John A. Macdonald Was Afraid of Democracy?

Who says? In yesterday’s Globe and Mail (June 27), Neil Reynolds argues that “thanks to John A. Macdonald’s “fear of democracy, Canada would never experience multiple centres of political power now celebrated as checks and balances.”

It’s a familiar idea; it’s been taught in departments of history and political science for decades. The Fathers of Confederation did not want democracy. We did not get it in 1867 and Canada today is still not democratic.

But dear friends, familiar as it is, it’s not true. The Fathers, including Macdonald, prescribed liberal democracy. Ours is one of the world’s oldest liberal democracies. We have an exemplary history of democratic government.

According to Reynolds, “Macdonald regarded the rough-hewn American experiment in democracy as an irrefutable argument for [introducing in Canada] highly centralized government. In his model of parliamentary government, political power would reside symbolically in the Crown, effectively in the prime minister.”

The statement is right this far: in the Constitution Act, 1867, power indeed resides symbolically in the Crown, and effectively in the prime minister. But it is wrong to suggest that the arrangement is anti-democratic. It is rather, the feature of our constitution enabling democracy. It enables parliamentary liberal democracy.

Here’s John A. on the parliamentary system. He is speaking in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada in the Confederation debates of 1865, describing the form of government that is to obtain at the federation’s national level. “We will enjoy here that which is the great test of constitutional freedom – we will have the rights of the minority respected. In all countries the rights of the majority take care of themselves, but it is only in countries like England enjoying constitutional liberty, and safe from the tyranny of a single despot or of an unbridled democracy, that the rights of minorities are regarded.” By “the minority,” Macdonald means the political minority, the opposition in the legislature and dissent in the electorate and public at large. The singular advantage of parliamentary government is that the majority cannot claim to be the nation in toto, speaking for all.

The British North Americans who drafted the Canadian Constitution took a good hard look at the American system and most of them held it in high regard. The one aspect about which they had doubts is that the American President wears two hats. He is both head of state, like the Canadian Governor General, and head of government, like our prime minister. The fear was that an American president might use his electoral popularity and his constitutional role as head of state to introduce what Macdonald calls “unbridled democracy, a sort of “people’s republic,” as we might say today, riding roughshod over political dissent. Most liberal democracies today do make a distinction between head of state and head of govern, imitating the British and Canadian model. The United States is the exception.

My thanks to Mark Harding for the reference to the Reynolds article.


2 Responses to “John A. Macdonald Was Afraid of Democracy?”

  1. 1 Colin Pearce June 29, 2011 at 9:26 am

    “It can be of no weight to say that the courts, on the pretense of a repugnancy, may substitute their own pleasure to the constitutional intentions of the legislature.” – Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #78

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