Archive for October, 2008

Peter Russell Goes Free

In August I wrote that the women’s caucus of the Canadian Political Science Association was calling for a motion censuring Peter Russell for allowing offensive speech at CPSA meetings. (The blog was entitled, Harvey Mansfield on Canada.)

That was the scuttlebutt at the time. But it’s not true, I am happy to say. Or it is no longer true. The caucus will not be calling for Russell’s censure at the December meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association Board.

And really, who could have ever supposed that Professor Peter Russell would not be able to handle a heated discussion with finesse!

Russell chaired a session at the 2008 Learneds (UBC) at which Frances Widdowson read a paper on the use of aboriginal methodology in the study of aboriginal history and society. The discussion was indeed vigorous. And we haven’t heard the end of the matter.
Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard have a book coming out with McGill-Queen’s this November: Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservations. The argument is that policies put forward to address the problems of Canada’s native peoples are contributing to their misery. There’ll be more fireworks.

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Curtailment of Prejudicial Speech

Ed Morgan, professor of law in the University of Toronto’s faculty of law, used to take a stand for curtailment of prejudicial speech. (“Live and Learn, Confessions of a Jewish Professor,” Canadian Jewish News, Oct. 23 2008, page 9.) His legal career began with the prosecution of Alberta teacher, James Keegstra. “I took seriously the admonition we often hear that the Holocaust began not with deeds but with words.”

He’s abandoned that position. He now argues that the attempt to regulate hateful speech is misguided. “Once we go down the road of censorship for the sake of promoting tolerance we may soon be standing on the heights of intolerance.”

He has a new slogan: “fight bad speech with good speech.” He’s working with Jewish students in the organization Hasbara at York University to “fight bad speech not with censorship, but with more and better good speech.”

What caused his change of mind? The human rights tribunals’ prosecution of Mark Steyn and Macleans’ magazine, for one thing.

Am I convinced? I can’t decide.

Last February I supported the stand taken by the President and the Provost of McMaster University in cautiously and quietly suggesting that some of the publicity for Israel Apartheid Week was inappropriate. The Provost requested removal of a large banner depicting extreme violence. The IAW booth was not shut down; distribution of pamphlets was not curtailed, and IAW events went ahead.

After listening to the Jewish students on the topic of the banner and after doing some research into IAW (an annual event on campuses around the world), I took my stand with the Provost. I was sure that sagacious “curtailment of prejudicial speech” was the way to go. And then, like Ed Morgan, I watched the Steyn/Maclean’s saga unfold.

So: these are the options: Curtailing Prejudicial Speech versus Fighting Bad Speech with Good Speech. The first option is considered Canadian – we are the country with laws against hateful speech. The second option is American. My best guess is that in the short run neither works. But maybe in the long run, if we’re in the hateful-speech-shouting-and-shoving-match for real, the American route is the one to take.

withdraw your geese

Here’s a poem from the current issue of the magazine, First Things. I believe the author is A.M. Juster.

A Stern Warning to Canada / If you want peace, withdraw your geese.

  • I read in the National Post that in consideration of the state of the economy, some towns in the United States are allowing hunters two deer this fall. The idea is that hunters will take the second one to the local Food Bank. Suitably butchered and wrapped, I presume. Looking more less like something you’d buy in a supermarket. Well now, how about applying this precedent to the Canada Geese? My brother in Thunder Bay tells me they’re delicious. Where’s the woman with the long gun when you need her? Or what about a “prescribed goose shoot?” Our local parks and ravines hold “prescribed burns” every spring. They set fire to our city forest! It’s spectacular. The burns are part of the city’s continuing effort to restore the natural grasses – the Carolinian Oak savannah. We’re all pamphleted and warned; police and the fire department keep everything in order. So, how about it? A “goose shoot”?

  • George Breckenridge visited his childhood haunts in Scotland recently. Farming country. It looks more or less just as it did, he says. It’s just as beautiful. But there are fewer people. In the developed world of today we raise more food on less land, with fewer farm workers. Rural populations are shrinking. And happy animal populations are multiplying.

  • They’re not just multiplying. They’re following us into the cities. The geese are just one example. I visited our local high school recently to see a display by the Royal Botanical Gardens on proposed changes in their management. (In keeping with the best principles of populist democracy the RBG was informing and consulting local residents.) I learned that our city has a nesting pair of eagles, the first in 50 years. That there are indeed coyotes in the ravine park just across the road from my house. And that for the first time on record a martin has been seen. Martins, I understand, resemble minks. But much larger. Much. And we have Wild Turkeys, and Turkey Vultures. I don’t remember learning about these creatures when I was in grade school.

