Introduction: Transformation of an Unnatural Country
Abstract and Keywords
This book deals with the subjects and policies that depict the transformations that have occurred in the Canadian politics over the past half century. While Canada is not the only country that has experienced rapid and widespread changes in the recent decades, it is somewhat different. What sets Canada apart from other countries is the Canadian belief that Canada is not a natural country. Marked by extreme climate, immense area, sparse population, and a superpower neighbor, Canada has repeatedly felt vulnerable and has always strived for survival. This book deals partly with institutions and processes of the Canadian government and politics. Canadian government encompasses federal, provincial, and local governments. The subjects examined are Parliament, rights, constitution, cabinet, courts, Charter, political parties, federalism, elections, public opinion, and media. The rest of the text tackles aspects of Canadian demography, external relations, international trade, public policy areas, defense and security, and democratic reform.
More than sixty-five years ago, Bruce Hutchison, a leading Canadian journalist, wrote an early popular history of Canada. He called it The Unknown Country (Hutchison 1945). The adjective was well chosen. Although at the time a major contributor of personnel and material to the Allied cause and to ultimate victory, Canada had yet to establish in its own eyes, or in the eyes of others, an independent character, be it measured politically, economically, or culturally. It is customary to cite the Statute of Westminster, 1931, as marking Canada's constitutional coming of age. Under the terms of that British Act, Canada and other Dominions, such as Australia and New Zealand, achieved legislative autonomy in law, as they had for a long time—in fact, from the imperial Parliament. Depression and war delayed for a decade and a half peacetime assertion of Canada's maturity, and even then it took another decade and a half for the imperial legacy to exhaust itself.
The Suez debacle of 1956 revealed rather than precipitated the separation that had developed with the mother country. What at the most public level was a disagreement over foreign policy and military strategy, subjects that during the 1950s vestigially bound Canada to Great Britain, permeated Canada's sense of itself as well and drove home the realization that the British tie had unraveled. Harold Macmillan's (p. 4) metaphorical “wind of change” speech in 1960, although directed at events in Africa, was felt across the Atlantic. Canada's first Canadian-born governor general, Vincent Massey, was appointed in 1952. A strong anglophile, his autobiography, What's Past Is Prologue, appeared a decade later (Massey 1963). By then, such a prediction could hardly have been more inaccurate than when applied to the new Canada in the making.
The chapters in this book deal with subjects and policies that illustrate the transformation that has occurred in Canadian politics in the past half century. A list of some of the topics discussed makes the point: the Quiet Revolution in Quebec after 1960; the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, entrenched in the Constitution Act, 1982; the adoption of official bilingualism in 1969, of multiculturalism in 1971, the Medical Care Act (universal medicare) in 1966; the emergence of Aboriginal peoples from the shadows into the historical, legal, and political consciousness of nonAboriginal Canadians; a similar consciousness-raising in the South about the North and the Arctic; an appreciation of the central role that natural resources, particularly those located in western Canada, will play in the future prosperity and security of the country as a whole; the implications of global economic trends and communication technology on national integration; and the movement from peacekeeping in Cyprus and the Middle East four decades ago to defending the homeland against terrorists and fighting an armed conflict with escalating casualties in Afghanistan today.
Of course, Canada is not alone in experiencing rapid and widespread change in recent decades. What sets it apart from other nations, at the very least in the minds of Canadians themselves, is the belief that Canada is not a natural country. Extreme climate, immense area, sparse population, with a superpower as a neighbor—no wonder it feels vulnerable; no wonder a repeated theme of Canadian literature, in whatever language, is (in the title of Margaret Atwood's popular guide to Canadian literature) survival (Atwood 1972). As another Canadian intellectual, Northrop Frye, observed, Canada is “a country divided by … great stretches of wilderness, so that its frontier is a circumference rather than a boundary” (Falardeau 2004, 83). Here is why transportation (canals, railroads, highways, pipelines) and communication (radio, television, satellites) are so central to Canadian history. They annihilate distance and transcend divides, be they mountain ranges, oceanic straits, or linguistic differences. A simple way of visualizing Canada, and at the same time contrasting it to the United States, is to look at one's hand and to see the palm as the United States and the fingers as Canada, or, more accurately, Canada's pronounced regions set apart by geography or culture.
