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

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.

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