A modest proposal: Abolish the House of Commons

Canada’s new government is making good on its promise to create an independent, non-partisan Senate and I couldn’t be happier.

Just yesterday, Prime Minister Trudeau announced his first seven appointees to the Upper Chamber: a veritable smorgasbord of the best and the brightest recommended, no less, by a non-partisan committee that chooses prospective Senators based on merit rather than party affiliation. What a novel concept!

According to the Ministry of Democratic Reform candidates for Senate appointments must meet several criteria, including:

  • Demonstrated a record of achievement and leadership in community service or professional expertise.
  • Proven record of “outstanding” ethics and integrity.
  • Bring perspective that Senate is an independent, non-partisan institution.
  • Understand the Senate’s role in Canada’s constitutional framework.

What’s more: in theory any Canadian can apply to be a Senator, meaning that ordinary citizens will finally have a chamber that represents them (at last!).

And so, finally, the Senate – that repository for party bagmen and patronage going back to the days of Sir John A. – will become a place where intelligent Canadians meet to discuss the issues of the day in an evidence-based environment, free of partisanship and vituperative tribal bickering.

Like a healing, postpartisan balm applied to the deep wounds that have crippled our nation, the new Senate clearly demonstrates Prime Minister Trudeau’s commitment to Real Change; to focusing on the things which unite, rather than divide.

Unfortunately, his work isn’t done. Because, nestled only a short hallway’s walk away from the now harmonious Red Chamber, is a place where the foul reign of partisanship and division continues unencumbered.

That’s why I’d like Prime Minister Trudeau to consider a modest proposal: Abolish the House of Commons.

Tune in any day of the week to the proceedings and what do you see? Argument, disagreement, and debate – to name just three of the ailments. Sometimes the Speaker must remind Honourable Members not to clap for too long. Sometimes there is partisanship. Sometimes voices are even raised.

The physical design of the place alone is nauseating: Two sets of benches counterposed to one another in antagonistic contrast, with government on one side and opposition on the other. Does anyone seriously believe this helps create sober discussion amongst adults? Do the shareholders at a company sit like this at the annual general meeting? Would you model your seating at Christmas dinner on the Lower House? Ummm, I think not.

As for the ever-petulant members who occupy the chamber, what even needs to be said? Unlike the Senate, they are not chosen on merit by a committee independent of partisanship and their seating arrangements are dictated by colour. In 2016. ‘Nuff. Said.

The answer seems clear: the House of Commons – an anachronism from the age of partisan bickering – should be immediately dissolved. It’s time public policy was made solely by grownups accountable to no constituencies except their own consciences.

Because it’s 2016.




Notes on movement conservatism and MNC 2016

The largest annual gathering of the Canadian conservative movement has come to a close and, for the second time in three years, I had the pleasure of joining in.

Here are a few thoughts hastily written as I ride the train back to Toronto.

State of the movement

This year’s conference was the first to take place in a political context without the Conservative Party in government.

While delegates certainly didn’t give off an aura of defeat or surrender, attendance appeared to be much smaller than the last time I visited (in 2014). If their recent electoral defeat has wrought any particular change among Canadian conservatives, it’s something besides an ideological one: Participants at all of the panels and sessions I attended seemed to have full confidence in the rectitude of their ideas and philosophy and, with only a few exceptions, intra ideological debate was visibly less than at the last incarnation of the conference I attended.

Instead, the conservative movement appears preoccupied with aesthetic and logistical issues. Over and over again during panels and their accompanying Q and As I heard variations of the following: “How do we communicate better?”, “How can we articulate a conservative message to people who don’t identify as conservatives?”, “How do we relate better to young people/journalists?”. There was an overwhelming sense that the Conservative Party fought the election on the basis of more or less the correct ideas, but failed to communicate them adequately.

Though the ghost of Stephen Harper – who remains the first and only leader of the united Conservative Party – looms over the movement, both his legacy and the challenges that follow from his defeat were repeatedly discussed in cloaked and evasive terms. His name was very rarely mentioned (often substituted for “our government”).

While no one ascribed blame to Harper for it, there appeared to be an overriding sense that the true motivations and aspirations of conservatism had been buried; that the party had overwhelmed the movement, become insular, and excluded potential members and activists.

All the familiar themes were present – “Personal responsibility”, related emphases on security and order; the entrepreneurial narrative and its accompanying condemnations of the state as an economic oppressor, etc. – but they emerged in a less guarded fashion than they might have during a meeting of the now deceased Harper cabinet.

Having said this, the conference’s preoccupation with the cosmetics of conservatism (rather than the ideology or philosophy of conservatism) seems to me a symptom of confusion and atrophy rather than renewal.

