Archive for April, 2008

Barack Obama: What would Cartier Say?

Barack Obama is being critized for his supposed lack of patriotism. Some
Americans – who knows how many – think he is flirting with anti-Americanism.

There’s a rich tradition of anti-Americanism in the United States. Canadians
like to fool around it. But we’re pussycats compared to the real thing, the
Americans who love to hate their country. You will understand that I am not
talking about critics of the party in office, or critics of national
policies. I mean the Americans who despise “the West” and liberal democracy.
I mean the American Counter Enlightenment. (A useful first book on this
topic is Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, Occidentalism, The West in the
Eyes of Its Enemies, Penguin, 2004). Our question might be phrased in this
way: is Obama an “Occidentalist,” a despiser of “the West”? (Is his pastor a

I propose to bring George-Etienne Cartier forward into the twenty-first
century to assist us. He’s a good choice I suggest, because he once carried
arms against the government of Lower Canada. He knew – he knows – what it is
to be profoundly dissatisfied with constitution and country. (It was after
the introduction of the principle of “responsible government” that he became
a supporter of the British parliamentary system.) He’s a good choice for a
second reason. He was deeply critical of the American Constitution.

John A Macdonald praised it Here’s Macdonald in the Confederation debates:
“It is the fashion now to enlarge on the defects of the constitution of the
United States, but I am not one of those who look upon it as a failure. I
think and believe that it is one of the most skilful works which human
intelligence ever created; is one of the most perfect organizations that
ever governed a free people.” He’s betraying his lieutenant Cartier in this

Here’s Cartier: “We found ourselves at the present day discussing the
question of the federation of the British North American provinces, while
the great federation of the United States of America was broken up and
divided against itself. There was, however, this important difference to be
observed in considering the action of the two peoples. They [the Americans]
had founded a federation for the purpose of carrying out and perpetuating
democracy on this continent; but we, who had the benefit of being able to
contemplate republicanism in action during a period of eighty years, saw its
defects, and felt convinced that that purely democratic institutions could
not be conducive to the peace and prosperity of nations” (Canadian
Legislative Assembly, February, 1865).

Commentators cite this passage to suggest that the Fathers of Confederation,
Cartier foremost among them, despised democracy. One prominent Canadian
historian says: “It has long been known that the Fathers of Confederation
were not democrats and that they were determined to secure the protection of
property and to create barriers against the democratic excesses which, in
their minds, had led to the collapse of the American constitution and to the
American Civil War.” But in the passage I cite above Cartier is in fact
defending democracy, defined as liberal democracy. What he objected to in
the U.S. Constitution was that it assigned to the American President two
roles that ought to be distinguished: head of state and head of government.
The signally admirable feature of the British system, in Cartier’s view, is
that it expects the head of state, the Queen, or Governor, who represents
the Constitution and the country as a whole, to refrain from meddling in
party politics. Thus a British citizen can dislike the Prime Minister while
remaining a patriot, loving Constitution and country. In the United States,
in contrast – this is Cartier’s understanding – because the president speaks
for party and country, dislike of the President and his party invites,
positively encourages, dislike of country and Constitution.

So. I think Cartier’s first reaction will be to say, “I told you so.”
Dislike of presidential candidates is bound to get mixed up with dislike of
country. The American Constitution is to blame.

But does Cartier have the whole story? Perhaps not. After all the Americans
seem to muddle through. The president wears his two hats – head of state and
head of government – with considerable grace and citizens finds to express
disdain for the party in office while retaining confidence in the form of

No. I think something else is going on. And I have already hinted at what
that something else might be.

I’ve said enough in this note. But I’m going to ask Cartier to stick around.
I think he may have more to say about Obama as he becomes acclimatized. And
He’s a political man. He’ll enjoy watching the course of the American
election on television. Just wait ‘til we introduce him to politics on You


Book List

1. David Smith is the winner of this year’s Donner Prize with a book on Parliament entitled The People’s House of Common: Theories of Democracy in Contention. Institutions Rule!

Here’s a paragraph from a short piece Smith published in the National Post on April 17, addressing the issue of Canadians’ declining confidence in Parliament and politicians. It is a mistake to see the past as a golden age, he says.

