Archive Page 2

The Dorchester Revisits Responsible Government

Enjoying the Dorchester Review again! The debate on responsible government continues in Volume 1, No 2.

Craig Yirush, Department of History UCLA, Los Angeles, argues that what the British North American colonists got in 1848 was merely a limited form of responsible government. I have to say that all the secondary sources, British and Canadian, agree with him. All that is, but John Ralston Saul (or so I think) and Janet Ajzenstat.

In his Introduction to the 1963 edition (Carleton Library No. 1), Gerald Craig says, “Responsible government was the dynamic idea in the Report, but it must not be forgotten how severely the idea was qualified by Lord Durham. It would apply to what he called internal legislation, and he would withhold only those matters that concerned the relations of the colonies with the mother country.” That is the standard view. On that point Yirush is correct.

But why don’t we get the opinion of the colonists who lived through the period from 1848 to Confederation? I can tell you immediately that without exception – I believe without exception -  participants in the ratifying debates on Confederation report that their province was rendered free in 1848, free in the way that independent countries are free. Indeed after 1848 speakers feel comfortable using the term “country” to refer to their province.

In Nova Scotia’s Legislative Assembly, Stewart Campbell said: “I am a free man. I claim the right and attributes of a free man, speaking in the presence of a British free assembly (Canada’s’ Founding Debates, ed. Janet Ajzenstat et al., [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, hereafter CFD], 60.) Campbell’s term “a British free assembly” refers to the Legislative Assembly of the province. Nova Scotia’s William Lawrence boasted: “We are a free people, prosperous beyond doubt, advancing cautiously in wealth … Under the British Constitution we have far more freedom than any other people on the face of the earth (CFD, 60).

In Newfoundland, George Hogsett said: “We have here a constitution for which the people nobly fought, and which was reluctantly wrung from the British government. We had the right of taxing ourselves, or legislating for ourselves (CFD, 98). In the same legislature, Ambrose Shea said that responsible government had brought “virtual independence.” He claimed moreover, that the colony had legislated tariffs “hostile to the commercial interests of England” (CFD, 219). In New Brunswick, John Mercer Johnson boasted: “We want nothing better than British institutions, for under them we have as much liberty, and a little more, than they have in the United States (CFD, 180).

The speakers I cite to this point are among the anti-Confederates. I could multiply examples. In the Atlantic Provinces the chief objection to Confederation was fear that union with the Province of Canada would impair the liberty enjoyed from 1848. But the argument that the colonies had enjoyed a singular liberty from 1848 can also be found among the “Confederates,” those committed to colonial union. In the Canadian Legislative Assembly Thomas D’Arcy McGee said: “The two great things that all men aim at in any free government are liberty and permanency. We have had liberty enough – too much perhaps in some respects  – but at all events, liberty to our heart’s content. There is not on the face of the earth a freer people than the inhabitants of these colonies” (CFD, 16-7).

In the National Post (March 5, 2012), letter writer Alex Harrison contends that Canada will thrive only if “we rebuild our government into a Parliament with a common goal.”

Mr. Harrison, we are a free country. A loyal Canadian may disagree with the government of the day.

A country with a common goal is at best an oligarchy and more likely a tyranny. The saving grace of party politics and parliamentary government is that it allows disagreement, and continuing deliberation. It’s true that national and world events do not always wait for extended debate. In the short run, the political executive (in Canada, the Cabinet) must sometimes decide matters. But Cabinet’s decisions can always be called in question and in that fact lies our proud designation as a free country.

In the same issue of the Post, letter-writer Roger Friedman argues that the biggest issue facing Canada is our self-serving politicians. “With the exception of our Prime Minister there are no true leaders in Parliament, unafraid to do what is right rather than what is expedient.” “With good people at the helm,” says Friedman, “Canada can overcome most of its current problems.”

Harrison wants to turn over government to a Parliament with a common goal. Friedman wants to empower the Prime Minister.

Democracy is more demanding.

John A. on American Electoral Politics

 

Bruins’ goalie Tim Thomas refused to attend a White House Party honouring his team. Was the snub a victory for free expression of political belief? Or mere rudeness?

It depends who invited the Bruins, says Mark Tunnicliffe in this morning’s National Post (January 27, 2012). The President of the United States is the country’s head of state and also the head of government. “If it was in the context of his role as head of state that the Bruins were feted, then Mr. Thomas’ behaviour was incorrect, he says. But if it was Mr. Obama the politician who invited them, “the snub might have been justified.”

Can you hear John A. Macdonald applauding? Here’s what Macdonald says about the U.S. Constitution. “By the election of the president by a majority and for a short period, he never is the sovereign and chief of the nation. He is never looked up to by the whole people as the head and front of the nation. He is at best but the successful leader of a party. This defect is all the greater on account of the practice of re-election. During his first term of office, he is employed in taking steps to secure his own re-election, and for his party a continuance of power. We avoid this by adhering to the monarchical principle – the sovereign whom you respect and love. I believe that it is of the utmost importance to have that principle recognized, so that we shall have a sovereign who is placed above the region of party – to whom all parties look up – who is not elevated by the action of one party nor depressed by the action of another, who is the common head and sovereign of all.”

Macdonald is speaking in the Legislative Assembly of the old province of Canada, on February 6, 1865.

