Are Canadians Deferential?

How often it’s said that Canadians are more deferential than Americans! Bending the knee, bowing, doffing our caps. Pulling on our forelocks. Nice people, Canadians. No trouble. A bit too docile, you say? But they make good peacemakers.

In The People’s House of Commons (2007), David E. Smith argues that parliamentary democracy requires a deferential, hierarchical population. (I’m taking my description of David Smith from Christopher Moore’s interesting essay on Smith and other matters in the current issue of the Literary Review of Canada [November 2008]). Smith says: In Canada “authority comes from the crown …not from the people.” The Canadian government is not the people’s government.

As Moore puts it, “In The People’s House of Commons, we the Canadian people seem not to exist, constitutionally speaking.”

Moore himself isn’t having any of this. “Frankly, David Smith undermines not just our motive for defending parliamentary democracy but our reasons for being Canadian citizens at all. Subjects of the Queen? Seriously?”

He goes on: “Canadians will not, should not, and do not accept a constitutional order in which subjection to the Crown is anything more than a ritual formula devoid of significance. Canadians’ “scorn” for the kind of constitution Smith describes is no failure of “deference,” but a robust healthy citizenship, the natural reaction of any politically aware Canadian.”

Way to go, Chris. Oh! Wait. What’s that phrase “devoid of significance”? The Fathers of Confederation would say that a good constitution makes a distinction between “head of state” (in the Canadian case, the Queen and her Canadian representatives) and “head of government” (leader of the governing party). The “head of state/head of government” provision is what entitles us to think of ourselves as a free country. It’s the device that ensures that Prime Ministers and governing parties can be turfed out. We can get rid of the rascals who’ve had their fingers in the till. The ones who are getting above themselves. The ones who are feathering their own nests and neglecting us. The head of state/head of government proviso is what protects us from oligarchy. And the Fathers of Confederation made sure it was written right into the British North America Act (1867), now called the Constitution Act (1867). Is it a sufficient guarantee of freedom? It’s the best anyone has ever discovered.

So Moore took his argument a bit too quickly. But he came to the right conclusion.

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4 Responses to “Are Canadians Deferential?”


  1. 1 John November 26, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    It seems Smith’s argument is rooted in the argument he makes in the Crown in Canada and in the Republican Option in Canada, which is that despite the expectation among Canadians that Canada is composed of a people who are sovereign, the reality is that the “form” of the Canadian regime is that of a crown.

    I think the difference between Smith and Moore and you, Janet, is a difference over how Canada is constituted.

    There’s a dissertation to be written over this controversy. Perhaps the most important topic there is concerning Canadian politics: is Canada in fact a sovereign people (to borrow Peter Russell’s question)?

  2. 2 anonymous November 27, 2008 at 9:50 am

    “Is Canada in fact a sovereign people?”

    I believe Janet has answered that question in her recent Locke book (2007)!

  3. 4 janetajzenstat December 3, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    As a people are Canadians deferential? Nope. Never were. But if what you are saying that now, early in December, 2008 we’re looking particularly feisty, you’re right.


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