Archive for April, 2009

How Michael Ignatieff Understands Canada

The National Post is running excerpts from Ignatieff’s True Patriot Love. On April 23, the subject was “Canadian identity.”

The thesis: Canadians are not like Americans. Uh huh. So far, so familiar. Canadian “freedom is different, both in general and in detail: no right to bear arms north of the 49th; and no capital punishment either … Rights that are still being fought for south of the border – public health care, for example, have been ours for a generation. A woman’s right to choose is secure here; there it remains contested ground. These differences are major, and the struggle to maintain them, while pursuing ever deeper integration with [the American] economy is the enduring challenge … of our identity.”

What if you’re a Canadian who’s not ready to step up to the challenge of maintaining the long gun registry? What if you have doubts about its effectiveness? What if you think it encroaches on Canadian freedoms? Is Ignatieff saying that you are not quite Canadian? A little less Canadian than those enthusiastic about the registry? And what if you think our health care could be improved by injecting some competition from the private sector? You’re not Canadian? Not the best type? You belong to the Canadian “B” team, perhaps.

What is Ignatieff saying about a woman’s “right to choose”? To choose what? To emasculate her boyfriend? Throw her granny down the stairs? I guess not. He’s talking about abortion without talking about abortion. But the message is clear. If you think there should be laws restricting abortion in, say, the last three months or the last six months of the pregnancy, your Canadian identity is slipping. If you think there should be a political debate on the subject you’ll be lucky to make even the “B” team.

Mr. Ignatieff: in a free country abortion laws, gun laws, and regulation of health care are matters to be determined in representative legislatures. I don’t deny that the courts have a role in policy decisions. But to assign such matters the status of “rights” goes a long way toward suggesting that they be taken out of legislative reach and put beyond political debate and deliberation. To say that Canadians as Canadians endorse this remedy or that policy as an expression of their national “identity” goes even further.

Let me say it again: this is a free country. Canadians can take a stand against current health policy, against gun regulation, and against abortion without giving up their Canadianness. They can argue for change in law and policy without ceasing to be identifiable, bone fide Canadians.

Well, that was my argument yesterday. Today (April 24) I open the paper to find that Mr. Ignatieff is supporting diversity of opinion. Good for him. “Citizens disagree with each other.” Ain’t it the truth! “Politics is how we manage public disagreement.” Yes!

I still have a problem. How am I to put together yesterday’s contention that Canadians qua Canadians think alike on vital policy issues with today’s acknowledgement that we don’t think alike? Someone is confused.

And what’s happened to the idea that the Canadian “identity” is expressed by a preference for unregulated abortion, regulated gun ownership, and Medicare? Blowing in the wind.


Prime Ministers and Empire

A week ago in The First Gay Prime Minister, I tried to argue that the colonies of British North America became independent nations in 1848 with the grant of “responsible government.”

That’s not the usual view by any means, as Craig reminds me in his politely restrained response. He points out that the British continued to appoint the colonial governors and that the British JCPC remained the colonists’ highest court of appeal. He concludes that after 1848 the British retained “formidable reserve powers” over colonial legislation, notably dominating the area of foreign policy. He makes a good case.

Or does he? The introduction of “responsible government” meant that the colonial governors were no longer heads of government; they were no longer in the legislative game. They became mere heads of state – forced to live “upstairs” in the dignified realm of the apolitical.

What I can’t get around is the fact that after 1848 the British couldn’t spend money in the colonies without the approval of the provincial parliaments. In 1848, each colonial parliament attained exclusive right to tax and spend. As political scientists and constitutional lawyers – and students of A.V. Dicey – we call a legislature that exercises the exclusive right to tax and spend, sovereign. So for the time being, at least, I’m sticking to my guns: with the introduction of responsible government the colonies of British North America became so many independent small nations. (Dear friends, it’s April: tax time. You are in the process of forking money over, or at least indicating your willingness to fork over by filling out forms. As I’ve argued before, paying taxes is the mark of a free citizen. In an independent country.)

