Archive for June, 2009

Madam Clarkson’s Education

In the foreword to Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis, edited by Peter H. Russell and Lorne Sossin (University of Toronto Press, 2009), The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson gives this splendid account of her high school education:

“When I studied Canadian history in my last year of high school, we concentrated a good deal on the evolution of our system of government from the Royal Proclamation of 1763 through the Quebec Act of 1774, right up to the Statute of Westminster of 1931 and the Letters Patent of 1947. This last document – the Letters Patent – is of vital importance and set in place the contemporary powers of the governor general which it transferred from the monarch. Yet it is virtually unknown to the general public. We also focused heavily on the King/Byng crisis of 1926; our entire class, contrary to most current opinion, thought that Lord Byng had done the right thing! Perhaps we were all influenced by Eugene Forsey, whom our teacher quoted reverentially as the greatest authority on Canadian parliamentary and constitutional matters. Certainly, Forsey disagreed with the view that a constitutional crisis occurs when a government faces defeat; he emphasized that the confidence of the House gives legitimacy to our form of responsible government, and that any defeat of a government and what followed was simply part of a constitutional process.”

She continues, “High school students today do not get the opportunity to learn Canadian history as I and my generation did …”

What can I say? It’s so true. So true.


Widdowson Writes

Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard read a paper at the recent Canadian Political Science Association Meetings. You’ll remember that last year Widdowson’s paper on Canadian Aboriginal policy started a first-class academic ruckus. The session threatened to end in blows. (Widdowson and Howard are the authors of Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, the Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation MQUP, 2008.)

So, we’ve been wondering. How did things go this time around?

“Very well,” according to Widdowson. “Tremendous progress was made concerning the idea of academic freedom and the need to discuss these issues publicly.”

There was a little flurry when commentator Daniel Salée arrived with students in tow. Rita Dhamoon (the University of the Fraser Valley) complained that the Widdowson-Howard contention is not suitable for young ears. But Salée was adamant and the students stayed.

Widdowson and Howard  fleshed out their now-familiar position with new arguments and data. Here’s a one-sentence summary (by Howard): “In the development of Canadian aboriginal policy, a parasitical group of non-aboriginal lawyers and consultants thrives by proposing various programs that maintain aboriginal dependency and social dysfunction.”

Contentious, huh? Racist! A supposition not to be entertained in Canadian public discourse. That’s the opinion of many. Sandra Tomsons (University of Winnipeg) read the second paper, “The European Epistemic Hierarchy and Aboriginal Rights.” It’s a heavy-handed attack on Widdowson and Howard.

I’d  say the word “vituperative” fits. “Nasty.”

Tomsons is another who maintains that Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry should not be discussed in classrooms, or listed on course outlines. Pas devant les enfants!

Ian McKay and Confederation

I’m still thinking about Ian McKay’s, “The Liberal Order Framework” (Canadian Historical Review, 2000; now available in the volume of articles entitled Liberalism and Hegemony, edited by Jean-François Constant and Michel Ducharme).

McKay “aims to uncover the limitations that were imposed on Canada’s emerging democracy in order to better protect the interests of a few liberal men.” He “exposes the violence” of the Canadian founding (Ducharme and Constant, Liberalism and Hegemony, pages 5, 6).

Bleh! As one of my readers likes to say.

According to McKay: “The Fathers [of Confederation] were convinced that they did not need to attain the approval of the mere human beings for the political order they were designing for individuals” (Liberalism and Hegemony, 633, note 34).

O.K. I admit that most political scientists agree with McKay on this point. That there was no acknowledgement of “the people” at Confederation is the standard teaching in political science texts. It’s the informing theme of Peter Russell’s Constitutional Odyssey; Can Canadians Become a Sovereign People?

But, dear friends, the contention won’t stand up. The debates in the colonial Parliaments show that the Fathers of Confederation made every effort to attain the approval of the populations that would be governed by the new constitution. The Colonial Office made it a requirement of British North American union that the “people” of each province be consulted. “There is no legitimate government without the consent of the governed.”

The question in the legislative debates in the British North American provinces was not whether to consult the people, but how to consult them. See Ajzenstat, Romney, Gentles, and Gairdner, eds. Canada’s Founding Debates, University of Toronto Press (2003), chapters 11 and 12; and Débats sur la fondation du Canada, Édition français préparée par Stéphane Kelly et Guy Laforest, Les Presses de l’Université Laval (2003).

McKay continues in the same note, and the same vein: “This exercise in liberal state formation [Confederation] was sold to French-speaking Lower Canadians as a divorce from Upper Canada that would guarantee their distinctive language and religious traditions.” Confederation was “sold” to the French Canadians? The English-speakers put one over on the French?

But documents from 1858, and 1864, and the debates of 1865 in the Parliament of the Province of Canada suggest that George-Etienne Cartier invented the constitutional division of legislative powers; certainly he, Taché, and Langevin do a sterling job of defending it. We could as easily say that Cartier “sold” federation to the English-speakers. Confederation wasn’t done to the French. It was done by French and English. The French Canadians were not junior partners in Confederation; they are not a sort of colonized people.

