In November 1991 the Special
Joint Committee on a Renewed Canada reached an impasse over the process being
used to consult Canadians about the government's plan for constitutional
amendments. As part of an agreement to break the impasse it agreed to hold five
special conferences on the constitution where ordinary Canadians would be given
an opportunity to make their views known. These conferences were held on
consecutive weekends in January and February 1992. Who were some of the
"ordinary Canadians" selected to participate in these conferences?
How were they chosen? What did they think of the experience? These and other
questions were put to five individuals who attended the conferences. Roy Grinshpan
is a computer science student at Concordia University in Montreal. Ron Markey
is a dentist from Vancouver. Susan Crean is Chair of the Writer's Union of
Canada and a member of the Common Agenda Alliance for the Arts. Penny Fancy of
Saskatoon is a member of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
Donald Scott is a consultant in Yellowknife and a former Manitoba MLA. The
interviews were conducted in April 1992 by Susan Allan and Paul Vieira.
What prompted you to get
involved in the constitutional conferences?
Roy Grinshpan: Well, I guess it was the ad that first
struck me. I saw it the first day it was advertised and it sounded interesting.
I did not take it seriously until a couple of weeks later when The Montreal
Gazette mentioned it again. I noticed the deadline was only a week away. I
do not know what hit me to be honest. Something just called upon me to do it.
Ron Markey: I was involved with the Niagara Institute
organizing committee to get input as to the type of people they should be
inviting to the conference and the type of questions that should be addressed.
I was fortunate enough to get asked
to join that and, as a result, received an invitation to the conference. I got
a call in December asking if I would be interested. I told them one day later
that I would be. I thought that it was an exciting opportunity.
Susan Crean: I am Chair of the Writers' Union of
Canada. I am also involved in the Common Agenda Alliance for the Arts and it
was in that connection that my union requested that we be invited. So in that
sense I am not an ordinary Canadian.
Penny Fancy: I am a member of the Canadian Advisory
Council on Status of Women. We look at issues and different government policies
that affect women. We do our own research and we make recommendations to the
government. This is why the Constitution is on our priority list. When these
conferences came up, our council requested that all the women's national groups
should be invited to it and members of our council should also be invited. So
our names were sent in.
Donald Scott: I have been involved in constitutional
matters since the Constitution was brought home. Since that time I started
realizing how constitutional changes can change the nature of a country.
Nothing has done more to change the country as rapidly as constitutional
changes in the last decade. So I wanted to get involved and see what was going
on here. I was involved in Meech Lake as well as a member and had some minor
role when the first draft of Meech Lake came back. I was not a big fan of Meech
Lake so when the next round came along and I saw the ad in the paper I
Was your voice heard at the
Roy Grinshpan: I do not think my voice in itself made a
big difference within the conference as a whole. But within the workshops I
think that my voice and the voices of others opened up different perspectives.
On the whole I do not know if one voice made that much of a difference.
Ron Markey: Yes. I think that the feelings at the
conference, in terms of the interaction between participants and the reports
that were ultimately given, was really quite positive. The feeling I get from
having been at the conference is that for the most part, most participants
would rate the conference as being very positive.
I do not think things were always
reported in precisely that light, but I think that generally speaking people at
the conferences thought there was an excellent consensus on most of the issues
that were discussed.
I was fortunate enough to be the
rapporteur for one of the working groups. That was an extra piece of good
fortune in a sense that I did get the chance to say my two cents worth a couple
of times on behalf of the group.
Susan Crean: Through all these conferences I was very
uncomfortable with the notion of being there as a so-called private citizen
when I was not. So when we were asked in workshops on a personal level to
express ourselves I always said that I was uncomfortable about that. The
reality was that I was there representing writers in particular and the arts
community in general. I believe that democracy happened or at least wagged
its tail. I believe that the people who were there that is the people who
were not politicians, bureaucrats or advisers did a tremendous amount of
We were heard but we were not
listened to by the people in power. I would say that we left footsteps in the
sand but the tide is already in.
Penny Fancy: I would say that the conferences were very
open so the people could come forth with any idea. There was no stipulation as
to what you had to say or what you had to discuss. We had a broad outline and
everybody was free to voice their own opinion and some of them did not even
deal directly with the constitutional proposals that were on the table. So it
was very open.
Donald Scott: No. The conferences were essentially a
stage. A year ago people were talking about using a constituent assembly and
the government at the time pooh-poohed the idea as a decision-making body. It
is my perspective of things that the government then turned around and said,
"We will not call it a constituents assembly but we will call it a
constitutional conference and we will invite ordinary Canadians to
What, if anything, do you think the
Roy Grinshpan: The greatest thing about them I suppose
was the idea of a constituent assembly. I am a very big proponent of this. As a
computer science student I have access to electronic mail. I sent out a
globally transmitted message saying that if you have any opinions on the
Constitution I am going to the conference and I will be glad to give them to
the minister. I did that for some 70 people who responded.
So, I am a very big proponent of
giving people a chance to speak. I hope the conferences set an example and sort
of open the door to these types of constituent assemblies because I think that
they are excellent.
Ron Markey: Despite the fact they were at times
portrayed as conferences that catered to special interest groups I really feel
that our conference had an incredibly broad section of Canadians.
I was really amazed by the fact
that walking to the microphones were so many different Canadians: different
ethnic groups, different racial groups, different ages, handicapped people,
wealthy people you name it. It was just a remarkably good cross-section of
Canadians. So that was the thing that stuck in my mind the most.
Susan Crean: I think it proved that so-called ordinary
Canadians are better at it. People outside of the system, who do not have a
vested intellectual or political interest in the process, are much less
paralyzed by old formulas and cultural baggage than we were.
