Archive for April, 2011

Blattberg on Nations, States and the CBC’s Vote Compass

I’m struck by Charles Blattberg’s analysis of the CBC’s Vote Compass in the Montreal Gazette yesterday (April 27):

More than 1.5 million Canadians have been led astray by the CBC Vote Compass. So far, those who have complained about the exercise, in which voters answer a survey to help determine which party’s platform most corresponds to their political views, have done so because they believe that it is biased in favour of one party in particular.

My concern is different: It is with what the Vote Compass says about Canadians’ common sense as regards politics.

Those who designed the Vote Compass believe it to be neutral. We see this in their assumption that our various political positions – on Afghanistan, the economy, gay marriage, and so on – are not like apples and oranges but commensurable and so capable of being plotted by a machine. But whether they are right or wrong about this (they’re wrong), much can be gleaned from examining their assumptions about what will pass muster as neutral, since these things say a great deal about what is taken for granted in Canadian politics today. Let me offer three examples.

The first has to do with Quebec, and the Vote Compass statement that “Quebec should be formally recognized as a nation in the Constitution.” Yet the English version of the 2006 recognition motion that passed overwhelmingly in the House of Commons refers not to “Quebec” but to the “Québécois,” and the use of this French word suggests that the nation in question is that of Frenchspeaking Quebecers.

Theirs is indeed a national community, one that ought to be distinguished from the larger political community that is Quebec, the latter including all Quebec citizens. Yet though this idea, that a nation is largely but not exclusively a cultural community, happens to have the merit of being true, Trudeauists and Quebec sovereignists alike continue to believe that a state’s citizenry ought to be equated with the membership of a single nation.

This assumption is based on that obsolete “nationstate” model of what a country is. Because of it, many of the perhaps thousands of nations in the world today believe that they can be fully free only if they can add their own seat to the 192 at the (tragically misnamed) United Nations. One has only to do the math to see that this is a recipe for disaster. Thank you “neutral” Vote Compass.

There are other nations in Canada besides the Québécois, and this leads me to a second problem with the Vote Compass: the absence of any mention of aboriginals. It says a great deal that where one stands with respect to the place of aboriginals in Canada is not considered a significant-enough indicator of party preference.

Finally, of the 18 parties registered with Elections Canada, the Vote Compass recognizes only five “major” ones. Whether or not it is possible to come up with a neutral definition of “major” (it isn’t), the assumption that the excluded parties’ positions are not even worth considering is very odd.

Yet perhaps it is no more odd than the very idea that we can approach politics neutrally.


Faculty Lunches/Rich Conversations

“When I decided to become a college teacher, I took it for granted that my life in academe would be full of deep discussions. I pictured myself strolling into the faculty lunch room and having my pick of rich conversations: a debate on Freud over here; a celebration of Jane Austen over there; an exchange on Dante’s debt to St. Thomas in the corner. The reality of the faculty lunchroom turned out to be otherwise.”

The speaker is Richard Kamber, a member of the Philosophy Department in the College of New Jersey and current President of The Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC), a professional organization addressing scholarly, pedagogical and administrative issues involved in teaching liberal studies at the undergraduate level. He was talking to academic lunchers at this year’s ACTC meeting in New Haven, Connecticut.

“The reality of the faculty lunchroom turned out to be otherwise.” Ain’t it the truth. At my establishment, lunching professors complain about parking and pensions, pensions and parking. There’s the occasional comment about a colleague, the occasional bit of gossip. And that’s it, folks.

Kamber noted that the deficiency is partly remedied by professional meetings like the American Philosophical Association, the American Historical Association, etc. But even these gatherings, he said, “are typically more combative and less conducive to learning than they ought to be.” And again, that’s been my experience.

For civility and rich conversation, nothing beats The Association for Core Texts and Courses. Kamber again: “We have created a community where distinguished scholars can comfortably and insightfully discuss texts on which they are not expert and distinguished teachers can share their expertise on how to make great books come alive in the classroom.”

Updated Citizenship Guide

A letter from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada directs my attention to recent changes in the Citizenship Guide. Thoroughly revised earlier this year, it has been given an additional brush up:

  • The Diversity in Canada section now includes the fact that gays and lesbians in Canada enjoy the full protection of the law and have access to civil marriage.
  • Forced marriage now appears in the list of cultural practices that are not acceptable n this country.
  • Laura Secord and Agnes Macphail make their debut.
  • There’s more information about the War of 1812, whose bicentenary we will be celebrating next year.

Citizenship and Immigration is listening!

