Archive for May, 2008

Bouchard-Taylor

The Bouchard-Taylor Report ignores Quebec’s intellectual history. I’ve been
reading the abridged version, a mere 99 pages. I may have missed something.
But I don’t think so. Foundational insights once familiar to French
Canadians, are not acknowledged.

Recall George Etienne Cartier: “It was lamented by some that we had this
diversity of races and hopes were expressed that this distinctive feature
would cease” (Canadian Legislative Assembly, February 7, 1865). “The idea of
unity of races was utopian – it was impossible. Distinctions of this kind
would always exist. Dissimilarity in fact appeared to be the order of the
physical world and of the moral world, as well as of the political world.”

Much of the Bouchard-Taylor Report is given to the hope that diversity of
races can be overcome, made to “cease.” There’s a heart-clogging emphasis on
unification, integration, a common public culture, “combining cultural
differences” (page 86), “overcoming splits and tensions.”

On page 23, Bouchard and Taylor say bluntly that “the question of management
of diversity,” was, until recently “usually resolved in an authoritarian
manner: one more powerful culture attempted either to dominate the others or
eliminate them through assimilation.”  So much for Cartier! But Cartier does
not recommend domination, or elimination. Quite the contrary. He is utterly
opposed to oligarchy. And his dearest hope is to preserve the French
Canadian heritage. He and his colleagues argue that the political
institutions of the Westminster system of government, and the prescription
for federal union that emerged from the Quebec Conference of 1864, will
together allow continuation of diversity while ensuring equality and civil
peace.

Bouchard and Taylor want just such a remedy. How I wish they had seen that
Canada’s history, especially the sometimes difficult history of relations
between French and English, has given it to us, or at least pointed us in
the right direction. We do not have to re-invent the wheel!

Cartier, and Langevin, and Taché knew a few things. (Cartier, Langevin,
Taché, and Brown. I’m not forgetting the other George.) If, as the Report
itself shows, Quebecers are today finding ways to promote “reasonable
accomodation,” it is, I do think, because of the foundations laid 141 years
ago.

Bouchard-Taylor

Quebec survived the defeat of the French Empire in North America, and some
two hundred years and more of insufferable English snobbery, the Union of
the Canadas, Confederation, the travails of industrialization, and the Quiet
Revolution. With aplomb, and grace, and an impressive and highly interesting
degree of intellectual bickering. It will survive this report by Gérard
Bouchard and Charles Taylor.

It’s something of a mish-mash. Consider the title, Building the Future, A
Time for Reconciliation
. Who is to do the reconciling? It appears that
Quebecers of French Canadian origin are being asked to do the heavy lifting.
And what does reconciliation looks like?

There are unctuous suggestions that things will go better for Quebecers of
French Canadian origin if they seek to reduce society’s “splits and
tensions.” They are advised to “accommodate,” to “integrate.” It’s suggested
that they need “a common public culture.”  Indeed, most of the Report deals
the “public culture” of the province – how to manage it, how to massage it.
Orient it to the future. Strengthen it and so on.

Taylor’s has made his great reputation in large part by thinking hard about
ways to maintain universal principles like the equality of individuals,
while allowing expression of the particular ways of life cherished by
groups. And in this report we are showered with high-sounding words and
phrases to suggest that indeed that’s what we should be doing – reconciling
the universal with the particular. Just how is the trick to be done?

The theoretical parts of the report are unhelpful. But we do get an answer.
The best part of the document shows that schools, prisons, airlines,
hospitals, child-care centres and so on are already, and have been for some
time, successfully making the necessary “accommodations.” It’s the old
story: what seems difficult or impossible from the perspective of political
philosophy can sometimes be accomplished in practice.

Made in Canada, Eh?

The Prime Minister is proposing to introduce legislation to ensure that
foods and manufactures labelled “product of Canada” or “made in Canada” are
indeed mostly grown here or made here.

It won’t be enough to add a smear of Canadian icing. The cake beneath has to
be “Canadian.”

