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Canada: Intimations of LibertyCanada: Intimations of Liberty

Canada: Intimations of Liberty

Hearing the seductive, loon-like call of so-called postnationalists who claim Canada is without identity, political philosopher John Von Heyking insists the Fathers of Confederation would have seen the “ironic pose of non-identity as infertile soil for heartfelt protection of rights.” 

John von Heyking
12 minute read

In October 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the New York Times Magazine: “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada… There are shared values — openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice. Those qualities are what make us the first postnational state.”

This postnational, and indeed post-historical, myth that Canada has no identity is a revision of the older “Tory touch” thesis of the Canadian founding that treats Canadian history as moving from its origins in Toryism to liberalism, and then to socialism or some other kind of collectivism overseen by a one-party state.

Over the years, Janet Ajzenstat, professor emeritus at McMaster University, has debunked this myth by showing how Confederation, along with responsible government, was a liberal endeavor because responsible government is the best mode to manage that pluralism of interests and political opinions. The dream of pluralism being replaced by monism is authoritarian, even if one is ironic about one’s monism.

Trudeau’s comments were picked up and propounded by the Laurentian intelligentsia who celebrated how, in becoming a “postnational state,” Canada is now liberated from the shackles of old historical categories including ethnicity, nationality and, of course, gender identity.

Charles Foran, C.E.O. of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, argued in The Guardian that unlike European nation states that are seemingly predicated upon a loosely cohesive ethnic and religious group, Canada lacks any discernable identity. Instead, through its history Canada has embraced diversity of cultures and nationalities expressed generally as multiculturalism or cosmopolitanism.

In lacking any single identity, Canada is said to encompass all identities. In doing so, Canada is the first nation to reach the end of History – the capital “H” sense of History that moves by its own mind or Geist. When it’s done, there’s nothing left but to have bureaucrats mop up the hold outs.

For “Tory touchers”, including the postnationalists who offer a more ironic version of this thesis, Canada is an “incomplete” experiment and it’s up to this generation’s families of lions and tribes of eagles to complete it.

I allude here to Abraham Lincoln’s “Lyceum Address” where he warns that because the founders of republican government get all the fame, republican government is vulnerable to ambitious Napoleons and Caesars who, in their efforts to outshine the founders, undermine constitutional order through revolution.

Canada’s postnationalists are too pusillanimous to do anything so grand because they have forgotten the lessons of 1867, and they lack a coherent sense of what political activity actually entails. However, despite their ironic pose of holding onto no identities or values, their argument moves in an authoritarian direction.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, Doug Saunders goes out of his way to reject 1867.

 “Let me make the case, then, that 1967 was Canada’s first good year,” Saunders wrote earlier this year. “We should spend this year celebrating not the 150th year of Confederation, but the 50th birthday of the new Canada.”

1967 was the year not only of Expo, but of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Despite its mandate, its attention to “Other Cultural Groups” unexpectedly became the focus of subsequent debate and government policy. In other words, it led to multiculturalism, diversity, and above all, the freedom of the individual to choose his or her own identity:

“There is a solid line leading from the events of 1967 to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982: It was impossible to have a Canada of multiple peoples, as we discovered was necessary in the late 1960s, without having a Canada of individual people and their rights. Collective identities continued to exist – they are central to Canada – but after 1967, they were recognized as matters of choice and affinity, not of obligation and legal mandate,” Saunders writes.

The postnationalists are impatient with 1867 because the Fathers of Confederation were not fully on board with the postmodern expressive self as one of many “matters of choice and affinity.”

Amidst all this progressivism, Saunders lets slip a comment more insidious and, to my mind, quite revealing about where this postnationalist argument moves. He dislikes John Diefenbaker for being a conservative and a fan of British Canada. But there is more. Saunders writes:

“The morning of my birth, opposition leader John Diefenbaker (still sitting, anachronistically, in the House four years after his prime ministership had ended) denounced Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson for having declared the previous week that ‘we are a nation of two founding peoples.’”

Saunders directs his ire at Diefenbaker’s opinion of the “two founding peoples” myth, but in doing so he misses something even more fundamental about the Canadian regime.

Saunders condescendingly states that Diefenbaker was “still sitting, anachronistically” in the House after serving as Prime Minister. Why is this anachronistic? Why is this not cause to admire our political system of responsible government?

Is it not a modern-day miracle that a former head of government can step down and remain loyal by serving as a lowly member of the Opposition? Is not the peaceful trading of political offices a sign of the admirable constitution we inherited from Westminster? One thinks of that lion Winston Churchill who, at the height of his political glory, lost the general election of 1945 and sat as Leader of the Opposition for six years. Our system is designed to harness the ambitions of the lion and eagle for the public good. Why cannot the postnationalists recognize this?

The postnationalists share with the “Tory touchers” the view that politics is not about responsible government but about administering consensus and control. As Janet Ajzenstat notes, politics for them operates primarily at the level of culture. Control culture and you control politics. Parliamentary institutions are secondary.