Canada is a small country by every measure, except size. Michael Hart (chapter 22), says much the same, only epigrammatically, when he writes that the Canadian reality is “too much geography and too little demography.” Although the population, more than thirty-three million in 2008, is small, it is more than double what it was in 1951. The signal features of the interrelationship of people and place are a population huddled along (that is, within 200 miles of) the U.S.–Canada boundary; overwhelmingly concentrated in the two large central provinces, and in a handful of (p. 5) regional centers, such as Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Quebec City, and Halifax; distributed very sparsely over the northern half of all provinces, except Prince Edward Island, and throughout the three northern territories—Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut; increasingly urbanized, as a result of both rural-to-urban migration everywhere and a vast influx of immigrants from overseas into metropolitan centers. In the prairie provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the total populations of which have grown very slowly, a large part of the urban migration is composed of Aboriginal peoples who have chosen to leave native reserves in the northern parts of the provinces and move to the city.
Canada's comparatively small population relative to its size is, for all practical purposes, made smaller still by linguistic and ethnic cleavages. Not only has postwar immigration diluted assumptions and priorities that once dominated English Canada, but, as Alain Noël demonstrates in chapter 6, the ambition of French-speaking Quebecers to assert mastery over affairs in the province of Quebec, seen, for example, in the promulgation of language laws to promote the use of French in the workplace—and a reciprocal desire on the part of the federal government to make Canada a linguistic home for speakers of English and of French—has had the effect of fragmenting the national cohesion the earlier English-language regime had implicitly imposed. In addition, and for reasons set out by David Newhouse and Yale Belanger in chapter 19, the concerns of Aboriginal peoples have now become the concerns of Canadian governments. Once again, the effect of this new perspective is to throw doubt upon earlier assumptions of cultural uniformity.
As opposed to some countries, such as Ireland perhaps, which might be said to have too much history, modern Canada could be said to have too many histories. At the very least, and in marked contrast to its Anglo-centric past, there is more than one master narrative. In chapter 17, Will Kymlicka describes and analyzes the kaleidoscopic nature of Canadian society, notes the speed with which this has occurred, and distinguishes Canada's situation from other countries—for example, Australia and the United States, with which Canada is usually compared. Possessed with this knowledge, the appeal of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (adopted in 1982) to individual Canadians from coast to coast to coast may be readily understood.
One of the most widely used history books of the postwar era was Colony to Nation (Lower 1949). The Whiggish-inspired title says it all—the course for Canadian evolution was encoded, predetermined. As the preceding paragraphs suggest, that assumption was not to be realized. Indeed, during the 1960s, conflicting interpretations of the word “nation” and nation (in French), roiled Canadian politics and threw into question, at least in some quarters, the belief in what Canada had become. What happened to alter that development, why, and with what consequences is a recurring theme of the chapters that follow. The authors do more than touch on that, however. If Canada is no longer Hutchison's “unknown country,” it is still not known terribly well abroad or at home. Although each of the thirty-five authors furthers understanding of some aspect of Canadian life, together their singular achievement is to paint a many-hued portrait of a country and people (or peoples) extravagantly blessed by providence.
The chapters in this book were written in 2007 and 2008. All were completed before the federal general election in October 2008. That election saw the Conservative government led by Stephen Harper returned to power, but still without a majority in the House of Commons. This was the third minority government (that is, a government that did not command support from a majority of members in the elected lower chamber of Parliament) in four years. The previous elections were in 2004 (which produced a Liberal minority government) and 2006. It is important to make this point, because with elections now occurring at less than two years apart, and in light of the time required to publish a volume such as this one, it is not feasible to have, even for a short time, current electoral data in the hands of the reader. If any consolation is to be had from this deprivation, it is that dramatic swings in voter support for Canadian political parties have not been evident during the past decade, and that returns of the last-but-one election are not confounded by the most recent returns.
Canadians may well have to accept the likelihood that minority, as opposed to majority, governments will be around for some time. Minority parliaments have become familiar fixtures on the political landscape in the recent past. From the time of Confederation in 1867 through to the end of 2008, Canada held forty federal elections. In the first ninety of those 141 years, only two elections (one in 1921 and the other in 1925) produced minority parliaments. Since 1957, however, fully 50% (nine of eighteen) of the federal elections have led to minority parliaments.
