Sunday, September 7, 2008

Some of Canada's beginning

This is some history work, I've found to be of interest.


Just because Canada exists doesn't mean it ever was founded. In fact, the whole notion of founding a country is alien to Canadian experience. Founding is something undertaken by a Machiavellian "new Prince," but Canadian sovereignty has devolved historically from the very old British crown. The Americans and the French, with their fancy republican ways, speak easily enough about their founding fathers - Washington, Madison, Robespierre, Marat and all the rest. Canadians don't.

True, we use the same patriarchal language and speak of the fathers of Confederation, but nobody talks about the fathers of Canada, which indicates clearly enough that Confederation was an episode in Canada's evolution, not a brand new beginning. A few intellectuals might indulge in loose talk about the Canadian founding, but they ought to know better.

Usually the act of founding is accompanied by a heavy traffic in high-minded ideas intended to make the new citizens feel good about the violent things they are doing. Truths are held to be self-evident. The founders promise liberty, equality and sisterhood, or peace, bread and other people's land. None of that has ever happened in Canada, though political parties, such as the New Democrats or Reform, have staged founding events to haul themselves into existence.

Unfounded though Canada is, our early political life was not hostile to ideas. They were not expressions of grand new principles but, as contemporary politicians would have said, embodied "well known" ideas. They were well known because they were part of a tradition the origins of which were discreetly shrouded in the mists of time. Chief among them were the principles of parliamentary government and of liberalism. They remain important today. Indeed, many of our difficulties, as well as our successes, are a direct reflection of the extent to which we have maintained liberal and parliamentary government, or drifted away from it.

At the closing of the first session of the first parliament of Upper Canada in 1792, Governor John Graves Simcoe reminded his advisors, "that this province is singularly blest, not with a mutilated constitution, but with a constitution which has stood the test of experience, and which is the very image and transcript of that of Great Britain."

The sentiments were recalled in the British North American Act of 1867, when Canada received "a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom," and, in a more muted way, in the 1982 constitution as well.

In fact, parliamentary government in North America began long before the American Revolution. In its primitive form, elected assemblies could not control the executive. After the publication of Lord Durham's famous Report, the course toward responsible government and today's parliamentary institutions was set, at least in eastern Canada: the Crown is advised by a council that is supported in an assembly that in turn raises and spends money. Parliamentary government is finely balanced between executive decisiveness and the need for prudent and public justification of policy before the sceptical eyes of a "loyal opposition", which is also a government-in-waiting.

Responsible government, parliamentary government properly speaking, came to the old colonies of British North America around the middle of the nineteenth century. On the prairies, however, it was delayed "for the purposes of the Dominion" until 1930, when the provinces gained control over resource revenues. The timing could not have been worse. A decade of severe deflation, followed by the massive centralization of wartime, meant that political leaders in the West were deprived of practical education in the ways of parliament that their colleagues in the east had experienced for a least a generation before 1870.

In consequence, while liberalism in the West has been robust, it is also often extra-parliamentary. From the nineteenth-century agrarians to today's Reform Party, populist liberalism has mounted a serious challenge to the conventions of parliament. When sovereignty is thought to be vested in "the people" and not in the crown, the implications for cabinet, the executive and for the assembly are huge. Populist measures - the initiative, referendum and recall, for example - are in fact incompatible with parliamentary government. You can have one or the other, not both.

As a result, the populist liberalism of Canada's west has been a recipe for distress. Sometimes it has been dismissed as a reflection of the unwillingness of Parliament in Ottawa to respond to the interests of Westerners. From the National Policy of Sir John A. Macdonald to the National Energy Programme of Pierre Trudeau, evidence to support this view is not hard to find. But more than interests are involved. Injured pride, not neglected interests, lies behind the ambivalence of many Westerners towards parliamentary government and "Ottawa."

Pride matters. Indeed, human beings are especially proud when they rise above their interests, which is why the pride of Westerners is especially insulted when the beneficiaries - easterners for the most part - are so palpably ungrateful.

In so many ways Quebec is a mirror image of the west. There "Ottawa" carries the same ambivalent symbolic charge, but for quite different reasons. In Quebec, the levers of parliamentary power have been energetically grasped, but diverted to distinctly non-liberal purposes.

