Archive for June, 2008

Cartier and Railways

I’m enjoying the discussion with Alastair Sweeny on George-Etienne Cartier.
He says in his last comment: “For Cartier, the Canadian Confederation was
all about business, not culture.”

A valuable observation! I admit it. I do not pay enough attention to the
railways issue at Confederation. My fellow commentator-editors for Canada’s
Founding Debates
(Paul Romney, Ian Gentles, William Gairdner; U of T Press,
2003) weren’t much interested in them either. A volume of more than 500
pages on Confederation and we included practically nothing about them .

And not a single reviewer to this point has noted the lack.

We included speeches on human acquisitiveness, property rights, and personal
and political ambition, but I don’t think we have a single speech by that
eminent master of money-matters, dreary old Galt. For goodness sakes, the
book is stuffed with notes about Montesquieu, Locke, J.S. Mill, the American
Founding Fathers, Adam Smith. You can see where our minds were. In the
clouds: thinking of high intellectual matters. Well, Sweeny’s reminding me
of our bias. Thank you, Alastair.  Oh, wait: a review of the Index for
Canada’s Founding Debates turns up a few references under “railways.” Not

My complaint is that scholars have paid too little attention to the fact
that at Confederation the Fathers created the Parliament of Canada. The
Fathers had the two tasks: to create a federation and to create a
legislative power with taxing and spending powers. Canadian scholars say
much too little about the debate at Confederation on parliamentary
government and little about the political institutions and principles
established in 1867 that still guarantee our liberty and equality.

This is perhaps the place to remind readers again that an excellent book on
Confederation, one that fully recognizes the Fathers’ role in making a
liberal democracy,  is Christopher Moore, 1867, How the Fathers Made a Deal,
(Toronto: M&S, 1997). When it first appeared Romney, Gentles, Gairdner and I
were on the line immediately. Had we been scooped? There was an initial
moment of jealousy.


Canada’s Difference II

Alastair Sweeny objects to my suggestion that Canada’s Fathers did not
intend to create a “distinctive nation.”

I think we’re talking past each other, Alastair. Of course the Fathers
intended to create a separate, sovereign nation in British North America.

And just as you say, they meant it to counterbalance the centrifugal force
of the United States.

The question is whether they intended the new nation to be culturally

You know that there are Canadian scholars (Donald Creighton, Michael Bliss,
Gad Horowitz, William Christian) who think that we were supposed to be not
only a separate political nation, but a separate cultural entity. We were
supposed to be more British in character than the Americans, or more Tory,
or more “collectivist,” more “inclined to deference,” (S.M. Lipset), more

Remember the Molsen beer commercial?

I am a Canadian.
I’m not a lumberjack, or fur trader,
I don’t live in an igloo, eat blubber, or own a dog sled …
I have a Prime Minister, not a President.
I speak English and French, not American …
I believe in peace keeping, not policing; diversity, not assimilation; and
that the beaver is a proud and noble animal.

“I believe in peacekeeping, not policing; diversity, not assimilation.” A
lot of people enjoyed that idea! And why shouldn’t they? But the Molsen ad
doesn’t define Canada. It merely gives expression to some common Canadian
sentiments. It doesn’t define the country.

Some of Canada’s founders (the Fathers, and the legislators in the colonial
parliaments) would have liked to see the new nation become more British in
character. Some, not many, hoped it would gravitate toward the United
States. A few, though only a few promoted the republican idea of a virtuous
leadership and citizenry. But they knew – at some level – they all knew that
there was no agreement on these matters. French speakers demanded protection
for the French language and French education in Lower Canada, but they did
not expect the French way of life to define the character of the nation as a
whole. Legislators from the other provinces were acutely aware of Lower
Canada’s demands.

The great achievement at Confederation was that the founders prescribed a
regime that would enable pursuit of political objectives without the
requirement that all or many agree at the “cultural” level.

In The Canadian Founding, John Locke and Parliament I use the term civic
identity, in opposition to cultural identity. It’s been suggested that I
made a mistake in coupling “civic” and “identity.” Could be. It probably
would have been better to speak of “civic regime,” and “cultural identity.”