Apart from the Unionist government that brought Conservatives and some Liberals together during World War I, and in contrast to the great majority of European parliaments, Canada has had no experience of interparty coalition government at the federal level. It is as if, as Ken Carty and Bill Cross explain in chapter 11 (this volume), when minority parliaments are elected in Canada “the parties' basic instinct is to amplify and sharpen partisanship in the hope that the next election will return the system to ‘normal.’ ”
The likelihood of majority parliaments becoming the “norm,” at least for the foreseeable future, is slim. Canada's “national party” system, in which one party (typically the Liberals for most of the twentieth century) would regularly gain a measure of support and elect members of Parliament from all regions of the country, is now a thing of the past. Since the early 1990s, when the party system became deeply fractured in the wake of the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord, minority parliaments have become “the new norm” (Cross 2009). If this continues to be the case, the possibility of coalition governments composed of two or more parties cannot be ruled out in the years ahead.
This handbook is made up of twenty-eight chapters (eight of the chapters are co-authored). Sixteen of them deal with the institutions and processes of Canadian government and politics. In that last sentence, “Canadian” encompasses federal, provincial, and local governments. The subjects analyzed are Parliament, Constitution, courts, cabinet, Charter, federalism (fiscal as well as political), political parties, elections and voting, interest groups, public opinion, and the media. The remaining chapters discuss aspects of Canadian demography, Canada's external (p. 7) relations and international trade, four public policy areas (social, health, science, and the environment), defense and security, and, last, democratic reform.
By inference, a handbook makes large claims for completeness. Still, not every subject can be covered. To take as one example, no chapter has been explicitly devoted to the North—that is, that expanse encompassed by Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. If one purpose of this publication is to make known what is unknown, to fill in the blank spaces, so to speak, then omission of the North is a large void. Northern resources, security and defense, and governmental innovation (Nunavut, for instance, is an Aboriginal political unit where there are no political parties and where government is formed and run on the basis of consensus) are arguments for inclusion. The counterargument (that is, for exclusion) is that the northern territories comprise only three of Canada's fourteen jurisdictions, or, if a regional perspective is adopted, one of five or six regions of the country. Except for chapter 6, on Quebec, there are no chapters devoted to single provinces or regions. Admittedly, although it may be second best, the functionally oriented chapters that follow, such as those by Elinor Sloan (chapter 27) on security and defense, Michael Howlett and Sima Joshi-Koop (chapter 26) on the environment, or David Smith (chapter 5) on federalism, regionalism, and the provinces, incorporate issues relevant to the North to the same extent that they incorporate issues relevant to Atlantic Canada or British Columbia.
Two illustrations of topics denied their own chapter are monarchy and the Senate of Canada. One reason for omitting them is that to do otherwise would be to grant both more attention than they normally receive. Few Canadians pay attention to monarchy other than as a British institution. There is not now, nor has there ever been, strong republican sentiment in the country. Moreover, monarchical government has well served Canada's strong regionalism and cultural pluralism. At the same time, the Crown as the first principle of Canadian government, evident in the operation of Parliament, the bureaucracy, the courts, the provinces, and more, remains invisible (Smith 1995). In any case, absence of a separate chapter in no way ignores the Crown's presence in Canadian public life, as such chapters as those devoted to the Constitution (chapter 3); Parliament and legislatures (chapter 9); and first ministers, cabinet, and public service (chapter 10) demonstrate. It is also a feature of chapter 28, on democratic reform, for opposition increasingly expressed to prime ministerial power is in reality often opposition to the prime minister's exercise of prerogative power inherent in the Crown. This is evident when, in the absence of parliamentary consent or even consultation, appointments are made by the governor general on advice of the prime minister; when the government unilaterally makes foreign policy decisions, including the deployment of troops abroad; and when the prime minister on his own initiative advises the governor general to dissolve or summon Parliament.
Like Mark Twain's aphorism about the weather, there is a tradition in Canada of talking about Senate reform but never actually doing it. To be more precise, within the political and academic classes, there is perennial discussion of the topic, which on occasion produces some concrete proposals, but nothing more than that. (p. 8) Between them, Paul Thomas (chapter 9) and Leslie Seidle (chapter 28) explore the options for reform. These range from making the upper chamber a House of the Provinces, the members of which would be selected by a variety of methods to promote its representative capacity, to keep it much as it is except for introducing terms in place of appointment until age seventy-five. In other words, the proposals run the gamut from the megaconstitutional to the minimalist. It is the plethora of options on offer and the lack of agreement on any one of them that disqualify the Senate from having its own chapter in this book. There is no agreement in Canada on the form of an improved upper house, because there is no agreement on the function such a body should play. Until there is a consensus on the role of the Senate in Canada's Parliament and in the federation, reform of the Senate will remain a parlor or seminar pastime.