The path to the conservative utopia does not run through more effective use of Facebook or Twitter, or a more effective application of modern campaign techniques. An interest in value-neutral political technology may be necessary for the success of any ideological project. But, when it starts to override intellectual and spiritual introspection and debate, the movement clearly has a problem.

The view from stage left

As a left wing observer at the conference, it was a real treat to listen to my ideological opposites reflecting on their politics and the state of their movement. The right’s frustration with the status quo and its desire to produce transformative change are qualities I admire, at least in the abstract. The maintenance and nourishment of a movement takes considerable labour, as does the pursuit of ideas which run contrary to apolitical wasteland of late capitalism.

But neither my admiration or agreement survive beyond this abstract terrain. The conservative movement’s historical sense is anemic and its political-economic analysis even worse.

Its continued sense of victimization and marginalization is unwarranted, given that we’re currently living in the world the new right of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s created: conservatism may need to retain this psychological outlook to remain viable, but it lacks historical perspective and fails to take into account the near-ubiquitous triumph of neoliberalism as the ideological spirit of the times.

Movement conservatism also misinterprets and misunderstands its political opponents. “The left” and “liberalism” are repeatedly conflated (sometimes under the nonspecific umbrella term “progressive”). There seems virtually zero awareness of the difference between liberalism and social democracy, let alone anything to the left of the latter. The bogeymen du jour are messieur Trudeau and madame Wynne (Tony Clement referred to Ontario under the Liberals as “the People’s Republic of…”), who are taken to be great champions of “activist Big Government” that seek to “tax and spend” (both mortal insults in conservative circles).

Again, a little perspective here might be warranted. The Wynne administration, which certainly postured around the motif of “activist government” during the 2014 provincial election, just commenced the privatization of Hydro One, having spent its last several mandates repeatedly slashing the corporate tax rate. It may pursue social initiatives like sex ed that offend the sensibilities of the social conservative fringe, but its claims to even lean slightly to the left are shoddy at best.

Ditto for Canada’s new prime minister. His proposition, outside of a deceptively shallow emphasis on “tone”, is essentially to restore some of the programs cut under the previous Conservative government. There is nothing remotely radical about his tax plan, which has already cut taxes for most of the richest 10% of earners (it raised them slightly for the very richest, with a net loss in revenue for the federal government) and does nothing to reverse the repeated cuts to corporate taxes which took place under Stephen Harper (during the campaign, Trudeau even derided the NDP plan to raise the CIT as anti-business). His program for deficit spending is nowhere near the one undertaken by the Conservatives themselves in scale and is quite explicitly branded as an economically-necessary one-off rather than an attempt to increase structural program spending. Finally, his social policy embraces the neoliberal mould of means-testing. During the campaign, Trudeau attacked proposals to create new universal social programs and committed to addressing Canada’s childcare challenges using the same underlying logic as the Conservatives (only with more generous benefits and with the means-testing performed in advance rather than retroactively through the tax system).

That the political centre represented by the Liberals now exists on this terrain is something the right should celebrate as a sign of its ongoing victory. In caricaturing mainstream liberals like Trudeau and Wynne as harbingers of a renewed offensive by “activist government”, movement conservatives are shadow boxing with a chimera of their own creation.

As for the problems with the ideological outlook I observed this weekend, where do we even begin?

Despite retaining the classical conservative emphases on tradition and institutions of social cohesion (the family, nationalism, etc.), the conservative movement born of the 70s new right is overwhelmingly guided by a romantic obsession with the capitalist marketplace. In many important respects, it views this as the single most crucial foundation for both individual and social life – an essentially neutral sphere in which individuals can pursue their personally-crafted life goals without external interference.

If there are imperfections, it is assumed these are the products of meddling or rigging by the state rather than defects inherent by design. There is virtually no problem – poverty, homelessness, unemployment, social anomie – for which the movement conservative does not have a market solution (accompanied by a diagnosis which places blame on an overly activist state). That the market is a structure of power like any other – with intrinsic hierarchies and imbalances that only harden over time and render the ethical goal of meritocracy an impossible one – is simply not accounted for or acknowledged. It is conceived of as a natural equilibrium: as politically and axiologically neutral as evolutionary biology or the force of gravity – not a human construction that is the product of specific historical and economic circumstances, and certainly not an amalgam of institutions that should be subject to democratic change, adjustment, or wholesale replacement when signs of failure appear.

The very notion that there might be valuable moral principles outside of individual economic calculus that should govern our political, economic, and social lives is pure anathema.

