“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.

4 Responses to ““Conservatives Made Canada.” Really?”

  1. 1 Charles Blattberg April 14, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    The constitution’s not partisan but that doesn’t make it neutral. It’s not neutrality but the affirmation of the common good that’s behind paeans to the “interests and welfare of every subject”; “the good of all”; and “patriotism” for one’s “common country.” Neutrality is for games, not just politics.

    That said, Canada’s Founding Debates is not over-sized – it’s a wonderful, wonderful text!

  2. 2 Colin Pearce May 24, 2011 at 10:47 am

    In her book “Once and Future Democracy” Professor Ajzenstat says that the Canada of George Grant “is a country almost entirely fabricated from his imagination and his personal preferences. The Canada Grant teach us us to love and lament never existed. It is a romantic fiction.” (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press,p.11).
    Professor Forbes comments on Professor Ajzenstat’s point to the effect that “She shows that there is a conflict between what (Grant) used to say about his love for Canada and what his students actually inferred from his analysis of our political history….(Grant) gave Canada a false conservative essence, one that it never really had and certainly does not have today.” [“George Grant: A Guide to His Thought,”(Toronto: University of Toronto Press,2007) p.82]
    Terminological precision would be of the essence to parse this discussion with respect to terms like “conservatism,” “liberalism” and so on. But however this might be if Grant’s lost Canada was a “romantic fiction” then nothing has been lost as he insisted it had at the hands of technological continentalism, corporate globalism, the world homogeneous state, “The End of History” and so on. If there was nothing really there of the kind Grant describes then there is really nothing to lament. On the other hand if there has always been an ongoing and unbroken liberal tradition extending down to the present then we can still work to make it better in the future as men like Tocqueville and Mill have done before us.
    At all events, Grant was not alone in being caught up in the “romantic fiction” of a loveable and lost Canada. Writing in 1981 another Christian writer John Muggeridge says: “Nations need more than clever lawyers and well-informed journalists to keep going. They need credible ideologies. Canada has died, and no amount of redistributing power among its various levels of government can bring it to life again. We have been de-mythologized. It all happened in the last 25 years.” [“Catatonic Canada” in “Orthodoxy: The America Spectator’s 20th Anniversary Anthology” (New York: Harper & Row,1987),p.332].
    To be sure Muggeridge may have been romanticizing just as much as Grant. But at the least we can say that the melancholy idea of a “lost Canada” is not confined to George Grant alone amongst philosophically minded observers of the Canadian saga and perhaps not to a few “ordinary citizens” whether influenced by Grant or not.

    Colin Pearce
    University of Guelph-Humber

  3. 3 janetajzenstat May 24, 2011 at 11:23 am

    Good to hear from you Colin.

  4. 4 Colin Pearce May 24, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Hello Janet. I should mention in case you missed it that I was watching Brian Lilley’s “Byline” last night where he delivered the editorial below on the occasion of Victoria Day. In the course of his later general observations he mentioned yourself as the editor of “Canada’s Founding Debates” calling it a wonderful resource and indicating that he would link to the book on his blog.
    – Best, Colin.


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