Some journalists are arguing that Mr. Harper’s trying to bolster his
popularity with women voters. Probably. Politicians are constantly trying to
please voters. We hope.

But the proposed legislation doesn’t favour women over men, and – this is
the important point – doesn’t favour particular cultural or religious
groups. It thus fits the Canadian Fathers’ definition of matters proper to
the “general government.” They argued for a constitutional division of
legislative powers that would assign to the Parliament of Canada matters
affecting equally each and every individual in the federation, leaving the
provinces with primary responsibility for religious and ethnic matters.

It isn’t only women who shop. If you read the National Post you get the
impression that men shop constantly for ground-hugging cars and outrageously
slim trousers. Could be. I shop, you shop, we all shop. And we all have at
least a passing interest in what’s on the labels.

Of course the shopper’s often thinking about gender (well, sex, really), and
ethnicity and religion, among a dozens of other things. “Is this neckline
modest enough?” “Can I serve this cake to my Jewish father-in-law?” But
thank goodness, on these questions a label reading “made in Canada” has
nothing to say.

The proposed bill will admit debate on economic issues. Aren’t we supposed
to be favouring agricultural imports in the hope of bringing third-world
countries into the global economy? But debate on economic issues is fair
game in Parliament. It’s the game. It’s to be welcomed.

(Breaking off to read the Bouchard-Taylor report, for which Travis has sent a
link.)

Are We a Nation of Bigots

Are we a nation of bigots? Maclean’s magazine asked the question a few
issues ago. Well, maybe we are. Maybe we always were. “Who knows what
bigotry lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” (Imagine dark
chuckles.)

The better question is this: What can we do about it? Commissions of Inquiry
are no doubt appropriate and certainly inevitable. Programs of education?
Hectoring and lecturing? If we knew more about other peoples and “races”
would we look more kindly on them? In the debates on Confederation,
Newfoundland’s Robert Pinset, contemplating the happy day when the voice of
political faction is hushed, asks, “Where but in the improved morality of
the people, and in the happier tone of the public mind, was the hope to be
found of that halcyon time?” (Newfoundland, Legislative Council, February
14, 1865).  Pinsent has little faith in political institutions. If
Newfoundland entered Confederation, he says,“[We] would continue to have
periodical elections for the local legislature, with their attendant
differences and troubles and in addition to that we would have elections for
the general government.” Elections lead to “troubles,” in Pinsent’s
experience. “Troubles” spelled r-i-o-t-s. Blood in the streets.

Hope for a change of hearts and minds: that’s Pinsent’s prescription. And
many Canadians today are of the same mind.

The Georges have a different view: George-Etienne Cartier and George Brown.
Instead of appeals to an “improved morality,” they suggest a constitutional
division of legislative powers that would assign to the Parliament of Canada
matters of national importance, that is, the matters that affect equally
each and every individual in the federation from sea to sea. The provinces
would thus be left with the power to legislate on matters affecting
particular groups, and “races.”

They agree with Pinsent that people will fight, indeed kill each other, over
issues of “race” and religion. French and English; Catholics and
Protestants. Remember George Brown’s Big Boast: “We are seeking by calm
discussion to settle questions that Austria and Hungary, that Denmark and
Germany, that Russia and Poland, could only crush by the iron heel, or armed
force. We are seeking to do without foreign intervention that which deluged
in blood the sunny plains of Italy. We are striving to settle forever issues
hardly less momentous than those that have rent the neighbouring republic
and are now exposing it to all the horrors of civil war.” The division of
legislative powers in the constitution Act (1867) would forestall armed
foreign intervention, riots, and civil war.

Here’s Cartier: “It was lamented by some that we had this diversity of races
and hopes were expressed that this distinctive feature would cease”
(Canadian Legislative Assembly, February 7, 1865). He goes on: “The idea of
unity of races was utopian – it was impossible. Distinctions of this kind
would always exist. Dissimilarity in fact appeared to be the order of the
physical world and of the moral world, as well as of the political world.”
Hence the remedy, a federal union: “[when] we were united together, if union
were attained, we would form a political nationality with which neither the
national origin, nor the religion of any individual would interfere.”

