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Losing Liberty in Post-Liberal TimesLosing Liberty in Post-Liberal Times

Losing Liberty in Post-Liberal Times

In the first of two reflections on Canada’s shaken political foundations, Augustine College Dean Edward Tingley argues liberals and conservatives alike have turned against our primary principle of freedom.

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Topics: Public Life, Civil Discourse
Losing Liberty in Post-Liberal Times July 7, 2020  |  By Edward Tingley
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When Tory leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis said last month that, “(t)o focus on what makes us different, whether that’s race, gender, or religion, rather than what we have in common has never served to bring people together,” she might have added that, in Canada, a prime thing we have in common is our difference.

In Canada we take for granted our difference as it has always been impossible to miss. On the eve of this country’s creation,  George-Étienne Cartier observed that “our federation” would have “Catholic and Protestant, English, French, Irish, and Scotch” – to say nothing of the original inhabitants of this land, disturbingly overlooked by Cartier but, as was obvious to everyone, rightful inhabitants of the new country. Since the plan from the beginning was to respect what makes us different, in the present century we do not airbrush out of the national picture those who are unlike us (thinking we are the image of a Canadian). We do not require others to conform to our ways, be like us, think and act as we do: we do not make them pay for their difference. We in this country are equals. Because of that recognition and to the extent that we act on it, Canada is a free country. All we ask of the different (all the different, including us) is that we abide by our laws, and thanks to that demand we are also a law-abiding and peaceable country.

But when we attack one of those commitments with the other – hammer law with freedom, crush freedom with law (freedom as in ‘free country’ not ‘license to do as you please’) – we reject what Canada was created to be. We turn against the very distinctive country passed down to us. In disturbing new ways, we are seeing just such attacks coming from both the left and the right.

As a matter of logic alone Canadians must hold some principle in common. Suppose for a moment that we are simply too diverse to have any national identity, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has suggested. Despite having just authored a book he titled Common Ground, Trudeau once explained that ‘‘There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada,” which he called “the first post-national state,” evidently considering a national identity to be some sort of foul historical baggage. 

Well, how did we ditch that baggage? We must have rid ourselves of that tawdry “core identity” business in the name of … liberty (choose your own identity), or some other principle held by the people from coast to coast to coast, which means that that is what defines our national identity. 

Does Canada really have no defining principle? Are we so different from the United States, where Abraham Lincoln credited the American Founders with asserting a single absolutely central principle: a “principle … which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made … to adorn and preserve it.” That principle, Lincoln says, was the whole reason for having the American form of government and it certainly gave America an identity. Prime Minister Trudeau has told us that we need no such thing. In Canada we are united by something much vaguer – by a cluster of ‘‘shared values: openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice.’’ I call this vague because a value does not tell us what ‘respect’, say, demands of us; that is the job of a principle. And values – take for example solidarity with those who are discriminated against – will soon threaten freedom and peace. 

Is it our values that make Canada a place where we can live together, in convivium? It is values that generate all our conflict, as traditional and ‘woke’ values call each other out. Values in a land of difference fuel chaos; principles, if they are the right ones, and are upheld, establish peace. 

In countries like the United States and Canada (two highly diverse federations) you cannot have nothing (or nothing binding) around which to unite. If we have no principle of union in common, or are blind to that principle and do not even think there has to be one, why would we not attack our defining principle when righteously moved by the values we live by? (I do not mention righteousness in mockery.) When swinging a sledgehammer at a structure of evil, no one takes care not to hit things that are completely invisible to them. 

This is the deeply troubled situation we find ourselves in today. Canadians have such a central principle, which Canada too was created to adorn and preserve, but when that ideal is mentioned today it is increasingly as a liability, a barrier that stands in the way of the advancement of our values.

What do we have in common? What do Canadians as a people uniformly cherish and desire their leaders to protect? Or we could ask it this way: why did George-Étienne Cartier, some 150 years ago, argue that our separate colonies come together as a “political nationality” rather than any of the pre-existing options (religious, linguistic, cultural, racial). What is a political nationality – that is, what goods instead of racial or religious or linguistic commonality define such a union? And why did the people of this land accept that offer? 

By way of answer – a roundabout one – consider this case from the new province of Ontario. Napanee, 1874. The event: rental of the town hall for lectures by the American ‘free-thought’ evangelist Benjamin Franklin Underwood. The mayor signs the agreement and the ads go out for talks on “Evolution vs. Creation” and “What Liberalism Offers as a Substitute for Christianity.” 

But Underwood cannot enter the hall: the ads have prompted protest. When the town council directs the mayor to revoke the permit the mayor balks and on lecture day a hostile crowd blocks the door, forcing the speaker to beat a retreat to his hotel. The next day, however, he rents the music hall and, writes historian Ramsay Cook, “for three nights ... entertained and instructed a large and apparently even sympathetic audience.” 