Foran’s attention to politics is perfunctory and focuses on the executive and administrative powers of government: “Can any nation truly behave ‘postnationally’  – i.e., without falling back on the established mechanisms of state governance and control? The simple answer is no. Canada has borders, where guards check passports, and an army. It asserts the occasional modest territorial claim. Trudeau is more aware than most of these mechanisms: he oversees them.”

Foran, like many postnationalists, thinks of government in terms not of how our antediluvian Fathers of Confederation thought about it (i.e., responsible government) but as executive administrative power, or as management.

Part of Ajzenstat’s criticism of the Tory touch thesis is that it is a recipe for one-party control. Responsible government, the achievement of the likes of Baldwin, Lafontaine, Macdonald, and Cartier, is about debating the permanent conflicting opinions and interests of Canadians. Sure, there is collegiality. Parliamentarians debate one another, not members of Congress, because it is about our common life together. But responsible government is predicated upon political pluralism and diversity of opinions that the postnationalists, with their rhetoric of non-identity encompassing all identities, still wish to overcome in the name of a new collectivism, however ironic.

It is a sad reflection of Canada’s understanding of its political history that the ideas of the Fathers of Confederation have only recently been made publicly available with the publication in 1999 of Canada’s Founding Debates, which Ajzenstat edited along with Ian Gentles, William Gairdner and Paul Romney. There the reader learns not only about the issues they debated, but also the deep understanding the Fathers brought to fundamental political and philosophical questions pertaining to political order. They were more than mere lawyers and dealmakers.

They understood the principles involved.

Ajzenstat has noted on several occasions the impoverishment of our political self-understanding because so few historians, political scientists, intellectuals, and journalists have bothered to read these debates. It’s as if Canadians have embraced the “history is bunk” ignorance propounded by the rulers in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

A conclusion one can draw from the founding debates, and a consideration of the broader effort to establish responsible government that goes back to the 1840s and 1850s, is that it is difficult to pigeon hole into neat ideological categories the people who created our country, including Tory, liberal, or republican. They were all dedicated to the pursuit of the intimations of liberty, which tempts one to label them liberals, but bear in mind how even this effort is difficult to label.

Though read by Canada’s founders in addition to the American Founders and the French Revolutionaries, John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (the touchstone of all liberal thinking), in Michael Oakeshott’s words, “so far from being a preface… has all the marks of a postscript…. Here, set down in abstract terms, is a brief conspectus of the manner in which Englishmen were accustomed to go about the business of attending their arrangements – a brilliant abridgment of the political habits of Englishmen.”

Indeed, as Oakeshott and others including American political philosopher David Walsh note, the pursuit of intimations of liberty has always been a practical effort that has eluded its theoretical understanding.

This does not mean 1867 was merely a pragmatic deal, but neither can it be pigeon-holed into republican, liberal, Tory, and related categories. This is not because the founders lacked principle, but rather because the practical effort of pursuing intimations of liberty necessarily eludes our theoretical categories. This priority of practice to theory is at the very heart of the liberal tradition that can have its liberal, republican, and even Tory moments.

Consider first William Baldwin’s (Robert’s father) description of responsible government to the Duke of Wellington:

“…a provincial ministry… responsible to the provincial Parliament, and removable from office by His Majesty’s representatives at his pleasure and especially when they lose the confidence of the people as expressed by the voice of their representatives in the Assembly; and that all acts of the King’s representative should have the character of local responsibility” (William W. Baldwin, letter to Duke of Wellington (British PM), 1828).”

Responsible government is not republican because sovereignty finally resides in the monarchy. Republicanism was not an option because of the disasters in France and the United States. Yet it is hard to say it is Tory because the most commonly utilized “efficient” parts of government are conducted by the parliamentarians. But the monarchy is not simply “dignified.” It is more than mere decoration.

The priority of practice to theory in pursuing intimations of liberty helps explain why many of our founders display deep paradoxes in their thinking. For example, Robert Baldwin is a quintessential liberal in his defense of responsible government. He angered Bishop Strachan for secularizing the King’s College and making it the University of Toronto, yet considered himself a High Anglican whose political work served the church. As a liberal, he regarded private property as the foundation of liberty, but as a Tory he supported primogeniture as a stabilizing feature of society.

Another paradox is seen in George-Etienne Cartier’s characterization of liberty as Canada’s “new nationality,” which leavens liberalism’s commitment to protect the individual with a Burkean appreciation that individual rights are best protected where there is collective solidarity. This is a case of Oakeshott’s observation that Locke’s Second Treatise was “a brilliant abridgment of the political habits of Englishmen.” Cartier obviously thought the teachings of the Second Treatise were sufficiently abstract to be transportable over to French Canadians, but like Oakeshott he recognized those rights are best protected within a political society committed to them.

Rights do not exist in a political vacuum and they cannot be secured self-interest alone. For instance, John Sanborn of Sherbrooke County explained to the Legislative Council that:

“If we desired to have a constitution that would afford good hope of permanency, it must be planted deep in the affections of the people – for until their intellects were convinced of its excellence, they would not be prepared to uphold it and resist innovations.  But they must feel and comprehend the obligation.  To render it secure, it must be in the hearts of the people.”

