Archive for January, 2010

Citizenship Guide Pix

The new Ctizenship Study Guide: I talked about contents in a previous blog. (“Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, “honour killings,” female genital mutilation or other gender-based violence. Those guilty of these crimes are severely punished under Canada’s criminal laws.” Yes!)

The pictures are worth a note too. They’re iconic. Here’s one of John Buchan, old stoneface himself. The caption reads primly: “the 15th Governor General is shown here in Blood (Kainai First Nation) headdress.” It’s a fabulous crown of feathers, supremely majestic even in a black and white snap. Speaking at the Canadian Club of Halifax, 1937, Buchan said – I’m reading again from the caption – that immigrant groups “should retain their individuality and each make its contribution to the national character.” Each could learn “from the other, and …while they cherish their own special loyalties and traditions, they cherish not less that new loyalty and tradition which springs from their union.”

Here’s Olympian Marjorie Turner-Bailey of Nova Scotia, “a descendant of black Loyalists, escaped slaves and freed men and women of African origin who in the 1780s fled to Canada from America, where slavery remained legal until 1865.” Note the modest suggestion that in matters of freedom Canada is superior to the U.S. I don’t mind that kind of boast!

And Mark Tewksbury, “Olympic gold medalist and prominent activist for gay and lesbian Canadians.” The man’s won his race; he’s jubiliant.

Happiness and success: it’s a major theme. Sunny skies, happy days, endeavour, accomplishment. On page 27, aspiring Canadians are asked: “How will you make your contribution?” We have responsibilities as well as rights. We’re “free, law-abiding, prosperous.” We win our wars. The illustration accompanying the D-Day landing is taken from a painting by O.N. Fisher (1950). It’s as full of movement as a film clip. The Guide’s design and colours make a strong, confident statement: deep red, deep blue, pale gold.

Military history’s covered at some length.. The section on government is well done. It could go in a political science course pack. Our identity as the Queen’s Canadian subjects is not ignored.

Perhaps my favourite picture is the one on the cover. It shows a middle-aged couple, only slightly overweight, in a brilliantly yellow fiberglass canoe, paddling in tandem on the Rideau Canal. They’re sitting high on the thwarts, Mrs. Canadian in the bow. I know where they are. If they pull over and tie up they’ll be able to walk to the Parliament buildings in minutes. The sun’s shining, the sky’s cloudless. They’re supremely happy; they are where they want to be, on the water, in summer, and, of course, they’re wearing their lifejackets.

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Parliament’s Friends

Who knew Parliament had so many friends in academe? The anti-prorogation statement signed by 175 political scientists, philosophers and law professors last week was a necessary and helpful contribution to discussions about our national institutions. I’m glad that it was widely publicized in local and national newspapers. (Thanks to Charles, Stephen, John, Gordon, Marcos for comments on my original posting.)

Parliamentary politics is the best form of government if only for this one reason: it allows the citizenry to wholeheartedly disagree about political objectives without resorting to blows, lynchings, or outright civil war. There is the one condition, that some citizens much of the time, and many citizens some of the time, will find themselves living with laws and policies they find disagreeable or downright abhorrent.

And it’s that fact, that in a liberal democracy there will always be people with reason to complain that, “Parliament doesn’t speak for me,” which makes our job as teachers of law and politics difficult.

Our lecture halls and seminar rooms are typically filled with youngish people whose sense of justice and rectitude is just coming into flower. They’re conscious of themselves as the coming generation. They’re beginning to think of individual roles and ambitions.

And there at the head of the table or front of the auditorium is a man or woman charged with the task of convincing them that they must on occasion accept “behind-the-times” laws and decisions, made by fusty, dumb, perhaps vicious politicians.

When we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing we’re teaching our students to think with divided minds. We want them to be able to defend Parliament and the contestation of parties for office without losing political ardour. It’s a hard sell. Some professors give up. They preach a particular political ideology. They recruit.

