Canada’s principled founding
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.’