Craig’s most interesting observation is that in 1774, Jefferson and Adams proposed an empire of co-equal legislatures under one Crown. Now I wonder, would “empire of co-equal legislatures” be another name for what comes to be known later as “imperial federalism”? Were Jefferson and Adams on the brink of inventing this notion? The idea of imperial federalism is mooted in the colonial debates on Confederation (1864-1873). It’s still around in the early years of the twentieth century.

If another thing Craig’s saying is that it’s time for Canadians to take another look at the history of imperialism and foreign affairs, I agree.

Reading Uncle George

“Brilliant column by Terence Corcoran!” S. is reading the National Post (April 21, FP 11). I make a snatch. Yes. Corcoran is reviewing Michael Ignatieff’s family memoir, True Patriot Love, which predictably describes at length Ignatieff’s famous Uncle George: George Parkin Grant, author of Lament for a Nation, the Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, first published in 1965, still read and still loved.

Corcoran’s complaint is that under the guise of recounting family history, Ignatieff is attempting to enlist Grant and his fame in support of Ignatieff’s own political prospects as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. The problem, as Corcoran so correctly points out is that is that George Grant was deeply hostile to the Liberal Party, its history, and all its projects. He disliked many aspects of modernity, but disliked especially Liberals with a capital “L.”

One can see why Ignatieff would want to appropriate Grant. There’s the matter of his fame. But beyond that there’s the fact that everything Grant wrote about Canada is informed by a power and passion that captivates readers to this day. Lament and all the other books, mostly collections of essays, reflect deep knowledge of political philosophy, the Biblical scriptures and the great theologians, and life-long contemplation of the human condition and an indubitably compelling moral commitment. And this deep fund of philosophy and moral thinking is harnessed to an argument for Canadian nationalism! Could a politician ask for more? Lament shows us our country, our own dear Canada, sub specie aeternitatis, under the aspect of eternity. It is done in plain English, a straightforwardly beautiful English. The recitation of Canadian history is familiar, and the place names. The book will be read as long as there is a Canada.

Consider the last sentence: “Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore.” The quotation is from Virgil, Aeneid (Book VI): “They were holding their arms outstretched in love toward the further shore.” At this point in the argument it is no longer clear whether Grant is talking about our love for the eternal moral order or – indeed – our love for Canada. But the heart leaps.

Corcoran’s right. Ignatieff’ has set himself an impossible task. Grant can’t be made into a Liberal with a capital “L.” He’s too large, for one thing. He’s too grand. He can’t be forced into the mold of party politics. But there’s more. An attempt to turn his writings into political prescriptions would make us into a nation of monsters. Consider first his deep-seated anti-Americanism. Grant’s hostility to many aspects of modernity involves him in a rejection of the United States beside which Europe’s shilly-shally anti-Americanism pales. Then there’s his disdain for material acquisition, and for projects to enhance a country’s wealth or rescue one from recession. (Corcoran’s good on this subject and I’m looking forward to a review of the Ignatieff by William Watson.)

There’s his support for oligarchy.  For goodness sakes! Grant defends the Family Compact, and Chateau Clique! “They were more willing to use the government to protect the common good. They were more willing to restrain the individual’s freedom in the interests of the community.” And there’s the fact that the Canada Grant teaches us to “lament,” never existed; it was not a “Canada” that included the West; or indeed the Maritimes. The Quebec that Grant admired died with Duplessis. No, there’s nothing in Grant to support a Liberal Party program. There are true things to be learned about humanity and about politics from Lament and Grant’s other writings. But there is no prudent political prescription for a political party, Liberal or Conservative. As he himself knew.

The First Gay Prime Minister in the Empire

According to a review in the National Post, Bob Plamondon’s Blue Thunder, The Truth about Conservatives from Macdonald to Harper drops “fascinating” hints about R.B. Bennett. “Did Canada have the first gay prime minister in the Empire?”

Well, it’s a question.

But since we seem to be talking about prime ministers in the plural, here’s a better one. How can there be more than one prime minister at a time? A prime minister does not and may not answer to a superior government. In the parliamentary system the prime minister and his cabinet are responsible to the majority in the elective legislature and to the electorate.