Losing in Quebec

So. Quebeckers saw Harper’s cuts to cultural programs as an attack on their identity. The polls and pundits said that the Conservatives would win twenty-five seats in Quebec. Or more. They got just ten, the number they had in the last Parliament.

What’s the lesson? The federal government should keep its hands off “identity” issues.

That was the decision at the Quebec Conference of 1864. That was the decision at Confederation. Matters having to do with “race” – to use the old term – would be left to the provinces. The Parliament of Canada would be neutral; it would ignore “race,” identity, country of origin, religion, particularity.  Remember George-Etienne Cartier: “[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.” He was speaking in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada in 1865. Here’s George Brown, in the same debate: “We [the men who drafted the Quebec Resolutions] have thrown over on the localities [the provinces] all the questions which experience has shown lead directly to local jealousy and discord.”

Let me set the issue in the larger context. Parliamentary government is famous for tolerance of political differences. In the ordinary way of things, the parliamentary majority sets aside time in the legislative schedule to hear the opposition’s arguments; the official records of a parliamentary session includes speeches from both sides of the House. The opposition, for its part, agrees to abide by majority decisions but is free to organize to repeal or amend them in a subsequent vote or a subsequent session. As the constitutional lawyers say, one parliament can’t bind another. It’s this fact, that a parliament’s edicts can be revisited that secures tolerance. Political losers live in hope. There’s grumbling and resentment. But also tolerance. “Our day will come.”

Tolerance is threatened when the legislature considers matters that once enacted cannot be revisited, matters like the making of a federation and the making of a legislature. (The stakes at the Quebec Conference and in the ratifying debates were sky high.) And – this is the point of particular interest for Canadians contemplating the results of the general election of 2008 – it is threatened when the issue before the legislature touches a people’s sense of identity. It breaks down in the face of intransigent arguments that say, “We are who we are and we always will be and we want what we want, and we shall not be moved.”

Madison used the term “faction” to designate intransigent issues. Few political leaders at Confederation used it; but all knew the problem. It is perennial; it is the Achilles heel of liberal democracies. Hope of future political success does not persuade a faction to abide by majority decisions; promise of future rewards, the chance of attaining objectives under a new parliament does not mollify its leaders. To realize its demands a faction may take to the streets, mount an armed rebellion, or invite the intervention of a foreign power.

The arts cuts looked to voters in Quebec like a move by the anglo-saxonizing majority to modify conditions supporting their particular way of life. Heck. Mr. Harper got off lightly. Just rap on the knuckles.

Gerald Beaudoin

From Pierre Bédard to Gérald Beaudoin the line runs straight. French Canada has never been without its experts on the British Constitution, champions of parliamentary freedoms and human rights. We’ve all benefited.

Bédard was leader of the majority party in Lower Canada’s first Legislative Assembly and the founder and first editor of the province’s political journal, Le Canadien. In 1792 he drew up a reading list in British constitutional history and practice: John Locke. William Blackstone, Jean Louis De Lolme, Edmund Burke. He made himself a supreme master of the British tradition – and a serious nuisance in colonial politics. In 1810, the Governor threw him in jail. For goodness sakes, Bédard was demanding nothing less than that the British allow French Canadians the full range of British political freedoms! What arrogance! Bédard was ahead of his time. But he left his mark and he was in the right.

Gérald Beaudoin, Professor of Law at the University of Ottawa, appointed to the Senate of Canada in 1988, served the cause of constitutionalism in a number of capacities, notably as a member of the Pépin-Robarts Commission on constitutional reform, where he argued against the separation of Quebec from Canada. As co-chair (with Jim Edwards) of the House-Senate committee on constitutional reform (see the Beaudoin-Edwards Report, June 1991), he argued for ratification of constitutional amendments by Parliament and the provincial legislatures.

Ratification by Parliament and the provincial legislatures? How else, you ask. But at the time, opinion in Canada was for ratification by any group of “ordinary Canadians” drawn from the population at large. Any group that put themselves forward. Any gang selected by Decima Research and Maclean’s Magazine (July, 1991). Get those jackasses in Parliament out of the constitutional reform business. That was the prevailing sentiment. Get rid of the politicians. Get rid of the “men in suits.” Beaudoin was swimming against the populist tide. He was behind the times. But he left his mark. And he was in the right.