The criterion of choice for the policy chapters needs to be specified. More cryptically, the question is: Why these policy subjects and not others? For instance, at one time it was not possible to talk about public policy in Canada and not mention agriculture. Grain was the country's major export, the fourth in a succession of staple goods—the earlier ones had been fish, fur, and timber. The requirements of the grain industry determined the location of rail lines and, in turn, the settlement of the prairie provinces. More than that, grain was the crop for which the collection and transportation to ports influenced the growth of Vancouver and the modernization of the St. Lawrence Seaway. It is important to note that compared with other grain-producing countries of the world, all of which have year-round, warm-water ports available to them, Canada's crop must be hauled 1,000 or 2,000 miles to port, of which only those in British Columbia are open all year. James G. Gardiner, a former federal minister of agriculture, once told the Montreal Board of Trade that had it not been for western grain, which passed down river en route to Europe, that city would still be the Indian settlement of Hochelaga. That economy, just as an Anglo-centric Canada that once looked to Great Britain for cultural and political cues, now seems as if it were from another country. Although important, grain and farming in general have declined in political significance and as a share of the gross domestic product, along with the decline in the country's rural population. One index of that decline is the virtual absence of any reference to agriculture-related topics in the general election campaigns of recent decades.
One exception to this statement is the high-profile debate that surrounds the subject of plant biotechnology as it concerns genetically modified crops and foods. Canada remains one of the world's major exporters of food. The Canadian government has taken a lead role in the search for improved quality and quantity of food exports. Here is the source of its interest in genetically modified foods. At the same time, it is highly sensitive to critiques to plant biotechnology coming from potential purchasers abroad. In its examination of this debate, and other science-related subjects such as reproductive technologies, Grace Skogstad's chapter 25 demonstrates the breadth of change that has transpired in agriculture from a time when the popular image of that industry was of the man and the plow, or even the combine. It may be an exaggeration to say that, except for uncertain markets, the rhythm of (p. 9) agriculture was as predictable as the growing seasons; but it is only an exaggeration. As chapter 25 illustrates, the politics of agriculture and of other science-based activities today is about uncertainty, as defined by issues of risk, regulation, research, and public relations, where the public in question may as easily be non-Canadian as Canadian. This is a conclusion reinforced by the comparative analysis Éric Montpetit presents of interest groups and social movements in chapter 14.
Like agriculture, the timber and fishing industries no longer have a stronghold on national political or public attention. Although important to all Canadians, they are especially important for the well-being of specific provinces. Indeed, it is a feature of the Canadian economy that one or at most a few provincial governments act as powerful advocates and defenders of specific industries—examples include Ontario for automobile manufacturing or the financial sector, Alberta and Saskatchewan for the oil industry, and British Columbia for timber. Canada is a country that still depends upon its natural resources for a large measure of its prosperity. At the same time, a substantial proportion of that natural resource activity flows into international trade. From the perspective of this handbook, the activities of and challenges that confront these industries constitute a major dimension of international trade. For that reason, they are most appropriately discussed in Michael Hart's chapter (chapter 22) on trade and globalization.
Social policy, health care, science and technology, and the environment have been selected as specific policy areas for analysis in part because they are not jurisdictionally fixed. At one level they do have a strong provincial provenance. Property, education, and the provision of social service are matters that the Fathers of Confederation appear to have agreed should be provincial concerns. But over time, and especially during the postwar era, as an acceptance of national standards grew, they ceased to be so jurisdictionally privileged. This was made possible by the growth of the government's spending power. Increasingly, Ottawa designated funds in policy areas where it could not constitutionally legislate alone. In chapter 7, Harvey Lazar makes it abundantly clear that “substantial concurrency is achieved in areas of provincial legislative competence by the federal government exercising its ‘spending power.’ ” It is through this mechanism that medicare, originally a program introduced by the provincial government of Saskatchewan, became a national program with national standards. The story of medicare, which Canadians repeatedly say is the most important service government provides them today, is discussed by Greg Marchildon in chapter 24.