Brown elaborates. “The questions that used to excite the most hostile
feelings among us have been taken away from the general legislature and
placed under the control of the local bodies [that is, the provincial
legislatures]. No man need hereafter be debarred from success in public life
because his views, however popular in his own section, are unpopular in the
other – for he will not have to deal with sectional questions; and the
temptation to the government of the day to make capital out of local
prejudices will be greatly lessened, if not altogether at an end.” (Canadian
Legislative Assembly, February 8, 1865).

But what about the provinces, you ask? The provinces were to be left with
the hot-potato questions. Let’s postpone that issue. And haven’t we
hopelessly muddled the constitutional division of powers? Isn’t the federal
level involved in handing out rewards and money and recognition to
particular groups? We have a minister of multiculturalism, don’t we? Let’s
postpone that question too.

George Brown’s Big Boast

“We are striving to do peacefully what Holland and Belgium, after years of
strife, were unable to accomplish. We are seeking by calm discussion to
settle questions that Austria and Hungary, that Denmark and Germany, that
Russia and Poland, could only crush by the iron heel, or armed force. We are
seeking to do without foreign intervention that which deluged in blood the
sunny plains of Italy. We are striving to settle forever issues hardly less
momentous than those that have rent the neighbouring republic and are now
exposing it to all the horrors of civil war.” The speaker is George Brown
and the date is 1865. (See Ajzenstat et al., eds, Canada’s Founding Debates,
University of Toronto Press, 2003, page 14).

Brown is arguing that the Fathers of Confederation have discovered a
constitutional formula for preventing armed rebellions, civil wars, and
foreign interventions, a formula unknown in Europe and in the United States.

The contention is astounding. It’s really some boast! Aren’t Canadians
supposed to be more modest? We boast of course, but in self-deprecating
fashion. Apparently things were different in pre-Confederation days.

It isn’t just Brown’s boldness that surprises. His talk of “blood-soaked
plains,” and revolution seems like wild exaggeration. After 1838 British
North Americans stopped “doing” rebellion. Revolution and civil war in the
Dominion of Canada? It’s too bad we can’t go back to reassure Brown. “Mr.
Brown, we’re from 143 years in the future and we can tell you that frightful
occurrences like those you describe aren’t going to happen here.”

But let’s think. Why didn’t these things happen?  Canadians tend to take
their peaceable history for granted. Perhaps we shouldn’t. There certainly
wasn’t anything essentially pacific about the peoples who settled British
North America. Consider the men in the Legislative Assembly of the Province
of Canada listening to Brown. Normans, Saxons, highland Scots, and so
on, scions of famous warrior “races.”

I think we have to accept Brown’s argument. There is something in the
formula drafted at the Quebec Conference of 1864 that has profoundly worked
to promote civil peace. In brief, the Fathers of Confederation first
identified the matters that pit citizens of one country against each in
armed conflict: religion and national origin. (Think about that argument,
you multi-culturalists!) They then wrote a constitution in which those
matters would never come before the national legislature. In the
constitutional division of legislative powers devised at Quebec, the
dangerously intractable matters were assigned to the provinces. Simple eh?

Or perhaps not so simple. To be continued!

But first: this is the place to say that the formula of which George Brown
is so proud, did not originate with him. Well, to be honest I do not know
just how much credit should go to Brown. But what is usually said is that
the other George invented it. George-Etienne Cartier. Certainly the
best-known one-line statement  is Cartier’s: “[when] we were united together,
if union were attained, we would form a political nationality with which
neither the national origin, nor the religion of any individual would
interfere.”

Enter George Brown

There’s one point on which Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Rousseau, John
Locke, and indeed all the major political thinkers agree: the act of
political founding is the greatest of human endeavours.

At Canadian Confederation no one had a more elevated sense of the occasion
than George Brown. Here he is in the Legislative Assembly of the old
Province of Canada, defending the proposal for colonial union drafted at the
Quebec Conference of 1864.

