Archive for May, 2009

One Strong Voice! Une voix forte!

Has it come to this? We’re all to speak in unison? Academics in their serried ranks, shoulder-to-shoulder, identical, genderless, faceless?

Check out the canvas hold-all distributed by the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities this year. It shows twenty or so – what shall I call them? Black pegs with round heads. Are they clothes pegs? There are no discernable clothes. Let your mind wander. You’ll see images of arms linked and ears at the alert. Paying attention! Above them is printed the directive: “One Strong Voice. Une voix forte.”

There’s more. One of the figures is twice the size and brilliant federation red, holding arms up in a V-for-Victory gesture. Who can it be but Our Leader?

If there was ever an image of totalitarianism, this is it: a large, red, triumphant “Somebody” attended by a squadron of pegs.

Oh! for the days when Canadian academics went to meetings of the “Learneds.” The beloved Learned Societies. Such a foolishly pretentious name. But it was also a name that was distinctive. Only in Canada, eh? It was a name that recognized our academic aspirations. And it was organized by academics and encouraged dissent and fruitful dialogue among thinkers of different allegiances. Now we attend “Congress.” Nothing distinctive about that name. And bureaucrats run the show.

One Strong Voice! Bah!


Confederation? When Was That?

Two years ago a Dominion Institute study showed that only one in four Canadians aged eighteen to twenty-four could identify the date of Confederation. Should we care?

Maybe not. According to the Institute’s co-founder Rudyard Griffiths, Confederation isn’t the most notable event in Canadian history. It isn’t what Griffiths calls “a great imagining.” In his recent book, Who We Are, A Citizen’s Manifesto, he argues that Canada had two “great imaginings.” Confederation isn’t one of them.

The first “occurred in the decade that followed the failed rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada.” The second dates from “the mid-mark of the twentieth century,” when the giants of the Liberal Party came on the scene: Pearson and Trudeau.

O.K. I’m second to none in my enthusiasm for the overthrow of the colonial oligarchies in the wake of the 1837-38 rebellions. I’m less impressed by the development of the regulatory state in the 1960s, though I’m sure a lot of “imagining” was involved.

I’m not prepared to accept the downgrading of Confederation. No.

Before embarking on the study of  Confederation that I undertook in 1995 with William D. Gairdner, Paul Romney and Ian Gentles, I talked to Robert Vipond (University of Toronto). His very good book is Liberty and Community, Canadian Federalism and the Failure of the Constitution (1991).  In Rob’s opinion, the interesting events of the nineteenth century occurred just before and  just after Confederation. Before, there was the achievement of responsible government. After, came the quarrels in the courts about the division of legislative powers. What happened in between, the union of the colonies and the making of the Parliament of Canada was not perhaps, – we’re talking to an academic, you remember – not perhaps as interesting.

It’s a point of view.

After talking to Professor Vipond, I consulted Kenneth McRae. McRae is the author of the chapter on Canada in Louis Hartz’s The Founding of New Societies (1964). I said I was looking into the Province of Canada debates on colonial union. I didn’t know then about the debates in the parliaments of the other British North American provinces. And – note! I don’t think McRae knew either.

He said the debates weren’t useful. I can hear his voice. “It’s very low grade ore, Janet.” “Very low grade ore.” Kenneth McRae! So astute on the subject of the Loyalist immigration into the wilds of Western Quebec. On the Confederation documents: wrong. Most political scientists have ignored the documents. In Constitutional Odyssey Peter Russell holds forth on the opinions of the Fathers of Confederation on the basis of a single letter from Upper Canadian Tories to the Colonial Office, excerpted from a biogaphy of Galt. The letter is part of a series, but Russell doesn’t tell us that. I don’t think he knew. The thesis of his book, from start to finish, derives from an inadequate study of primary materials. The Confederation documents: great texts were blowing in the wind with no one to read them.

In 1999, Paul Romney, Ian Gentles, William D. Gairdner and I published excerpts from the debates in the legislatures and parliaments of the seven British North American colonies. Canada’s Founding Debates is a best seller in English and French, popular with the general public, legislators, and think-tankers.

Lord Durham on Dead Aid

In her recent book, Dead Aid, Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo argues that grants of money and materials from Western nations bolster corruption and barbarism in the Third World. (I’m reading Mark Steyn’s review and commentary in Maclean’s, April 27.

“A country that seeks private business investment will be accountable to the global markets; a country that raises public funds from taxes will be accountable to its own voters. But a government that gets ‘aid’ from other governments is accountable to no one and nothing.” The “decades of easy money that have made self-absorbed Western do-gooders feel swell about themselves have debauched the political culture of Africa.”