Each of the senior “Dominions” had a prime minister. The Dominion of Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, the Irish Free State, and Newfoundland. (Yes, Newfoundland was one of the “Dominions.”)

The problem is this. With a plurality of autonomous P.M.s, what held the Empire together? Who was in charge?

What I am beginning to think is that as each of the British North American colonies adopted the principle of “responsible government” (in 1848 or thereabouts), it ceased to be a dependency; it became an autonomous and self-governing political entity. A nation. It is true that in each of the small nations most people still spoke of their “membership” in the British Empire; they still boasted about it. But after 1848 the reality of imperial rule had been stretched to the point of invisibility.

As legal scholars and historians we should take another look at the nineteenth-century “struggle for responsible government.” It was a huge struggle and a formidable achievement. There’s a pamphlet literature.

Uses of Latin

S. (over morning coffee and the newspaper): There seems to be a rule. When you want to cross moral boundaries, do it in Latin.

J. Huh?

S. A group called Dignitas says the state has an obligation to help a healthy woman commit suicide. Her husband’s seriously sick. He’s signed up for assisted suicide. I guess they’ve made the arrangements with the doctor. That’s one thing. Now she says she wants to go at the same time. Dignitas is supporting a suicide pact. It’s new ground for them.

J. Okay. Dignitas. Latin, sure. You’ve known about them for a long time.

S. Yes. But it reminds me of the abortion issue. The one side – us – talks about unborn babies. The other side uses Latin. Fetus. Which means “unborn child.”

Help Yourself

As I said in the beginning: The Idea File is chiefly about Canadian affairs: old, new, borrowed, and blue. Some items derive from my books. Some don’t. Help yourself to anything that takes your fancy.

Please do. Here’s an overhead I used at a recent talk:

On Making Policy:
Courts versus Parliament

Courts are less democratic. Judges are not accountable and not easily removable. They sometimes profess to speak for the public interest but don’t answer to the public.

  • Parliamentarians are subjected to constant scrutiny and criticism. Public opinion can bring down a government, punish an opposition party, reject an individual member at the constituency level.
  • Members of Parliament can be visited, phoned, etc., chatted up on Face Book. Petitioned.
  • In contrast, the public has little access to judges and the judicial system; applicants seeking resolution of an issue in the courts must have “standing.”

Courts are less effective. Judges don’t choose their cases and are not in a position to build policy systematically.

  • Parliament can take the initiative, responding to current events and changes in public opinion. It can introduce legislation on any issue, for any reason, at any time. It can amend laws, throw them out, re-enact them. A parliament that “reverses” itself is acting as a parliament should: responding to political deliberation and public opinion.
  • Courts less often “reverse” themselves. They’re traditionally reluctant to overthrow precedents or to advance strikingly new interpretations of law because such moves cast doubt on the reliability of constitutional law and the appeal to the courts as last resort. Courts are designed to put an end to disputes and controversy.
  • Parliamentarians and parliamentary committees can summon political interest groups and experts, and request information, opinions, statistics from the various “stakeholders.” The research resources available to parliamentarians of all parties are impressive: the Library of Parliament and its researchers; the great departments of government, which are research industries in their own right. Each party has a research budget; each Member of Parliament has a budget. Committees sometimes travel.
  • In contrast, the courts have comparatively little access to social data. Even where a court entertains the opinions of several interest groups (“friends of the court”), the traditional adversarial model of decision-making prevails, making it difficult for judges to resolve multi-sided policy issues.

Dismantling Multiculturalism

Jason Kenney, Minister for Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, is getting a lot of praise in certain quarters.

On the site called small dead animals, bloggers are rejoicing at Kenney’s decision to keep British MP George Galloway out of Canada. “Way to go Jason.” “Hey Lefties! See that? That’s what a SPINE looks like!” “Jason Kenney for Prime Minister.” Galloway’s been denied entry to Canada on security grounds. The fear is that he’ll blatantly recruit for outlawed organizations like Hamas.