A distinguishing feature of federalism is its capacity to enable one jurisdiction to try out institutional arrangements or processes different from those of other jurisdictions. James Bryce, then British ambassador to the United States, was one of the first to have noted more than a century ago in his classic study of American government that “federalism enables a people to try experiments in legislation and administration which could not be safely tried in a large centralized county” (Bryce 1891, 344). The transfederal diffusion of medicare in Canada is illustrative of Bryce's point, starting as it did in Saskatchewan then spreading to the federal level and all provinces. A more formal expression of Bryce's pronouncement is found in (p. 10) contemporary political science theory. The “diffusion of innovations” theory helps to explain why reforms instituted in one federal jurisdiction often make their way into others (Poel 1976).
Certainly this has been the case with a number of the laws governing the conduct of elections in Canada. Elisabeth Gidengil describes those reforms in chapter 13. Originally adopted by a single province, laws establishing independent electoral boundary commissions, election expenses, and party financing regulations, and granting the vote to women, First Nations people, and prison inmates, all started in one province and spread, with time, to others.
In each of the policy chapters, one theme that transcends the specific policy under review is the dispersion of policy effect or influence. Social policy, health care, science and technology, and the environment—these affect Canadians locally, provincially, federally, and internationally. Global travel, instant communication, the recategorization of issues—from localized pollution to global climate change—place in question the concept of boundaries, which is traditionally deemed essential in the study of federalism. There once was a time when, in the words of a much-quoted opinion of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council that dealt with the location of the treaty power under the Canadian constitution, provinces were compared with watertight compartments. The role of provincial Crown corporations, particularly in energy production, be it hydro- or thermal-based electricity, was premised on the idea of provincial priorities and development. Today, the integration of economic activity between and among provinces and with foreign countries, particularly the United States under the Canada–U.S. Free Trade Agreement and, more recently, Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement, renders the concept of hermetically sealed provinces antique.
It does more than this, however, for it conflicts with the thesis of Canada's being a “double federation” (chapter 5). Both the cultural dualism of English and French Canada on the one hand and the horizontal territorial federation of provinces on the other seem remote sometimes from the world Canadians inhabit at home—concentrated urbanized populations that are multiethnic in character—and poorly placed to prepare Canadians for the world they encounter abroad. That external world is discussed by both Jennifer Welsh in chapter 20 and Stephen Brooks in chapter 21. In some respects, federalism offers a distorted prism through which to examine modern Canada.
Canada is the world's original parliamentary federation. Few studies of federal systems ignore its experience. Readers of this handbook will be reminded a number of times in a number of contexts of Canada's complex federal arrangements. None is more distinctive than the unique combination of federalism, parliamentary government, and, since 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The chapters by James Kelly and Christopher Manfredi (chapter 3) and Janet Hiebert (chapter 4) discuss the interrelationship of the Constitution, the courts, and the Charter, as well as the strains and conflicts that exist among them. As an example, federal government is about the dispersal of powers; its force is centrifugal. By contrast, parliamentary government in any system patterned on the Westminster model (p. 11) is about the concentration of power; its force is centripetal. This last point is elaborated by Donald Savoie in chapter 10 in his assessment of first ministers, cabinet, and public service within the context of a system that combines parliamentary government with federalism. Add to these contradictory forces the Charter's guarantee of a range of rights to Canadians regardless of where they may live, and the tension that already exists between center and periphery, as a result of the workings of the first set of institutions, is compounded by the tension set up between citizen and governments.
Note the plural of that last word, for the Charter limits provincial governments as well as the federal government, and in that respect it is viewed by some critics as an enactment with an effect that undermines both federalism and parliamentary government. That is to say, provincial values and priorities are no argument for exceptionalism from the provisions of the Charter. Nor is parliamentary supremacy, to the extent that this concept is understood in a federation in which legislative powers are divided, in any way privileged. As Janet Hiebert notes in chapter 4, “at one time rights were thought of as protected by, not from, parliamentary sovereignty”; no longer is this true in Canada. Parliament and the government still have a role; they must see that proposed legislation conforms to the values enunciated by the Charter. They must do this or the courts will be called upon to intervene to see that the rights and freedoms specified in the Charter are upheld.
