Quebec in the News

Since Quebec is in the news today, I offer this comment by Louis Joseph Papineau. He is speaking in Lower Canada’s Legislative Assembly in 1830. (I apologize for the incomplete reference.)

“[Britain’s] best laws have become ours, while our faith, our property, and the laws by which they were governed have been conserved … Now religious tolerance, trial by jury, the wisest guarantee which has ever been established for the protection of innocence; security against arbitrary imprisonment, thanks to the privilege of the habeas corpus, equal protection guaranteed by law to the person, honor, and property of citizens, the right to obey only laws made by us and adopted by our representatives – all these have become our birthright, and will be, I hope, the lasting heritage of our posterity.

Papineau was not always as enthusiastic about British rule and British rights as I do not need to say. In the Rebellions of 1837 and 38, he took up arms took up arms against colonial authorities. By then the flaw in the Constitutional Act, 1791, the Act that gave Upper and Lower Canada representative assemblies had become apparent to all.


Good Bye, Bonne Chance. Leave the Loonie Behind, Thanks

At a Conference sponsored by the Canadian Study of Parliament Group in the fall of 1991 to mark the bicentennial of the Constitutional Act, 1791, Liberal Claude Ryan remarked on Canadians’ “living attachment” to parliamentary institutions. “The grant of elective legislative assemblies to the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada in the Constitutional Act of 1791,” he said, “marked the beginning of a long evolution which led in 1848 to the achievement of responsible government and in 1867 to the creation of the federal system. Very rare are the modern political societies that have such a long tradition of living attachment to their parliamentary institutions. Beyond all the political differences that may separate us, we have every reason to be proud of the Canadian parliamentary system.

Ryan’s statement is something to keep in mind now that the matter of Quebec’s separation looms again. I have no doubt that Quebeckers will not give up parliamentary institutions.

The question for Canadians outside Quebec is whether an independent Quebec will  bid for a shared currency. Here’s Jane Jacob’s opinion: “Two of the things René Lévesque wanted for Quebec – independence and a shared currency with the rest of Canada – are simply irreconcilable.” (Jacobs, The Question of Separatism (New York, Random House, 1980), 102. And see the whole of Chapter Seven.

Imagining New Orleans

The American Political Science Association has cancelled its annual meeting, which was to have been held in New Orleans. The tornado won. I was never planning to go; too many obligations here. But I was looking forward to imagining myself at the awards dinner, glass of wine in hand.

My book, The Canadian Founding, John Locke and Parliament (2007) won the Seymour Martin Lipset Award for best book in political science. I am a co-recipient, sharing the prize with Stephen Clarkson (University of Toronto) for his Does North America Exist? Governing the Continent After NAFTA and 9/11 (2008).

I’ll have the glass of wine anyway.


Nova Scotia Emancipated

Anne Leavitt writes from Halifax to remind me that Nova Scotia was the first colony in British North America to achieve responsible government. Yes! And from Wikipedia I learn that Nova Scotia was the first British colonial possession to achieve it. A plaque in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly reads: “The first Executive Council chosen exclusively from the party having a majority in the representative branch of a colonial legislature was formed in Nova Scotia on 2 February, 1848.”

Responsible government ensures a colony’s emancipation. On 2 February, 1848 Nova Scotia became an independent country. It was no longer a British “possession.” No doubt Nova Scotians had reason to continue cooperating with the world power that was Britain. But that cooperation and the degree of cooperation became a matter for local debate.

Anne notes: “There are none of those mythical “red-tories” in this story at all. The Tories, if we can call them that, are bigoted, intolerant elitists wanting to hold on to power, representing a minority of the population.”

No doubt true. Parties are like that. Responsible government gives us a way of coping with partisan ambition. What is surprising is that George Grant, Gad Horowitz, and others who promulgated the red-tory thesis for so long persuaded Canadians that there was something inherently benign and kindly about oligarchy and absolutism when administered by Tories of United Empire Loyalist descent.