Then followed the court case. The promoter sued the town but lost, the judge upholding existing “blasphemy laws aimed at preventing citizens from attacking Christianity and furthering moral decline. The judge’s words are of interest: “These discussions which lead to the overturning of the Christian religion are, strictly speaking, illegal, but it is felt that it is better not to make martyrs of men who, however ignorant or misguided they may be, are honestly in search of truth.” 

A culture-war skirmish from the infancy of the country, with all the bells and whistles (outrage, crowds, obstruction, courts).

What united us at that time? Not our Christianity; were the free-thinkers non-Canadians? Those Ontarians who were uncertain about Christianity and paid to hear Underwood were not doing anything wrong. Were they not “honestly in search of the truth”? Seeking the truth is a fundamental of human life. 

Should Canada not be that sort of country in which living as a human being is not punished? Should Canada not be that rare and precious patch of earth on which a real human being, thinking and seeking and choosing for himself, is at home, not beat into alignment with someone else’s conclusions? It is an incontrovertible fact that a man judges the truth of a thing for himself. Well, should Canada not be a place where that can happen? 

Should it not free an individual Canadian to use the powers of judgement that he or she possesses, not constraining her when those judgements fail to advance (or pointedly evade) the purposes of some “superior” class of citizen (the establishment, the majority, those on “the right side of history”)? Canada has said Yes to all these questions. Being equally a human being, each person has an equal right to the pursuit of happiness. There must be some strip of the globe where a person can live and live together with others in his and her difference from those others. 

This has been and is our apple of gold and it is the very commitment that Lincoln had held so high: “the principle of ‘Liberty to all’,” he wrote, “the principle that clears the path for all, gives hope to all.”

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In 1867, as historians will tell you, Canadians did not come together to “realize this ideal” and “escape from domination.” The entities worrying about liberty were at that time not individuals, but the separate colonies invited into a confederation. Cartier’s proposal of ‘political nationality’ was an assurance that life in the provinces would not be meddled with by the new federal government (the Ontario case clearly shows no great haste to step aside for individual difference). But the principle had been announced. And for 150 years, the leaven has worked its way through the lump as the creators of the country envisioned. 

“Every real friend of liberty will agree with me,” Kingston Tory Richard Cartwright said in 1865, “that if we must erect safeguards, they should be … for the security of the individual than of the mass, and that our chiefest care must be to train the majority to respect the rights of the minority….” It is because of our strikingly diverse make-up that in 1867 Thomas D’Arcy McGee boasted that “this is the first Constitution ever given to a mixed people, in which the conscientious rights of the minority, are made a subject of formal guarantee, … a guarantee by which we have carried the principle of equal and reciprocal toleration a step farther in Canada, than it has yet been carried, in any other free government – American or European.”

Historian Janet Ajzenstat writes that at Confederation it was clear that on a wide range of social values “there was no consensus” among a people from different countries and with different backgrounds and the founders accordingly “refused to define the new nation in terms of social values.” 

This has been our fundamental commonality, as the history of our changing laws reveals. The Canadian who, amidst a Christian majority, was impressed by Darwin to give up Christianity was a person making sense of the world in a way he could not help but do, as was the Christian whose understanding of the cosmos came from Genesis. The same is true today. 

When a person says he cannot help but see things as he sees them (what can he change about his background and his experience?) he is describing a matter of ‘conscience’ according to the original meaning of this term, and it is laws against conscience (blasphemy laws, laws insensitive to the Sabbath of Jews, laws against homosexuality, etc.) that have steadily fallen from the books – at the bidding of Liberty, who loves the exercise of conscience, which is a badge of the citizen’s integrity.

Historian David Wilson writes that through this principle enshrined in our constitution by the architects of this country, Canadians “were entitled to the maximum of freedom in the exercise of their beliefs, provided that they rendered a minimum of obedience to the civil power.” But a century and a half later both of these things – freedom and obedience – are under direct attack. 

Obedience to civil power is relaxed by our leaders – in solidarity with righteous calls for social justice, because “to search for equality and justice” is a Canadian value. And freedom of conscience is taken away whenever the votes can be found to impose the spread of what is called the values of Canadians, as if those who do not hold them are not Canadians. In the very same manner that the Napanee judge imposed the values of a domineering culture, punishing a Canadian whose crime was to think freely. Aren’t those days gone? No. 

Disturbingly, conservatives are calling for more of this. Today we hear conservatives attacking the notion of liberty. They are not just lamenting its effects but attacking the very principle, the true basis of our unity and convivium. They are calling liberty a barrier to the good. At the very same time, liberalism itself is “changing before our eyes,” transforming into a “successor ideology” that has no patience with the lax “conviviality” of freedom. Liberty as a principle, the principle that defines Canada as a free country, has come under attack from defenders of the Good and seekers of social justice.

Thursday: Returning conservatives to their proper principles

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