A study of legal and political science publications of the past twenty-five years—since the adoption of the Charter—reveals a continuing concern about the prejudicial effects of so-called judicial activism arising from Charter litigation on the health of parliamentary democracy (Mitchell et al. 2007). In its guarantees, the Charter recognizes certain classes of persons—the disabled and minority language groups are two examples. Distinguishing some Canadians over others in such a fundamental document as the Charter is only part of the complaint. Equally troubling from this perspective is that rights claims enfeeble politics and the traditional political process. No longer are disputes resolved through accommodation and compromise. Instead, courts deal with individual cases with a specific set of facts. According to this argument, the consequences are detrimental to healthy politics, which in this interpretation includes a vigorous federal system. James Kelly and Christopher Manfredi (chapter 3) explore in more detail the tension that has arisen following the introduction of a higher law into the Canadian Constitution.
Like other countries that share the Westminster system—Great Britain being the paramount case—the concept of “the Constitution” is ambiguous in Canada. For some, the practice of responsible government, whereby the cabinet or political executive must command the support of a majority in the House of Commons, is the essential feature of the Constitution. If that is the case, then an equally remarkable feature of the Canadian case is that nowhere in the principal written document, the Constitution Act, 1867 (originally entitled the British North America Act), is this practice described. It is almost totally based on convention, the understood but also usually unwritten practices of parliamentary government, transferred to the colonies that later became Canada. The 1867 Act concerns itself largely with the (p. 12) structure and terms of Confederation. As Andrew Sancton notes in chapter 8, this focus on federal and provincial worlds confined institutions as central to Canadian life as those of local government to an extraconstitutional (and vulnerable) existence.
This book is not simply a study of public policies; or of legislative, executive, and judicial institutions; or of the Constitution and Constitution making; or of electoral and political practices. However unintentionally, it is also testament to the scope of consultative processes in Canada, of which one type stands out: the Royal Commission of Inquiry. Federal and provincial governments have turned to Royal Commissions countless times to investigate important questions of public policy, to pave the way for major policy changes, to gauge public opinion, and to lay out courses of action for possible government implementation.
Appointed under executive (which is to say, cabinet) order, commissions of inquiry have enabled governments of all stripes to seek policy advice from experts and the public. The range of subjects they have been assigned at the federal level is impressive, as is obvious from the commissions alluded to in chapters by Peter Russell (chapter 2), David Smith (chapter 5), Alain Noël (chapter 6), Paul Thomas (chapter 9), Stuart Soroka and Christopher Wlezien (chapter 15), Will Kymlicka (chapter 17), Brenda O'Neill and Lisa Young (chapter 18), David Newhouse and Yale Belanger (chapter 19), Jane Jenson (chapter 23), Greg Marchildon (chapter 24), Grace Skogstad (chapter 25), Elinor Sloan (chapter 27), and Leslie Seidle (chapter 28).
Collectively, these authors draw our attention to several federal Royal Commissions whose ambitious reports, in many instances, profoundly influenced public policies and public opinion in Canada. Among them are inquiries whose very title captures a turning point in Canadian history: Dominion–Provincial Relations (1940); National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (1951); Health Services (1964); Status of Women (1967); Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1969); Newspapers (1981); National Security and Intelligence (1981); Economic Union and Development Prospects (1985); Reproductive Technologies (1989); Electoral Reform and Party Financing (1991); and Aboriginal Peoples (1996).
Not only have Royal Commission recommendations often shaped subsequent public policy, but the comprehensive research tasks they have assigned to academicians and other experts have led to the publication of many invaluable and, in some cases, timeless studies in their respective field (Wherrett 2008). One of the contributors to this book, Jane Jenson, assigns in a separate article a significant and positive role to Canadian Royal Commissions. Established often in response to crises or uncertainties about the direction that public policy should take, commissions have a demonstrated potential to generate “new representations of history, of the present community, and of available futures that both educate and may very well empower” (Jenson 1994, 48).
As consequential as Royal Commissions were in ushering in a number of nation-building initiatives (ranging from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Canada Council, to medicare and the Canada–U.S. Free Trade Agreement), they have clearly fallen out of favor. Prime Minister Trudeau (1968–1979, 1980–1984) (p. 13) appointed forty-five Royal Commissions (quite possibly a record number); Prime Minister Mulroney (1984–1993), sixteen. But in the fifteen-year period between 1993, when Jean Chrétien's Liberals came to office, and the reelection of the Harper Conservatives in 2008, only seven commissions were established. The decrease is possibly explained by the obvious fact that few “megatopics” were left to be explored after the spate of inquiries in the period after the Great Depression and the end of World War II.