Call For Responsible Government in BNA From 1806?

David Schneiderman (Toronto) says that he has been enjoying my book, The Canadian Founding, John Locke and Parliament, especially the chapter on Pierre Bédard. Thank you, David.

I argue that Bédard, first leader of the  French Party in the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada,  is calling for responsible government in the British North American colonies colonies from 1806, while John Ralston Saul contends that the principle of responsible government was only imperfectly understood by the British North Americans until until Robert Baldwin came along.

“Firming up your point” says David, “I found this in Kennedy’s book of documents: “The “Canadian Party in Lower Canada either believe or affect to believe that there exists a Ministry here, and that in imitation of the Constitution of Britain that Ministry is responsible to them for he conduct of government.” (Correspondence from Governor Craig (Lower Canada) to the secretary of state for the colonies, Viscount Castlereagh, ( Statutes, Treaties and Documents of the Canadian Constitution, 1713-1929, edited by W.P.M. Kennedy (Oxford University Press, 1930), 224.)

Very nice!  So the Governor of Lower Canada knew exactly what Bédard was doing and how he was mocking the Governor. I missed this document when I was writing about Bédard.

It’s an invaluable book, Kennedy’s Documents.

Does the Prime Minister Wield too much power?

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute is hosting a debate on this well-worn topic. (May 10, Tabaret Hall, University of Ottawa, 6:30 p.m. Sheila Copps and Andrew Coyne are participants. Sound familiar?

This year’s Donner Prize winners, Mark D. Jarvis, Lori Turbull, and the late Peter Aucoin tackle the same issue in their Democratizing the Constitution; Reforming Responsible Government, proposing rules to constrain the prime minister’s power over confidence votes and the summoning, prorogation, and dissolution of Parliament. (I had better read this book.) But curiously they also suggest that leaders should be dissuaded from acting on behalf of party interests. It will never fly. More important: party politics ensures political freedom by keeping debates alive and legitimating political opposition. Every step away from partisan politics is a step towards oligarchy.

In the National Post of Friday, May 4, F.H. Buckley, Professor, George Mason School of Law, takes a refreshingly unfamiliar tack. He likes the Westminster system! He believes it superior to the American Congressional form of government. “Getting legislation passed or repealed in the United States is like waiting for three cherries to line up in a Las Vegas slot machine. Absent a super-majority in Congress to override a presidential veto, one needs the simultaneous concurrence of the president Senate and House. In a parliamentary government, however, one needs only one cherry. In Canada, neither the governor-general nor the senate has a veto power … All that matters is the House of Commons, dominated by the prime ministers’ party.” Note Buckley’s emphasis on repealing laws. A stiff system like the American Congress can leave in place policies discredited by experience.

How Gad Horowitz Survived Israel Apartheid Week

A message from Gad Horowitz. Enjoy.


israel apartheid week drove me up the wall.
the term is supposed to induce guilt but is equally likely to induce fury…
as a leftist i have always wondered why so many of my relatives and friends who were socialists in the past have become right wingers on almost every issue. now i understand. but it won’t happen to me. because I will not be sucked in.  instead i will emulate the “language poets” who play with word-viruses in order to divest them of their hypnotic power.  so here we go: (best declaimed aloud to ward off the demonization-demon)
End Israeli sardines
End Israeli marsupials
End Israeli pincushions
End Israeli matzohballs
End endodontic apartheid
End fingerlickin apartheid
End testicular apartheid
End macadamianut apartheid
End frapuccino apartheid
End umbilical apartheid
End kakapoopoo apartheid
End arootintootin apartheid
End applecorrie apartheid
End deliverdeletterdesoonerdebetter apartheid
End blueish apartheid
that’s funny, you don’t LOOK blueish

End monosodium glutameit
End jambalaya afartfeit
End mouthfrothish hyperboleit
End gefultefush expansionheit
End slithery hypocrateit

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.