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The Basic Premises of Democracy in Canada

(...or, "Canada, a State Born Out of Irish Terrorism and Loyalist Paranoia")


The modern Canadian federation is a geographical conglomeration of ten provinces, three territories, a federal government, and a myriad number of distinctive linguistic and cultural communities spread across six time zones and over a half-dozen ecological climates. Yet, despite this seeming over-abundance of differences, students of the Canadian polity have proven capable of identifying many key factors in the state’s cultural and institutional organs that help to narrate the story of the country's formation.

The puzzle lies in identifying which aspects of the Canadian ideal have been critical in the State’s historical development, and which among them persists in the present age and might therefor be expected to guide its development in the future. Clearly, this has not proven to be any mean feat; a century of study under the lens of formal political science has yielded a number of sometimes mutually exclusive hypotheses and theses - all of which seek to explain and predict the movements of that sometimes amorphous subject which is called Canada. Among those theses that have proven particularly influential among social-scientists are the so-called compact theories, Marxist theories of political economy, theories of political culture and of political ‘fragments’, and neo-institutionalism.

For the purposes of this essay, primary focus will be directed towards political fragment theory and neo-institutionalism, which together may be employed to sketch a picture of the historic interplay between the politically articulate groups Canada on the one hand, and the formal State institutions that attempts to both contend with and direct said groups on the other.

Political philosophy, political ideology

One of the difficulties that arises when attempting to write the story of the growth of a State is the necessity to separate the players of critical importance to the political interplay from those who are merely bit-actors.

On this matter, one may find very little agreement among scholars; while one author may contend that the state is a product of a compact between the two geographically separate linguistic groups of French and English Canada, others will argue that there are no fewer than eleven parties to the creation of the federation, a number reflecting the sum of provinces in addition to the federal government. With such fundamental disagreement among even the proponents of theories of political culture, how would one propose to choose amongst the likely candidates?

To come to a reasonable conclusion, one might take the approach of examining, not the "inputs" which effected the course of history, but by rather performing something of an hermenutical analysis of the eventual "output" of political deliberations. Through such an effort, one might identify those authors of the agenda who were successful in affecting the final script. In other words, the identities of the truly influential parties at each stage of the federation’s development may be made clear by determining the identities of those whom were crucial in constructing the rules of the game - rules laid-out in the British North America (BNA) Act of 1867, the Constitution Act of 1982, and the legal precedents created through the interpretation of those Acts over time; because of our special interest in the foundations of democracy in Canada, the BNA Act will be the focus of this essay.

Doing so, however, seemingly requires something a bit more than simply tabulating a roster of those individuals whom were personally involved in particular legislative or judicial processes. Should the BNA Act be understood to be a product sprung fully-formed from the combined brow of John A. MacDonald, Georges-Etienne Cartier, Louis Lafontaine, the Queen, and their respective councilors? Upon reflection, that would seem to be a folly, for the ideas that are contained in the Act could not be ascribed as being the wholly original creations of those individuals; clearly, like all human beings, the parties responsible for drafting the Act must have been influenced by an education – formal or informal – that counseled their own thoughts and beliefs. Furthermore, it would seem unlikely that such a diverse lot of individuals could be of such like mind as to have been in complete agreement as to the form the Act should take – for, as the saying goes, if one asks three men for suggestions on the best restaurant in a city, one will likely get five different answers.

The final draft of the BNA Act would thus reasonably seem to be nothing less than the final compromise between the holders of diverse philosophical outlooks, ideological beliefs, and power of influence over the drafting process. If such is the case, the question then becomes one of identifying the philosophical and ideological characteristics of the text and of attempting then to draw-up the genealogical lines that link those character traits to their progenitors. By repeating such a process with all of the tangible, living expressions – legal, conventional, and institutional – of the Canadian State in the context of an historical narrative, it should be eminently possible to name the premises of modern, Canadian politics and democracy.

