Tent City

One Country or Nine?

Ten thousand pages of Rowell Commission evidence boils down to this

J. B. McGEACHY September 15 1938
Tent City

One Country or Nine?

Ten thousand pages of Rowell Commission evidence boils down to this

J. B. McGEACHY September 15 1938

One Country or Nine?

Ten thousand pages of Rowell Commission evidence boils down to this


EVERYONE in Canada knows that, in this year of grace 1938, the nine provinces of the Dominion are not a peaceful and harmonious family. At least once a month, two or more provincial premiers conduct -on the front pages from Coast to Coast —a public dispute. Each major division of the country has grievances against all the others.

The subject matter of the family quarrel varies, but the basic issue remains the same. Should the powers and duties of the Dominion Government be enlarged, or should the provinces keep their present measure of autonomy? In other words, is Canada truly one country, or is it a geographical expression for an alliance rather more permanent than, say, the League of Nations?

An official enquiry on this point has been in progress for nearly a year, which is at any rate a distinctly Canadian way of settling the argument. In the 1860’s the Americans had a civil war to decide if their federal union was stronger than any of its parts. Canada has the Rowell Commission instead. Since last November the Commission has been struggling with the question: Should the Dominion Parliament be equipped with power to deal with all matters of nationwide importance, or is Confederation only a bargain between nine partners to let a central authority run the post office, operate lighthouses and do other odd jobs of government?

There are several related questions. Does the B. N. A. Act need revision? Should duties and taxing powers be shifted from the provinces to the Dominion—or vice versa —or is the present division satisfactory? Is there too much government in Canada and, if so, what can be done to reduce this overhead expense?

The Commission has not found the answers yet, but it has gathered plenty of evidence. In seven months it sat in ten cities -Ottawa and the nine provincial capitals— and the stenographic record of its proceedings to date runs to 10,000 pages. While the commissioners perambulated, experts in law' and economic science checked witnesses’ statements and dug up additional data. There is no lack of evidence, but there is a decided lack of agreement among the politicians and the private citizens vffio testified. If there is any such thing as a national “public opinion” on the questions at issue, the Commission did not uncover it.

The Commission has five members, one from each of the country’s main divisions. Chief Justice N. W. Rowell, of Ontario, a jurist of more than national fame, is chairman. Dr. Joseph Sirois, professor of constitutional law at Laval, represents French Canada, and Dr. John W. Dafoe, editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, the prairies. From the East and West Coasts come Prof. R. A. MacKay of Dalhousie, and Prof. H. F. Angus of British Columbia. Illness prevented Chief Justice Rowell’s attendance at later sessions

of the enquiry. Dr. Sirois, fluent in both the official languages, took his place, but it is hoped the chief justice will be able to take part in writing the report this fall or winter.

No Free-for-All ?

PRIMARILY the Commission sought the views of Governments, but it underUxjk to hear any private citizen who could show that he spoke for an organized society. The invitation was accepted by more than a hundred groups. The Commission heard from bond dealers, insurance men and bankers; doctors, dentists and nurses; manufacturers, exporters and chain-store owners; teachers, social-service workers and housewives; Fascists and Communists; single-taxers, British Israelites and prohibitionists -—a thoroughly mixed bag.

After sitting from November to June, the Commission adjourned to meet at Ottawa in October. At this sitting, as originally planned, all the provinces were to be represented. Each w'as to have a chance to rebut arguments submitted by the others. This free-for-all conference, it now appears, will not occur. As this is written, Premier Hepburn of Ontario announces that his Government will take no further part in the enquiry. A similar statement is expected from Premier Duplessis of Quebec, and there is little chance that Alberta will accept the invitation.

Chief Justice Row'ell’s illness and the failure of plans for a round-table discussion make the Commission’s future program indefinite—at the time of writing. The proposed conference will likely be called off, but the Commission will sit in Ottawa as planned and listen to Provincial Governments—those which wish to testify-one by one. Writing of the report will follow.

