Canada’s Lasting Political Democracy

Reg Whitaker posts on the Inroads chat line an excerpt from Stephen Harper’s speech at the recent Manning Centre Conference in Ottawa, with this comment:

“Our political leaders in Ottawa, at least since Pierre Trudeau, rarely venture into expositions of the philosophical basis of their action. Thus the following excerpt from a speech … by Prime Minister Stephen Harper … is of some interest. Over to you, Mr. Ignatieff?”

I read the excerpt. Yes, it’s both informal and philosophical – to a suitable degree. I’ve heard Mr. Harper give this kind of speech before. And he’s good at it. Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt:

“We, as conservatives, inherit an incredible legacy. Never forget – you would forget this sometimes listening to the CBC – that it was Conservatives that created our federation, one of the most lasting political democratic arrangements in history. In my grandparents’ era under Winston Churchill, conservatives rallied the world against fascism. And (during) my parents’ (generation), under leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, conservatives brought down the Iron Curtain. And in our generation we have united Canadian conservatives under one roof and brought down an entrenched Liberal party that was deemed an unstoppable juggernaut just five years ago.”

Good stuff, eh? as Bill Gairdner likes to say. The Canadian federation one of the most lasting political democratic arrangements in history? True. True. And it can’t be said too often.

But I choked at the idea that it was Conservatives with a capital “C” who did the brave deed in 1867. I know it’s said – endlessly – that the Tory party under John A made Canada. I know that’s probably what Mr. Harper was taught in high school or university. But it’s wrong. There were distinguished and influential Liberals and Independents as well as Conservatives at the Quebec Conference (1864).

It’s necessary to see the wrongness of the standard textbook teaching because it is the essence of political democracy that all political parties compete on a footing of equality. In a political democracy there are no constitutionally preferred parties. There are no constitutionally preferred ideologies or political arguments. And this fact the Fathers knew.

Listen to Thomas d’Arcy McGee: “[This] is a miraculous and wonderful circumstance, that men at the heads of governments in five separate provinces, and men at the head of the parties opposing them, all agreed at the same time to sink party differences for the good of all, at the risk of having their motives misunderstood, from associating together for the purpose of bringing about this result” (Canadian Legislative Assembly, 9 Feb.,1865).

Check out the story of the decision to include the opposition leaders in Christopher Moore’s 1867, How the Fathers Made a Deal (1997, ix).

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2 Responses to “Canada’s Lasting Political Democracy”


  1. 1 Christopher Moore March 23, 2009 at 9:37 am

    Well said, Janet (even without the nod to me!)

  2. 2 REALLY Made IN Canada March 23, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    To be seduced by the rhetoric, ignoring the fact that the actual record is very contrary to the promoted idealogy, is unfortunate and problematic.

    Mr. Harper is well-skilled in articulating favourably sounding idealogies, while in reality, playing politics and actually acting only when public opinion is white hot with disenchantment. This is far from what I would consider a good example of “democracy”. And this has been the modus operandi of our “leader”.

    Mr. Harper cannot pull on a blue “Made in Canada” sweater and direct his indignace over “labelling law” failures (enabled for years by his own government) to the media, while supporting and furthering bad trade deals like NAFTA and SPP.

    And now, regrettably, with Ignatieff, political scientists will be amused and entertained while the majority of Canadians will suffer the consequences of the “appearance of democratic process”.


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