William Watson and Rudyard Griffith on Canada’s Difference

In the National Post of Thursday June 19, Rudyard Griffiths, who is stepping
down as director of the Dominion Institute, offers a report on the state of
the nation. We’re not doing well in Griffiths’ opinion!

His first worry is that we’re becoming too American in character. We’re
seeing “the Americanization of the civic culture of English Canada.” The
complaint is familiar. Since the 1960s Canada’s national identity scholars
have argued that the precious heart of Canadianness lies in the fact that we
are not like the United States.

And just how are we different? Oops. How are we supposed to be different?
Here Griffiths’ second worry kicks in. The federal government “has lost the
momentum … to create the kinds of national programs and institutions that
previous generations saw as essential to our sense of shared nationhood.”
In Griffiths’ opinion Canadians need national programs on “climate change,
social welfare, and trade barriers.”  Grand visions of social policy will
foster our sense of ourselves as a nation. It’s another favourite idea from
the 1960s.

You may object that the Americans  are falling all over themselves to create
programs on climate change, trade barriers, and welfare. But you will never
grasp Griffiths’ point if you pursue that thought. Keep on track. Griffiths’
argument is first, that we must be different. And second, that we can
promote difference by generating national programs.

In Globalization and the Meaning of Canadian Life (University of Toronto,
1998; recently reissued), William Watson argues that “whether we are
different from the Americans … should not matter to us. What does matter
is that Canadian society should offer as good a life as possible to the
people who make it up. When that means adopting American-style policies,
insisting we be different from the Americans will stand in the way of
sensible change” (page 12).

(In The Canadian Founding, John Locke and Parliament (2007), I argue that
the Fathers of Confederation did not set out to create a distinctive nation.
Their efforts were bent toward giving us a good one. And I boldly suggest
that in the essential respects good nations are much alike. Not in all
respects, of course not; but in the essential ones.  All good nations
attempt to protect their inhabitants against foreign invasion, crime,
famine, injustice. They attempt to protect each and all equally against
these great ills.)

But let’s end with Watson. There’s “no reason why Canadians’ sense of
themselves should be defined in perpetuity by the ideological fashions of
the 1960s” (page 12). We “should choose what is best for us, not what we are
accustomed to choosing, or what we think our tradition requires us to
choose, or, worst of all, what those south of us are not choosing” (page

Book List

Coming in September, from McGill-Queen’s: the second edition of Tom
Flanagan’s First Nations? Second Thoughts. We’re promised a review of
developments in aboriginal policy-making in the past ten years.

And in October, also from McGill-Queen’s, William D. Gairdner, The Book of
Absolutes, A Critique of Relativism and a Defence of Universals.
“Strikingly original and important,” according to Tom Flanagan.

I’ve purchased and am reading with enjoyment, Lee Ward, The Politics of
Liberty in England and Revolutionary America, Cambridge University Press,
2004. (I did not buy it from the publisher; came through.) Pity
there’s nothing in it about Canada. Why not England, Revolutionary America,
and Canada? But as I’ve said, Canada seldom figures on the world map of
political ideas.

I’m about to sign a book contract with McGill-Queen’s and the Carleton
Library to prepare a new edition of G.P. Browne, Documents on the
Confederation of British North America. It appeared originally in 1969 and
has been long out of print. Browne took Sir Joseph Pope’s Confederation
Documents, a record of “the rush to Confederation” between 1858 and 1867,
edited it lightly, and added an invaluable selection of reports, letters,
records of informal meetings, and Colonial Office memoranda. I’ve had it in
mind for years to bring out a new edition. Now that I’m into the project, I
can see that there are decisions before me.


This is not a day on which to carp about the hellholes that are some
Northern Ontario reserves. It’s not the day on which to say that some native
Canadian children still live in appalling conditions, prone to suicide and
… I won’t go on. It’s not the day on which to say that we don’t know how
to make things better on reserves. Stephan Harper’s “residential schools
apology” was a great speech.

The phrase I’ll remember is his reference to the House of Commons as “this
chamber so central to the life of our country.”