“Conservatives Made Canada.” Really?

“Conservatives made this country.” So said Mr. Harper said in a campaign speech recently. And yes, that’s the way the story’s often told: John A. Macdonald, our first prime minister was a Conservative. Canada was Tory blue from the beginning.

But see Adrian Humphrey’s “Historians revisit Conservatives’ Creation Claim” (National Post (April 13).  Michael Bliss and Michel Ducharme note that in the crucial period just before Confederation, Macdonald’s Tories were allied with George Brown’s Liberals. Bliss puts it bluntly: “A Conservative-Liberal coalition made Canada.”

Bliss and Ducharme are right. Or perhaps it would be better to say that all political leaders of the period – whatever the party – Liberal, Conservative, Liberal-Conservative, Grit, Independent, knew that the constitution they were making had to be as free of ideological bias as possible.

In a free and democratic country, the constitution should be neutral. It should erect no barrier to the contestation of political parties for office.

The best guide to colonial thinking on this issue comes from the debates of the Confederation period in the colonial parliaments. The Canadian constitution was drafted at the Quebec Conference of 1864 and then went to each colonial parliament for ratification. No colony could be yanked into Confederation without a ratifying “yea” vote in the local legislature. For excerpts from these crucial debates, see Janet Ajzenstat, Paul Romney, Ian Gentles, and William D. Gairdner, eds., Canada’s Founding Debates (University of Toronto Press, 2003). It’s an over-sized volume of 500 pages – 550 in the French translation directed by Guy Laforest for the University of Laval. But it rattles along.

Here’s a hint of what you will find on the subject of the neutral constitution:

“Confederation is a matter calculated to affect the interests and welfare of every subject in British North America, irrespective of party, race, or faith; and consequently, to divest it as much as possible, from a party question, three members of the government, three members of the opposition, and one independent member of this house were appointed to proceed to [the Quebec conference of 1864] as delegates.” (The speaker is J.H. Gray, Prince Edward Island House of Assembly, 1 March 1865.)

“[This] is a miraculous and wonderful circumstance, that men at the head of the governments in five separate provinces, and men at the head of the parties opposing them, all agreed at the same time to sink party for the good of all, at the risk of having their motives misunderstood, from associating together for the purpose of bringing about this result.” (Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Canadian Legislative Assembly, 9 February. 1865.)

“For myself, Sir, I care not who gets the credit of this scheme … The whole feeling in my mind now is one of joy and thankfulness that there were found men of position and influence in Canada who, at a moment of serious crisis had nerve and patriotism enough to cast aside political partisanship, to banish personal considerations, and unite for the accomplishment of a measure so fraught with advantage to their common country.” (George Brown, Canadian Legislative Assembly, 8 February 1865.)

What’s the lesson? Partisan politics is necessary if a country is to remain free. Without the continuing debate between and among Conservatives, Liberals, and Whoever, oligarchy threatens. But. But! What secures the contestation of parties is the constitution. And the constitution must not be partisan. Political debate is partisan; the constitution is not. The British North Americans knew that. They did well, those old guys.

The Association for Core Texts and Courses

Humanities. Liberal Studies. Great Books. The courses have many names but a common format. The students read and discuss freely famous books, often but far from always, books in the Western canon. There’s no intermediary; there’s no authoritative commentator. They’re not reading about famous books and authors. They are reading the books. They are confronting the authors. Plato himself is in the classroom; his thousands of commentators have been banished. (Time enough for the commentators when you get to graduate school.)

And the students love it. They love it because the material is fresh. The books are astounding, unusual, in-your-face, outrageous, by men – and sometimes women – that have been read with appreciation for a hundred years, a thousand years, more.

And they love it because if the course is well run, no one uses the discouraging phrase, “you are wrong.” Students can be asked to take another student’s observation into account; they can be asked why if Socrates indeed meant such-and-such, two paragraphs later he seems to be endorsing something like the opposite. To repeat; there’s no one standard, received interpretation of the author’s intention on the table; no one interpretation to be copied into notes and replicated on the exam. At its best the approach encourages not relativism, but an awareness of the real world’s complexities and students feel that they’ve been introduced to, and welcomed to, the intellectual life writ large.

There’s a professional association that addresses the scholarly, pedagogical and administrative issues involved in teaching these courses at the undergraduate level. It’s called The Association for Core Texts and Courses, ACTC, for short. It meets yearly. As many as four hundred presenters attend. Sounds crowded? Well, it doesn’t feel crowded; we break up into groups of six to eight, and read short papers on related topics and texts; there’s time for discussion.