The Historian’s “Problem of Selectivity”

In “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History” (Canadian Historical Review, 2000), Ian McKay lays out a new interpretive narrative for Canadian historians. And if attendance at the recent session on “The Liberal Order Framework” at the Canadian Historical Association meetings is evidence, the historians are paying attention.

Note the term, “reconnaissance.” McKay’s offering a “reconnaissance of Canadian history.” He’s suggesting that the old Canadian narrative is dead or dying. But let’s not ask what it died of. The answer’s bound to be long. And contentious. Another day, perhaps.

Let’s ask whether historians need a framework.

There’s a huge literature on the subject. That frameworks, narratives, and paradigms are necessary or inevitable, almost everyone agrees. As one participant at the CHA session said, “The discrediting of Marxism and many of the other big theories left many historians without a theory with which to interpret the jumbled facts presented in the archive.” The “jumbled facts in the archive”! Good phrase! Archival materials aren’t like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. There’s no one and only one way to assemble them. How do you know what facts to leave out? And how do you get the remainder lined up to make a manuscript? Philosophers speak of the “problem of selectivity.” Historians live it.

Undoubtedly a framework helps. If you know more or less what the picture’s supposed to be before you begin assembly, you’re ahead of the game. You’ll certainly feel more confident about tossing pieces that don’t fit.

But it’s been my experience that when a philosopher locates a “problem,” like the “problem of selectivity,” then you’ve got a Problem with a capital “p.”  Yes, the framework helps the historian to select the facts. But how does she select her framework? As Jack Granatstein likes to say: “whose history do you teach?”

Frameworks! One can’t do without them and one can’t do with them.

Reading Michael

The Atheneum has been reading Ignatieff’s True Patriot Love. (The Atheneum is a book club for university retirees; admission by invitation only, thanks). Most of the gently-aging members are from the science side of the campus. They’re a tolerant group; years of meetings, seminars, and fractious conferences have broken them in. They know how to disagree without quarreling. But then they have a lot in common. They read the Globe, not the Post, the Walrus, not Maclean’s.

And they read Ignatieff. They’ve been reading him for years! They came to the recent meeting prepared to discuss not only Patriot Love, but, should the opportunity arise, The Russian Album, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (a previous Atheneum assignment), Blood and Belonging, The Warrior’s Honour, and The Lesser Evil. They brought their copies. There was hardly room on the table for the wine and crackers.

The opinion makers at Maclean’s would have it that Ignatieff’s lost the common touch. He patronizes his constituency. He talks down. He simplifys. The problem isn’t that he left Canada 34 years ago, says Scott Feschuk. “The problem is that his intellect failed to clear customs on the journey home” (Maclean’s, June 8).

Well, why should I hand out advice? (And why should Mr. Ignatieff take it?) But if the Atheneum’s right, he’d do better in Parliament and in interviews with the media to stop thinking of himself as someone who’s preparing to lead the Canadian Nation, and be what he’s always been, someone who can speak to the Canadian National Book Club.

Canadian Historians in Search of a Narrative

The room was packed at last week’s CHA meetings for the discussion of Ian McKay’s new interpretative framework for the study of Canadian history. People were propped against the walls. There’s something about McKay’s bold proposal that’s very attractive.

He first advanced the argument in an essay entitled, “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History” (Canadian Historical Review, 2000). In 2006, Michel Ducharme and Jean-François Constant organized a colloquium on McKay at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

Ducharme and Constant have now edited the colloquium papers. Liberalism and Hegemony, Debating the Canadian Revolution (University of Toronto Press) appeared this spring, just in time for the Canadian Historical Association session. It includes McKay’s original essay, and – surprise – a long and equally impressive second one on the same lines.

Liberalism and Hegemony is long (over 450 pages); there are twelve chapters, each a substantial essay, and, in all, fourteen authors. If your time is limited read at least Ducharme and Constant’s excellent Introduction, “A Project of Rule Called Canada.” They point out for one thing that McKay uses a definition of liberalism akin to C.B. Macpherson’s “possessive individualism,” and they ask – I’m grateful – why this definition of liberalism “should prevail over Janet Ajzenstat’s essentially political definition, which bases itself on British constitutionalism.”

Mckay is indebted to Antonio Gramsci as well as Macpherson. Perhaps we need an essay on Canadian historians’ debt to Marxists. In the 1960s the great influence was Louis Hartz. His views on historical determinism were attractive to some historians and many political scientists.

Feudal conservatism, classical liberalism, socialism: Louis Hartz and Gad Horowitz taught us that the progression was inevitable – as sure as the day follows the night. (They made an exception for the United States, which, they told us, may well be doomed to wander forever in the dim twilight of classical liberalism.)  Equally influential in the 60s and still read today is the eminence C.B. Macpherson, a man who never abandoned his enthusiasm for the twentieth century’s deadliest philosophies of government. His admiration for the Soviet Union’s form of rule knew no bounds, and he  had a soft spot for the one-party systems that emerged in post-colonial Africa. (Think of the Congo. Think of Zimbabwe. Weep.)

And now Gramsci.  Canadian historians are looking for new ways to write and teach Canada’s national story. I’m paying attention.