 

 

The Once and Future Canadian Democracy

This welcome message came in recently.

I have been reading your 2003 essay “The Once and Future Canadian Democracy”.  It is perhaps the most coherent synthesis of political thought in Canada that I have read to date, and the “liberal”/”romantic” theory fills many of the gaps I had found until now.

Thank you for your work, Professor.

See Janet Ajzenstat, The Once and Future Canadian Democracy (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).

Going for a song on Amazon.

Parliamentum

James Bowden’s site, Parliamentum is a splendid site. A very welcome addition to Canadian thinking on legal and constitutional matters. I am enjoying the current discussion on Canadian independence.

What They Said About Responsible Government at Confederation

Let’s get back to questions of responsible government. Did the 1848 grant of responsible government to the British North American colonies sever the colonies’ formal connection with the mother country?

I say yes. After 1848 the colonists continued to regard themselves as part of the Empire and looked on the mother country affection, but conducted their local affairs as if they were free and independent polities able to legislate on any and all matters.

Most historians disagree. (Some readers on this blog disagree.) What is usually said is that in 1848 the united Province of Canada and the colonies in the Maritimes got a truncated form of responsible government; important powers were reserved for the British Parliament. Gerald Craig, editor of the Carleton Library edition of Lord Durham’s Report says in his introduction: “The grant of colonial self-government that Lord Durham was prepared to make in 1839 was wholly genuine, but it was also extremely limited in scope.” The mind stutters; imagine a form of self-government – self-government! – both “wholly genuine” and “extremely limited.”

The issue was discussed at Confederation and I can tell you at once that without exception participants in the ratifying debates in the provincial legislatures agreed that provinces adopting responsible government remained proud of their association with the mother country, but regarded themselves as free in the way that independent countries are free.

Nova Scotia’s William Lawrence boasted: “We are a free people, prosperous beyond doubt, advancing cautiously in wealth … Under the British Constitution we have far more freedom than any other people on the face of the earth.” By “British Constitution” Lawrence meant the colonial legislature. In Newfoundland, George Hogsett said: “We have here a constitution for which the people nobly fought, and which was reluctantly wrung from the British government. We had the right of taxing ourselves, or legislating for ourselves. Newfoundland’s Ambrose Shea argued that responsible government had brought “virtual independence.” He claimed moreover, that the colony had legislated tariffs hostile to the commercial interests of England. In New Brunswick, John Mercer Johnson said: “We want nothing better than British institutions, for under them we have as much liberty, and a little more, than they have in the United States.

In statements like these you hear the sentiments of the anti-Confederates. In the Atlantic Provinces especially, the chief objection to Confederation was fear that union with the Canadian provinces would impair liberties enjoyed from 1848.

But similar arguments can be found among the legislators committed to federal union. In the Canadian Legislative Assembly Thomas D’Arcy McGee said: “The two great things that all men aim at in any free government are liberty and permanency. We have had liberty enough – too much perhaps in some respects  – but at all events, liberty to our heart’s content. There is not on the face of the earth a freer people than the inhabitants of these colonies.”

From the Law School’s Front Lines

A former student of mine who is now attending a prestigious law school, writes:

I am coming to the end of my first semester. I’ll say this, it’s a lot harder than any other school I’ve done. I think they’re trying to weed us out by running us into the ground.

I’m at a nice school, but it has that same problem all super left schools have (and I say this as someone who identifies as a radical moderate). You know the answer to the question before the prof is finished asking it. Or at least you know what is the socially accepted answer.

I’d honestly rather be intellectually challenged than just get patted on the head for pointing out the fact the world is unfair to women, minorities and aboriginals. Tell me something I don’t know, that’s how I’ll learn). But, if that’s your only complaint about your faculty-that sometimes they’re embarrassingly socially minded-it’s not that bad at all.

Property law and Public law are my favourite classes so far-not surprising, I guess. We got a little bit of Locke in the former and the latter is just Poli Sci with case law so it’s right up my alley. Taking public law has taught me a lot about the nuts and bolts of the Canadian federation that I previously only understood in theory. But, it amazes me how many of my fellow classmates don’t know anything about the Canadian political system! I’m tutoring people after class on the separation of powers, judicial independence, the debate on judicial activism vs the supremacy of Parliament and statute interpretation. There are literally people in law school who don’t know what the left and right in politics are! I’m a little concerned about letting computer science majors be lawyers if they haven’t bothered to figure out how the legislature that creates the law they’ll be administering works, but that’s life I guess.

Of course I get a lot of flack for favouring Parliament as the place law should be made on controversial issues as opposed to activist judges … that doesn’t go over well in a heavily left class. And usually it goes down like a lead balloon with the kids who don’t actually know much about politics or political theory. I guess my feeling is that being wary of judicial activism is not a left vs right thing … it’s an are-you-worried-about-the-fundamentals-of-our-democracy issue. I get there’ll be times when the judges have to pull us forward, but well, I think that’s a symptom of an apathetic society that is taking the use of Parliament for granted. People fought so hard for our right to be represented way back in the day as opposed to lorded over by a monarch appointed by God and it’s like no one cares about that anymore. Nor do they seem to care that it’s technically our responsibility as the people to force Parliament to deal with the difficult issues via the ballot box rather than continuing to elect wimps who won’t touch the sticky wickets that need legislating while leaving it to the judges.



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