“It is not that Canada’s past MPs were paragons and today’s are fallen men and women. If anything, the reverse is true. Between the 19th and 21st centuries, an inversion in private and public morality occurred. At one time Victorian rectitude at home and buccaneering attitudes in public life were the norm; now anything seems to go in the private sphere, while the politician has become the modern scapegoat. If there is a parliamentary growth industry today, it is in ethics and accountability for public officials.”

2. The first volume of David A. Wilson’s biography of Thomas D’Arcy McGee is out. I’ll read it. And I’m looking forward to the second volume, which will pick up the story in 1858 and cover the Confederation years. Here’s an excerpt from McGee’s speech on the Quebec Resolutions and the prospects for colonial union in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada (February 9, 1865).

“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 hearts’ content. There is not on the face of the earth a freer people than the inhabitants of these colonies.”

The Art That is Money

The retired eminence who lives down the block (Professor of Archaeology and Forensic Anthropology) complains that the snowflake on the back of the Canadian five-dollar bill is not a true a true crystalline form. It’s not a snowflake! The Five has Wilfrid Laurier on the front; on the back are engaging winter scenes: kids playing hockey on a snowy rink, a bundled-up tobogganer, a skating lesson, snowy spruces. And hovering above, tying the images together, the giant “snowflake.”

It lacks the requisite symmetry, says the eminence. It’s a travesty. He’s written to the Canadian Mint, but so far has not received a satisfactory answer.

There’s a similar complaint about the image of maple leaves on the Canadian penny. The Mint is thinking about withdrawing the one-cent piece from circulation and everyone’s taking a fresh look at it. A sort of good-bye look. There’s no problem with the design; all acknowledge that it’s a small masterpiece. But are the leaves really maple leaves? There’s a resemblance certainly. There’s a strong sense of maple-leafness. But perhaps the twigs are wrong, the branching?

And then there are Janet Ajzenstat’s worries about the Canadian Twenty. It depicts Bill Reid’s huge, famous, supremely compelling sculpture, The Black Canoe. A gigantic crowned figure sits in a tippy canoe, surrounded by squabbling, jostling creatures of all sizes, some of whom are human. It’s certainly appropriate to display Canadian art on our currency. No quarrel there. And Reid’s piece is wonderful, wonderful. The problem is that The Black Canoe is strongly associated with the now disputed Canadian policy of multiculturalism.

In Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity (1995), James Tully uses Reid’s image and the Haida myth on which it is based, to argue that the liberal democratic constitution in its classic definition is profoundly deficient. In Tully’s interpretation, the creatures in Reid’s canoe are telling their “diverse stories and claims,” speaking and vocalizing, each in his or her own language. It’s a happy situation. The tippy canoe is the just constitution. As the beings converse, they keep paddling, and – most wonderful – the canoe moves steadily forward.

In Tully’s opinion, recognition of cultural diversity answers a deep and abiding human need. “The suppression of cultural differences in the name of uniformity and unity is one of the leading causes of civil strife, disunity and dissolution today.” It’s liberalism that’s chiefly responsible for the suppression. Liberalism in the classic definition is intolerant, repressive, and imperialistic. Its arguments are inadequate and its practices cruel. Reid and his Haida ancestors had the right take on things. That’s Tully.

So. What are we to make of the fact that some of the creatures in the canoe are truly frightening: large wolf-like and bear-like things. Some are half human and half-animal. Is this a helpful image of multiculturalism? Humans and half-humans squabbling? What are we to make of the crowned figure? Does she/he represent Big Government? She’s the one who interprets the creature’s various languages and noises.

Of course we don’t have to take Tully’s interpretation as the one and only way to see Reid’s masterwork. The Haida stories may be telling something quite different about the creation, and the human condition.

Returning to Empire

In a previous note I said that it’s time to write about Canada’s experience as the Senior Dominion in the greatest empire of modern times. It’s been done, of course. But it’s time to do it again.

If you are planning to write as a political scientist, you’ll need a scheme of categories. Historians have chronology. Political scientists have categories. (There are drawbacks in either case, as the post moderns remind us. And they’re right about the drawbacks. If you posit a category you shine a satisfactory light on something. But the dark springs up all around. If you rely on chronology you’re inviting the “specter of causality.”) There’s no winning this debate. So here I describe a system of two categories.