“We are striving to do peacefully what Holland and Belgium, after years of
strife, were unable to accomplish. We are seeking by calm discussion to
settle questions that Austria and Hungary, that Denmark and Germany, that
Russia and Poland, could only crush by the iron heel, or armed force. We are
seeking to do without foreign intervention that which deluged in blood the
sunny plains of Italy. We are striving to settle forever issues hardly less
momentous than those that have rent the neighbouring republic and are now
exposing it to all the horrors of civil war. Have we not then … great
cause of thankfulness that we have found a better way for the solution of
our troubles than that which entailed on other countries such deplorable
results?” (Ajzenstat et al., eds, Canada’s Founding Debates, University of
Toronto Press, 2003, page14).

He is referring to the Belgian overthrow of Dutch rule in 1830, the
Hungarian uprising against Hapsburg rule in 1848, the uprising of 1863 in
Russian Poland, the Danish-German war of 1864 over the provinces of
Schleswig and Holstein, the continuing struggle for Italian unity and
independence, and the civil war in the United States.

Historians do not fail to note that the Fathers of Confederation watched the
progress of the American Civil War closely, afraid that the huge army built
up by the northern states would at some point turn against British North
America. They less often comment on the surely extraordinary fact that the
sight of the modern world’s first federation tearing itself apart did not
dissuade the British North Americans from advancing bold plans for a second.

Brown’s contention could not be more striking. We, that is, the authors of
the Quebec Resolutions of 1864, the Fathers of Confederation, have found a
way to forestall rebellions, secessionist claims, civil war, and armed
intervention, a “way” unknown in Europe and in the United States.

There’s lots to say about this extraordinary speech and I’ll say some of it
tomorrow.

The Most Unpopular Fellas

“A scant 25% of Canadians express respect for those who enter public office”
(Keith Martin, Member of Parliament for Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, in the
National Post, May 18).

An all-time low? Maybe. Even lawyers get a better rating, at 44 per cent.

Mr. Martin offers this explanation. MPs work hard, but Parliament’s “dysfunctional
structure blocks ideas from moving forward.” Effecting change, he says, “has
become a truly Sisyphean task.” In other words, the individual MP can’t make
much of a difference and can’t get things done.

It’s an old complaint. But the fact is that in parliamentary systems the
Member of Parliament isn’t there to get things done. Or to move ideas
forward. She or he is there to object (in caucus, in committee, or in open
debate in the legislature) when the government of the day tries to put
through legislation that will adversely affect the interests of her/his
constituents. First and foremost among her tasks is to see that the
government doesn’t squander the money it takes from our pockets or siphon
it off for private purposes. See sections 53 and 54 of the Constitution Act
(1867), the beloved and venerable document that was once known as the
British North America Act (1867). It’s a tricky job deserving of respect.

Spare a thought for the lawyers, only somewhat less unpopular. At a Christmas
party in Toronto’s Annex district (aka the Centre of the Universe: cramped
quarters, standing room only, trendy decorations, good red wine and massive
amounts of excellent food) I found myself in conversation with someone who
told me that so-and-so had gone back to school to study seriology. “Oh,
sociology,” I said. “Surely Ben can do better than that.” “Seriology,” said
the someone. “Musical composition. But let me ask you. If you don’t think
much of sociologists, what’s your opinion of lawyers?” And I said, and not
just because it flashed on me that I was talking to a lawyer, “ The law is
an ancient and honourable profession. In a liberal democracy lawyers are
among the guardians of the citizen’s freedom.”

Lawyers and Members of Parliament. Guardians of our freedoms.

What Allan Bloom Told Me

Allan Bloom told me to read Canadian constitutional history from the
perspective of political philosophy. I’d hoped to do a Ph.D. thesis on
Rousseau, or Plato. What else? I’d been a T.A. for Bloom’s famous 101 course
in Political Philosophy. (I’m talking about his years at the University of
Toronto.) I’d taken his graduate course on Rousseau’s Emile. I wanted more.
More!

