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.

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2 Responses to “Ian McKay and Confederation”


  1. 1 Stephen MacLean June 17, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Bleh is right, Professor Ajzenstat! One may disagree with the democratic framework of mid-nineteenth-century Canada (by comparisons with later developments), but one can’t deny that Confederation was an achievement of representative democracy in the consenting colonies — witness the struggles of the forces for-and-against in the Maritime provinces.


  1. 1 Langevin laforest | Upriverranch Trackback on August 28, 2012 at 11:40 am

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