I’m confining my inquiries to issues of law. And the question is this: in law, what is the best way to tie a dependency to the metropolis? Oops. I’ve skipped the prior question; why sustain the empire; why not opt immediately for revolution and independence. Let me rephrase. Supposing a colony, or indeed a federal union of colonies, wishes to remain within the empire, for whatever reason – avoiding a revolutionary war, fear of letting loose the “passions of the mob,” etc. – what is the best arrangement in constitutional law? In the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century two arrangements presented themselves. So I am supposing.

I take the first from Ron Chernow’s account of Alexander Hamilton. See Chernow’s biography (Penguin, 2004), chapters two and three, for references. While he was still thinking about retaining the connection with Britain, Hamilton argued that the Colonies were subject to the British Crown and not to the British Parliament. He did his homework; searching the records, he found that indeed no power to legislate for the colonies had been reserved to Parliament. Thus one could hope to retain the imperial connection while absolving the colonists of obedience to British law.

In my opinion Lord Durham (Report on the Affairs of British North America, 1839) took exactly this position. (Though I do not think he read Hamilton.) Durham’s recommendation that the colonies adopt the principle of “responsible government” meant that the political executive in each colony would answer to the people’s representatives in the elective chamber of the colonial parliament. It met a raft of objections in the colonies and in Britain, the gist of which was that the introduction of “responsible government” would sever the imperial connection. Dependencies should be dependent, for goodness’ sakes! You couldn’t have an empire that was composed of sovereign countries! But that’s exactly what Durham seems to have had in mind. He says repeatedly that if Britain didn’t give the colonists all powers of legislation the British North Americans would go the way of the Thirteen Colonies.

But in time Durham’s own words on the imperial connection, are given another interpretation and he is presented as recommending a division of powers between the dependencies and the British Parliament. His list of reasons why the colonists and Britain would not differ on certain vital matters (the form of colonial government, immigration, trade, and defense) is taken to describe legislative fields to be formally reserved for the British Parliament. Those who interpret him in this fashion are sometimes known as “dyarchists.” See my Introduction to the new edition of 1839 Report (McGill-Queens, 2007.) Dyarchists who recommend the representation of colonists in the imperial Parliament, come to be known as “imperial federalists.” Imperial federalism in this sense was still on the table for some of those participating in the legislative debates on Confederation in the colonies from 1864 to 1873.

At any rate, we now have our two categories: the Hamiltonians, and the dyarchists. I think it’s time to employ those categories (perhaps under new names) in an account of Canada’s story as Senior Dominion in the British Empire.

Front Page Religion

Stories about the Pope on page one! Discussions of the Seven Deadly Sins. Review of a book on Passover on the op-ed page. A children’s book on Passover! I can tell you that when I worked for the Globe and Mail (1959-60) religion was decently hidden away in the back pages with news about health, education, marriage and other social matters.

The Women’s Section had a Religion Editor who wrote a weekly column touching gently on what one might call religious “manners and morals.” It also ran announcements of church events: an exhibition of paintings at Grace Church on the Hill, a carol service at Rosedale Presbyterian, and so on. Events and practice were reported, belief avoided.

Of course, everyone had a religious affiliation in those days. And sometimes attended services. But one didn’t talk about it. In my family of origin the kids were taught that there were three topics to avoid at the dinner table: religion (a brief blessing at the start of the meal was allowed, but no discussion, please), money, and whatever.

Now we’re living in the Secular Age. And the newspapers never let up on the subject of religion. Isn’t it the strangest thing? I’m looking at the National Post of a few days ago (April 12, A19). There’s a story on the evangelisation of the Jews, another on a Saudi blogger’s view of Christianity – it’s too violent for his taste – and a announcement (running down a full column) that on his visit to Ground Zero the Pope will pray for the redemption of Islamic terrorists.

What Students Remember

Dennis is appalled that his students know so little. Yup. Incoming students don’t know much. And many don’t seem to learn much as the course goes on. It’s a secret that senior professors hide from new “hires.” Lectures aren’t an efficient way to convey information. Most students are going to remember from your classes what “passes the barrier of their teeth,” and not much more. They’ll remember the questions they asked. Not the ones you asked; the ones they asked. They may not remember your answers. They will remember that you had answers.