I wasn’t going to get it. Not that he ruled out the possibility of a thesis
on Rousseau. (Plato was forbidden. I didn’t have Greek.) But he urgently
recommended study of Canadian political history. I was crushed. The Canadian
constitution? It seemed like such a small thing to devote one’s life to. I
was going to be turning my back on the world of great ideas.

I opened a general history of Canada (some of you have heard this story
before) and found that there was one constitutional document that was always
prefaced by the engaging word, “famous.” Lord Durham’s famous Report on the
Affairs of British North America
(1839). So, somewhat reluctantly, I
announced that I was going to do my doctoral thesis on Lord Durham. And the
adventure started.

One topic led to another. After Durham, Pierre Bedard. How curious that
Bedard recommended “responsible government” in 1806. Durham’s commentators,
Canadian and British, had convinced me that the principle of “responsible
government” developed only later in British history. In Durham’s day, in
fact! A hint from Fernand Ouellet sent me to Bedard’s journal Le Canadien.
And Bedard sent me to Burke and Charles James Fox in the British
parliamentary debate of 1791 on the grant of representative institutions to
the French Canadians. The question was whether people who had always lived
under authoritarian institutions could master the art of governing
themselves in a representative legislature. (Which comes “first”? Culture or
institutions?) And so it went. There was always a question beckoning. A
puzzle to be spelled out.

I now have a list of puzzles and topics that I will never be able to explore
fully. I’ve hinted at some in previous blogs. Imperialism. The process of
constitutional amendment. Comparative political foundings.

So let me repeat the invitation in my first blog. Help yourself to anything
in The Idea File that takes your fancy.

The trick is to do justice to conventional interpretations of
Canadian/British/American documentary history, while using one’s knowledge
of political philosophy to assess those interpretations. One has to read the
commentators, and then emancipate oneself from them. Help is always at hand:
Blackstone, Jean Louis De Lolme. There’s always the possibility that one
will end up confirming the earlier interpretations. But that’s never been my
experience. Well, almost never.

P.S. George Breckenridge tells me that Leo Strauss told his students to use
their knowledge of political philosophy to study American political history.
So Alan Bloom was just passing the advice along, adapting it to the Canadian
context.

Do Institutions Matter?

“Do political institutions in any crucial sense matter?” This is Donald
Smiley’s question (Canada in Question, 1980, pages 3, 4). “Does Society
decisively determine Government – or is it the other way round? In a formal
sense, is Society the independent variable, and Government the dependent
variable?”

By 1980 the question had been settled to the satisfaction of most political
scientists. I’m surprised that Smiley was still going over the old ground at
that late date. Most Canadian social scientists had long since convinced
themselves that Society is the decisive influence. Society – history,
patterns of immigration, the period in which a country is settled, and the
ideas carried in the minds of the immigrants; geography, terrain – these are
the factors that make a nation. In 1980, that was the received wisdom. In
2008 it’s still the received wisdom.

But Smiley was right. On two counts. He was right to raise the question. And
right to come down on the side of institutions. He argued that a country’s
political constitution is the determinative factor in the life of the
nation. He had allies: Alan Cairns, and some others, not many. And the
political science community has always respected Smiley and Cairns. But for
all that, the institutionalists remained, and still remain, in the minority.

Two articles in the current issue of the Literary Review of Canada (May,
2008) are revealing.

The first is Philip Resnick’s review of Robert C. Sibley’s Northern Spirits:
John Watson, George Grant, and Charles Taylor, Appropriations of Hegelian
Political Thought
(McGill-Queen’s, 2007). It’s a good book; I wrote an
endorsement that appears on the back cover, and I’ll stand by it. So: highly
recommended. It is in essence an exploration of the question I’ve just
broached: which matters more in determining the character of a nation –
institutions, or history and culture? Sibley argues that in exploring this
issue, a knowledge of Hegel is helpful, and he demonstrates through an
exposition of Hegel’s influence on his three authors. So what does Resnick
make of the book? He very nearly does it justice. I would never
underestimate Philip Resnick’s insight or scholarship. But the fact remains
that he is still gripped by the idea, dating from the the1960s and 70s that
“Society determines.” He knows intellectually that institutions must be
given their due. But his heart remains with “Society.” He inclines to the
communitarian side. And so he almost endorses Sibley’s even-handed
exploration, but not quite.

