Interview

With John Robarts and Jean-Luc Pépin of the Unity Task Force

October 3 1977

Interview

With John Robarts and Jean-Luc Pépin of the Unity Task Force

October 3 1977

Interview

With John Robarts and Jean-Luc Pépin of the Unity Task Force

It has been said that all John Robarts and Jean-Luc Pépin have in common is a moustache. The gruff, managerial Robarts is a former Premier of Ontario and a committed Conservative. Pépin, the bubbly philosopher-bureaucrat who headed the Anti-Inflation Board, is a devout Liberal. Last July the two men were made cochairmen of the Task Force on Canadian Unity, replete with a staff of 50 and a budget of three million dollars. Over the nextfew months, the taskforce will fan out across the country, selling the cause of Confederation. Maclean’s asked Keith Spicer, former Commissioner of Official Languages, to probe the reasoning behind the task force with the co-chairmen.

Maclean’s: Mr. Pépin, you are alleged to have said that the Task Force on Canadian Unity was set up to give Mr. Trudeau the possibility of saying that he was doing something about national unity. What have you to say about that?

Pépin: It’s another instance of how differently the same thing can be read. What I said is that my impression was that Mr. Trudeau wanted to be able to say if ever things turned sour that he had used all available instruments; that he had used federal-provincial conferences; that he had used his own improvement on the Constitution through the task force and what not.

Maclean’s: Mr. Robarts, about 10 years ago you were the proponent and the organizer of the Confederation of Tomorrow Conference which was very successful and raised a lot of hopes about the possibility of using provincial initiative to rebuild Canada more lucidly. How do you feel about the conference in retrospect and what do you think about the provinces taking some new initiatives today?

Robarts: Well, that conference was purely my own initiative and that of my government, but I first suggested it at a federalprovincial conference in Ottawa because I really became very tired of every one of our federal-provincial conferences degenerating into an argument about money. It seemed to me that there were a lot of other issues in the country other than money that were worthy of assessment and examination. So, I suggested that I might call a conference to take a look at Confederation as it was and what it might be in the future and what our ideas were from one end of the country to the other as to what the future of the country might be. Particularly as it was our 100th birthday in 1967. Well, this idea received very cursory but imme-

diate approval. And then that conference disbanded and I set about doing it. Well, the first thing that I had to find out was whether the other provinces were interested and, of course, in the event they were—I can remember speaking to Mr. (Daniel) Johnson who was a personal friend of mine at the time and my phrase to him was: “Danny, I’ll give you the biggest soapbox in Canada to tell the people of Canada what you really want for your province. And we’ll have a discussion about the country from everybody’s point of view provincially.” But the one thing about that conference that was never mentioned was money. It wasn’t allowed on the agenda. The federal people, when I finally got around to doing it. were definitely miffed.

Maclean’s: Sometimes I get the impression that Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Lévesque are engaged in a kind of Dawson City shoot-out at high noon. And the rest of us, particularly those in provincial politics, are impotent witnesses of all this and I wonder if you would go as far now as to invite the provinces to get off the pot and start intervening more actively in getting together andformulating an inter-provincial policy. Don’t you think that at some stage the nine English-speaking provinces, if they really are as fed up with Ottawa’s national unity efforts as they say they are, should get together and start proposing some alternative policies?

Robarts: Well, I think that the participation of the provinces in this whole debate is

absolutely vital because, at this particular space in time in our history, I would say that the provincial governments have more credibility with the citizen than the federal government does.

Pépin: And this is where the provinces, those nine that you referred to, and a task force like ours have really a common objective. The third option is going to be the biggest thing in Canada in the coming year.

Maclean’s: I’m not trying to stir up trouble between you and Mr. Trudeau but when you use the term third option you must be implying some dissatisfaction with the federal option the way it now stands.

