Canada’s prin­ci­pled found­ing

National Post (Latest Edition) - - ISSUES & IDEAS - Waller R. Newell

As we cel­e­brate the sesqui­cen­ten­nial of Canada’s found­ing, we need to re­sist the still preva­lent no­tion that Con­fed­er­a­tion was noth­ing but a “deal” among power bro­kers and that, un­like the Amer­i­can found­ing, it had no philo­soph­i­cal prin­ci­ples. Be­cause our found­ing took place in the Vic­to­rian age, as op­posed to the En­light­en­ment era when the Amer­i­can found­ing took place, the prin­ci­ples be­hind our founders’ de­bate were not non- ex­is­tent, merely dif­fer­ent.

To un­der­stand this, we have to see the Con­fed­er­a­tion de­bates as un­fold­ing against the back­drop of a new way of look­ing at so­ci­ety that was spread­ing steadily in Great Bri­tain and Europe, in­tel­lec­tual sources to which our founders al­ways paid more at­ten­tion than the views of the repub­lic to the south. As ex­plored in Karl Polanyi’s clas­sic, The Great Trans­for­ma­tion, the 19th cen­tury saw Bri­tain’s and Europe’s re­treat from the lais­sez- faire in­di­vid­u­al­ism and cap­i­tal­ism pro­moted by the En­light­en­ment, and the de­vel­op­ment of an or­ganic view of so­ci­ety — in some ways a re­turn to pre- mod­ern tra­di­tion — in which each nation was seen as ex­plor­ing its own his­tor­i­cal path­way. In­di­vid­ual lib­er­ties were still im­por­tant. But they were no longer seen as ab­so­lutes, as they had been by the Amer­i­can founders, steeped as they were in the clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism of Locke.

The new view of pol­i­tics made an early ap­pear­ance in the works of Ed­mund Burke, who had a ma­jor im­pact on our founders’ think­ing. Ac­cord­ing to Burke, the pure rights of the in­di­vid­ual are “meta­phys­i­cal,” and there­fore com­pletely im­prac­ti­cal. We have to un­der­stand that, in re­al­ity, in­di­vid­ual lib­erty ex­ists only in the his­tor­i­cal con­text of a given peo­ple, and their pur­suit of free­dom must be shaped and lim­ited by those his­tor­i­cal prece­dents. This new view of so­ci­ety as an or­ganic whole emerged in the 19th cen­tury through the “Tory democ­racy” of Dis­raeli, the pa­ter­nal­ist con­ser­vatism of Bismarck, and in the so­cial demo­cratic par­ties of the left. Th­ese are the cur­rents that in­formed the Cana­dian founders, who saw no conf l i ct be­tween i ndi­vid­ual lib­erty and the re­straint of his­tor­i­cal prece­dent and a sense of duty to the com­mu­nal good, in­formed by re­li­gious faith.

In sup­port­ing the new con­sti­tu­tion, Ge­orge-Eti­enne Cartier ar­gued that “na­tions were now formed by the ag­glom­er­a­tion of com­mu­ni­ties hav­ing kin­dred in­ter­ests and sym­pa­thies … Dis­sim­i­lar­ity ap­peared to be the or­der of the phys­i­cal world and of the moral world, as well as of the po­lit­i­cal world.” This re­spect for dis­tinct na­tion­al­i­ties would, Hec­tor- Louis Langevin as­sured his fel­low French- Cana­di­ans, pre­vent them from be­ing as­sim­i­lated like the van­ish­ing French of Louisiana. He “viewed the diver­sity of races in this way: we were of dif­fer­ent races, not for the pur­pose of war­ring against each other, but in or­der to com­pete and em­u­late for the gen­eral wel­fare.” British and French Cana­di­ans “were placed like great fam­i­lies be­side each other.”

Ac­cord­ing t o Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Canada would avoid t he s ocial at­om­iza­tion and ex­ces­sive in­di­vid­u­al­ism of the United States be­cause it was premised on the “di­vine or­der of so­ci­ety” ver­sus “the the­ory of its hu­man ori­gin, up­held by Jef­fer­son, Paine, Rousseau and John Locke.” A true Burkean, McGee re­lied “on Na­ture and Rev­e­la­tion against the lev­el­ling and sys­tem- mon­ger­ing of the Amer­i­cans.” Ge­orge Brown was prob­a­bly the most un­abashed cham­pion of free mar­kets among our founders. But even he re­garded eco­nomic expansion as a “great duty en­trusted to” Cana­di­ans, a civ­i­liz­ing mis­sion that would “main­tain lib­erty, jus­tice and Chris­tian­ity through­out the land” — a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally Vic­to­rian moral stance on com­merce.

Ul­ti­mately, the Vic­to­rian view of so­ci­ety in the Con­fed­er­a­tion de­bates is not en­tirely at odds with the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of our found­ing as a “deal” in which the var­i­ous stake­hold­ers ad­vanced po­si­tions that were ei­ther not fully un­der­stood, or un­der­stood in a dif­fer­ent way, by the other side. For ex­am­ple, Brown’s de­sire to con­fine Quebec within its bor­ders so as to lib­er­ate the Protes­tant English-speak­ing ma­jor­ity of Up­per Canada to ex­pand west­ward played into the hands of Cartier and the French Cana­di­ans, who sought in this way to pre­serve their own re­li­gious and lin­guis­tic way of life within their prov­ince.

Sim­i­larly, while an­glo­phone lead­ers like John A. Mac­don­ald hap­pily ceded to Quebec its sovereignty over ed­u­ca­tion and s ocial wel­fare ( at the time, mainly re­li­gious ac­tiv­i­ties), con­vinced that th­ese pow­ers would count for next to noth­ing in the fed­eral sphere, in time they be­came over­whelm­ingly im­por­tant, and en­trenched the power of the prov­inces in a way that im­peded Mac­don­ald’s view that the new Do­min­ion would be a uni­tary fed­eral state where the prov­inces had lit­tle more power than mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

In other words, the Cana­dian polity did not emerge from the ap­pli­ca­tion of a ra­tio­nal blue­print — like Alexan­der Hamil­ton’s “new sci­ence of pol­i­tics” — but evolved in a hap­haz­ard, ad hoc, and bot­tom-up process, un­ex­pect­edly shaped by prece­dent and even by ac­ci­dent. Cana­di­ans con­tinue to view in­di­vid­ual lib­er­ties as de­voted to a com­mu­nal greater good, and they con­tinue to prize the au­ton­o­mous pow­ers of their prov­inces as a break against overzeal­ous centralization at the fed­eral level.

CANADA WAS PREMISED ON THE ‘DI­VINE OR­DER OF SO­CI­ETY.’

LI­BRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

Canada’s founders saw no con­flict be­tween in­di­vid­ual lib­erty and the re­straint of his­tor­i­cal prece­dent, and fos­tered a sense of duty to the com­mu­nal good, in­formed by re­li­gious faith.

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