And – let me tip my hand – on the list of 175 professors who went on record last week in defense of Parliament, there are not a few recruiters.

For years Canadian political scientists taught – some are still teaching – that this country  in contrast to the United States, is “about collective provision, and tolerance of the rules and restrictions that are justified by the need for order.” (I’m citing Charles Taylor’s essay, “Shared and Divergent Values.”) Gun control, single-payer medicare, a peace-keeping role for the Canadian military: these are issue that define the Canadian identity and in debates on these matters we can rightly expect Parliament’s role to be limited to determination of means. That was the teaching.

In a recent column Jeffrey Simpson asked whether the professors’ statement would serve as a wake-up call to Parliament. I’m asking whether signing the statement will serve as a wake up call to academics.

Ignatieff Speaks!

At my university today. But only for a few minutes. He will then engage in open and frank discussion with the audience. Open and frank! I may walk over.

Here’s the notice in full: “Mr. Ignatieff will be speaking for a few minutes and then engaging in open and frank discussion with the audience. It is a chance to engage Mr. Ignatieff in discussion and get the word out about the importance of post-secondary education in a clear and unfettered forum. This event is part of a cross-Canada campus tour for Mr. Ignatieff to meet with young Canadians and faculty in the lead-up to ‘Canada at 150: Rising to the Challenge’ – a non-partisan conference being held in Montreal in March 2010.”

Note the exciting topic. The importance of post-secondary education. Cuts to the chase, eh. No waffling on about subordinate issues like rising costs, underfunding, crowded classrooms, the bewildering proliferation of programs, over-paid profs, underpaid instructors. No. Ignatieff is going to say in an open and frank way, hiding nothing, that universities are “important.”

Should we be disturbed at the idea that his tour is meant to recruit students for the up-coming “non-partisan conference” on means to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary? Na! The word “non-partisan” means nothing. It is an emotive term indicating merely that Mr. Ignatieff’s appearance on campus is “important.” Obviously the Leader of the Opposition would not want to speak in an open and frank forum about the better policies offered by the Liberal Party.

Or perhaps Ignatieff is considering a step up to the office of Governor-General. It’s a non-partisan role, certainly and he’d be at home in it. We could get him installed in time for the 150th.

Afghan Prisoners

Prime Minister Harper  has prorogued Parliament, supposedly to work on his post-recovery budget. That’s one story. His. Others say that he wishes to avoid discussion of the fact – surely now accepted fact – that Canadian forces in Afghanistan turn over captured terrorists to Afghan authorities, who mistreat them. Well, torture them.

Mr. Harper says that the majority of Canadians are not overly concerned about the fate of captured Afghan terrorists. Perhaps true. But so what? A minority is vitally concerned. A group of some seventy Canadian political scientists, political philosophers, and law professors are organizing a declaration of opposition to the Prime Minister; they argue that the prorogation of Parliament is high-handed; it demeans Parliament and is the more offensive because done to avoid the torture issue.

How concerned should Canadians be?

Why do we turn over prisoners to the Afghan police and Afghan forces? First: the Afghans are our allies. Second: it is one of our objectives to build up Afghanistan’s institutions for protecting Afghan citizens. Canada will leave the country at some point. Dealing with crooks and terrorists will be the responsibility of Afghans. Sooner or later superintendence has to cease. Better sooner. Superintendence is patronizing; it saps confidence, and perverts the development of that very sense of responsibility that we mean to promote.

But yes, our own principles are compromised when prisoners are tortured.  Our consciences are offended. They should be. We expect allies of the West to conform to Western standards. Or at least not to offend Western standards in blatantly outrageous fashion.

That’s where we stand with respect to our Afghan allies and our own consciences.

Let’s look at the matter from the Afghan perspective. Afghans must wonder why the West has such tender feelings about men who are implacably hostile to the Canadian forces; suicide bombers careless of civilian lives, willing to let die the defenseless children of their own Afghan society, men who hope to introduce a regime that endangers and demeans all Western values, including rejection of torture. Men who are intent on training murderers to penetrate Western society in order to kill us – Canadians, in our own country, you and me, the ordinary, indifferent citizens of the West!

