Tuesday, August 07, 2007

More on the Confederation Debates

Actually, there's lots of great stuff in my Confederation Debates in the Province of Canada (put out in the sixties by McLelland and Stewart as part of the Carleton Library, which oldtimers will remember because all its titles had the same lamo-psychedelic cover design. You have to be careful not to confuse your Dominion Lands Policy from your Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt, Captive Among the Nootka) For instance, pretty much everyone now agrees with the opposition's substantive criticisms, although the government manages to get most of the yuks.

Those sensitive souls who dislike the compromises of principle in our recent minority Parliaments would have been struck dead with indignation if they had been around in the 1860s. The people's choice in Canada West was George Brown's Reform. Their dearest principle was "rep-by-pop": so long as English speaking Protestants received fewer seats per person than French Catholics, they were suffering under dire papist oppression, in constant danger of having their children forced to eat snails and figure out where "le stylo de ma tante" was located. Cartier's bleus, on the other hand, had swept Canada East warning that rep-by-pop was a plot by Anglos to destroy the canadien language, faith and legal system. Macdonald's Conservatives viewed Brown's Reformers as dangerous pro-Yankee radicals; the Reformers considered the Tories dissolute and corrupt. But in 1864, Brown, Cartier and Macdonald formed a coalition government together, leaving only the relatively moderate Quebec rouges on the outside.

So when the Coalition negotiated Confederation with the Maritimers, it was the rouge Antoine-Aimé Dorion and the maverick Tory Christopher Dunkin.

Dorion's criticised "the scheme" for being an ill-thought out railway subsidy plan and for not creating a real federation. He attacked the limited jurisdiction of the provincial governments and the federal power to disallow provincial legislation. Subsequently, the Privy Council answered the first criticism through its generous reading of the "property and civil rights" power. In an admission of the validity of Dorion's criticism, the disallowance power fell into disuse a few decades after Confederation, leaving Canada today closer to what Dorion would have wanted than what Macdonald and Brown thought they were creating.

Dunkin's criticisms have not been met yet. He pointed out that the Senate would provide no represenation for the provinces, and would instead be a patronage vehicle for the federal government:

The despotism of the Grand Turk has been said to have its constitutional check in a salutary fear of the bow-string: and there may prove to be something of the same sort here. But I confess I do not like the quasi-despotism of the Legislative Council [Senate] even though so temered. Representing no public opinion or real power of any kind, it may hurt the less; but it can never tend to good, and it can never last.

Pretty good, except for the last clause.

Dunkin's point about the difficulties of affirmative-action cabinet making still rings true:

I take it that no section of the Confederatin can well have less than one representative in the Cabinet. Prince Edward Island will wnat one; Newfoundland, one. On just the same principle upon which Lower Canada wants, for Federal ends, to have a proper representation in the Executive Council, on that same principle the minority populations in Lower Canada will want, and reasonably want, the same thing. We have three populations in Lower Canada -- the French Canadians, the Irish Catholics, and the British Protestants.[...] Well, if in a government of this Federal kind the different populations of Lower Canada are to feel that justice is done then, none of them are to be there ignored.[,,,] There has never been a time, I think, when there was not an Irish Catholic in the Cabinet. There have been times when the number of French Canadians has been less than four, and there was then much complaint. Six members -- four, one and one -- are just what you must give to please each section of Lower Canada. Well, sir, if there are to be six for Lower Canada, there must be six or seven for Upper Canada, and you cannot very well leave less than three each for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick...

But the main flaw in Confederation that Dunkin spots, and remains with us to this day, is the mixing up of federal and provincial finances, "Of course, in the mere view of making the scheme palatable, it was clever to make the Federal treasury pay for provincial expenditure; but the system that had need be established should bear testimony, not to cleverness, but to wisdom..."

Oh well, things could have been worse.

*The volume is apparently now back in print, but without the funky cover.

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