Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Canada: What's the point?

Dana of the Galloping Beaver starts her summer vacation by asking what the point of Canada is. Does the Great Dominion have a telos? Is our (and especially the ROC's) identity merely negative - a not-America not-Quebec? The source of identity can't be a set of recent, and still-controversial, social programs -- if so, those who oppose these programs aren't Canadian, and that line of demagogy didn't really work in the last federal election. And it can't be a blood-and-soil ethnic particularism, because that's just icky. So what is it?

It isn't immediately obvious that a country should have a point. John Rawls thought that a liberal state was precisely one that left goals (the point) up to the people in it, and confined itself to a thin political justice.

Subsidiary theorists would accept that every organization or community, including the federal government and Canada, has to have a purpose, but that its purpose should be confined to those things smaller organizations and communities can't effectively do themselves. Subsidiarity makes a lot of sense of federations, and of Canada. So if we ask what the *point* of the federal government is, then we look at its appropriate constitutional responsibilities -- defence, foreign affairs, maintenance of a common market and common citizenship. These things have a point because we need them. "Globalization" is no substitute for an actual organization.

But Dana's not really asking about the federal government -- she's asking about the Canadian community. What is its point?

Dana's anxiety speaks to several generations of post-WWII English Canadians. It didn't speak to the Victorians who set this thing up. Some of their contemporaries weren't sure about whether the Dominion was a good idea -- Nova Scotia quickly elected secessionists. Others fought to maintain a direct relationship with London for their provinces. But everyone knew what the point was. Canada was to be the British Empire in North America -- and a model for the future development of British colonies elsewhere. The British Empire hardly lacked a point -- it was the fulfillment of the destiny of the Anglo-Saxon people. And Canada was the demonstration that this could be done without sacrificing either freedom or the tie to the Crown.

We retain the heritage of common law, free markets (albeit modified by the sulky collectivism of the English working class -- an influence unfelt in the USA), professional sports, culinary incompetence and ironic reserve. We have the Scottish-North American egalitarianism of manners. And we have Protestantism in its decayed state -- divided between sentimental fundamentalism and soggy liberalism.

But we were always British North Americans. We are in a particular place, and that place gives us identity. In addition to blood (whether literal or figurative), we have soil -- hardened, frozen soil, a land with unfamiliar gods, a land only the stupidest politician can patronize with kitschy sentiment. Dana fails to see the achievement implicit in the possibility of ownership of property in multiple jurisdictions, but the Pithlord is prepared to admire the surveyors and developers who imposed Torrens on an unimaginably vast wasteland. A network of rail and roads and electrical lines which neither defeated the land (as in Britain or in the US) nor was defeated by it.

And they left us a unique system of Parliamentary federalism. The model for Australia and India, and maybe Nigeria and Iraq. A federal union under the Crown with a constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom had never been tried before, and some details still need to be nailed down. The Pithlord doesn't like to think of himself as a national chauvinist, but he cannot imagine a better system.

Still, none of this is a point, Dana will say. None of it explains why we should undergo the undoubted inconvenience of showing passports at the border. None of it speaks against the undoubted requirement of the religion of progress that all borders be dismantled.

To this, I am willing to give Grant's answer: the point of all these particularistic loyalties -- to our province, our ethnicity, to our country -- is the obstacle in places in the way of the religion of progress. A stubborn loyalty to Canada complicates the coming of the homogeneous, abstract Empire just a bit, sticks a little grit in the machine.


MSS said...

Well, I could be terribly biased by my own professional interests, but I certainly accept the notion that the great Canadian contribution is parliamentary federalism. However, I daresay the Australians subsequently created the paradigmatic example (for better or worse).

And you might not want to claim Nigeria as one of the disciples of the model. It failed miserably, so they swtiched to presidential federalism (more like the US). Of course, that has been something less than a smashing success, too.

PithLord said...