Archive for October, 2010

Fred Vaughan on the JCPC: Same Old, Same Old

Groan! Another book arguing that the British North America Act (1867) called for a “strong central government”!

It’s said endlessly: John A. and the Fathers of Confederation wanted a central government that would take the lead in defining the new country but their vision was fatally undermined by the evil Brits who served on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, Canada’s highest court of appeal until 1949.

Did I say “evil Brits”? Fred Vaughan’s biography of Lord Haldane, recently published by the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, refers to the noteable JCPC judge as “The Wicked Step-Father of Confederation.” (Thanks to Chris Moore for alerting me to Vaughan’s new publication.)

The conventional story is wrong. Macdonald did not envisage a central government that would lord it over the provinces. He wanted a central government that would be strong within the sphere of its responsibilities as described in the constitution. The Fathers use the phrase “strong central government” to indicate that they are not proposing a loose alliance of provinces but a true federation with an exhaustive division of constitutional powers. Each level of government was to be “strong” in its own sphere.

Though as far as I know the Fathers did not use the phrase “watertight compartments,” favoured by the JCPC, it perfectly captures their intentions. The JCPC got it right.

Think of George-Etienne Cartier, friends. He’s leading his people into a union in which French-speakers will be in a minority. He would never have thrown in his lot with Macdonald if he had thought it would weaken the ability of the province of Quebec to protect its way of life. As I argue in the essay appended to G.P. Browne, ed., Documents on Confederation (MQUP), Cartier and George Brown see eye to eye on this matter; neither wants a central government free to meddle in provincial affairs. And yet both speak of the necessity for a “strong central government.” It’s time to rethink the meaning of that phrase as the Fathers use it. To repeat: in my opinion, it’s their way of indicating that the Quebec Resolutions describe a true federation rather than a mere alliance or compact among the colonies.

If you’re making up a reading list of the subject of the JCPC may I suggest that you add: Paul Romney, Getting it Wrong, How Canadians Forgot Their Past and Imperilled Confederation, University of Toronto Press.)


Music and the City: Reprise

In the year 2000, Janice Stein argued that, “The most serious threat to Canada’s survival as a nation with a distinct identity is no longer military attack but the push and pull of the U.S. economy and its entertainment industries” (Great Questions of Canada, edited by Rudyard Griffiths for the Dominion Institute, pages 136-7).

“More and more Canadians are watching programs produced in the United States, listening to music by American recording artists and reading books and magazines written and edited in the United States, ” she said. It’s a scandal.

(Allan Gotlieb commented tartly: “If this is Canada’s greatest threat, we are indeed a blessed nation (Great Questions, page 141).

I’m thinking about Stein on identity because computer technology now enables me to enjoy music and words originating in concert halls and recording studios on the seven continents and the two hemispheres. Day by day, I’m sitting in my small corner of Canada. And the world’s mine.

And do you know Janice, I’m grateful! I love it. Do I feel less Canadian? Well, not that I’ve noticed.

Plato in Iran

I haven’t been in the classroom for years. But old habits persist. I can’t read the news without noticing stories appropriate for sharing with the undergraduates.

Here’s one from the obituary of Iranian singer Marzieh, who was famous for her “winding, sinuous” love songs (National Post October 29, 2010).

After the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 the mullahs banned solo female singers. To preserve her voice Marzieh would walk into the desert under the cover of darkness and sing alongside a roaring waterfall. “Nobody could hear me,” she recalled. “I sang to the stars and the rocks.” Eventually she went into exile.

It’s a perfect story for discussion in the class on Plato’s Republic. Winding, sensuous songs that focus on individual longings? Not recommended for the city that Socrates endorses! The city where everyone knows his place and keeps to it while thinking steadily about the good of the whole! Socrates would have banned flutes. And flute girls, and, I have no doubt, solo songstresses. He says: “Never are the ways of music moved without the greatest political laws being moved” (Republic, 424c).

John A. Was Not Our First?

Sir John A. wasn’t Canada’s first prime minister? Maclean’s magazine professes to be astounded!

Says who? Well, who else but John Ralston Saul.

“There in the midst of describing a riot that clogged the streets of Montreal on an April afternoon in 1849, Ralston Saul describes Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine as ‘the first prime minister of a democratic Canada.’ John A. Macdonald does not turn up for another 178 pages. ”

Saul should know. He’s been writing about LaFontaine for years.

