Dissolution; Coalition

Remember Canada’s “constitutional odyssey?” It was like a long, very long, seminar in constitutional law, a difficult, required course with no prerequisites. Think of the program of study: in the “first term,” so to speak, the 1960s and 1970s, we looked at bills of rights (should Canada have one?); amending formulas (was there something wrong with Canada’s?); and the constitutional division of legislative powers. In the second term, (the 1980s) we progressed to study of constitutional conventions, constituent assemblies, “process,” “recognition,” and “ identity.” And we knew – Peter Russell kept telling us – that everything was going to be on the exam. There would be a referendum and we had to be prepared and we had to get it right. Anxious years.
It lasted for three decades. No other settled Western democracy has undertaken such a course. The troubling thing is that the more Canadians studied the law the more their respect for it decreased. Year by year, the reform agenda lengthened; year by year disagreements became more acrimonious, and many Canadians drew the conclusion that although their country’s fundamental law was indeed in need of renovation, there was no way to effect repairs. It was a discouraging idea. We would have to live with markedly defective institutions.
But there was worse. Many concluded that the original British North American Constitution must have been the product of just such a contentious process. The lesson was often generalized: making and reforming constitutions is merely a way of doing politics. “It’s all politics.” Constitutional law differs from parliamentary edicts and policies in this one respect only: that it is infuriatingly more difficult to change. By 1992, the Constitution Act (1867) – the Act that still defines Canada – no longer had the appearance of superior law. It no longer enshrined an idea of justice; it no longer expressed our common aspirations.
Now we’re at it again with a new course of study and with new terms to bone up: “dissolution,”  “coalition,” “prorogation.” We’re taking a close look representation in the legislature, and the role of the Prime Minister and the GG. King-Byng is on the course! Who would have thought? I have to say the students are eager. And taking the exam is so much easier. Just blog it! You are not facing a yes or no referendum. You can say anything, anything at all. Keep it short and get the knife in early. That’s the one rule. Don’t be boring. Let everyone know what you think about disloyal, cock-of-the-walk Westerners, latte-drinking lay-abouts in the Toronto Annex, Quebeckers who can’t wean themselves from the government teet, frogs who are bent on destroying the country – on our tab. It’s punchy stuff. And spelling doesn’t count.
I note that there’s one thing about which almost everyone enrolled agrees. Parliamentary government in its present form is indefensible. So: we learned “last year” that constitutional law is just politics. And now we know that politics is indefensible.
What am I saying? Am I suggesting that Canadians should know less about the Canadian political system? I can’t be saying that! I’ve gone wrong somewhere. Straighten up and fly right, Janet.

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3 Responses to “Dissolution; Coalition”


  1. 1 Marcos Paulo Reis December 6, 2008 at 9:57 pm

    Hello Professor Janet,

    I have been reading some of your books. The Canadian Founding, Once and Future Canadian Democracy and now I just put my hands on Canada’s Founding Debates.

    All this to say that on Once and Future Canadian Democracy you mentioned that “confusion reigns” and that the system that was suppose to protect us is “delivering us to evil”. “The centre cannot hold”.

    I wonder how do you classify the politial philosophy of the Conservative Party Canada in this turbulent week.

    The current version of the CPC does seem to be the one that George Grant laments on his book. It seems to me that it has morph itself on a different and unknown being. Without much regard for our traditions and conventions.

    I wonder also if you would comment on the reaction of the canadian people. It seems to me that most of the population did not really know how they were govern and parliament democracy may have sound totally foreign to them.

    Thanks.

    Marcos Paulo Reis

  2. 2 janetajzenstat December 10, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    Hello Marcos Paulo Reis.I’m delighted that you are reading my books.

    Perhaps your reading is a bit selective.I do not think that our liberal democratic system in Canada is delivering us to evil. I may have said somewhere in one of the books you have been reading that George Grant held that opinion. Grant longed for a political system that would encourage virtue. He was dubious about the benefits of liberal democracy, which secures first and foremost our political liberty.(But about the teachings of George Grant and their interpretations there is no end.)

    Canadians are fortunate in their governing institutions. Liberal democracy perhaps not the supremely “best” form of government. It is assuredly the “best possible.”

    I’ll take up your second point at some time. Now now. Here’s a hint: Knowledge about the workings of liberal democracy isn’t required of all citizens. Participation isn’t required of all. We do need some well-informed people. You could become one.

  3. 3 george January 11, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    I too read your “Essay on Political Thought” with great interest. While you argue throughout that “liberalism” does not equal modern-day “neo-Conservatism”, both endorsements on the dust-jacket come from scholars VERY close to PM Stephen Harper. What was the rationale there; don’t you risk being branded, as A.Bloom was back in the 80s and 90s, as an apologist for the political right?

    On a separate note, you seem to be attempting a pretty significant “rapprochement” between the Canadian and American political traditions. However, are there not also differences that should be explored? Why, for instance, have Americans never had a mainstream socialist/social-democratic party? ? Hypothetically, would the American government allow for a state to secede from the union, by virtue of simple referendum? (i.e. would they even allow a referendum?) Would be fascinating to get your thoughts.


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