Hermeneutics and the British North America Act of 1867

Enshrined in the body of the BNA Act are a good number of very explicit formulations which affect the character of the federation of Canada to this day.

Part III, for example, in conjunction with the preamble, clearly sets-up the basis for a centralized, quasi-absolutist character by drawing federal executive authority into an elite circle of individuals comprising the Queen, the cabinet, and an advisory privy council comprised of select members.

Part IV evinces both the elitist character of Part III through its institution of an appointed Senate, but also qualifies that trait through the establishment of a comparatively stronger, elected, representative body – the House of Commons.

Part VI, on the other hand, is primarily responsible for describing the bounds of federal and provincial government authority, and thereby institutionalizing the ideal of a shared sovereignty wherein legal jurisdiction – and thus recognized authority to control the rudders of action or in-action on issues of interest to the State – is clearly divided between the two ‘levels’ of government.

These three trends – division of power between federal and provincial governments, concentration of those powers within elite circles at both the federal and provincial levels, and the dilution and desemination of power through the institutionalization of representative bodies – are the common themes that are explicitly maintained throughout the body of the document. Of equal interest, though, are the implicit themes that are present in-between the written lines of the Act. One does not, for instance, find an explanation for the presumption of authority on the part of the Act’s drafters and legislators. If one were to look to the BNA Act and ask what basis that a small handful of individuals (most located not even on the North American continent, but sitting across the Atlantic Ocean in the British Parliament in London) had for presuming to authoritatively dictate the political future of the residents of British North America, one would not find clear answers. Such presumption of the absolutist authority of the Crown, filtered through its representative organs in Parliament, seems to be rather so deeply imbedded in the psyches of the aforementioned parties that it forms the tacit basis of their own self-conception, and this presumption on their part was seemingly bolstered by socio-cultural conventions of submission to traditional authorities that went largely unquestioned and unexamined. Thus, we may perceive that the philosophical basis for the authority of the elite parties involved in the drafting of the Act is their own confidence in the Divine authority of the Crown, embodied in the Queen, whose will is carried-out through the organs of government. Whether or not each party truly perceived in the body of the Queen the representative of God’s will on Earth, it is from this traditional convention that their authority was drawn.*

That said, we are then left to find any philosophical or ideological motivation for the institutionalization of representative organs - organs which would seem to be at odds with the absolutist traditions of the Crown. And indeed, to do so would require delving into both the deep past of England, but also into the comparatively contemporary Liberal movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. To read the BNA Act critically is to find the influence of the Magna Carta of 1215, through which the land-owning nobility of feudal England sought to limit the taxation powers of the Crown of King John for the seemingly pragmatic reason of avoiding their own financial ruin. The Magna Carta provided the legal basis not only for further representational movements within England in the future, but also the creation of Parliament and the parliamentary system itself – a system instituted in Canada with few adjustments.

The Magna Carta, however, did not seek to elaborate political representation to the depth of the individual citizen. Despite the historical fits and starts in the widening of the electoral franchise in England (later the United Kingdom), the basis for future political articulation and atomization was seemingly one of pure power politics – one could expect to become ‘enfranchised’ as a group or individual when one became sufficiently powerful to press for enfranchisment. If such practical, worldly roots had been left as the sole basis for the expansion of the franchise, it is very likely that the faces of the Parliament of the United Kingdom – and therefore of Canada, with its “Constitution similar in principle” to that of the former – would be quite different. The rise of Liberal philosophies and of Liberal ideology in the period of the Enlightenment gave rise to political pressures, both within the franchise and without, to expand its membership to include all adult citizens of good standing. The presence, thus, of such representational bodies of wide franchise as the House of Commons and the Provincial Assemblies within the BNA Act of 1867 seems indicative of the influence of Liberal writers such as John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Leonard Hobhouse, and particularly of Edmund Burke.*</strong>

