Archive for December, 2011

The Once and Future Canadian Democracy

This welcome message came in recently.

I have been reading your 2003 essay “The Once and Future Canadian Democracy”.  It is perhaps the most coherent synthesis of political thought in Canada that I have read to date, and the “liberal”/”romantic” theory fills many of the gaps I had found until now.

Thank you for your work, Professor.

See Janet Ajzenstat, The Once and Future Canadian Democracy (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).

Going for a song on Amazon.



James Bowden’s site, Parliamentum is a splendid site. A very welcome addition to Canadian thinking on legal and constitutional matters. I am enjoying the current discussion on Canadian independence.

What They Said About Responsible Government at Confederation

Let’s get back to questions of responsible government. Did the 1848 grant of responsible government to the British North American colonies sever the colonies’ formal connection with the mother country?

I say yes. After 1848 the colonists continued to regard themselves as part of the Empire and looked on the mother country affection, but conducted their local affairs as if they were free and independent polities able to legislate on any and all matters.

Most historians disagree. (Some readers on this blog disagree.) What is usually said is that in 1848 the united Province of Canada and the colonies in the Maritimes got a truncated form of responsible government; important powers were reserved for the British Parliament. Gerald Craig, editor of the Carleton Library edition of Lord Durham’s Report says in his introduction: “The grant of colonial self-government that Lord Durham was prepared to make in 1839 was wholly genuine, but it was also extremely limited in scope.” The mind stutters; imagine a form of self-government – self-government! – both “wholly genuine” and “extremely limited.”

The issue was discussed at Confederation and I can tell you at once that without exception participants in the ratifying debates in the provincial legislatures agreed that provinces adopting responsible government remained proud of their association with the mother country, but regarded themselves as free in the way that independent countries are free.

Nova Scotia’s William Lawrence boasted: “We are a free people, prosperous beyond doubt, advancing cautiously in wealth … Under the British Constitution we have far more freedom than any other people on the face of the earth.” By “British Constitution” Lawrence meant the colonial legislature. In Newfoundland, George Hogsett said: “We have here a constitution for which the people nobly fought, and which was reluctantly wrung from the British government. We had the right of taxing ourselves, or legislating for ourselves. Newfoundland’s Ambrose Shea argued that responsible government had brought “virtual independence.” He claimed moreover, that the colony had legislated tariffs hostile to the commercial interests of England. In New Brunswick, John Mercer Johnson said: “We want nothing better than British institutions, for under them we have as much liberty, and a little more, than they have in the United States.

In statements like these you hear the sentiments of the anti-Confederates. In the Atlantic Provinces especially, the chief objection to Confederation was fear that union with the Canadian provinces would impair liberties enjoyed from 1848.

But similar arguments can be found among the legislators committed to federal union. In the Canadian Legislative Assembly Thomas D’Arcy McGee said: “The two great things that all men aim at in any free government are liberty and permanency. We have had liberty enough – too much perhaps in some respects  – but at all events, liberty to our heart’s content. There is not on the face of the earth a freer people than the inhabitants of these colonies.”