Why Don’t Canadians Go In For Assassination?

“America: the land where any kid can grow up to kill a President.” The local play-goers have gone to see Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins at Toronto’s Birdland Theatre. They saw the same musical in the same  production last year. And if it’s on again next year they will probably go again.

But they have a question.

Why don’t Canadians go in for assassination? In a little more than a hundred years America has assassinated four Presidents and made attempts on five others. What’s the Canadian record? There was Thomas D’Arcy McGee, according to Google the only Canadian federal politician to be assassinated. (McGee’s story could be made into a dark Sondheim-type musical.) But however you add things up it’s evident that the U.S. has proportionately more assassinations and attempted assassinations.

Are Canadians naturally more pacific, more kindly? Are we more timid?

George Breckenridge (ardent play-goer) blames the American Constitution for the U.S. propensity to kill Presidents. The American Constitution entitles every citizen to the pursuit of happiness. Understandably, George suggests, some suppose that  they are entitled not only to the pursuit of happiness but the thing itself: happiness. Americans are constitutionally entitled to happiness! And when they are miserable they want redress.

They attack Presidents – I’m kicking in here in support of George’s argument – because as Head of State the American President represents the Constitution, the entire citizenry of the United States, and the historical idea of constitutionalism.

It is true that the American President is also Head of Government, the country’s chief politician, but as a target for assassination, I suggest, he is supremely the Head of State, the representative of the “system.”

George has a good argument. And it explains why we have fewer assassinations in Canada.

Killing a politician, even a prominent one like a Prime Minister, can’t compare with killing a Head of State; it’s a smaller act; it lacks grandeur; it suggests that the killer had merely a particular, ideological, or personal, agenda.

Canada has a Head of State. An aggrieved Canadian might attempt to kill him or her. But it is all very confusing. We have two; one who resides much of the time in England, and another who lives here. Most Canadians can’t put a name to the one living here. Who is the current one? (Madame Jean was the exception; quite a few Canadians got to know her and her name.) Most Canadians have only a vague idea of the Governor General’s historical and constitutional role. Probably a good thing, eh?

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12 Responses to “Why Don’t Canadians Go In For Assassination?”


  1. 1 Dennis Baker February 2, 2011 at 9:51 am

    Another good reason for separating the Head of State (representing the public interest as a whole; divorced from day-to-day politics) from the Head of Government (readily replaceable by the opposition; directly involved in generating partisan heat)!

    I look forward to George’s paper inciting Canadians to address the “assassination gap” :)

    When I read the subject like for this post, I thought for sure it would comment on Tom Flanagan’s joking call for Julian Assange’s head. Should have known it would be about Sondheim instead :)

  2. 2 George Breckenridge February 2, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    The question was not why Canadians don’t assassinate their politicians–we are a civilized people and a stable democracy, after all–but why the Americans do. That’s those Americans who have the highest levels of gun possession, violence, mental illness and, according to today’s Globe, the highest anxiety levels among comparable nations. I pointed out that Sondheim’s answer is that “everyone has the right to be happy,” a song which both opens and ends the show. (By the way, Janet, the right to the pursuit of happiness is promised not in the Constitution but in the Declaration–don’t worry, Speaker Boehner recently made a similar mistake). I think Sondheim is probably right.

    I have been going through the Declaration and Constitution in class currently and on Monday a student asked me where the pursuit of happiness came from. So I’m going to be looking into the origins of the phrase.

  3. 3 Christopher Moore February 2, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    There is a fairly well-attested story that in 1885 a Fenian gunman waited in the bushes beside the skating rink on the grounds of Rideau Hall to assassinate Lord Landsdowne, who was both a large landowner in Ireland and Governor General of Canada. But when Landsdowne’s young son came out to skate instead, the assassin lost heart and left, all unknown to the inhabitants of Rideau Hall. Does this count at all?

  4. 4 George Breckenridge February 8, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    A follow-up on my student’s query about “the pursuit of happiness.” John Seaman assures me that the phrase does not come from either Locke or Hobbes. So back to Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: The Making of the Declaration of Indpendence (1997). Apparently Jefferson took the phrase from George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Maier reports that the phrase was fairly common in contemporary European and American liberal discourse. What did they think it meant? Possibly the clearest indication comes from the New Hampshire Declaration of 1784: “All men have certain natural, essential, and inherent rights; among which are–the enjoying and defending life and liberty–acquiring, possessing and protecting property–and in a word, of seeking and obtaining happiness.” So classic liberal rights. But I suspect that later and current interpretations would be rather different.

  5. 5 Christopher Hinn February 11, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Well, I guess you have answered the title of your post. Nice one.

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  7. 7 Jennifer Svendsen July 27, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    Canadians don’t assassinate their politicians because it’s just so much funnier to throw food at them!

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  9. 9 Unsolved Major Crimes June 21, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    Maybe it’s the fact that politicians are involved in assassination attempts.
    it’s the perfect crime when evidence is destroyed.

  10. 10 Marty Mullen October 20, 2015 at 5:11 pm

    There are a number of federal and provincial politicians, businessmen, military and police officers I would assassinate, if supplied with the resources to reach the target and the equipment required to carry out justice, against men and women who have committed treason in Canada and are also involved in organized domestic and international crime rings.

  11. 11 Marty Mullen March 2, 2016 at 5:33 pm

    The problem with assassinating Presidents and Prime Ministers is the fact they are just figureheads and not the actual wheelers and dealers commanding the cash flow and ordering acts of genocide. I was trained to kill terrorists by a nation that Canada is not at the moment on friendly terms with and that being the case I am watching the actions of the wealthiest banking families in the world that control Canada’s financial systems. If I were to assassinate anyone it would definitely be the bankers first and after that anyone associated with them. Just be thankful we are not at war, because I am an experienced professional and dedicated and loyal to the country that didn’t stab me in the back like Canada did.

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