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Banner: First Among EqualsRichard Bedford Bennett banner

Speech before the House of Commons, June 19, 1935


This country has a debt, incurred directly as a result of our engaging in European hostilities, the annual interest on which is much more than the whole national debt of this country for many years after it came into being. That is a serious fact. But to state the fact is not to remedy it, to call attention to it does not cure it. Attention has been called to it in this house and will be. I believe that by 1937 someone must undertake the great problem of a Canadian conversion. But if we are going to gave a conversion there is only one way it can be done, and that is by maintaining our credit.

Mr. BENNETT: If we lost our national character which is our credit, then we shall never be able to make the conversion. The one object that this government has had in mind more than any other in dealing with our financial problems has been so to conduct our affairs that reasonable and honest men may say that we have treated our creditors as honest men do; that we have so utilized our legislative powers that it could be said that we had encouraged men to be honest and pay their debts according to their promises.

But bankruptcy intervenes, and bankruptcy is not anything new in law, we know what it is founded on, we know what it goes back to; and we did conceive the thought, after a case had been submitted to the supreme court of Canada, that we could deal with these cases in the manner in which they have been dealt with. If there is one thing more than any other that has brought relief to the Canadian farmer it has been the Farmers' Creditors Arrangement Act.

Some hon. MEMBERS: Hear, hear.

Mr. BENNET: Now with respect to other bills I do not propose to say more than this; that within the ambit of our powers we have offered to this parliament legislation that is within our constitutional right. The attack made upon the Minister of Justice (Mr. Guthrie) because he ventured to point out, as I think it was his duty to do for a reason I shall presently give, that doubt had been expressed by counsel to whom the case had been referred as to the validity of the legislation, was unfair because that was what you would expect any attorney general of Canada to do in view of past experience of this parliament. I think any man would say that was the least an attorney general of Canada could do. Why? Because the report of a commission was before the house, and I pointed out the other day that we had made up our minds within our legal rights to implement its recommendations. The minister was obviously bound in good faith to communicate to this house the fact that doubts had been expressed to him as to the validity of the bill, not for the purpose of making it abortive legislation, not for the purpose of saying it was anaemic, but for the purpose of keeping faith as an honest man with those who looked to him as Minister of Justice for guidance. Those who remember what was said about the Board of Commerce Act in 1919  --  look it up in the debates  --  will recall that doubts were expressed with respect to it, but the government proceeded with it in order that the question might be settled. So with respect to this legislation, the government submitted the legislation to the house. And when we come to the Companies Act, about which different opinions have been held for the last half century and will continue to be held, as to the best means of effecting the desired ends, the minister submitted that to the house and said: It is your bill as much as mine; let me have your suggestions; I only say that there is provision in it which I believe if I were practising law I could have set aside. That was not any lack of good faith; it was because he wanted this house to realize that in dealing with legislation which was doubtful the house should have the benefit of the views of counsel who had been consulted for the purpose of determining whether parliament was within its rights in enacting it. It is all very well to say that people are sick of hearing about the British North America Act. We have had several illustrations of what it means when people and parliaments and legislatures do not observe its provisions. We have had the insurance references and other references which I could mention. We had the board of commerce case, the combines case, and matters of that sort.

My duty, as I conceive it, is to offer legislation to this house for enactment which the Minister of Justice, with the aid of counsel whom he has consulted, believes to be constitutional and valid. If there be a doubt then we are willing that the house should take the responsibility of enacting it if they think it desirable, but it is our duty to tell the house of that doubt. Would it be right for the Minister of Justice to conceal these facts and say to the house: Here is a valid legislative enactment that you may pass; or is it right and proper that he should say that up to a certain point there seems to be no doubt, the courts have decided that we have the power, but when it gets beyond that there is doubt and uncertainty; I merely say that these opinions have been expressed to me as I have expressed them to you.