But more plausibly, the explanation lies in a different direction. For one thing, the mechanism for consulting the public over vital issues of policy has moved from the confines of commission hearings and commission-generated surveys to the ballot box. Referendums were at one time extremely rare in Canada. This has not been the case in the past two decades. Referendums have been held recently on a variety of issues and have, in many instances, generated widespread public interest and citizen participation levels that exceeded those of general elections. Their subjects have been diverse: a restructuring of the country's Constitution (the Charlottetown Accord, 1992), Quebec's secession from Canada (1995), First Nations Treaty Rights in British Columbia (2002), secular and parochial schools in Newfoundland and Labrador (1995 and 1997), video lottery terminals in New Brunswick (2001), and replacement of the plurality vote with some variant of proportional representation (British Columbia, 2005; Prince Edward Island, 2005; and Ontario, 2007).
Two contrasting approaches to public consultations have also defined the shift away from Royal Commissions of the past decade and a half. On the one hand, citizens' assemblies (described by Leslie Seidle in chapter 28) have been convened in both British Columbia and Ontario for the purposes of studying the electoral system and recommending, if deemed appropriate, its replacement with another method of voting.
On the other hand, it is conceivable, at least at the federal level, that the unquestioned concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Office in the past fifteen years or so has dampened the enthusiasm of senior political officials for Royal Commissions, in that they could well fear forfeiting control of an issue to an extraparliamentary consultative body. In their place, carefully structured focus groups and frequent government-sponsored public opinion surveys have found favor. They have replaced the open public hearings of Royal Commissions, just as outside consultants contracted by government departments and agencies for targeted research and recommendations have replaced the commissioners once called to head public inquiries.
A cardinal characteristic of a Constitution based on convention is its malleability. That claim is supported by other chapters in this handbook by Ken Carty and Bill Cross (chapter 11), Richard Johnston (chapter 12), and Elisabeth Gidengil (chapter 13) on political parties, elections, voting, and the electoral system. That said, and certainly compared with the past, parties are now institutions that are statutorily recognized and subject both to parliamentary regulations and court rulings. In addition, the conduct of elections is strictly governed by laws relating to such matters as broadcasting and election expenses (Courtney 1978; 2004).
In chapter 15, Stuart Soroka and Christopher Wlezien raise the possibility that, in contrast to the separation of powers that is one of the defining features of American government, Canada's parliamentary system may well have become less responsive to public opinion over time. They quote political scientist James Mallory's observation that “the mass of citizenry is perhaps as far away from the real decisions of government as they were two hundred years ago, and the cabinet system provides strong institutional barriers to the development of more democratic ways of doing things” (Mallory 1974, 208).
If true, the “distance” between cabinet government and citizen might well be added to the list of social, political, and technological developments that collectively are said to have contributed to the decline in levels of political trust and to an increase in negative attitudes toward parties and government by Canadians. George Perlin (2007) has identified four possible reasons for the heightened level of popular discontent (what he labels the “malaise of Canadian democracy”) with politics and government in Canada. They are the changing post–World War II economic conditions prompted by the introduction of new technologies and the opening of domestic markets to international competition; a substantial decline in individual participation in networks of social groups, a phenomenon forcefully described in Robert Putnam's “bowling alone” thesis (Putnam 2000); the effect of television in portraying politics and election campaigns in a largely negative and image-focused style; and the increasingly ineffective and inconsequential role that political parties play in connecting citizens to government.
To these might be added, most markedly with respect to younger voters in Canada, declining levels of voter turnout over the past two decades. Canada, of course, is not alone in this regard. Ken Carty and Bill Cross (chapter 11) observe that comparative studies suggest that “younger, postmaterialist voters are rejecting traditional, hierarchical forms of political participation in favor of more direct, egalitarian methods.” But with respect to Canada in particular, Elisabeth Gidengil notes in chapter 13 that some critics of Canada's new voter registration system have put part of the blame for declining voter turnout on the replacement of door-to-door enumeration at election time with the so-called “permanent” voters' list. Although that criticism of the voter registration system remains to be empirically demonstrated, concerns have continued to be voiced about shifting the onus to register voters in Canada from the state to the electors themselves.
