of Canada: Selected Essays, Toronto, Macmillan of Canada, 1972, p. 262.

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Footnote 17

Ibid., p. 263.

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Footnote 18

The Writing of Canadian History, op. cit., p. 235.

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Footnote 19

“The Myth of Bilingualism,” op. cit., pp. 269–270.

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Footnote 20

“The Meaning of Confederation,” in Watching Quebec, op. cit., p. 157.

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Footnote 21

Ibid., p. 163.

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Footnote 22

Statistics Canada, The evolution of English-French bilingualism in Canada from 1961 to 2011, May 2013

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Footnote 23

Peter J. Smith, “The Ideological Origins of Canadian Confederation,” in Canada’s Origins: Liberal, Tory or Republican?, edited by Janet Ajzenstat and Peter J. Smith, Ottawa, Carleton University Press, 1997, p. 73.

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Footnote 24

Janet Ajzenstat, Paul Romney, Ian Gentles and William D. Gairdner, eds., Canada’s Founding Debates, Toronto, Stoddart, 1999.

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Footnote 25

Paul Romney, Getting it Wrong, op. cit., p. 7.

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Footnote 26

Statistics Canada (2011), Portrait of Official-Language Minorities in Canada.

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Footnote 26

André Laurendeau, Journal tenu pendant la Commission royale d’enquête sur le bilinguisme et le biculturalisme, Outremont, vlb/le septentrion, 1990; The Diary of André Laurendeau, selected and with an introduction by Patricia Smart and Dorothy Howard, Toronto, James Lorimer & Co., 1991. Scott’s diary is in the F. R. Scott Papers, National Archives of Canada.

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Footnote 27

Guy Laforest, Trudeau et La Fin d’un Rêve Canadien, Sillery, Septentrion, 1992, p. 21.

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Footnote 28

Statistics Canada, Migration : International, 2009, July 2011

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Footnote 29

Jocelyn Létourneau, Je me souviens? Le passé du Québec dans la conscience de sa jeunesse, Montréal, Fides, 2014, p. 231.

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