It is useful to recall that in Quebec liberalism came ashore with the soldiers of General Wolfe in 1759. In those days, its most important element was freedom of religion, which opened the way for non-Roman Catholic and often English-speaking traders to settle in the newly acquired colony and to prosper. Once again the effect of this infusion of liberal enterprise led to the recommendations of Lord Durham. But many French-Canadians were less interested in individual liberty than in sheltering their community from the malign outside forces that the entrepreneurial English liberals seemed to represent. This is why Durham's name is still mud in Quebec.

The same religious solidarity of the eighteenth-century resistance to liberalism could be detected in the writings of Abbé Lionel Groulx fifty years ago. With the massive and rapid secularization brought about by the Quiet Revolution, the words changed, but the music remained the same. The elegant Hegelian rhetoric of a sovereigntist such as the late Fernand Dumont, for whom every distinct society achieves fulfillment and proper form as a state, or the claims in favour of "deep diversity" made on behalf of Quebec by a federalist such as Charles Taylor, resonate with the same anti-liberal communitarian survivalism pioneered by François-Xavier Garneau a century and a half ago. Garneau's long poem, Louise, as his multi-volume Historie du Canada, were as much a littérature de combat as anything from the pens of contemporary Quebec nationalists, whether sovereigntist or not. Plus ça change. . . .

In fact, many things have changed since the days of Simcoe, Durham and Macdonald, but the principles they espoused can still be detected without too much effort. And yet, pure parliamentary liberalism has never worked in Canada. All Canadians, and especially those in the unmovable centre of the country, Ontario, should be grateful for the impurities supplied by the communitarian realities of Quebec and the extra-parliamentary populism of the west. They provide the colour and flavour to Canadian politics, the leaven that makes federalism work, even though it violates not a few of the explicit intentions of the fathers of Confederation.

Canada has been informed from its beginnings, back in the aftermath of the American Revolution, by two principles: liberalism, and responsible or parliamentary government. After Confederation, the Canadian version of responsible government was modified by the addition of a heavy dose of federalism. These are, I believe, the principles that will guide Canadians into the next century.

Liberalism means many things. In my first article, I referred to Lord Durham's splendid Report. Bob Rae referred to it in his first article as well, but did not praise it. According to him, it was "disastrous, but fortunately short-lived." Au contraire! It was a splendid piece of work and so filled with of foresight that even today it informs Canadian political life at its best. To see why, we must understand Durham's liberalism on its own terms, removed from what present-day liberalism has become.

Lord Durham was a confident, strong, and spirited liberal. He believed liberalism was worth defending and was eager to criticize its enemies. Conventional readings of the Durham Report praise the author for recommending responsible government, but criticize his proposal to assimilate French-speaking colonists. In these days of official bilingualism and semi-official multiculturalism, this looks intolerant, and -- because contemporary liberals can tolerate anything but intolerance -- to some it looks illiberal as well.

But consider the circumstances in which Durham found himself. Following the Rebellion of 1837, he was faced with a "fatal feud" between the French- and the English-speaking colonists of Lower Canada. He also had to consider the dissatisfaction with British rule in the other colonies. Only by adapting to a common North American way of living, he believed, could French-speakers enjoy genuine liberty and equality. Thus did he advocate equality of opportunity and British constitutional practices for all colonists. Thus too, his liberalism: According to Durham, no religious cult, no clan, no caste, no nation, no collective, no faction, and no king, should usurp the right to legislate on behalf of others.

Existing practices, Durham was convinced, would ensure that "the great part" of French-speakers would remain "labourers in the employ of English capitalists," and so poor, dependent and resentful. He was not in error. The French-speaking colonists did not, he said, wish to "remain stationary", but had been held back by a misguided policy that both permitted immigration of aggressive English-speaking entrepreneurs to Quebec and maintained the old seigneuries. Because the seigneuries could not easily be sold, the French-speakers' economic competitiveness was reduced. Regardless of whether British policy was inspired by a goodhearted desire to maintain the noble but vanishing life of the ancien regime, or by prejudice against the Catholic and French inhabitants of the colony, the result was identical: the English-speaking minority prospered while the majority of French-speakers did not. It was a recipe for strife. It was also the reason the colonists on both sides argued in terms of "race." That is, the English-speakers sought to protect their group privileges, and the French-speakers challenged them on the same grounds.