The principal objective of the scholars who adopted the view that “Society
determines,” was to show that Canada is not like the United States. They
argue that because our history was different, because we admitted immigrants
who held different philosophies, our nation is different. Canadians are not
Americans. Our culture and way of life are distinctive. That’s the usual
argument. And that’s what’s taught in the schools.

Now consider Edward Grabb’s review in the current Literary Review, of
Reginald C. Stuart’s Dispersed Relations: Americans and Canadians in Upper
North America
(Woodrow Wilson Press and Johns Hopkins). Stuart argues that
Canada and the United States are “not so different after all.” The two
countries share, “democratic and human rights, faith in the rule of law,
individualism flowing from constitutional provisions, balanced individual
and community outlooks, and broad tolerance.” They are, all in all,
“remarkably similar societies.” Similar societies because they have similar
political institutions? That’s Stuart’s opinion.

Grabb’s own work concentrates on Canadian-American similarities and
dissimilarities and he and his colleagues have found remarkable social
similarities. But Grabb doesn’t credit the influence of similar
institutions. In his many publications he gets the same answer as Stuart,
but it’s a bit of a puzzle to see how he does it.

“Democratic and human rights … faith in the rule of law … broad
tolerance.” Yes. That’s what we have in common with the U.S. Smiley would
agree.

It’s amazing how many political scientists, sociologists, and students of
“the Canadian identity,” can’t bring themselves to admit the similarity of
the constitutions and form of government. I am not saying that the two
countries are similar in all respects. I’m not saying that there aren’t some
constitutional differences (minor ones). I’m not saying that there are not
regional and social differences in Canada, and in the United States. Of
course not. I’m not saying that institutions determine all the
particularities. And I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t enjoy differences.
And what the heck, even boast of them.

But we’re selling ourselves short if we don’t admit – with Smiley – that our
good institutions, our freedoms, our history of rights, are the principal
determinant of our way of life, and the principal reason for being glad to
live in this country. And to love it.

The Fault, Dear Friends

“The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are
underlings”  (Cassius, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar).

There are a zillion entries in Google for this quotation. And why not. We’ve
all thought at one time or another that a problem – whatever we’re facing,
however defined – is our fault. And, not to make things too complicated –
much of the time we want to think that our problems are our fault. Because
if they are, then we can do something about them.

“The fault is in ourselves”: it’s an idea that inflates our sense of
individual and collective “agency.” Our fault! O.K. So, let’s change things.
Let’s get to work.

Assume responsibility. Mend the world. Reduce our carbon footprint.

I am not going to talk about climate change. When the subject is broached,
e-mail chat lines crumble; life-long e-enemies are formed, blogs die.

But perhaps, we’ll clarify thinking on fault and cause in public policy.

We can side with Brutus. The “fault” lies with the stars; climate change is
caused by the sun and sunspots, the circling stars and planets. Ten thousand
years ago the Northern hemisphere was covered with ice; ten thousand years
from now, there’ll be ice again. But to side with Brutus is to give up that
precious sense of human agency. From the Brutus-perspective, there’s not a
great deal humans can do. We can hope to adapt. Move populations; build
dikes; grow new crops; be kind to one another as we diminish. We’ll read
Camus. We’ll read the Greeks on the plague in Athens.

Or we can side with Cassius. Humans are to blame. The sense of agency and
purpose returns! Now we have plenty to do and it’s all very satisfying.
Attacks on capitalists and capitalism are just the beginning. Don’t curse
the cold and darkness. Or the heat! Light your personal candle.

Brutus or Cassius. I’m not making recommendations.