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Studies on the Canadian Constitution and Canadian Federalism


Last revised:
26 February 2001

The Pépin-Robarts Report


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

Stunned by the election of the Parti Québécois in 1976, the federal government of Pierre Trudeau created, in 1977, a Task Force on Canadian Unity better known as the Pépin-Robarts Commission from its two co-chairmen Jean-Luc Pépin, previously a federal cabinet minister, and John Robarts - a former premier of Ontario. A panel of six prominent Canadians joined the two chairmen. The mandate of the Commission was rather elaborate but, in particular, they were to hold public meetings to seek out the views of individuals and groups on the question of Canadian unity and advise the federal government on the same issue. The Commission held stormy meetings in most of the important cities of Canada, received numerous briefs from individuals and groups across the country, commissioned studies on specific subjects and consulted governments and important individuals in Canada. The sum total of its efforts was a massive documentation that the Commission distilled into three books entitled Coming to Terms, A Future Together, and A Time to Speak.

The conclusion of the Commission was that Canada needed a "Restructured federalism" in order to accommodate the twin realities of duality and regionalism in Canada. On the subject of the distribution of powers, it called for clarification and adjustment so that the two levels of government would be co-equal. It recommended further that:

1) Residuary powers be given to the provinces.

2) Both levels of government be given access to all sources of taxation except that customs and excise taxes would be reserved to the federal government.

3) Provinces be given preponderance on most aspects of immigration.

4) Limitations be introduced on the federal declaratory and spending powers.

5) Provinces appoint their own Lieutenant-Governor.

6) Federal power of disallowance and reservation be done away with.

7) In its most daring recommendation, the Report wrote that there "is need for a measure of asymmetry among provinces to enable all provinces to preserve their distinctiveness and Quebec in particular to enhance its French heritage." The Commission did not clarify precisely what measure of special status would be given to Quebec; however, some indications might be provided in recommendation 40(ii) where it is stated that the cultural sector would include the following: education, schools, universities, archives, research, exchanges, copyright, books, films, the arts, leisure, marriage and divorce and property and civil rights.

8) The Senate be reconstituted under the name of Council of the Federation where provincial governments would send delegations.

9) The Supreme Court be remodeled and entrenched in the constitution; there would be five Quebecois judges out of a total of eleven; the judges would be appointed by the federal government on a regional basis and following provincial consultation.

10) The electoral system would be reformed to take in some form of proportional representation.

11) A new amendment formula would provide ratification by regional majorities in a Canada-wide referendum.

12) A new charter of rights - including linguistic rights - be entrenched in the constitution.

The Pépin-Robarts Report made a valiant effort to deal with Canada's complex constitutional problems. There is no doubt that its proposals would have gone a long way to diffuse the explosive situation prevalent in Canada in the period preceding the holding of the first referendum on sovereignty in Quebec in 1980.

Unable to agree with the main recommendations of the Report, especially with its decentralist thrust and its emphasis on "asymmetry", the Trudeau government shelved it permanently as it had shelved much of the Laurendeau-Dunton Report on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.

© 2001 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College