What it may contain nobody can yet guess, because the provinces are far from unanimous on any of the debated points. They disagree loudly. They even disagree, as Mr. Hepburn’s announcement shows, about the value and propriety of holding the enquiry at all. At one provincial capital, Edmonton, the Government boycotted the Commission last spring. Premier Aberhart and company would have nothing to do with a Commission whose members believed in “financial orthodoxy.” Quebec all but boycotted the enquiry. Mr. Duplessis sent a spokesman to one sitting, but only, it seemed, to sustain the French-Canadian

reputation for politeness. All that the gentleman had to say, after words of welcome, was to explain why Quebec disapproved and had nothing to projx>se. Mr. Hepburn ubmittcd a brief, but broadly hinted that he thought the enquiry would come to nothing.

The Dividing issue

THE ISSUE which divides the country is familiar. It was first raised in the West. The Rowell Commission’s enquiry, in fact, originated in Western demands for a change in the Dominion setup. In the prairie provinces, the official view supported overwhelmingly by the public is that the duties and taxing powers of the Dominion should be greatly expanded, by amendment of the B. N. A. Act if necessary. Westerners say that only Parliament can effectively handle the legislative problems arising out of present-day industrial methods— the problems of relief, social insurance, regulation of wages and hours, and so on. People in Saskatchewan and Manitoba would happily see their legislatures shrink to the size and dignity of county councils, with nothing but strictly local business to attend to.

This opinion gets some support in the Maritimes. It gets none at all from official sources in Ontario and Quebec. Central Canada, content with the status quo, would like to see provincial autonomy pushed further if any change is made in the Dominion setup. British Columbia is on the fence, leaning to the autonomist side.

That is how the provinces line up. The division, let it be noted, is roughly between the richest, most populous provinces and the rest of the country—between the haves and the have-nots. To reconcile their views, if that can be done, is the Commission’s job. It looks like a formidable assignment. It looks as difficult as the problem the Fathers of Confederation tackled in 1864.

At the heart of the argument is a constitutional issue. What is the nature of the federal union? Did the B. N. A. Act create a new nation or only ratify a treaty? Were the provinces intended to be, after 1867, subordinate units of government, or were they to keep whatever autonomy and sovereignty they had before the union?

The centralist theory gets some backing from the

B. N. A. Act itself. A careful reader of that famous statute

will find that “Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick"

formed the original union, but that the Dominion so

created was divided into “Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia

and New Brunswick.” Three went in, but four came out.

It is apparent, the centralists argue, that the B. N. A. Act

abolished the pre-1867 provinces and created new ones,

carved them out of the new Dominion. So that the Act

was not a treaty, as the autonomists say it was. between

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sovereign states which kept their identity.

If that sounds fine-spun and legalistic, the centralists next bat up the fact that the Act gives the Dominion power to veto (“disallow” is the word used) any provincial law within a year of its enactment. Is this not conclusive, they ask, that the Fathers of Confederation intended to make Parliament supreme and the provinces dependent?

A third bit of evidence pointing the same way—still quoting the centralist case —is that the provinces were expected to finance all the jobs assigned to them with the Dominion subsidy granted by the Act. At any rate, several of the Fathers of Confederation, in speeches in 1864 and later, expressed the firm hope (alas for human optimism) that the provinces would never have to levy taxes. As everybody knows, the provinces are now in the tax-collecting business on a grand and sumptuous scale. Which proves again, the centralists say, that they are exercising jxiwers which the makers of the B.N.A. Act never intended they should have.

They got these powers, the argumentcontinues, from mistakes by the Privy Council. That Empire court, the Western briefs to the Commission said, completely misunderstood the spirit of the B.N.A. Act in many judgments ruling out Dominion laws and upholding provincial rights. No Government suggested abolishing appeals to the Privy Council. What they propose is amendment of the Act to strengthen Parliament. And they think that should be possible without unanimity—say, by two thirds of the provinces having two thirds of the population.