Our Fathers of Confederation understood better than the postnationalists that the Canadian nation could not be based on a single race. Yet they also would have regarded the ironic pose of non-identity by the postnationalists as infertile soil for the heartfelt protection of rights. They sought political rights for individuals, but they understood that society was not composed of free-floating individuals. Rather, individuals inhabit and derive their moral sustenance from communities.

Cartier famously claimed the “Protestant, Catholic, English, French, Irish, and Scotch… compete and emulate for the general welfare.” The “new nationality” would secure liberty for all but it was also recognized that the attachments to race, religion, and so on was visceral, somehow pre-political.

For supporters and opponents of Confederation, the idea of a single nationality was unrealistic. Cartier thought the “idea of the unity of races was utopian.” For similar reasons, Stewart Campbell of Nova Scotia, who opposed Confederation, told the House of Assembly, “There is a wilderness between the lower provinces and Canada; we have no sympathies or interests in common with the people of that country. They are as much strangers to us as the people of the West Indies.”

Here I would just note that most postnationalists are also Laurentians, those “mainstream” Canadians whose existence Trudeau wishes to deny, and who are as much strangers to Albertans and British Columbians as the people of the West Indies were to Stewart Campbell in the 19th century. Trudeau, who speaks of Canada having no identity, is the same man who said in a 2010 interview on Télé-Québec that, "Canada isn't doing well right now because it's Albertans who control our community and socio-democratic agenda. It doesn't work." 

As with Greeks bearing gifts or with those claiming there are absolutely no absolutes, beware the Laurentian claiming Canada has no identity.

Like today’s postnationalists, the Fathers of Confederation understood the “new nationality” was an incomplete project but they had different reasons. They understood our institutions of responsible government came under the wings of Great Britain. Thomas H. Haviland of P.E.I. exclaims they must “rejoice and glory in the patriotic and enabling recollections of ancestral virtues.” The heart of the “new nationality” must be grounded less in abstract theory than in the felt recollections and affections of the people.

Yet, how can the “new nationality” be “new” and yet “ancestral”?

The institutions of responsible government were the way out of this paradox. Parliamentary institutions were to become the locus of the “new nationality,” where Canadians would, in Sanborn’s terms, “feel and comprehend” their Constitution.

The Fathers themselves are not entirely clear on this question. For my money, we have to go about 40 years later to John George Bourinot, who was the Clerk of the Commons from 1880-1902 and has been called “Canada’s first political scientist” for his numerous academic studies of parliamentary institutions. As Clerk and political scientist, he was well positioned to comprehend the paradox of theory and practice in the pursuit of the intimations of liberty.  

Moreover, as any thoughtful politician knows, your expert in parliamentary procedure is your most important counselor, and Bourinot’s Parliamentary Procedure and Practice in the Dominion of Canada was the standard for many years. Connected to this was his classic, A Canadian Manual on the Procedure at Meetings of Shareholders and Directors, of Companies, Conventions, Societies and Public Assemblies Generally, better known today as Bourinot’s Rules of Order. Perhaps a sign of our non-identity is that today most organizations rely on Robert’s Rules, which is American.

Bourinot wrote his Rules as a way of teaching Canadians their “rights and responsibilities,” that is, their deliberative virtues required to be a self-governing people with Parliament at the apex of their constitutional order. Companies, conventions, societies, and public assemblies were to be little schools of civil society that teach us to be citizens of parliamentary democracy. He understood the “new nationality” was to be less an amalgam of races and identities, and more a gathering together of citizens debating the advantageous and the just as to how we should live our common life together.

This is a more meaningful understanding of our citizenship than the post-historical abstractions offered by today’s post-nationalists, whose understanding of passive citizenship moves in an authoritarian direction. 

To become a parliamentary people, we must learn the virtues and procedures of debate in parliamentary forums. Bourinot understood well Alexis de Tocqueville’s insight that “general apathy, the fruit of individualism,” is democracy’s singular vice. He also understood Tocqueville’s corrective that when citizens gather together in parliamentary institutions, at all levels of civil society, “sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.”

The main narrative of Parliament these days, however, is that it is moribund. Canada is in the grip of “friendly dictators” leading us to post-historical and post-nationalist Elysian fields filled with protean selves expressing themselves in whichever transhumanist manner the Zeitgeist moves them. Thankfully, Ian Brodie will soon publish his book correcting that misimpression. Parliament is in much better shape than we realize.

I’m more worried about how civic education and our ability to be a self-governing people equipped with deliberative virtues. The postnationalists, whose political understanding is too embedded in the very identity politics they purport to escape, hasten this corruption. The desire of some to treat 1967 as Year One is an instance of historical amnesia in the service of keeping citizens pliable for ideological indoctrination. If we genuinely want to be a self-governing people under the regime of responsible government, I can think of no better way of celebrating Canada 150 by than rereading and thinking about what the Fathers of Confederation can teach us about our regime. 

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