Party and movement: Looking ahead

Among the most interesting features of the conference were two related panels showcasing prospective candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party. Here are a few thoughts on each of them:

Michael Chong: Chong’s speech was heavy on personal narrative and short on ideology. As many conservatives like to do, he emphasized his family’s own struggle against adversity (as immigrants from Hong Kong in the mid 20th century). Also invoking family experience, Chong spoke of Canadian heroism in the Pacific during the Second World War (his dad was in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion) as a jumping off point to a familiar and Harperesque story about the need for decisiveness in a dangerous world. Not without a certain rhetorical appeal, but overly polished and personal for a politician regarded to have intellectual substance.

Kevin O’Leary: Whether O’Leary’s musings about running for the CPC leadership represent empty posturing, performance art, or genuine testing of the waters I do not know. His abrasive, bloviating speech was big on pro-business and energy (that is, oil) rhetoric of the kind favoured by the crowed and was well-received enough, but mostly hard to take seriously.

Maxime Bernier: By far the best of the five speeches, Bernier’s was heavy on ideology as well as rhetorical flourish. His attack on government subsidies to corporations got raucous applause and, in the subsequent Q and A, he answered Preston Manning’s policy questions with notable specificity. When Bernier runs, his apparently insurgent candidacy will be interesting to watch.

Tony Clement: Clement’s Instagram follower count probably dwarfs the crowd that heard his speech. Though he chose not to fixate on his personal story as some other candidates did, it was hard to extract a thesis from his remarks. A call for the privatization of the CBC and some mild criticism of the way the party conducted the 2015 election were the only real highlights of the speech.

Lisa Raitt: The only woman to speak (Kellie Leitch had been scheduled but cancelled last minute) Raitt focused on her youth on Cape Breton Island and, like Chong, her family’s various struggles. Beyond a few notes of traditional Toryism, it is unclear what exactly her campaign will be.

In the Q and A that followed each speech, Preston Manning asked each candidate the same question about how to make conservatism appeal to youth. Revealingly, each gave a variation of the same answer: The key to attracting the next generation is for conservatism to be more obviously and outwardly conservative: In his answer, for example, Tony Clement suggested that young people, like conservatives, are “lovers of freedom”.

This apparently banal comment may reveal more than initially meets the eye.

It occurs to me that each and every one of the prospective candidates for the leadership of the CPC came politically of age at around the same time in the 1980s or early 1990s, i.e. during the ascendency of movement conservatism. Then, its calls for “self-sufficiency”, “personal responsibility”, and “individual liberty” over and against the state had an emotional and spiritual resonance that often transcended lines of gender, race, and class. But the lived experience of today’s young people is quite different from those who consider themselves children of the Reagan revolution.

In an economic context characterized by precarious work, low wages, poor financial security, and the widespread exploitation of young labour by employers (who are often from a different generation) across the workforce, solutions that emphasize personal grist and the imperative of an improved work ethic are unlikely to be well-received.

Looking south, it is quite the opposite: Young people appear drawn in much greater measure to Bernie Sanders’ message, and its various attacks on oppressive economic structures, than to movement conservatism’s pickled ethos of “individual liberty” or its various ideological stepchildren (including the Clintonite variant).

Movement conservatism may have dominated the past three decades. But everything I’ve observed this weekend suggests the possibility that something very different may come to dominate the near future.



The permanent campaign

On the 100-day anniversary of Canada’s new government, both Chantal Hebert and Andrew Coyne seem to agree: symbolism and marketing have quite overwhelmingly trumped substance.

Coyne, who is less sympathetic than Hebert, goes further:

Three months in, the governing style of Justin Trudeau’s government is coming into focus. It is one part not being Stephen Harper, one part symbolic gesture, one part wriggling out of campaign promises, and one part saying yes to everybody. You thought the Harper government was all about the permanent campaign? Get used to it.

If we ignore Coyne’s obviously conservative bent on some issues (the new government was right to get rid of income splitting and CPC laws targeting unions and First Nations, for God’s sake) the general thrust of his argument is correct: the Liberals are waging a kind of permanent campaign built around a series of carefully choreographed gestures – the real contours of their vision remain obscure, and it’s probably going to stay that way.

And that makes perfect sense, given how they fought the election.

The Liberal campaign was, after all, one which left concern-trolled the NDP by promising modest deficits while also attacking its $15/hour federal minimum wage proposal and saying proposed hikes to corporate taxes were anti-business; that trotted out arch-austerian Paul Martin to give lachrymose sermons about the dangers of austerity; that appropriated the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street to bait the right and neutralize the left, while simultaneously proposing to cut taxes for most of the top 10% of income earners; that criticized the CPC for attacking Canada’s social programs while opposing the NDP’s proposals to create any new ones; it was (*is) both for and against the building of oil pipelines, the mission in Iraq and Syria, substantively changing the electoral system, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, reform of the Senate, Bill C-51, universal social programs…the list goes on.