Pépin: Well, he implies dissatisfaction with it also. When he goes to Washington and talks about the need for accommodations; when he comes back to Canada and says that he is willing to review everything from A to Z; and then when he announced the creation of our task force in the House of Commons and suggested that we come up with new ideas. So consequently one could very well say that a third option is what Mr. Trudeau hopes to get from all this. And I think that when you talk about that you hit a major sort of political and psychological aspect of the discussion we’re in now. It’s very difficult for either Mr. Trudeau or Mr. Lévesque openly to suggest such other options. It’s very difficult because in some ways they are slaves of their position as heads of governments. So in a situation like this, if you want to prevent the high-noon or the Dawson City shoot-out, I would hope that the provinces, the task force, the University of

Toronto Conference, or whoever, would come out with elements constituting a third option.

Maclean’s: How radical are you prepared to be in proposing constitutional changes? Could you go as far as to accept associate states in a true confederation with the right of secession?

Pépin: Well, I don’t know myself how far we’re going to go because we haven’t really started discussion on these major substantive issues. But I think that we should certainly try to go the limit if it’s needed. I mean, we’ve got to find something, obviously, and how far this will lead us I have no idea.

Robarts: A great, great deal of what this task force is going to attempt to do is to put people in a position where they have the necessary knowledge to make decisions for themselves. And of course the true significance of what you have just said, an associate state and the right to secede and so on, is really not thoroughly understood in its total effect. And we hope to do a lot of research in this area and make material available; and it won’t necessarily be the opinion of this task force. But do we really know what, for instance, would happen to the Seaway if Quebec did separate? Do we really know what is going to happen to the relationship between industrial Quebec and industrial Ontario? And there’s that four-lane highway between Montreal and Toronto. Do we really know what’s really going to happen to Winnipeg? Do we really know what’s going to happen on the West Coast? I don’t think we do. I think we’re having a great time and a bit of an emotional binge talking about some things when we really don’t know precisely what the result of various courses of action might be and I think it's time that we started to think about it.

Pépin: This third option which is something between the status quo and souveraineté association has got to be found. And the greater number of intelligent people who work in this area the better. So when I talk about a third option I don’t just talk about constitutional revision. There are some things, in my view, even more fundamental than that. How can you have a political federal superstructure when the country itself is not federally motivated, is not federal psychologically, when you have institutions on the private sector, professional associations of all kinds who claim to be Canadian institutions when they really cater only to part of it? Maclean’s: Well, just to summarize what you’re telling us about the mandate of the commission, could we say in reverse order of priority what you’re going to get us within two to five years—two years of your work and perhaps two or three years of meditation and haggling? First of all a new constitution which is down the pipe, the lawyers will plaster that together. Secondly, a political breakthrough that will send the sheriff into Dawson City; and to begin with you’re going to let people know what’s in store for them,

what the stakes in Canada are right now. Pépin: Well I don’t know if I would put it in the order that you’ve just put it in right now, but one of our first preoccupations that will keep us busy for three or four months will be exactly that: to establish the dialogue with the population. Our mandate is in three parts. We’re just painting with a wide brush. The first one is we’re supposed to support the efforts of the public at large and within that public particularly unity groups and associations in general. The second part is that we’re supposed to produce our own initiatives and

our own ideas. And number three is we are one of the advisers to the government in these matters of unity. Our role as advisers to the government has preoccupied a number of people. They think that we’re going to keep all this wisdom exclusively to the ownership of the federal government. I think we can reassure these people that all the good ideas will be certainly enthusiastically disseminated in the population. Maclean’s: Do the opposition parties accept your goodwill and want you to play a nonpartisan role?

Robarts: I would think so. Mind you the role of the opposition is to oppose, and therefore they look upon various initiatives taken by the federal government with a certain amount of suspicion and this is natural. But we have visited Mr. Broadbent and Mr. Clark and Mr. Caouette and discussed with each of them separately our mission and what we’re doing. And I think

we’re completely accepted. Yes. Maclean’s: Just moving toward public opinion in general, isn’t there a danger of overdoing the humility approach in going to the people, in going to the grass and saying: we ’re here again folks to listen to you. Aren’t they going to say: hey, listen, you’ve been sending us delegations from Ottawa since 1963 since the B&B commission, allegedly to psychoanalyze this crazv country—now what are you sending all these people out again for? Don’t you know what you’re doing? Haven’t you got one or two experts yet? Can ’(you give us a theme or two that we can latch on to?