They’ll remember some of what they wrote for the course. What they said and what they wrote. Not much else. The general tone of the class. The fact you as lecturer indicated respect for this or that principle of Canadian constitutionalism. They may not remember exactly what you indicated respect for. They’ll remember that there is a way to talk knowledgeably and appreciatively about Canadian law and politics.

And it is enough. Maybe.

You will have succeeded this year if your students finish the course thinking that civil discussion about ideas and arguments is a pretty good thing.

In the Post this morning Yoni Goldberg says that most students simply don’t belong at the university (In Praise of Elitism, April 10, A19). “Four years of university might be less than optimally valuable for many of us.” Most young people of university age should be out and doing, not taking a four-year break from real life at the taxpayers’ expense. So much for the life of the mind and civilized discourse.

Well, Alexander Hamilton didn’t finish university. He had too much else to do. Lead troops into battle. write newspaper pieces and treatises for the university students of the future, facilitate a Revolution, found a country. All before he was twenty two. And with no droning lecturers to hold him up he was able to teach himself law and economics in the evenings.

I’m thinking too that with our aging population we need more people in the workforce. So maybe Goldberg’s right. The students will be just as happy or happier if we let them our of school earlier. And the country will prosper.

Should we follow Goldberg’s prescription? I don’t know. I can think of ways and means. Reinstate provincial examinations (the old senior matriculation). That will dissuade some from applying. Or persuade universities to set their own entrance exams. Raise tuition. Allow private universities. Introduce more two- and three-year degree programs. Especially for those going on to graduate school in law, medicine and the sciences. And then since fewer students would require fewer classrooms, university presidents would be free to put the arm on donors for scholarships rather than – as at present, at my university at any rate – for bricks and concrete.

Rudyard Griffiths and the Dominion Institute

In the 1960s Canadians changed the name of their country, the name of their national day, and the name of their national government. We used to celebrate Dominion Day. Now it’s Canada Day. We used to talk about Dominion-Provincial relations. Now it’s federal-provincial relations. (And what was the Toronto-Dominion Bank is the TD. Tee Dee.)

But there’s the Dominion Institute! It’s devoted to retaining and commemorating Canadian history and culture.

Rudyard Griffiths, Director of the Dominion Institute had a piece in the National Post (April7, A12) arguing that the willingness of the Harper Conservatives to grapple with the issue of Quebec nationalism “flows in no small part from a heartfelt appreciation of our Constitution. “He goes on: “Tories correctly surmise that part of the genius of Canada – what has held our country together for a century and a half – is a Constitution that provides the provinces a range of powers to chart their own futures.”

He’s saying more than you might think in this statement. Historians and political scientists usually argue that at Confederation the Tories wanted “a strong central government.” John A. was a centralizer. He expected the Dominion Parliament to lord it over the provincial parliaments. That the everlasting story in the text books. And here’s Griffiths saying that at Confederation the provinces got the powers to chart their own futures. It’s a novel argument. And it’s right. See Ajzenstat et al. eds. Canada’s Founding Debates, University of Toronto Press, 2003. The provinces were allotted the powers necessary to protect particular interests while the Dominion Parliament was given the powers required for governing a nation. George-Etienne Cartier says the Dominion was given the powers of “a political nationality.”

But then Griffiths muddles the picture: “At deeper level the [Harper Conservatives’] desire to further define Quebec nationalism stems from the core Tory principle that culture matters.” Oh, Oh. He’s off track, I think. The Fathers of Confederation deliberately withheld from the Parliament of Canada, powers related to particular interests – the powers involving “race,” country of origin, and particular religious affiliations.

Just as it’s always said that the Fathers wanted a strong central government (wrong, as Griffiths correctly points out, wrong if it’s supposed they meant the Dominion Parliament to be able to lord it over the provincial parliaments), so it’s always said that they wanted a strongly Conservative national government, one that would reflect the culturalism of the British North American colonies. But it’s not so.

More tomorrow,starting with Cartier. He was a Tory, but he knew that a free country can’t identify with a particular political party, Whig or Tory.