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The Founding of Canada: Part 3

A short history of Canadian Confederation

By Marco den OudenPublished 12 months ago 10 min read
The Fathers of Canadian Confederation

This third and final installment of my short history of Canadian Confederation concludes with a discussion of the influence of John Locke's ideas on the fathers of Confederation, contrary to the prevailing notion that Canada's roots are predominantly Tory. If you missed them, you can catch up with Part 1 and Part 2.

Moving ahead another 25 years we come to our next pivot points on the road to Canadian Confederation - the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864 and the constitutional debates in the various legislatures that led to the creation of Canada. All were spurred on by concern about the American Civil War raging south of the border. That bloody conflict left more war dead than all of America’s other military adventures combined.

The conferences were a bi-partisan affair. Both Tories and Liberals were represented. As Janet Ajzenstat writes in The Canadian Founding,

  • "The Canadian Tories, John A. Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier, led a delegation that included their one-time foe and former leader of the Liberal Party, George Brown, as well as Oliver Mowatt, soon to become the staunchly Liberal premier of Ontario." (68)

J.H. Gray

Prince Edward Island’s J.H. Gray remarked

  • "Confederation is a matter calculated to affect the interests and welfare of every subject in British North America irrespective of party, race or faith; and consequently, to divest it as much as possible from a party question, three members of the government, three members of the opposition, and one independent member of this house were appointed to proceed to Quebec as delegates." (Canada’s Founding Debates 398, cited in Ajzenstat 2007 68)

Thomas d'Arcy McGee

Thomas d'Arcy McGee noted

  • "[This] is a miraculous and wonderful circumstance, that men at the head of government in five separate provinces, and men at the head of parties opposing them, all agreed at the same time to sink party party differences for the good of all, at the risk of having their motives misunderstood, from associating together for the purpose of bringing about this result." (ibid 429, cited in Ajzenstat 2007 68)

It was not perfect, of course. Ajzenstat notes the absence of the Rouges (the party of Louis-Joseph Papineau who led the Lower Canada Rebellion in 1837), the Acadians, and aboriginals.

Nevertheless, Ajzenstat argues, this did not impede the participants from creating a parliamentary system that guarantees the rights of all. A system based on inclusiveness that would enable this inclusiveness to expand and increase over time, enabling the expansion of the franchise and the evolution of new political parties. She quotes John A. Macdonald:

  • "It is only in countries like England, enjoying constitutional liberty, and safe from the tyranny of a single despot or of an unbridled democracy, that the rights of minorities are regarded." (ibid 206, cited in Ajzenstat 2007 72)
John A. Macdonald

In The Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament, Janet Ajzenstat notes that there are two aspects to the philosophy of John Locke. One is the social philosopher and the other is “the ‘parliamentary’ Locke - the John Locke who describes and defends the English parliamentary form of government.” (7) It is this John Locke who proved influential in the framing of Canada’s constitution. And the hallmark of this aspect of Locke is consent.

  • "The Liberty of Man, in Society is to be under no other Legislative Power, but that established by consent." (Locke 1690)

Ajzenstat argues that the founding fathers were not just the attendees at the constitutional conferences, but also the members of the various legislatures who ratified the agreements. And she argues that consent of the governed was an integral element of those debates.

She argues that the essence of the Lockean view of parliament rests on three things: popular sovereignty, parliamentary sovereignty, and the rule of law. She argues that the creation of the federation would define a nation.

  • "The national Legislature would give the people of British North America, who had formerly identified themselves as citizens or subjects of the individual provinces, a sense of belonging to both province and the larger country: that is, it would give them what we now call an “identity.”"(Ajzenstat 2007 8)

She goes on to say that “they intended for this identity to reflect Locke’s teaching on human rights and equality.” (8) She distinguishes between “cultural” identity and “civic” identity. The problem today is that people tend to think in terms of “cultural” identity, but what made the Canadian nation, what inspired the fathers of Confederation was a sense of “civic” identity. She compares this to Charles Taylor’s contrasting of “social values” and “political values.” Civic identity is based on political values.

Civic values set the rules of the game. Incidental politics reflects current cultural values. There is no consensus on cultural identity, she avers. “When we try to define ourselves in terms of cultural identity and social values, we do not find sufficient ground to call ourselves one people, a nation.” (13) But the civic values remain constant. Individual rights, rule of law, popular sovereignty, and parliamentary sovereignty.

The early chapters are peppered with quotes to this effect. Here are a few choice ones.

On popular sovereignty

  • [T]he people [are] the only rightful source of all political power. (James O’Halloran, Canadian Legislative Assembly, 8 March 1865)
  • The principle which lies at the foundation of our constitution is that which declares the people to be the source of political power. (William Lawrence, Nova Scotia House of Assembly, 17 April 1866)
  • [The] only way in which the constitution of a free, intelligent, and independent people can be changed at all is by revolution or the consent of the people. (William Gilbert, New Brunswick Assembly, 26 March 1866)

David Christie

  • [There are] some points of variance [between the British Constitution and the American] but the same great principle is the basis of both - that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the unalienable rights of man, and that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. (David Christie, Canadian Legislative Assembly, 15 February 1865)

If that quote sounds familiar it is because it is almost a direct quote from the American Declaration of Independence.