“Therefore on behalf of the government of Canada and all Canadians, I stand
before you, in this chamber so central to the life of our country, to
apologize to the aboriginal peoples for Canada’s role in the residential
schools system.”

“Central to the life of our country.” Mr. Harper came into national politics
by way of the Reform and Alliance parties, parties that were critical of
parliamentary institutions. I remember joking – not so long ago – that the
Parliament of Canada was home to a party (Reform) that did not approve of
Parliament, and a party (the Bloc Québeçois) that did not approve of Canada.
A small miracle has happened. Or perhaps not so small. One-time Reformer
Stephen Harper has become a staunch parliamentarian, articulate in praise of
the House of Commons as “central to the life of our country.”

I am not going to carp – not today – about the fact that in the strict terms
of constitutional law it is not the Prime Minister’s role to speak for “all
Canadians.” It’s the Governor General who speaks for all Canadians. Mr.
Harper properly speaks for a party only, to be exact, the party representing
the majority or plurality in the Commons. We as Canadians do not live in a
country in which the majority speaks for all. That’s the guarantee of our
political freedom.

But today no carping. No carping especially because I think that the
Parliament system  may indeed in time produce the remedy for aboriginal

Peter Russell’s Mistake about George Brown

Peter H. Russell argues that George Brown disliked French Canadians and that
this personal distaste contributed to the political strife of the
pre-Confederation period. He cites a letter from George B. to Mrs. Brown,
written at the conclusion of the Quebec Conference (1864). It reads in part:
“Is it not wonderful? French Canadianism entirely extinguished!”
(Constitutional Odyssey, page 33).
Well for goodness sakes! The Ideal File has been working overtime in past
entries to suggest that Brown and the French Canadians worked together
amicably in the Confederation debates. I’ve been talking about the “two
Georges” – George Brown and George-Etienne Cartier – as if they were bosom
It’s time to admit that Russell’s right on one point. The Georges were not
personal best friends. (I’m reading and enjoying Alistair Sweeny’s biography
of Cartier.) Brown had been quarrelling with Cartier, H.-L Langevin and
others for years. He and the French Canadians were reconciled only in 1864
and 65, and then only for the one purpose, to secure the division of
legislative powers proposed in the Quebec Resolutions. But Russell’s wrong
to believe that Brown’s pronouncements in the legislature reflect personal
In the debates in the Canadian Legislative Assembly Brown sets aside
personal views. He’s on fire with a great political discovery, which in his
opinion overrides particular feelings and indeed forbids them. (See the Idea
File, “George Brown’s Big Boast.”) He’s convinced that he and the French
Canadians, chief among them Cartier, together have found a way to abort the
kind of dangerous political conflict that had made Canadian politics
miserable in the past.
In the letter to his wife he is not expressing dislike for the French and
French Canadianism. He is conveying his satisfaction that  debate in the
national legislature of the new federation would never consider intractable
matters of nationality and particular religious sentiment. It would not
entertain debates on “French Canadianism.”  French Canadianism and all such
particular demands would be “extinguished.”
What the world need now is love, sweet love? If we agree with Brown we we’ll
say, phooey. What the world needs now are politicians who can set aside
personal preferences and grievances, to participate in fruitful political
dialogue. In the Canadian political science literature Russell is cited
repeatedly as an authority on the Canadian Constitution. But on this
essential point, he’s missed the boat.
We’ve seen that Cartier was in agreement with Brown. “Now 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.”
Cartier saw the fact that issues dear to French Canadians would be excluded
from the national legislature as the surest way to protect French Canadian
interests in a federation with an English majority. French-speaking
Canadians would of course take their seats in the general government of the
nation. And Cartier very naturally expected to wield considerable power in
that government. But he knew that the French Canadians’ role in the
Parliament of Canada would not be to represent French Canadian interests.
Their task would be first, to deliberate on all the issues proper to the
national legislature under the British North America Act, and second, to
resist attempts by English-speaking members to meddle in the particularities
of French Canadian life.
Brown and Cartier: it was a match made in heaven. Brown wanted to get
contentious issues out of the national legislature. The French wanted to
curtail the power of the English-speakers to suppress French Canadian
traditions and institutions. Voilà, the Canadian “political nationality.”
(Now can I “think together” – to use the phrase made familiar by George
Grant – the idea of the “political nationality” and the jumble of
pronouncements that is the Bouchard-Taylor Report? That’s some assignment!)