Durham was also perhaps the first to notice the mauvaise foi of nationalist rhetoric. It was designed not to resist assimilation to a liberal, British political order, but to protest the exclusion of French-speakers from the prosperous, liberal society of the English-speaking merchants. Durham therefore opposed legal protection for a "distinct society" in Lower Canada - he called it a society of ancient virtue - because, like the "separate but equal" institutions of the American South, it violated his faith in equality of opportunity.

Much like the sovereigntists today, the Patriote rebels of 1837 were not as dedicated to preserving the ancient virtues and cultural traditions of their ethnic garrison as is sometimes assumed. Although they invoked nationalist sentiments to justify their position, their appeal to the pre-modern and pre-liberal habitants was intended to gain electoral support — a thoroughly modern, liberal objective — in order to effect liberal reforms against the discriminatory laws supported by the English-speaking faction. The Patriotes were moved by ambition, not nostalgia.

Likewise today's sovereigntists, no less than today's federalists, share liberal political habits. This is why the sovereigntists become so irritated when their opponents criticize their pure laine rhetoric as ethnocentric, and worse. And yet, like the Patriotes of 1837, they do make archaic and anti-liberal appeals against, for example, "money and the ethnic vote," to use the unforgettable phrase of Jacques Parizeau.

In recommending equal opportunity for all the colonists, Durham's message was simple: wherever ethnic, linguistic, or religious differences are politically institutionalized, there one finds injustice. This liberal principle has endured in Canada because it guarantees the dignity of all citizens, whatever language they speak. That is what makes Lord Durham such a great liberal, and why his Report remains an enduring statement of Canadian liberalism.

In the context of Durham's arguments rightly understood, it is correct to observe, as Mr. Rae did last week, "Canada is a federation, not just a nation, and that says it all." It doesn't quite say it all, but it says a great deal: We are a "political nation," to use Cartier's formula in the Confederation Debates, and we are a federation. It is not, however, "cookie-cutter" federalism, as Mr. Rae has suggested, to treat the provinces as formally equal. Acknowledging the reality of equal provinces has become a political necessity, largely for the same reasons Durham made plain as day in his Report. A liberal society permits variety, indeed, requires variety for its survival. Federalism, a mode of governance that enhances liberal "experiments in living", is the institutional expression of variety concentrated.

Today few would dispute that Quebec is more distinct from PEI than Saskatchewan is from Manitoba, but the two prairie provinces are not cookie cut-outs either. Here is where the former premier of Canada's most populous province is too timid in his understanding of what federalism can do for diversity in Canada.

There are good reasons for Quebec to take pride in its own language laws, and even its own sign laws, whatever English-speakers in British Columbia might think. By the same token, there is no reason Saskatchewan should not take pride in its own gun laws, regardless of what the good burghers of Montreal might think. Likewise, Alberta can take pride in its own health laws, despite the disapproval of the bien pensants of Toronto. B.C. would certainly take pride in formulating its own salmon laws.

That, after all, is the point of federalism. It encourages the kind of variety that is both the foundation of liberal society and its fullest expression. Quebec's sign laws, no less than the existence of Nunavut, are experiments. In both places, citizens are able to use local or regional government for their own purposes, to organize their common life without being intimidated by a remote and massive central government, and to take pride in their achievements. Federalism encourages these liberal experiments by promoting government that is not just responsible, but also responsive.

As Canadians head into the new millennium, they can be sure that new political necessities will require new political experiments. And they can be confident that the tested principles of liberalism, responsible government and federalism are equal to the challenge.

No I didn't write this, and back then liberal wasn't what it is today. Anyway I hope this is of some interest to other people. not only me, and I hope u enjoyed you're history lesson for the day. : ) Come back next time for questions lol.

2 comments:

zorg said...

yeah, that was interesting, now i have a good excuse to not do my own history. and i love that pic you have down at the bottom, is it on a shirt or something?

Joe said...

yes it is. as it says at the top of it. my Favorite shirt lol