Readings on Canada: New Collection

I’m sent notice of a collection of primary documents on Canadian politics with a strongly historical dimension. (Thanks, John von Heyking.) Essential Readings in Canadian Government and Politics, edited by Peter H. Russell, François Rocher, Debra Thompson and Linda White will appear later this year from Emond Montgomery Publications.  A version is available on the Internet

My heart lifts. There’s no better way to engage students than to give them original sources. (Hamlet’s more fun than Coles Notes.)

The editor’s introduction is a bit of a stopper. “Canada has never been an easy country to understand.” That’s the first thing the students will read! Is it the most important thing to know about Canada that our history’s difficult? I don’t know why Russell and company didn’t go all the way and give us the usual line: Canada is difficult and boring.

But then we’re off to the races with speeches by John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier in the debates on Confederation in the Province of Canada (1865).

Say the editors: “In their speeches we can see the colonial nature of Canada’s beginnings. Macdonald and Cartier share a strong allegiance to the British monarchical system and an equally strong distaste for what they view as the excesses of American democracy.”

Distaste for the U.S? Macdonald’s speech includes this assertion:

“It is the fashion now to enlarge on the defects of the Constitution of the United States, but I am not one of those who look upon it as a failure. (Hear, hear.) I think and believe that it is one of the most skillful works which human intelligence ever created; is one of the most perfect organizations that ever governed a free people. To say that it has some defects is but to say that it is not the work of Omniscience, but of human intellects.

He’s saying that only God could have done better than the American Founding Fathers! Not much “distaste” there. Did the editors read the speech?

It is true that Cartier and Macdonald preferred the British monarchical system. They were convinced that a good constitution makes a distinction between “head of state” (in Britain and Canada, the monarch) and “head of government” (in Britain and Canada, the leader of the party winning the most seats in the popular house.) From 1688 political wisdom held that the distinction ensures the contestation of political parties for office and thus the best possible guarantee of political freedom. Cartier especially thinks that allotting monarchic and prime-ministerial powers to one individual as in the American system invites populist tyranny.

He was wrong. Time has shown that American presidents have less trouble than anticipated in juggling their two roles. The point to note, however, is that the Canadian Fathers were not expressing mere opinion, or unthinkingly choosing the familiar over the foreign. They had an argument. To repeat: they thought that the contestation of political parties for office offers the best security for political freedom and believed that contestation is better secured by separating the roles of Prime Minister and Head of State.

Generations of Canadian professors have told their students that the Canadian Fathers were no competition for the Americans in the brains department. The prim commentary on these speeches upholds the tradition. Canada is hard to understand. The Fathers of Confederation were hicks. Why bother to read the stuff? (Answer: it has been assigned.)

There’s more. The editors contend that the Province of Canada was “the only one whose legislature conducted a full, detailed debate on the terms of the proposed federal union.” But in a collection of excerpts we can’t of course have the full detailed debate. The debates in the other provinces were perhaps less “full,” whatever “full” means, but they were, believe me, quite as interesting, vivacious, and well informed. So why did the professors at the University of Toronto go out of their way to impress on students in British Columbia, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick that the debates in their home locales weren’t important enough to make the cut? The Centre of the Universe is speaking.

Will I go on reading this volume? Of course. I’m enjoying it.


2 Responses to “Readings on Canada: New Collection”

  1. 1 Stephen MacLean September 19, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    ‘Generations of Canadian professors have told their students that the Canadian Fathers were no competition for the Americans in the brains department … The Fathers of Confederation were hicks.’ Yes, let’s disabuse ourselves of that absurdity straight away and celebrate the accomplishment of Confederation.

    Without an understanding of the debates—in all of the colonies—that led to the drafting of the BNA Act, we can little appreciate the legacy we have been bequeathed, which is one reason why some can propose grafting on constitutional reforms will so little regard for the consequences.

    One view from the periphery of power…

  2. 2 Mike Thompson September 25, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    I’m the in-house editor at EMP, responsible for the Essential Readings book. I’m pleased to hear you are enjoying the online preview, and I appreciate your various comments.

    I would just like to mention that we have been tweaking the list of selections a little, based on some feedback we’ve received. So, the contents of the published version will be a little different, and may address one or two of your points. (And yes, a couple of the French pieces we had translated will be polished further!) I’ll be sure to send you a copy of the published book.

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