Michael Adams’ Canada

Michael Adams’ polling firm, Environics, sells information about
Canadian-American tastes and attitudes to businesses on both sides of the
border. “Know your customer.”  He writes best selling books. Perhaps the
most widely read is, Fire and Ice, The United States, Canada, and the Myth
of Converging Values
(Penguin, 2003).

His data and books are often assigned in Canadian politics and sociology
classes. And they should be.

Why the interest? There’s the fact that few political scientists or
sociologists can match Adams’ polls in scope; considerable sums have been
invested. And they’re reliable. I don’t want to say completely reliable
because his results have been challenged. But then statisticians are always
quarrelling. As Adams himself says in the June 2008 issue of the Literary
Review of Canada
(page 31): “Arguing about Canada and the United States is
like arguing about the Bible: anyone can find a chapter and verse (or in
[my] case a statistic or policy outcome) to suit their ideological fancy.”

But what chiefly interests the professors, and the students and general
readers, is that Adams uses his data to argue that Canadians and Americans
are not alike. And that’s an idea with star appeal. The academics’ quarrels
about “chapter and verse” are chiefly disagreements about degree. Are
Canadians and Americans are very different, or only somewhat different? And
are we becoming more different? Or less? The short statement for Fire and
reads: “Canada and the United States are not coming together but are
diverging in significant ways. From the vehicles we buy to the deference we
pay to authority, Canadians prove to be firmly separate in their attitudes
and opinion.”

In the current Literary Review of Canada, Adams asks: “Why is the U.S.
murder rate three times the Canadian rate? Why do Americans incarcerate each
other at a rate nearly six times the Canadian rate? Why do Canadians have a
universal system of health insurance and the Americans not?” He’s hammering
home the point:  We’re not like our neighbours. We have a different society,
a different “culture”.

What’s my problem with Adams on Canada? Because obviously I have one. My
complaint is not so much with Adams himself. I’m complaining about the
professors who use his data on Canadian-American differences to describe the
Canadian political identity.

Adams professes to be telling us what the great majority of Canadians have
in common.  Well, O.K. But when you have a description of what most
Canadians think you don’t have a description of who we are as a nation. You
don’t know our “identity.” What are we supposed to say about the Canadians
who buy over sized cars? And the ones who enjoy challenging authority?
Especially  the ones who challenge authority by campaigning against what
they call “socialized medicine.” Are they are a little less Canadian? Not
really, really Canadians? Is their behaviour, for goodness sake,

Let me lay down the rule: you cannot arrive at a country’s “identity,” by
toting up attitudes, preferences and behaviours. You can say interesting
things; cultural studies are worthwhile. Sure. But cultural studies does not
yield a definition of the nation and national identity. Remember Cartier’s
powerful statement: “It was lamented by some that we had this diversity of
races, and hopes were expressed that this distinctive feature would cease …
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.” (Canadian Legislative Assembly, February 7, 1865). Cartier and the
other Fathers were looking for a way to define the new country that would
include and apply to, each and every last person. Dissidents, conspicuous
spenders, even murders not excepted.

Canada’s identity is more than a bundle of majority preferences.

Hence my conclusion. We’ve described the Canadian identity adequately only
when we’ve said that we are a free country, governed by the rule of law and
representative political institutions. The rule of law and our
representative legislatures are what we all, without exception, have in

Adams helps us to describe the shifting patterns of political opinion and
social preferences in this country and in the United States. He illuminates
aspects of our history.

He doesn’t tell us what’s permanently and universally good about living in
this country, good for all of us without exception, the possession equally
of those whose ancestors arrived uncounted years ago, those whose ancestors
laid the foundations of the City of Quebec in 1608 [have I got the date
right?], those who fled north in the wake of the American Revolution, those
who took the Underground Railway, and – oh – the refugees and immigrants of
many years including those who gained their citizenship only today.

He doesn’t tell us who we are.