Archive for March, 2011

Canada’s Intellectual Elites

In an article published in 2006 by the Ashbrook Centre, Travis Smith (Concordia) says:

“It is the shared prejudice of most intellectual elites and the students here that Canada represents the end of history in its closest approximation known hitherto—where politics ought to be regarded as over, where progressive values are settled and secure, where all that is left to be done is to establish the neutral technocratic administration of things in accordance with social justice, featuring multicultural harmony, a sustainable environment, and unlimited universal health care.”

When politics is over, oligarchy begins. That’s Smith’s point and I agree. Thanks to David Livingstone for this material.


John Pepall’s Opposition to Institutional Reform


John Robson of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute is praising John Pepall’s Against Refom, recently published by the University of Toronto Centre for Public Management.

The argument in brief: “The Canadian political system, with its unique array of discontents, has long nurtured a corresponding set of reform proposals. At any given time some have figured more prominently than others, although in the past two decades all of them have reached what passes in Canada for fever pitch. Proposals for electoral reform, Senate reform, fixed election dates, parliamentary review of judicial appointments; recall, referenda, and changes to party discipline in the House of Commons have all been in the news of late. And whatever they are, John Pepall’s against them.”

Interesting? Very! Pepall’s described as a writer and political commentator based in Toronto. I’m about to start reading.

The Wikileaks Quarrel: Erna and Tom

Erna Paris writes award-winning books on topics of global importance. About her most recent one, The Sun Climbs Slow: Justice in the Age of Imperial America (2008), a reviewer said: “Ms. Paris is one of the few Canadians I can think of who is internationally recognized as an authority on global affairs. Previous books, notably Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History, established her preeminence in a narrow field that includes such names as Margaret Macmillan, Joe Schlesinger and Gwynne Dyer.” She’s been Chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada and is an active member of PEN Canada, the organization dedicated to protecting free speech at home and abroad.

These days she’s very angry with Tom Flanagan, Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary.

Here she is in the letters column of the current Literary Review of Canada: “According to article 464 of Canada’s Criminal Code, which makes counselling another to commit a criminal act an indictable offence, Tom Flanagan’s incitement to murder WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange last December ought to have landed him in jail and led to his dismissal from the University of Calgary. The jury is still out on the police investigation, but the university has shamelessly refused to discipline the murder-by-proxy professor, who was breezy, but clearly not joking, when he made his self-described ‘manly’ suggestion.”

Flanagan’s remarks were made on public television; some viewers found him amusing. Googling “flanagan wikileaks,” I get more than 600, 000 entries.

Paris goes on: “Was Flanagan also joking when he bragged that his “Calgary School” is grooming Tea Party queen Sarah Palin to be the next U.S. President? What country does he live in? Do the more comic extremes of U.S. Republicanism now look to Alberta for Karl Rove-style ‘grooming’ advice from one of their ex-patriots?”

“What country does he live in?” That’s the give-away sentence. In Erna’s view, Tom’s not acting like a Canadian, a real Canadian. He embraces “extreme libertarianism and hostility to social democracy.” Canadians, in contrast, have a soft spot for social democracy and avoid extremes. Above all, Paris suggests, whether speaking in public or in the classroom, they do not sound like Americans.

Is Paris being intolerant? Yes. But to her credit she concludes with this advice: “Having received this notice of intent, Canadians who do not share [Flanagan’s] vision of Canada’s future need to make their voices heard before the next election.”

That’s the better view, Erna; that’s what we expect from a friend of free speech and a real Canadian.

Against Entrenching Property Rights

“Protection of property is a basic right.” So says the editorial in the National Post (Friday, February 25, 2011). So says John Locke in the Second Treatise of Government.

And so say I.

But should we entrench the protection in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?  No! Entrenching rights curtails legislative debate, public deliberation, and the voters’ sense of political efficacy.

The immediate occasion for the Post’s editorial was the decision by Federal MP Scott Reid and Ontario MPP Randy Hillier to introduce resolutions for entrenchment in their respective legislatures. They cite instances in their ridings where governments have appropriated private lands in ways that are indeed to all appearances unjust.

The better way to correct particular injustices, I would argue, and the better way to secure property rights in general is to raise a ruckus about  particular cases in the legislatures, and in the public arena and the media. That’s politics and our rights and freedoms depend on it.

Remember the attempt in the 1980s and 90s to entrench a Canadian Charter of Social and Economic Rights? It seemed obvious to many good-hearted Canadians that looking after our less privileged citizens was the right thing to do and that governments should be compelled to do it. See the section on the Social and Economic Union in the Charlottetown Constitutional Accord (1992). It reads in part: “The policy objectives set out in the provision on the social union should include but not be limited to: providing throughout Canada a health care system that is comprehensive, portable, publicly administered and accessible; [and] providing adequate social services and benefits to ensure that all individuals resident in Canada have reasonable access to housing, food and other basic necessities.”

The Accord catalogued the pieties of the 1980s. I can’t begin to describe the reach of its ambitions. It called for high quality primary and secondary education … protection of workers’ rights, protection of the environment …

It would have entrenched equalization payments and First Minister’s Meetings. “Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to making equalization payments so that provincial governments have sufficient levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.”

It was a bold play by one generation to set Canada’s course for once and all. It would have made it almost impossible for Canadian legislatures to respond to changes in the mood of the country, new situations and new arguments.

It would have crippled our democracy. It failed, thank goodness, in the national referendum of 26 October 1992. (I can hear Ted Morton laughing. He knows I voted “yes” in the referendum. I voted with my heart, Ted. I couldn’t bear to think of breaking up the old partnership between Upper and Lower Canada. I lost my head.)

To repeat: Constitutionalizing rights takes political issues out of legislatures and detracts from public debate. It demeans the citizens’ sense of political efficacy. The better way to correct particular injustices is to keep hammering away at issues and abuses in the arena of public opinion and in the legislatures.