Earlier it was said that monarchy and the Senate were not given separate chapters in this handbook because to do so would grant them more attention than Canadians usually give them. When it comes to Quebec, that rationale has to be turned around. Not to give Quebec its own chapter would depreciate one of the most distinctive forces in Canada's history and politics. There is, in Canadian political and academic worlds, an unresolved debate regarding whether Quebec is a province like or unlike the other provinces. Those readers familiar with Canadian history will know that this question has never been far below the surface of the country's politics, and as several contributors to this volume note (see Alain Noël, chapter 6; Peter Russell, chapter 2; and Janet Hiebert, chapter 4), it has been very much “on the (p. 15) surface” in the past twenty-five years as political leaders have sought through megaconstitutional negotiations to make the Constitutional Accord of 1982—which Quebec governments continue to reject—acceptable to the province.
Much of the debate has centered on discussions, disagreements, and, at times, controversies over whether Quebec is a distinct society. The federal government's policy of official bilingualism and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms may be seen as initiatives to deprovincialize loyalties associated with claims to Quebec's distinctiveness that, when taken to their extreme, become arguments for separation. These positions are analyzed by the authors of the chapters noted previously, and are subjects of a wide body of literature elsewhere. As important as they are to the future of Canada as a united federation, there is, nonetheless, a disadvantage to focusing on these matters alone.
To begin with, Quebecers themselves see beyond the “national” question. The Quiet Revolution was about breaking with the past, about modernizing, about catching up with North American political practices—for example, with escaping from a patronage-ridden government and with secularizing Quebec society. As becomes clear from any close reading of recent Quebec history, the province not only “caught up,” but surpassed the practice of other jurisdictions when it came to instituting high standards in the conduct of elections, politics, and bureaucracy. Quebec society has changed, too. Nowhere is this more evident than in the role of women. It is worth recalling that the Quiet Revolution and the feminist revolution were coterminous. One might say the same of the transformation of youth culture.
This point is made because, rather than distinctiveness being the hallmark of Quebec, in these areas there is comparability with the rest of the country. Brenda O'Neill and Lisa Young (chapter 18) demonstrate this convergence of interests and concerns, as do Jane Jenson (chapter 23) and Greg Marchildon (chapter 24), but only to a degree. In the words of the title of chapter 23, what is at issue in matters of this kind is “Canada's social architecture.” This metaphor cries out for elaboration. In an introductory chapter, however, it is enough to say that the structure that is the Canadian federation has many rooms, some the same and some different. Similarity seems to be truer in the realm of policy than of politics.
One explanation for the contrast is suggested by Stuart Soroka and Christopher Wlezien. In chapter 15, they distinguish between the public's policy preferences and government's (federal and provincial) responsiveness. The degree of policy diffusion among provinces or between federal and provincial governments is a matter of some significance in a federation. So, too, is knowledge of the factors that are conducive to this diffusion. One answer offered by Jonathan Rose and Paul Nesbitt-Larking (chapter 16), is technology. For a variety of reasons, not least space—there is so much of it—Canadians have put a premium on the importance of communication. Although not unusual in the rest of the world, it is unexpected being located right next door to the United States for Canada to have established a public broadcasting network (radio in the 1930s and television in the 1950s). Private broadcasting plays a major role in the transmission of information and programs, but public (p. 16) broadcasting, in English (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and French (Radio-Canada), and in Aboriginal languages in parts of the country, testifies to the dual belief in the integrative capacity of transcontinental programming and in the requirement to recognize the place in this enterprise of the English and French languages.
The production of satellites is only the most recent technological development to influence the spread (and speed) of communication in Canada. Language is a sensitive issue in a bilingual country. Communication, especially its regulation, is equally sensitive. In the modern world of iPods, e-mail, and the Internet, technology may be viewed as either a boon or a bane. What it cannot be is dismissed. It is a truism that technology democratizes. The big question in Canada is whether, at the same time, it promotes similarity or difference. Returning to Quebec, it would seem that when the issue is policy, the effect is the first; when it is politics, the second.
Acknowledgment. We thank Ursula Acton for her administrative assistance in the preparation of this book.
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