Ajzenstat argues that “without exception, the Fathers of Canadian Confederation and the legislators in the colonial parliaments and assemblies subscribed to the doctrine of popular sovereignty.” (27)

  • "Popular sovereignty encapsulates the most compelling political idea of modern times: the belief in human equality. It teaches that there are no natural kings and no natural slaves. Kings may rule but only with the sovereign people’s consent. One person may serve another but does not relinquish—indeed, cannot relinquish—the right to walk away from servitude. Freedom and equality are the human inheritance, our natural right." (26)

On human rights

Ajzenstat notes that while the founders did not draw up a Bill of Rights as the Americans did, we know enough from the debates that “most or all believed that security for the individual—the right to life, liberty and property…—is Parliament’s original and primary purpose.” (50) Here are a few quotes:

  • Every possible precaution for the preservation of their lives, their properties, and their liberties had been taken. Every principle of the British Constitution , which tends towards the preservation of these [principles], was to be found in their new constitution. (F.B.T. Carter, Newfoundland House of Assembly, 23 February 1869)

  • I am a free man. I claim the rights and attributes of a free man, speaking in the presence of a British free assembly. I have the right to criticize the judgement they have formed and an equal right to give expression to my own. (Stewart Campbell, Nova Scotia House of Assembly, 17 April 1866)

  • I conceive it to be our duty to return to the people intact the rights and the constitution with which we were entrusted, and which we were bound to uphold when we were elected to this house. (John Longworth, P.E.I. House of Assembly, 1 March 1865)

  • We will enjoy here that which is the great test of constitutional freedom - we will have the rights of the minority respected. In all countries the rights of the majority take care of themselves, but it is only in countries like England, enjoying constitutional liberty, and safe from the tyranny of a single despot or of an unbridled democracy, that the rights of minorities are regarded. (John A. Macdonald, Canadian Legislative Assembly, 13 March 1865)

The idea that the rules of the game, not the incidental politics of the day, are what is important in understanding Canada is well reflected in this quote from former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff:

  • What we need is a reinvigoration of the institutions of freedom - government by checks and balances, by open forms of adversarial justification in courts, legislatures and the press. Reinvigoration means simply that our institutions need to do the job that they were designed to do. We need to understand what they are there for, trust in them, and make them work." (cited in Ajzenstat 2007 20)

Michael Ignatieff

Ajzenstat’s thesis is that the founding fathers “were John Locke’s disciples, students of modernity’s most ardent opponent of elitism and oligarchy, and they left us a constitution that embraces liberty and equality for all.” (xvi)

The essence of Canadian democracy is not any particular political values, left, right, or centre, but the rules of the game. Parliamentary democracy is what defines our country. This is a system with certain rights guaranteed by the state and a market economy, but which also allows for some social spending and regulation.

The guaranteed rights include the right to have a say in how government is run through the electoral process, and a right to freely express and debate opinion. The areas of social spending and regulation are areas that are constantly open to debate. Hence government swings like a pendulum on these parameters, with the electorate reining in government when it becomes too disconnected from what the people want. It is somewhat like a homeostatic mechanism, a political thermostat if you will. If government drifts too far left, the people rein it in and bring it back in the other direction. If it swings too far right, the people again rein it in and bring it back. In Canada, in particular, as political theorist Gad Horowitz has noted, the tendency of government, and indeed, of all parties, is to drift towards the center.

But the glue that holds it all together is the parliamentary system and the people's confidence in it. As Michael Ignatieff noted, we need to constantly reinvigorate the institutions of freedom. "Reinvigoration means simply that our institutions need to do the job that they were designed to do. We need to understand what they are there for, trust in them, and make them work."

Works Cited

Ajzenstat, Janet, The Once and Future Canadian Democracy: An Essay in Political Thought, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003.

Ajzenstat, Janet, The Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007.

Ajzenstat, Janet et al (editors), Canada's Founding Debates, Stoddart 1999, reprint University of Toronto Press 2003. (cited in Ajzenstat 2003 and 2007)

Berton, Pierre, The Invasion of Canada 1812-1813, McClelland and Stewart, 1980.

Berton, Pierre, Flames Across the Border 1813-1814, McClelland and Stewart, 1981

Canadian Primary Resources in the Classroom, "Rebellions of 1837", The Begbie Contest Society

Ignatieff, Michael, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, Penguin Group, 2004. (cited in Ajzenstat 2007)

Lambton, John George (Lord Durham), Report on the Affairs of British North America, 1839 (cited in Ajzenstat 2003 and 2007)

Leacock, Stephen, Canada: The Foundations of Its Future, The House of Seagram, 1941.

Locke, John, Second Treatise of Government, 1690 (cited in Ajzenstat 2007)

Mackenzie, William Lyon, Editorial, Colonial Advocate, July 14, 1831 (cited in "Rebellions of 1837" at Canadian Primary Sources in the Classroom)

Mackenzie, William Lyon, Editorial, Patrick Swift's Almanac, 1834 (cited in "Rebellions of 1837" at Canadian Primary Sources in the Classroom)

Ryerson, Egerton, The Story of My Life, Toronto: William Briggs, 1884 (cited in "Rebellions of 1837" at Canadian Primary Sources in the Classroom)

Ryerson, Stanley, 1837 The Birth of Canadian Democracy, Francis White Publishers, 1950. (cited in "Rebellions of 1837" at Canadian Primary Sources in the Classroom)

Taylor, Charles, "Shared and Divergent Values," in Guy Laforest, ed., Reconciling the Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993 (cited in Ajzenstat 2007)

Links of Interest


About the Creator

Marco den Ouden

Marco is the published author of two books on investing in the stock market. Since retiring in 2014 after forty years in broadcast journalism, Marco has become an avid blogger on philosophy, travel, and music He also writes short stories.

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