Now, sir, if the people of the country have been led into the belief that this parliament can pass any kind of legislation it likes regardless of the constitution, the age of lawlessness is upon us. Let there be no misunderstanding of that. Those who read history and understand its implications know that the first step towards fascism in Europe was what ? It was a prejudicial appeal to the little man; that was first. Then followed the inevitable utter disregard of constitutional limitations, the utter disregard of constitutional liberties and the utter disregard of constitutional freedom. Sir, there is a way by which this country may obtain jurisdiction for this parliament to deal with these matters. It well may be that the parliament of Canada should have. Sir, there is a way by which this country may obtain jurisdiction for this parliament to deal with these matters. It well may be that the parliament of Canada should have greater powers than it possesses; there is a difference of opinion with respect to that matter, a very earnest difference of opinion. In these days of stress and strain some men have concluded that if we had one central parliament with county councils instead of provincial legislatures all would be well. It may be so. It may be that the readjustment of the financial position of the provinces and the municipalities may bring limitations upon the exercise of power by the provincial legislatures. That may well be, but it cannot be brought about by endeavouring to induce the people to believe that parliament may do what the courts say it may not do. I repeat that the third branch of government, the judiciary, becomes tremendously important. That is why I have said that in the ultimate analysis we always have to depend upon the conclusions and decisions of the courts. That is why in the end, if we are a law-abiding people who believe in reform and not in revolution, we must proceed precept by precept, line upon line, to the end that in an orderly and legal manner we may accomplish the ends we have in mind. But it is never right, it never can be right, to induce those who do not understand to believe that a parliament has power and will not exercise it out of mere obstinacy or fear. That serves no purpose, except to induce people to believe that there is a body of legislators sitting in this house some of whom are less honest than one, and that therefore they will not do that which one would do.

Mr. POULIOT: Name them.

Mr. BENNETT: I spare the hon. gentleman feelings; I might name him. I do submit, Mr. Speaker, that the only method by which we will ever be able in this parliament to possess the powers it is suggested we should exercise is by that change in our constitutional fabric that may be brought about by a constitutional conference. As I have pointed out, there was a constitutional conference in the years prior to 1867, a conference that was not limited to men of one party, at which they met together and discussed how they might be able to bring about the union of these provinces of British North America. If we desire to change this constitution we can do it in an orderly and proper manner, but until we have done it let us, as loyal and law-abiding citizens, be bound by the courts of the country that have been set up for the purpose of deciding how far we may go and where our proud hand must be stayed.

That is the position which I submit to this house as the governing principle that has determined the actions taken by this government during the last few months in dealing with this problem. I do point out that even if we stay here for the rest of the summer we are content to enact legislation that lies within our competence. When suggestions come that are within the law, according to the advice of competent counsel, for instance, when the Companies Act is under consideration, I for example, owing to a suggestion made by the hon. member for Weyburn (Mr. Young), who thought that wider publicity should be given. I at once said I believed that was a sound thing to do and an amendment was introduced providing that the public who may be interested might have an opportunity to be heard before any agreement as contemplated between producers should receive the sanction of the commission.

It has been said that the tariff board has not the power to undertake this task because it is busy. All I can say is that the chairman of that board has said that he feels that the board is able to undertake this task. We did not ask this house to give the tariff board authority to deal with these matters until we knew that they thought, at least, that it was within their power and their competence to do so far as time was concerned. More than that, we cannot and will not ask this parliament to set up a body that has the power to enact laws, for that is a delegation of power that has not been made constitutional as matters now stand. This parliament must enact such legislation, and the regulations framed under it may indeed be made by any body, and the body has been set up under the act, the third reading of which is now under consideration. This act gives effect to every principle that should be given effect to within the legal competence of this parliament under the price spreads report, so called, with respect to the matters dealt with; when taken with the other statutes to which I have alluded, and with which I will not deal at length this afternoon, it will be found that every recommendation that is within our legal competence has been given effect to. I regret if the manner in which that has been done does not commend itself to the judgment of all the members of that commission, but there is no rule that provides that you must enact legislation that pleases every member of a commission. There is no rule that calls upon this parliament to enact legislation in the terms of a recommendation, unless indeed the recommendation is legal. For as sixteen years ago those recommendations were made in good faith and were found to be the basis of invalid and unconstitutional legislation, we trust that in the meantime, with sixteen years of experience with the decisions of the courts, we have avoided the pitfalls that were pointed out by the privy council.

I do submit to this house, in asking for the third reading of this bill, that in this measure we have made an earnest effort  --  not the last word but an earnest effort  --  to attain the end in view. If it happens that all these ends are not attained at one fell swoop I am always content to remember that the development of British institutions, of the very institution which we enjoy today, as well as of our common law, has been here a little and there a little, precept upon precept, line upon line, until the growth and development of common sense has found expression in legislation reflecting the will and purpose of the people.


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Source: Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada. 17th Parliament, 6th Session, (June 4, 1935: July 5, 1925). Ottawa: J.O. Patenaude, 1935. Pages 3808-3811.


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