Last year, I had the rare chance to argue that Canada’s Constitution belongs in the Western canon. This year Sam Ajzenstat gets the equally rare chance to argue that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is grounded in a Jewish defence of liberal contractualism. We are part of the growing contingent of Canadians at ACTC.

Canadian Legal History Blog

Jim Phillips and Mary Stokes announce a blog, to be sponsored by the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History:

“We hope the blog will prove a useful place for the wonderful community of legal historians we have in Canada. It won’t be the place to go to discuss the meaning of the second amendment of the US constitution, or medieval pleading and practice, but we want it to be where we post useful announcements and discuss aspects of the unique and exciting legal history of our country.”

Welcome news! Jim Phillips is Editor-in chief of the Osgoode Society, Osgoode Hall, Toronto. Mary Stokes may be familiar from her contributions to Christopher Moore’s History News.

Nominated for the Donner Book Prize


Tom Flanagan, Christopher Alcantara and André Le Dressay, with foreword by C.T. (Manny) Jules, Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights (McGill-Queen’s University Press).

I read the book in manuscript. Here’s how I described it:

The argument convincingly shows what must be done to alleviate poverty and the wretched housing conditions on Indian reservations. I cannot recommend publication too strongly.

In brief, the book makes the case for escaping the Indian Act by developing and extending the First Nations Land Title Recognition Act, a measure already in effect in some jurisdictions, which gives First Nations access to modern, effective property rights while enabling them to retain their autonomy and institutions of self-government. The authors convincingly situate this progressive innovation in the context of Aboriginal economic history from before the first millennium, and – this may be the most important feature of the book – show that the idea for the First Nations Land Title Recognition Act originated in the political thinking and experience of First Nations’ leaders, has been developed and is still being developed by them, and can be put into practice in the First Nations by First Nations governments.

Thanks in large part to Tom Flanagan’s prior book, First Nations, Second Thoughts, Canadians are ready to conclude that the Indian Act, which on a generous interpretation was intended to protect Aboriginals and to preserve their independence, has failed dismally on both counts and far from promoting the welfare of Canada’s original peoples is contributing to continuing poverty. But there is a general feeling of hopelessness. It is widely believed that there is no remedy for the wretched conditions. I have heard this note from serious speakers at several conferences. I have said it myself. At a recent talk I argued that the impoverishment of Aboriginals is the greatest blot on Canada’s record, and one that we do not know how to correct. No one responded by saying: well, but surely there is this prospect, or surely there is that legislation pending. At a conference sponsored some years ago by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, individual speakers and members of the audience cited approaches, programs, courses, sources of funds; some boasted of modest successes. Nothing was said to suggest that there is a way to circumscribe the India Act; none confidently advanced a remedy for the collective poverty. The Frontier Institute recommends pan Canadian elections to the Assembly of Nations, a worthy idea it may be, but not one that will suffice to bring about the necessary revolution. In Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard argue that the Indian Act enriches some individuals and groups at the expense of others. But the strength of their book lies in the analysis. They do not propose a believable remedy.

To repeat: the signal feature of this book is that it proposes credible means to escape the Indian Act, and credibly locates the crucial decision-making powers for making the escape – including the choice whether to make it – at the level of the First Nations governments. Beyond the Indian Act marks an important advance in Flanagan’s thinking. As he himself notes, First Nations, Second Thoughts called for action “at the top,” that is, by Canadian governments. It thus paradoxically reinforced notions of Aboriginal dependence in the course of making the case for independence. In the scheme described in this book, the crucial decisions will come from “the bottom.”

The argument develops seamlessly. There is an engaging Introduction by Chief Manny Jules (who also has the last word in the book). Each of the succeeding three Parts is introduced by a brief, helpful preface. In Part One, Flanagan sketches a history of Aboriginal perceptions of individual and collective ownership, reminding us that the intention of the First Nations Land Title Recognition Act is not to impose assimilation on Aboriginals, but to restore their property rights. In Part Two, Christopher Alcantara shows how present modes of securing title to land on the reserves (Certificates of Possession, Customary Land Rights, etc.) inhibit the individual’s autonomy and way of life, making sustained development of communities expensive and uncertain. The research is exceptional and the stories are well told. The way is thus prepared for the crucial argument of Part Three in which André Le Dressay describes the search for the measures that are taking shape as the First Nations Land Title Recognition Act.

The book’s over-all tone is admirable; it does not deride other authors or cast blame. It is realistic, positive, and conveys a sense of purpose and hopefulness.