Central Canada’s Flat “No”

rT'() THESE arguments the central provinces reply with flat negatives. “It is the considered opinion of this Government,” said counsel for Quebec, during his one brief appearance at the enquiry, "that the B.N.A. Act is the ratification of a compact having clearly the nature of a contract.” Mr. Hepburn said the provinces remain “independent and autonomous.” New Brunswick cast a third vote for the compact theory.

Content with the constitution as it stands, Ontario and Quebec would make amendment difficult if not impossible. The compact theorists quite logically say that no change may properly be made without the consent of all parties. “If there is to be a change in confederation,” Mr. Hepburn said, “in my opinion, it can be brought about only by renewed conferences of representatives of the people and with unanimity of approval.”

Quebec concurred. “Being of the nature of a contract,” said the Quebec statement, “the federal compact cannot be amended,

nor modified, except with the consent of all the parties thereto; that is to say, of all the provinces.” That is a proposition, it seems to the rest of the country, that would put the B.N.A. Act in a class with the laws of the Medes and Persians, keep it forever frozen in its present form.

Up to this point the argument is perhaps academic. It has its intensely practical side. The real issue is not in the realm of constitutional theory. The provinces were not engaged in sharpening wits on a metaphysical problem. Their argument about the B.N.A. Act supplies only what political theorists call the “ideology” of the controversy.

The practical side of the centralists’ case is briefly this: Since 1867, they say, Canada has changed beyond recognition. The local factory, the local store, the local railway line and highway were the characteristic features of the Canadian economic setup seventy years ago. Today, Canada is a land of nationwide enterprises. Its industries, its mercantile concerns, its transport systems are Coast-to-Coast in their extent. Its stream of interprovincial trade is deeper and broader than anybody could foresee in 1867.

In this Canada of 1938, the argument runs, only the Dominion Parliament can properly do many of the jobs assigned—by Privy Council judgments—to the provinces. The B.N.A. Act, the centralists say, should be amended to put these duties clearly within the Dominion’s jurisdiction. They add, though, that, properly interpreted, the Act as it stands might give the Dominion all the power it needs in the modem industrial world. They say that the Fathers of Confederation, even though they did not foresee mass production, quite plainly meant the provinces to handle only “local and private” matters.

When they made education a provincial concern, the theory runs, they were thinking of a one-room red schoolhouse with a $100-a-year teacher in charge, a set of McGuffey’s readers on a shelf, and possibly a map of the world on the wall. They had not imagined modem technical schools, expensive laboratories, experimental farms with luxurious quarters for the cows, free high-school training and libraries on the modem scale.

“Charitable and eleemosynary works”

also committed to the provinces—meant looking after the occasional incompetent who became destitute in the days when there was plenty of free land at the frontier for the man who could find no work in the city. It did not mean relief for tens of thousands of industrial workers unemployed today when the frontier and free land are only memories. “Local works” meant roads for a horse and buggy, not asphalt highways. “Hospitals and asylums” meant the primitive care given

to sick people seventy years ago. not the X-ray equipment, starched linen and aseptic operating rooms of a contemporary hospital. “Property and civil rights.” whatever it meant, did not mean the regulation of hours and wages, or unemployment insurance—for the obvious reason that these modern legislative ideas were beyond the ken of the Fathers of Confederation.

If they were rewriting the B.N.A. Act today, the centralists say, the Fathers of Confederation would undoubtedly list relief and labor laws, possibly highways and public health—though not education, it is conceded—among Dominion duties. The Dominion, it is argued, is clearly the proper authority to manage an unemployment insurance scheme, to build a transCanada road, to administer relief in these days of widespread unemployment and labor mobility. Local handling of these services, the argument runs, is inefficient and necessarily incomplete.

Apart from that, the have-not provinces say they simply lack the revenue to do effectively the work they are supposed to do. All of them were able to prove to the Rowell Commission that their taxes are many, severe and ingenious. Yet they cannot make ends meet. They have had to borrow, or to skimp on services by underpaying teachers, starving their uni versities and letting their roads get rough. Western provinces have done both. The frugal Maritime people have avoided heavy debt by rigid economies.