Debauched the culture and kept the continent poor.

I believe it. I learned from my studies of British North America that as long as money was coming in from the British government, the colonists were ruled by oligarchs: the Family Compact, the Chateau Clique, in the Maritimes, “government by official party.” And they were poor. Poor when compared to the United States. We have Lord Durham’s observations on this point. He was deeply impressed by American prosperity. “There is … one particular which has occurred to every observant traveller in these regions, which is a constant boast in the States bordering upon our colonies, and a subject of loud complaint within the colonies. I allude to the striking contrast which is presented between the American and the British sides of the frontier line in respect to every sign of productive industry, increasing wealth, and progressive civilization” (C.P Lucas ed., 211).

It was part of Durham’s argument that the introduction of “responsible government,” the principle that supremely enables a population to hold governments accountable, would promote wealth as great, or greater, in the Canadas.

Turn off the aid. Turn on the trade.

Who’s A Conservative Now?

Reviewing Michael Ignatieff’s True Patriot Love in the current Literary Review of Canada, Ron Graham suggests that beneath Ignatieff’s Liberal Party convictions lurk “a Tory’s deference to authority, an accommodation of elites, a privileged perch in the Ontario hierarchy, an insider’s interest in the status quo, a casual disregard for individual rights and a jaw-dropping sense of entitlement.”

Well, let’s say for the sake of argument that Graham has captured Ignatieff. Could be. What caught my eye is Graham’s definition of Tories: deferential, privileged, careless of human rights, possessed of “a jaw-dropping sense of entitlement.” Is that what Tories are like? Conservatives? I know a few. I don’t think so. Not today’s Tories.

Here’s a short, happy essay on conservatism by John Robson, columnist with the Ottawa Citizen and policy analyst with Breakout Educational Network:

Those of us who think Canada needs more conservative, classical liberal or simply laissez-faire ideas have much work ahead of us. One problem, or two, is the feeling that whatever else they may be such ideas are un-Canadian. One encounters this in polemical form, and must be prepared to meet it. But it has an intellectual component as well.

In Beyond the New Right John Gray said that trying to repair old traditions “is, in Wittgenstein’s lovely phrase, ‘as if one tried to repair a broken spider’s web with one’s bare hands’” (it’s from Philosophical Investigations #106). It’s an appalling task. But trying to create one from scratch is worse, as much of the sad political and economic history of the third world testifies.

If we actually face that problem, of trying to create a tradition, well, tough luck: In the words of one of my favourite Herman cartoons, a pony express rider with three arrows in his back is told by his boss that “No one said the job was going to be easy!” As has been observed, you cannot cook roast beef in a washing machine regardless of how hungry you are and so you have to find a method that might work even if the odds are unattractive. The same is true here if these policies and ideas really are better, or indispensable, in building or preserving a good society.

If we conservatives really are aliens who have invaded the Canadian body politic, well, we know we mean no harm to their planet. But as a matter of fact, helpful in argument and encouraging in reforming the culture, institutions and habits of thought, is that Canada’s tradition is far more conservative, in the loose sense, than we are often led to believe today. There are in fact a large and diverse group of people (in its original form these remarks introduced a panel who advocated for George Brown, Harold Innis and Fr Richard John Neuhaus) who ought to be remembered better and appreciated more than they are as representatives of that tradition.

We who call ourselves conservative will of course continue to battle among ourselves over these and other figures. Some of us will deny that various parts of this legacy are conservative, partly because of familiar disputes about whether we must purge the classical liberals, the social conservatives, the religious right or the unreasonable reactionaries and their ideas internally before we can do anything outside these walls, and so on.

Whatever our differences we ought to have that debate in an intelligent and civil way. I take the liberty of quoting Samuel Brittan’s 1968 book The Bogus Dilemma, a particularly good libertarian attempt to rid the world of the left-right distinction: “The economically libertarian views of a Hayek or a Milton Friedman, or even of the non-socialist Keynesians, form no part of the English intellectual Conservative tradition, which is not the opposite of socialism, but something different. This tradition does have related to it a literature of great subtlety and quality. The key to this body of thought is that it originated as a defence against liberalism rather than socialism.” That sort of conservatism seems either unhelpful or harmful to some on the right, and indispensible to others. But I think we are much better positioned to discuss the matter, in good conservative fashion, once we have in mind real people who offered real responses to real circumstances as an anchor for our debates.