Already then, we may see in the founding document of the Canadian federation the presence of an historic tension between principles of constitutional absolutism and Liberalism. Though the authors of those opposing viewpoints may not have all been present in body when the Act gained Assent from the Crown, their ideals were well represented in the minds and hearts of those responsible for it. The Hounourable (later Right Honourable) Sir John A. MacDonald captured the sentiment of the former viewpoint rather well in his letter to the Electors of the city of Kingston, (dated 10 June, 1861), when he stated: “The fratricidal conflict now unhappily raging in the United States shews us the superiority of our institutions, and of the principle on which they are based. Long may that principle – the Monarchial principle – prevail in this land. Let there be no ‘looking to Washington,’ as was threatened by a leading member of the opposition last session; but let the cry, with the moderate party, be “Canada United as One Province, and under One Soverign.”

MacDonald, in that same letter, also made clear his feelings on issues of the decentralization of government in a united BNA, when he stated (again in reference to the American Civil War, which he attributed to the strength of the America’s state governments): “The Government [of the by-then united provinces of Upper and Lower Canada] will not relax its exertions to effect a Confederation of the North American Provinces. We must however endeavour to take warning by the defects in the Constitution of the United States, which are now so painfully made manifest…”

Furthermore, there can be little doubt as to the essential political doctines of one particular and crucial Canadian political fragment - the American Loyalists - who were quite clear in spelling-out their "liberal but loyal" doctrine in the 1781 "Declaration of Independence of the Loyalists", in which they repudiated the revolutionaries of the Thirteen Colonies (the future United States of America), while simltaneously clinging to traditional British institutions of power and asserting the natural rights of man:"...We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain rights, that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...but that we do fimly believe and maintain “That the Royal Authority of the Crown of Great-Britain over us, and our connection with that kingdom ought to be preserved and maintained, and that we will zealously endeavour to support and maintain the same;” and in the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other, and to the crown and empire of Great-Britain, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."[1]

In addition to these ideals though, one might take notice of the presence of countervailing principles of cultural particularism and of regional power politics within the text of the Act, which reflect the political reality that existed at the time of its adoption[2]. Sections 91 through 95 are thus given exclusively to the task of setting the boundaries of provincial and federal legislation, with notable legal authority – particularly in matters of education and resource management – dwelling wholly or jointly with the provincial assemblies. As a result, and as some authours might note, the reoccurring theme of federal-provincial relations in Canada since Confederation has been one of horse-trading, negotiation, and sometimes outright bickering over the scope of provincial legal authority. While such interactions have often had the tone of worldly and jaded battles over resources and power, they have also reflected long-standing practices among regionally concentrated cultural minorities to assert themselves as distinctive communities vis-à-vis the Others that may surround them – both within and without of the federation. This has been most obviously been true of Quebec, with its local, French-speaking, Catholic majority population, but has also been the case of the then recently established American Loyalist populations of Upper Canada/Ontario and New Brunswick, the French-speaking Acadian population in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and the many tribes of the aboriginal First Nations and Innu community.

Thus, while a conservative, Tory-esque Liberalism in the same vein as Burke's dominates much of the tone of the BNA Act on the one hand, that highly centralizing ideal is very much gripped by another hand - one which pulls in the direction of regional independence. What is particularly striking about the Canadian example though, is not necessarily the conflict of ideologies and of interests that came into play during the formation of the country, but rather the fact that communalist fears were common among all of BNA’s political fragments, and that only the focus of those fears differed. While Quebec’s political, intellectual, and religious elite (and often one was also the other) feared that the colony may become an Anglicized, Protestant province like any other, the Loyalist elites, for instance, seem to have feared being absorbed into the largely more Lockean, republican, revolutionary State to the south[3] – the very same State that had forced their not-so-distant ancestors into exile following the outcome of the American Revolution.