It depends how you ask the question. If you want to know the name of the first prime minister of the British North American federation that now goes by the name of Canada, sure: it was Macdonald. But if you want to know the first prime minister in British North America, it was Lafontaine.

Lafontaine’s is not a story that resonates in academe these days and I’m glad someone’s telling it. (Jack Granatstein said years ago that it’s Canada’s public intellectuals rather than members of university departments who keep alive our sense of National History.)

Saul’s book is entitled Extraordinary Canadians: Louis Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin (Penguin Group).  The first prime minister of a democratic Canada!  I’m looking forward to reading this one.

Peter C. Newman on the Way We Are


Peaceful, compassionate, progressive: that’s a good definition of Canada, says Peter C. Newman in the current Literary Review of Canada.  That’s how we used to be.

But things have changed. “Ezra Levant and his Precambrian rants marked the expiration … of the compassionate peaceable kingdom that gave us shelter.”

Newman is reviewing R.B. Fleming’s biography of Peter Gzowski (of Morningside fame). Why the references to Levant? One wonders.

The idea that Canadians naturally incline to the left has been a largely unacknowledged feature of Canadian politics for decades, promulgated in political science classes, cherished in Toronto’s Annex. It’s an idea that promotes acrimony and hampers both left and right in the development of lucid political arguments.

Peter Gzowski was the real goods: of that Newman is sure. Peter C. Newman himself is o.k. Undoubtedly! Gzowski and Newman: both Canadian to a high degree of Canadianness.

If you confronted him outright, I am sure that Newman would argue with the best of us that the principle of political equality grounds Canadian politics. In a liberal democracy like ours no political arguments are excluded a priori and there is no one way Canadians qua Canadians are supposed to be. We settle our domestic policy and the direction we will take on the world stage through political deliberation. We are free to change direction. That’s what Newman would say.

And yet with a corner of his mind, I suggest, he thinks that there are some political perspectives true Canadians naturally shun; Canadians up to Canadian snuff necessarily incline to the politics of the centre left.

Grant Havers on Locke and Abraham Lincoln


Grant Havers (Trinity Western University) writes to say that he enjoyed my recent blog on John Locke.

“What you write about him closely parallels what I’ve always thought about Spinoza. Surely there’s more to his comprehensive commentary on the Old Testament in TPT than a mere attempt to avoid the wrath of Dutch Calvinists!  I argue in my Lincoln book in a similar vein that there’s far more to Honest Abe’s political theology than a mere attempt to placate the teeming Christian masses of his time. If Spinoza and Lincoln (and Locke) are simply Machiavellians, then they add nothing original to political philosophy.”

Grant’s book on Lincoln is entitled Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love (University of Missouri Press, 2009)

John Locke and the Hebrew Republic

I’ve said before that I find it almost impossible to suppose that John Locke’s references to the Old Testament in the Second Treatise of Government are there merely to avert the wrath of religious authorities. There are so many references and they are so apt.

I studied Locke with students of Leo Strauss who encouraged me to let my eyes slide over the references and quotations. But the idea of ignoring Locke’s words, the idea of explaining away uncomfortable passages, seemed – well – “un-Straussian.” Strauss at his best is the philosopher who supremely teaches us to pay attention to passages in classic texts  that make one uncomfortable.

So I’ve begun asking questions. And as I’ve come to realize in the past year or so, I am far from the only one. Here’s a report from the academic front:

In the current issue of Azure magazine, Yoram Hazony sums up a wealth of scholarly opinion on the influence of biblical and rabbinic thought on Hobbes, Locke, John Milton, John Harrington and others, in a review of  Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010).

The review begins: “It is an unspoken rule of modern historiography that the Hebrew Bible could not have contributed anything significant to the rise of modern ideas and institutions. This rule has been at the basis of academic writing on the history of the West for at least two hundred years. And its influence has been decisive: Nearly every serious book available about the rise of the modern world has taken this “no biblical influence” rule as axiomatic.

“The only problem is that it’s false.”

“What is most impressive in The Hebrew Republic,” Hazony argues, is Nelson’s “willingness to pick an open fight with a truly massive opponent.” The “opponent,” as he goes on to say, includes Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, and Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West.

What follows from the idea that the makers of modernity read the bible with an open mind, and read rabbinic commentary? A good question, as the professor likes to say.

Azure magazine is available on line and is easy to retrieve. (Get the publication called Azure from the Shalem Institute, not the architectural journal with the same title.) Hazony’s substantial review article in the current issue is entitled “The Biblical Century.”