The three names above are just a start. Others who merit consideration and discussion surely include Stephen Leacock, Isaac Brock, General Wolfe and Sir John A. Macdonald, a conservative’s conservative to those like Russell Kirk who think this philosophy must reject dogma, and a nightmare to those who find most contemporary conservatives too unprincipled.

The debate is just beginning. But whatever we want to do we’ll be better able to do it once we know the truth which, with luck, will make us free.

Who Are We? Who’s This “Us”?

Rudyard Griffiths, Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto (Douglas and McIntyre, 2009); Michael Ignatieff, True Patriot Love, Four Generations in Search of Canada (Viking Canada, 2009).

These books have one thing  in common.

Both suggest that Canadians don’t know who they are. Both suggest we’re still searching for a national “identity.” Neither tells us where to look. Pity!

The Fathers of Confederation are referred to in the usual way, as men who had no vision.

I said it at length in The Canadian Founding, John Locke and Parliament (McGill-Queen’s, 2007). Let me say it again. The Fathers of Confederation knew exactly who they were and what they were doing. They knew the British constitutional tradition. They knew Blackstone’s philosophy; they relied on John Locke. They studied the American Constitution. They had a vision.

And they left us with a glorious identity. We are the citizens of a free country.

For excerpts from the Confederation debates in British Columbia, The Red River Settlement, the Province of Canada, and the Atlantic provinces, including Newfoundland (1864 to 1873), see Janet Ajzenstat, Paul Romney, Ian Gentles, and William D. Gairdner, Canada’s Founding Debates (University of Toronto, 2003).

Canada’s Inukshuk

When Vancouver put in its bid for the Winter Olympics four years ago the planning committee decided to adopt as its logo the Inuit inukshuk. The little figure was dressed up in red, orange, mauve, purple and green and given a proper name: Ilanaaq.

Committee CEO John Furlong predicted that before long Ilanaaq would replace the maple leaf as Canada’s national symbol. It “will speak to the humanity of the country, the people, the culture, the values we have … It is time for us to go on and find a new mark” (National Post April 25, 2005, A1).

There were objections. Chief Edward John, of the Fist Nations Summit representing 150 of British Columbia’s 200 tribes, said: “It’s a slap in the face to B.C.’s indigenous peoples. I mean, just look at it. An inukshuk is used to mark places in a desolate, barren environment. Now look outside. That is the rain forest. I could see the significance if the Games were being held in Yellowknife, but they aren’t.”

He has a point. Can a symbol associated with one particular people and culture be used to represent a multicultural nation? Westerners complain about the maple leaf; there are no red maples west of the Manitoba border as they constantly remind the rest of us.

But Canadians are getting used to their little hominid. He’s jaunty. He’s smiling.

And when you come down to it why shouldn’t a smiling human-like heap of coloured rocks represent Canada’s humanity, culture, and values. As the song says: “Anything goes.”

Gaza: Observations From British North America

Remember how the story went. In the 1840s British North Americans demanded that the Colonial Office and British Government stop paying the salaries of colonial Executive Councillors. They demanded the privilege (to listen to some of them, the God-given right) to choose, pay, and dismiss, their own political executives. And they won.

In 1848 the principle of “responsible government” was introduced in first one colony and then another; the British cut their funding, and British North Americans gained control of domestic governments and legislation.

Today the West is paying salaries in Gaza, funding humanitarian projects, and – understandably – attempting to supervise the funding. Has the West become a colonizing power?

The picture is muddled. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is attempting to get a bill through Congress that would give the Gazans an extra $840 million. Members of Congress are asking about mechanisms to make certain that no Hamas representatives are on the payroll. Mrs. Clinton admits that there have been discussions in Cairo about allowing at least some Hamas ministers to join a “unity government.” She says that the State Department would like the flexibility to support such an arrangement.

So who’s governing in Gaza? Who is choosing the governors? Not the Gazans.

The situation is sad beyond belief. One thinks of Gaza’s impoverished children. And it’s frightening. Israel’s very existence is at stake – Israel’s hopes for respite from attack.

And yet, says the small voice of political science at the back of one’s mind: isn’t it interesting to see the logic of institutions at work? Of course American representatives must ask for an accounting of the American taxpayers’ money at work. That’s their role as members of a democratic assembly. But to ask for an accounting of money spent in a foreign country curtails that country’s democratic choices and turns American administrators into imperialists.

(For information on Gaza I’m indebted to the Jewish World Review, an “on-line magazine.”)