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.

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2 Responses to “Rudyard Griffiths and the Dominion Institute”


  1. 1 Alastair Sweeny April 9, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    Janet:

    In my biography of Cartier (M&S 1976), I argue that the whole shape of Canada is a result of Cartier’s demands (backed by votes) for the restoration of the Province of Quebec, with power to protect French culture. Macdonald and others wanted a strong unitary state like Britain, but were not able to convince Cartier to go along with this.

  2. 2 janetajzenstat April 10, 2008 at 1:10 am

    Alastair. Good to her from you. I’ll read your biography of Cartier. What interests me is that George Brown was as eager as Cartier to turn cultural matters over to the provincial parliaments. What Brown wanted was to get particular and local issues, and no doubt especially French Canadian issues, out of the Parliament of the federation.

    It’s a pleasure to see Brown, Cartier, and Langevin working together smoothly in the Canadian Legislative Assembly to get the Quebec Resolutions ratified.

    I agree with Dennis, who has a note below, that we don’t have enough good biographies. Richard Gwyn’s biography of John A. is good. Readable, popular, well-grounded in a reading of the primary documents. Canadian politics students will appreciate his bibliography and lists of sources. Of course we have only the first volume. And we haven’t reached Confederation.

    I liked Dennis on the availability and high quality of American biographies. I’ve read David McCullough’s John Adams. Reading Ron Chernow on Alexander Hamilton.

    Yes, historians and political scientists love to demean the Canadian founding. It’s the greatest pity. Let’s change things.


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