Is that my last word?

It’s a dirty-hands problem. And in dirty-hand problems there is no one right answer. There are two wrong answers. Picking the right wrong answer is a job for a prudent man or woman. In the situation I describe who is the prudent person?

It is Mr. Harper. I have the advantage here; I have seen the list of seventy names. (If all goes as expected their statement and names will be in the newspapers early next week.) I know many of them. You do too. They are our colleagues, most of them senior colleagues. And they are good people. But are they prudent? Prudent enough? With reluctance, I say, No.

The Opposition to Prorogation

A group of some seventy political scientists, political philosophers, and law professors are organizing a declaration opposing Prime Minister Harper’s decision to prorogue parliament. The contention is that “in using the power to suspend the operation of Parliament as he has, Harper has violated not the letter but the spirit of the laws, essentially by using this power for partisan, tactical advantage at a time when there are matters before the House and its committees that call for the government having its feet kept to the fire by the loyal opposition.”

They continue: “as political philosophers and legal theorists we have a responsibility to speak out when our democratic institutions are imperiled by the reckless and irresponsible actions of our leaders, whatever party they happen to be part of.” The group is drawing up an op-ed piece for publication in the Globe and Mail, and in either le Devoir or La Presse. They will post a web site to secure further signatures in weeks to come. Daniel Weinstock is the organizer.

I am invited to sign.

Well, I’m not signing without consulting my authority. I’m a political scientist who dabbles in political philosophy and I like to think that I’m at home with the parliamentary systems of the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-centuries. I have some expertise. But on the twentieth century and the twenty-first, I turn to a historian: Christopher Moore.

Moore’s blog on the current situation begins: “This isn’t where you will find an outbreak of fury about Prime Minister Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament in order to hamstring the parliamentary dissection of his government’s dishonest and abusive response to the allegations about Canadian complicity in torture.”

Moore’s no friend of executive dominance. (It would be criminal of me to reproduce the whole blog – though I’m tempted.) He’d like to see Harper’s highhandedness reigned in. The trouble is that over the years we, the electorate, have convinced ourselves and indeed convinced many of our representatives in the House of Commons that they must toe the party line.

We’re alarmed by shows of independence; we’re alarmed by parliamentarians who change their minds, who think for themselves. If one crosses the floor we assume she did it for reasons of low personal ambition. “Canadian parliamentarians are actually not as dumb and sheeplike as the Canadian legislatures make them seem to be… They act that way because we tell them constantly we want them to.” Oops, I’m quoting from Moore again.

We’ve forgotten that parliaments are deliberative institutions. The old anti-deliberative Reform Party/Alliance/ Progressive expectation hangs on among us: you choose your man or woman, send her to Ottawa, and hold her to her promises.

But is that how Parliament is supposed to work? Maybe not. There’s another, older view which insists that Members are not automatons. They should be free to react to new political developments, think on the spot, and change their support for government initiatives if in their considered opinion change is in the best interests of their constituents and the country as a whole.

The excellent book that makes the case for a more deliberative legislature, is Adam Tomkins’ Our Republican Constitution (Hart Publishing, 2005). It’s not an easy read. Here’s a start: “The government is required to secure the support of a majority in Parliament not only when ministerial careers are on the line, but every single day. It is a routine obligation on the part of the government that it must ensure that its policies, decisions and actions enjoy parliamentary backing” (page 2). Try him out. Tomkins develops this familiar idea in surprising ways.

I know. I have said nothing useful about the immediate situation. It’s hardly helpful to chatter on about proposals to enhance the independence of legislators when Parliament has been dismissed. I have only a limp reply. Other remedies – reform of the electoral system, etc, will compound our difficulties by further curbing the parliamentarians’ independence and initiative.

The long and short of it is that although I am interested in this citizen-initiative criticizing Prime Minister Harper, I won’t sign.