I think that we were moving toward
a vision of Confederation based on three national communities that was to some
extent accepted or at least responded to by people like (former Clerk of the
Privy Council) Gordon Robertson; but not by the people who were actually doing
the reform work the people in government and the people in parliament.
I am highly disappointed to put it
mildly. We were not only not listened to, we were ignored.
Penny Fancy: First, I think it was a broad
cross-section of people. I think you could hear some of the grassroots voices
coming up and some of the common themes were there what we hear in our own
communities. They seemed to come up at the conferences also and that was a
You know the question of Quebec and
you hear in the media about the animosity between French- speaking and
English-speaking Canadians but in general it was not like that. I think in the
conferences some people were making a special effort.
Donald Scott: I think they accomplished a great deal for
the government. I think they gave a great deal of credibility to the
government's agenda and that the government is now able to claim publicly that
the proposals they are bringing forward came out of the conferences. And it is
quite right, many of them did. But the conferences were grossly stacked. At
both conferences I attended (Toronto and Ottawa) there was a fair amount of
pressure to conform. But my workshop had some excellent people in it. I really
enjoyed the participants from Quebec. We had excellent exchanges of very
good-spirited debate of trying to understand one another. So from that it
certainly was successful in that respect.
Was your voice reflected in the
final Dobbie-Beaudoin Report?
Roy Grinshpan: I do not know how much of an impact we had
on the Report. I am generally pleased with the report but I do not know how
much they considered the conferences.
Ron Markey: I read the report on our conference which
I thought was a fair reflection on what took place. I read the summary report
in Dobbie-Beaudoin which I thought was a fair reflection. I think that
certainly to some extent yes.
Our conference, for example, came
out very strongly endorsing the distinct society concept. Even though it was
not one of the issues we were mandated to discuss. The aboriginal peoples
concerns and their inherent right to self-government was also strongly
supported at our conference. I really feel that in a lot of ways the things
that were discussed at our conference and our attitudes toward the issues under
discussion were definitely paid attention to.
Susan Crean: They did have to take into account and did
address some of the issues that we raised specifically in terms of the first
recommendation in the section on culture which talked about consulting with the
community and not proceeding with the government's proposal for bilateral
cultural agreements. However, in the very next one they simply went on to
ignore all the consultation that had happened over the previous three months
and suggested they go ahead and do what the government had proposed anyway. We
have arrived exactly nowhere.
The bottom line is this has been
very important. It has been a historic; very exhilarating experience. But the
politicians and bureaucrats did not listen and they do not care.
Penny Fancy: The voices seemed to be reflected. But
personally I was disappointed at the report. It did not seem to reflect everything.
In fact, some of the points that come in the report had not seemed to come up
at the conferences.
So, I personally was disappointed,
especially from a woman's point of view. Women had emphasized they wanted their
voice to be heard. For example, in the Senate reform and the House reform
discussion, women said they must have their own special representation in these
two governmental bodies because we feel that if women are not there in critical
masses then they are sidelined. It was not reflected in the Beaudoin-Dobbie
report which disappointed me.
Donald Scott: Yes, I think that some of the points
raised were brought up. In the Toronto conference I had made a proposal on the
notion of citizens' code of responsibility that we have rights but along with
that, we also have responsibilities. We should have something in the charter
about what these responsibilities are. The odd thing, in my working group I had
a fair amount of support and acceptance for this code. But I could not get it
close to being mentioned in the final wrap up of the conference. They were just
not interested in bringing an item like that into the whole discussion. Talking
to people in general I got a fairly decent response on it but trying to get
it on the agenda, or even get it discussed was impossible.
In hindsight do you think
constitutional negotiations should remain behind closed doors?
Roy Grinshpan: Definitely not. I think that this is
really the way to go about it. As a matter of fact, if it were up to me then
there would be a conference once a year, every year.
Ron Markey: That is a tough question. When you get
down to the nuts and bolts of trying to finalize clauses and draft sentences
and decide if you like this part or that part I would like to see an open
process; but it is unrealistic. I think that ultimately a smaller number of
hands are going to have to shape it.
I think that it should be shaped in
public. Running around the country and having thousands of different people
actually drafting a Constitution does not work. I think the kind of conferences
and discussion groups and focus groups and everything else that have been held
that have tried to have input into the committee ultimately is the way the
citizens have an opportunity to participate.
I would like to see the process
remain open but I think that sooner or later somebody had to write the final
draft and somebody had to make a decision. I would like to see the first
ministers not abdicate that decision.
Susan Crean: No. I think there is work that has to be
done behind closed doors. Conferences were by far the most successful because
you heard peoples' voices unadulterated and in that sense it was extremely
important. We proved that we can do things. People of good will in this country
are able to cross over differences and really summon generosity and really be
creative. I think we were badly served by the kind of people who were on the
Commons side of Dobbie-Beaudoin.
Penny Fancy: Well, if they are talking about the same
things now, as long as they do not come up with anything out of the blue, I
think that everything is out in the open now at the local level, provincial
level and the national level. So now if they meet behind closed doors I would
think that it is fine. As long as they do not come up with something totally
new that has not been touched. That would be a negation of all this open
process and I think there would be quite a bit of negative feeling because
people are cynical about politics and politicians at this time, very cynical.
Donald Scott: I think there is a definite place for
that. There is a role for the public process, no question. But you cannot
expect the political leaders to be everything that they say to be in front of
camera. They just do not say what they think then. All you get is a whole bunch
of fudge and that is what is happening. We are getting constitutional documents
drafted that should not even be in ordinary legislation let alone the
Constitution. We are trying to build so much into the document that we are
destroying the essence of what the Constitution should be.