The provinces which want the Dominion to assume new duties, are quite willing to concede to Ottawa new or larger sources of revenue. Most of them now collect income tax and duties on estates. They are willing to give up either or both. They would repeal their provincial levies in the Dominion’s favor—for the quid pro quo suggested.

Again, Central Canada takes diametrically the opposite view. Mr. Hepburn said Ontario was willing and able to carry on all its present functions, wanted no shift in responsibilities. Presenting his argument as a defense of popular liberties, Mr. Hepburn told the Rowell Commission that “the accumulation of powers leads to autocracy. Its distribution is the safety zone of democracy.” Quebec’s spokesman, echoing Mr. Hepburn, quoted that remark with approval and added: “The centralization which seems to be desired by those who are hostile to provincial rights is a national and social evil.”

Mr. Hepburn stoutly resisted the proposition that income and estate taxes should be handed over to Ottawa. On the contrary, he thinks the Dominion in fairness to the provinces should quit the income tax field. Here he was joined by British Columbia. The Pacific province collected an income tax as far back as 1876, and deeply resents the Dominion’s horning in on that preserve.

The Private Briefs

'“THE private citizens who testified did

not, as a rule, line up with their provinces. They were, in fact, nearly unanimously centralist. Businessmen appeared to believe that centralizing more power at Ottawa would cut government costs. Graham Towers, Governor of the Bank of Canada, supported that view while scrupulously taking no side. Canadians, he said, with the cool detachment of a central banker, might for all he knew prefer the satisfaction of local pride in autonomy to a higher standard of living. An extreme statement of the business view came from the Vancouver Board of Trade. It suggested a plebiscite in each province on abolition of the legislature-—provinces endorsing that idea to be governed by an Ottawa-appointed Commission.

The Canadian Legion spoke up for a Dominion with “power to legislate in matters which have become of national importance, even though to do so it is

necessary to encroach upon property and civil rights, or other powers delegated to the provinces.”

The Native Sons of Canada suggested that the purpose of Confederation was to “establish a national unit” and to “obliterate the provincial boundaries and fuse the colonial units then existing.” Only in Quebec did private citizens take the other line. A strong defense of provincial autonomy was put in by the St. Jean Baptiste Society of Montreal.

The controversy, as this sketchy account of it should have suggested, is not about anything so abstract as the conflict of local patriotism with Dominion loyalty. That sentimental element is important, especij ally in Quebec and in the Maritimes, but the kernel of the argument is economic. The centralist provinces are the have-nots. They are the provinces in which very few people earn large incomes or leave milliondollar legacies. The autonomist provinces ; are the haves. They are the provinces where nearly all of Canada’s large fortunes are enjoyed. Essentially, the centralist plan is a share-the-wealth plan, though it by no means resembles the Utopian programs which went by that name in the United States.

The centralists say that the wealth of all Canada, concentrated as it is in two provinces by their natural advantages, their geographic position and the working of the tariff, should be accessible by the Dominion tax collector for keeping up a minimum of social services in all parts of the country. The autonomists reply that Ontario and Quebec are already making a large contribution to the welfare of people in provinces not so prosperous, and do not think they should be asked for more. These are the bare bones of the dispute, after the constitutional theories have been disposed of.

Quarrelling about money is not an attractive habit, and there is, of course, more to the discussion than a disagreement about dollars and cents. Western people do think, apart from money, that Canada would be stronger, happier, better organized for social ends and better able j to develop a national spirit and culture if the Dominion power were strengthened. Other Canadians just as genuinely think that local loyalties and institutions are supremely worth saving. As it happens (except in the Maritimes) that these sentiments tie in with local economic j interest, in the immediate future at any rate, the cleavage is deep and wide.

What is the Rowell Commission to make j of the evidence, and what will spring from the enquiry? Anything said about that now must be pure speculation. The J commissioners themselves, it is safe to say, are still wondering and pondering.

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