Robarts: Oh, I think there’s that risk in everything, certainly. But you create your own credibility and I guess if we can’t create it then we will not have been successful.

Pépin: My answer to that is we’re not exactly what you seem to imply. We’re not only going to ask people what is it that you think. Otherwise we wouldn’t have to go ourselves. What we’re going to indulge in is what we refer to as conversations. So there’ll be “give and take” and consequently there’ll be a growing in awareness of the issues. So it’s an exercise in mutual education and we’ll do that really for three months. And then after that in the second phase of our activities this is where we’re going to consult with a number of acknowledged experts in these matters and study these problems ourselves. Maclean’s: I'll let you have a title that I abandoned when I was in the government a while back. We had Agriculture Canada and Atomic Energy Canada. I was going to call the B&B thing Catastrophe Canada so it’s all yours if you can use it.

Robarts: Well, whatever name you have there’ll be some detractors and there’ll be somebody who will find a way . . .

Pépin: And, Spicer, you mustn’t take upon yourself the job of teaching Robarts and me humility.

Maclean’s: You ’re masters of humility. Pépin: Yes, we’re masters of humility. That’s one of our fortitudes.

Maclean’s: Modesty is one of your best qualities.

Pépin: No, no, this is an exercise and we’re aware of it, Mr. Robarts more than myself; nevertheless we are pretty experienced in these matters. This might not be a crashing success. We have to anticipate that. But in my view somebody in 1977 had to try what we are going to try.

Robarts: What we are doing really is only one initiative. It’s not the only thing that the federal government will do. It’s not the only thing that will be done by the country. If we can act as some sort of catalyst—and believe me we’ve got a list of well over 60 citizen organizations who have sprung up in response to the great Canadian crisiswell that’s great. Our function is not to be a great body that accomplishes a great deal, but one that can help and assist the people of this country to solve their own problems because that is the only way that it will be

Robarts: the solution will not be one imposed upon people by anybody at the top

solved for any length of time or forever. It will have to be a solution that wells up from within the people. It will not be a solution that will be imposed upon them by anybody from the top. Someone with real political genius will have to recognize what the people of this country want to keep themselves together because in disunity there are no winners.

Maclean’s: So you ’re going to give the various Canadian unity groups a lot of moral backing. How are you going to orchestrate them in practical terms?

Robarts: Well, don’t you see, they orchestrate themselves. They all have independent existences. They’ve all chosen their own particular line of endeavor. They’ve got different objectives. What we hope to do is to keep in contact with them and by sorting all this out to find out if there is a common pattern running through this which could lead to courses of action that might be acceptable and desired by groups of Canadians.

Maclean’s: You’ll be meeting all of these groups regionally, but will you pull them together for national conferences and, if you do, isn’t there a danger of setting up still another permanent association?

Robarts: There are a million dangers in this whole business. But look, we can’t afford to lose by default.

Maclean’s: You had some difficulties in getting Quebec members. Have you noticed already from reactions of people you know in Quebec that the show is on the road in that province?

Pépin: Yes, the reception given to the appointment of Madame Chaput-Rolland particularly was close to sensational. Maclean’s: You have said that you hope to see Mr. Lévesque and members of his cabinet. Have you any indication they’re going to give you a fair hearing?

Pépin: We’re going to start our tour in three weeks time [it began in the week beginning September 19]. When we are in a certain province we make it a practice of dropping in to see the government of the province. So, we will make ourselves available in Quebec. Whether we will be received or not is anybody’s guess. I would suggest that they will give us some time. Maclean’s: One other public that you’re going to have trouble getting at is the young people in Quebec. In particular, the teaching body within Quebec is pretty heavily Péquiste and the kids are getting that message loud and clear. The Quebec government does not want the children to hear the other side of the story perhaps. A re you going to do anything to go straight to the children by television or radio or kids or whatever? Pépin: Well, we might try it just because we would like a repeat performance of that which would demonstrate that the government is not interested in other versions of the truth than theirs. But there is no way in one year that we can contact every single person and develop a program for every single group. So we’ll have to, as I said a little while ago, paint with a wide brush.