The interplay between these competing fears, spiced as it is with dashes of political idealism, can generally be credited with the outcome with which history has been presented. Loyalist fears of absorption to the south would have made any solution which resulted in a State capable of defending its independence politically palatable, and these fears would dovetail with similar apprehensions among the French-speaking populace of Lower Canada. The difference between the two groups however, is that the later's elite had just as much to fear of absorption by the rest of BNA as it did of the United States of America, and this difference in perspective created conditions which would have made the willing participation of Quebec in a unitary, majoritarian state unpalatable in the extreme. The compromise, then, would be the federal solution – a division of sovereignty that would see the creation of a State formed of federated provinces unified enough to defend itself from the south, yet with bonds sufficiently loose so as to alleviate fears amongst any of its constituent provinces of being absorbed by one-another. As a result of all of this, any reading of the Act necessarily contains elements not only of Liberal idealism, but also of a political pragmatism strongly flavoured by fragment-oriented particularism[4].

As a result of this great compromise, the future development of Canada was very much guided along a course that guaranteed the open expression and continuation of any political fragment that was capable of establishing itself in a concentrated section of the colonies. Thus, together with the aforementioned Acadian, English & Scotch, French-Quebecois, and Loyalist fragments, immigration patterns from the time just prior to Confederation to the opening decade of the 20th century saw the rise of Metis fragments in what is present-day Manitoba, Ukranian fragments in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, a substantial Asian fragment in what is modern-day British Columbia, an American-immigrant fragment in Alberta, and a somewhat more dispersed Irish-Catholic fragment that settled primarily in the areas of Central and Eastern Canada. The poltical ramifications of the establishment of these fragments were not long in coming; the Red River Rebellion broke out in 1869, in what would eventually be Manitoba, largely as a result of ham-fisted political decisions that went against the wishes of the resident Metis and Francophone populations, and was followed in 1890 by the less-violent Manitoba Schools Question over the matter of the rights of Francophones to recieve a provincially-funded education in their mother tounge. In both cases, compromises were ultimately forced upon the Protestant, Anglo-centered pressure groups who had initiated the incidents through the sponsering of assimilationist government policies.

Similarly, the Ukranian fragments of the Praries are sometimes cited as the source of influence for the collectivist feelings that would eventually lead to the establishment of socialist and social-democratic movements such as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party, which, under the Honourable Tommy Douglous, succeeded to the provinical assembly and established a system of universal health-care in Saskatchwan in 1944. In contrast to these collectivist ideals however, one may compare them to the more "Lockean", strongly individualist Liberalism that typically finds strength in Alberta, and which finds its philosophical roots in its English, Scotch, and particularly American forebearers[5]. In the 21st century, the influence of this more "American" conception of democracy can be said to be demonstrating itself in such Western-Canadian movements as the call for the abolition of the monarchy, pressures for an elected (or non-existant) Upper House of Parliament, and the comparatively strong emphasis on individual rights and responsibilities versus those of groups or government - as demonstrated by the consistent election of parliamentary representatives with strong tax-reduction and privatization platforms.*(cite Grant as counter-example here)

Yet, inspite of the influences of these newly incorporated political fragments and provinces, the essential institutions of Canadian government underwent few changes between the time of their creation and the joining of Newfoundland to the federation in 1949 - save for the notable expansions in the voting frachise and the addition of new "seats" in the Upper and Lower Houses for the purpose of hosting representatives of newly added Provinces and Territories. In spite of the many voices that were added to the federal mix, the basic premises of Canadian democracy - with their mix of "Burkean" Liberalism, imperial traditions, and cultural particularism maintained through a system of shared soverignty - went largely unchallenged for over a century, and were in fact only subjected to serious debate, review, and reformulation in the 1970s through a process that culminated in the Constitution Act of 1982; a fact that is something of a testament to either the vigour or flexibility of Canada's institutional foundations.


[1] Van Tyne, Appendix I; oringinally published in The Royal Gazette, (New York), November 17, 1781.