In the National Post, Jonathan Kay is applauding Kenney’s proposal to cut federal funding to the Canadian Arab Federation’s settlement and language programs. “The CAF is a radicalized embarrassment to Canadian Arabs, and should have been cut off a long time ago.” It’s CAF’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah that’s at issue.

But it’s not only CAF that’s feeling the chill. Kenney is planning to cut funds to language programs sponsored by ethnic groups across the board. The argument in this case is that the state shouldn’t be in the business of instructing individuals in the language and culture of their country of origin. That’s a job for family and community. In a word, Kenny’s Department of Multiculturalism is beginning to dismantle Trudeau’s multiculturalism, that peculiar way of seeing unity in diversity, which for so long was described as one of Canada’s proudest achievements.

The Post’s letter writers approve. “I was born in India and am now a proud Canadian. Many so-called ‘ethnic’ Canadians resent the toxic self-serving Liberal version of multiculturalism, which is no more than a vote-buying scheme. We want a multiculturalism of inclusion, not ghettoization” (Roy Eappen, Montreal). “I believe in a Canada for Canadians. Immigrants should leave the things which ruined their own countries at the door and champion the pioneering spirit which took what was best from each incoming nationality and blended it so beautifully into what we have achieved in this country” (Sue Reid, Lanark, Ont.).

So, what are the Fathers of Confederation thinking? Sir John A. and George Brown of The Globe? Those two old nineteenth-century gentlemen, those two old political enemies!  I think they’re happy. They knew the importance of particular identities, yes. And they knew the importance of party loyalty and ideology. They were making a political constitution that would enshrine freedom of speech, honour political dissent, and promote the competition of political parties for public office. But they also knew that if the country they were making was to be a success, laws and programs at the federal level of government should not single out particular factions, “races,” and loyalties for political favour, or monetary support.

Macdonald and Brown would have been appalled by the idea that the Parliament of Canada would one day fund the efforts of particular groups to develop and maintain particular loyalties. They would have been appalled by the notion of a federal Department of Multiculturalism.

No “sex,” please. We’re Canadian

A friend drops a note to say he can’t write at length because he’s embarking on a romantic get-away with his partner. Romantic get-away? I think. Partner? Isn’t Neil married? I catch myself. Don’t ask, Janet. Idle curiosity and gossip are forbidden.

Of course. But my thoughts are now running on a familiar track. How much that word “partner” covers up! “Partner,” “spouse.” These are slippery terms. My university prefers “spouse.” When you retire Human Resources asks you to sign over survivor benefits to a spouse or spouses. You’re not asked whether the spouse/spouses are male or female. Or whether you married them under the old laws of Canada or the new laws. At my interview I interrupted to say that I call my spouse, “husband.” I got what used to be known as an old fashioned look.

Fair enough. Still, isn’t it odd that as a society we shun the words that that refer directly to differences between males and females?  Could it be that we’re prudish?

Some years ago I edited a book for a Toronto research institute describing school-board guidelines for Family Studies programs in middle schools and high schools. In these courses students were taught a good deal about the naming of body parts and how to assemble them. They were taught almost nothing to suggest that there may be emotional and behavioral differences between male human beings and female ones. Or different responsibilities. The programs did not talk about motherhood, or mothering, for example. Or fatherhood and fathering. The preferred terms were “parents” and parenting. Cover-up words.

Grandmothers and grandfathers, of course, were “grandparents.” Brothers and sisters were “siblings.” The course manuals were filled with pictures of naked males and females at all ages, but issues of maleness and femaleness were not directly addressed. At a guess I’d say that in their out-of-school hours the young people in those classes spent at least some of their time pondering questions of behavioral difference. Why are boys so gross? Why are girls so easy to offend, so weepy? “What are you supposed to say to girls?” “What I do if he says he loves me?” But information on that kind of thing the kids had to pick up on the street. I am not saying that the courses avoided all moral advice. Much was said about controlling anger, for example. Much was said about cultivating tolerance. The advice was always genderless.