Maclean’s: I’d like to ask a tired old journalistic question about what historians are likely to say about you in 10years. Robarts: I think it’s very hard to foresee. Personally, I think it’s going to be a long, laborious process. I think that Mr. Lévesque faces an enormous problem with his plebiscite. When is he going to hold it? I guess some people might think he should hold it soon while he’s got all the enthusiasm of his electoral win and before the inevitable disillusionment sets in, because it always does. Every politician of any experience knows that the immediate

post-election—when you’ve had a big win politically you start to almost believe your own publicity. That’s a very dangerous question but these are not clear-cut issues. They are not well understood issues. People don’t really know the ultimate effect of various courses of action that may be offered to them and I think there is going to be confusion. I don’t think the matter will be settled quickly because it’s utterly complex and difficult to understand. I think that this problem is going to be with us.. .

Maclean’s: Five to 10years?

Robarts: Well, five to 10 years, why not? Four to six, two to eight, it’s so difficult to say in those terms. It’s just that as you look at the problem it’s just not simply a clearcut problem that you can say well, that’s what we’ll do, what’s next? It’s just not that simple.

Pépin: Well, there’s a new dimension

known as the referendum. In a year or so people are going to be asked to get off the pot and say if they are in favor of this or that. Personally, and I think that I have implied that very strongly, I don’t know what’s going to happen. It doesn’t matter. People have to learn in the coming year or two or three to do things irrespective of the final result. That’s probably my greatest contribution at this point to this interview. They have to act as if it was going to be a relative success and make the moves now, make the necessary changes in attitudes, social and economic, irrespective of the result.

Maclean’s: Confidence generates the

Pépin: As you know, Keith, I’ve been out of this debate for five or six years and because I did something else—anti-inflation and trading houses—I can’t help it. But there’s no doubt that on the French-speaking Quebec side a number of us wanted to make an important contribution to the solution of the national issue. I think that we saw it coming very, very well. I remember (Maurice) Sauvé’s speech in 1967 in which he said: “You guys think we should rejoice. I’m here to tell you that we are in great, great trouble. And I’m here to tell you what kind of trouble we’re in.” So Sauvé said very bluntly that ’67 was sugarcoating on a very, very negative situation. I feel a bit sad because when we were making these speeches people listened to all of that and I remember vividly Pépin with his usual wit and charm and so on didn’t think it was serious. And consequently they all sat around, laughed at my jokes. Does he (she) or doesn’t she speak French? The man of distinction is bilingual and it takes away the fear of being close and that sort of joke.

Maclean’s: I had the same problem because I kept stealing your jokes.

Pépin: They laugh at all of this but they didn’t take it in. It didn’t apply to them. And consequently it’s only now that we’re all under great pressure because of separatism in Quebec, that some people are now willing to go faster—Ontario is willing to go faster with its educational system and they might touch the court system too. And BC has just passed something that is better than what they had with respect to the teaching of French.

Maclean’s: There’s a lot of deaths and repentances.

Pépin: And it’s too bad. Isn’t it too bad that it’s only when people are pressed to the wall that they decide to make necessary moves. Now having said that, Mr. Robarts, I’m not one to say that it’s all your fault. I’m not one to say that it’s all English Canada’s fault. But with all the faults that the French Canadians have had in the past, and they’re substantial, nevertheless it’s got to be admitted that the English-speaking population and those in Quebec particularly haven’t shown, as somebody said recently, the fraternity to which the French people were entitled in this country.Cj?

Pépin: will we get a fair hearing from Mr. Lévesque? I think he will give us some time