[2] In particular, one may reference either the correspondence between the Honourable Charles Tupper and the Honourable John A. MacDonald as late as April 9th, 1865 for evidence of a political preference in New Brunswick for a union of the Maritime provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) that would exclude other provinces and territories of British North America, or the debates in the Legislative Assembly of Canada of 1865, particularly between the Honarable Antoine A. Dorion and the Honourable John A. MacDonald on the 3rd of February, sparked by the issue of minority education, or else the polemical address to the Legislative Council by the Honourable James George Currie on the 7th of February which referred to the previous Imperial act of uniting Upper and Lower Canada as having been “forced upon an unwilling people [of Lower Canada]” – a remark that found audible support among the French-speaking Council members whom were present.

[3] Debate in the Legislative Council on the 8th of February, 1865 in particular focuses on the subject of defense, with much banter given to the issue of the potential military strength of a united British North America, and the ever-present threat of invasion or hostile annexation of the provinces by the United States of America.

[4] The speech given by the Honourable Sir Etienne-Pascal Taché before the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada on the 3rd of February, 1865 is particularly characteristic of the position of the French, Lower-Canadian elite, which argued for Confederation on the basis of collective security against American hostility and the desire to preserve Lower Canada's distinctive culture and institutions against assimilation.

[5] The 1906 census of the population in particular reveals that of the 185 412 persons surveryed as inhabiting Alberta, 43 251 identified themselves as being of American origins and the majority of which seem to have emigrated to the region within the prior decade.


Bell, David V. J; "The roots of disunity : a study of Canadian political culture"; Toronto : Oxford University Press, 1992

Burke, Edmund, 1729-1797, ed. Elliott Robert Barkan; "On the American Revolution; selected speeches and letters"; New York, Harper & Row [1966]

Burke, Edmund, 1729-1797; "Reflections on the French revolution & other essays"; London, J. M. Dent & sons, ltd.; New York, E. P. Dutton & co. [1910]

Canada, Parliament of; "Parliament debates on the subject of the Confederation of the British North American provinces, 3rd session, 8th provincial Parliament of Canada"; Quebec, Hunter, Rose, Parliament Printers, 1865. Ottawa, King's Printer, 1951

Census Office of Canada; "Census of Canada: 1901"; S. E. Dawson, 1906

Census Office of Canada; "Census of Canada: 1907"; S. E. Dawson, 1906

Census Office of Canada; "Census of Canada: 1911"; C. H. Parmelee, 1913

Hobhouse, L. T. (Leonard Trelawney), 1864-1929; "Liberalism"; London, Williams and Norgate [n.d.]

Locke, John, 1632-1704, ed. Lester De Koster; "Locke's Second treatise of civil government : an essay concerning the true original, extent, and end of civil government : a contemporary selection"; Grand Rapids : W. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., c1978

Macdonald, John Alexander, Sir, 1815-1891 ed. J. K. Johnson; "The letters of Sir John A. Macdonald"; Ottawa : Public Archives of Canada, 1968-1969

Macdonald, John Alexander, Sir, 1815-1891 ed. J. K. Johnson; "Affectionately yours; the letters of Sir John A. Macdonald and his family."; Toronto : Macmillan of Canada, 1969

Savard A. and W. E. Playfair, trans.; "Quebec and confederation : a record of the debate of the Legislative Assembly of Quebec on the motion / proposed by J. N. Francoeur"; [Quebec : Quebec and Ottawa Press Galleries], 1918

Van Tyne, Claude Halstead, 1869-1930; "The loyalists in the American revolution"; Gloucester, Mass. : P. Smith, 1959, c1902

Waite, P.B., ed.; "The Confederation debates in the Province of Canada, 1865 : a selection edited and introduced by P.B. Waite."; Toronto : McClelland and Stewart, 1963


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
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Oct. 31st, 2011 06:55 pm (UTC)
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