It was a sunny new approach to politics that involved repeatedly steamrolling local Liberal riding associations and their activists to protect the leadership’s preferred candidates; that happily recruited people like Conservative MP Eve Adams, Bill Blair, and a former Chair of one of the country’s leading right wing think tanks to the cause – not to mention longtime Harper apparatchik Dimitris Soudas.

The overriding theme here is branding: the Liberals propose to “do politics differently”, but their efforts to substantiate this [stated] goal are primarily aesthetic. Reform, where is has happened or will happen, has largely been restorative rather than transformative – Canada is modernizing its way back to circa 2007.

Watching Question Period the past two weeks it’s striking how little the tone of the debate between the government and the official opposition actually reflects any meaningful disagreement. The Tories may bleat about the Liberal plan (yet to be fulfilled) to withdraw Canada’s CF-18s from Syria or Justin Trudeau’s neutralist language around the Energy East pipeline, but the disagreements have more to do with rhetoric than they do with significant disagreement about major issues. Canada’s jets continue to be involved in air strikes (despite an unequivocal campaign promise there is as of yet no timetable for their withdrawal…it’s quite possible they will remain past the CPC’s original timetable or that the mission will simply continue in other forms), and the government proudly trumpets its desire to “get Canadian resources to market”. The disagreement, if you can even call it that, has to do with how openly partisan the government should be about particular issues (the CPC approach is more ideologically honest, though the Liberal one is probably more politically effective).


Photo courtesy of Day Donaldson. Used under Creative Commons license.

Again, branding is the key here.

As a part of its Sunny Ways™, the government has displayed a visible fondness for the affirmation of process. It is “pro-trade” and appears to be pro-TPP, but it will “broadly consult”; it is pro-electoral reform but non-specific about what that reform will be (consultation first); it was elected around a very specific and widely trumpeted set of economic proposals, but it has yet to put these into a budget or even schedule one because it has to consult first.

This will become more difficult to sustain when major decisions actually have to be made, but the Liberals have already proven miraculously adept at political management. With so much energy invested beforehand in legitimizing the process of consultation itself, even unpopular moves can be deemed the product of sincere public outreach.

The political dexterity this approach affords the Liberals is staggering, as these past 100 days have already demonstrated. Justin Trudeau and his party espouse no ideology, and contend to embody the political preferences of all. It is an approach to politics which, to quote Peter C. Newman, promises “as little as possible but as much as necessary”.

The campaign never ends.


Fragments of a Revolution, Part IV: Federalism, French power, and Canadian nationalism

Part IV: Pierre Elliot Trudeau – Federalism, French power, and Canadian nationalism

We want to bear witness to the Christian and French fact in America. Fine; so be it. But let’s get rid of all the rest. We should subject to methodical doubt all the political categories relegated to us by the previous generation; the strategy of resistance is no longer conducive to the fulfillment of our society. The time has come to borrow the ‘functional’ discipline from architecture, to throw to the winds those many prejudices with which the past has encumbered the present, and to build for the new man. Let’s batter down the totems, let’s break the taboos. Better yet, let’s consider them null and void. Let us be coolly intelligent. – Cite Libre, 1950[1]

Pierre Trudeau’s contribution to the inaugural issue of Cite Libre presaged much of the kind of politics that he would later champion in his political career: first as an MP and, shortly after, as Justice Minister and then Prime Minister. Like Lévesque and his fellow contributors at Cite Libre, Trudeau drew heavily on the self-assurance and zeal for modernization upon which the Quiet Revolution had been built. Though his exposure to Keynes, Locke, Mill, and Marx at Harvard had not caused him to abandon Catholicism, he had returned to Montreal in 1949 with a firmly secular view[2] that privileged the rational over the spiritual and development over tradition in the political sphere. This is implicit in many of Trudeau’s writings throughout the 1950s and 1960s in which he repeatedly prefaces arguments with statements such as “the function of a state is to endure the establishment and maintenance of a legal order that will safeguard the development of its citizens”[3] or “a fundamental condition of representative democracy is a clear allocation of responsibilities”[4]: his starting point always being the role of states or democracies as such rather than those presently existing. For Trudeau, the modern democratic state and its machinery were constructions that rested solely upon reason, the realm of the spirit being a completely private matter. His approach to politics, then, was overwhelmingly that of a self-conscious modernist with a firm belief in material and social progress, rationalism, and liberal egalitarianism. It was a thoroughly “functional discipline”.

This philosophical grounding governed his trajectory in politics from its earliest days, when he developed a profound hostility to the “Maitres chez nous” nationalism of the Quiet Revolution. In a Cite Libre editorial that appeared just before the toppling of the Union Nationale in 1960 Trudeau offered only a grudging endorsement of Jean Lesage’s Liberals, whose neo-nationalist campaign emphasizing provincial autonomy and special status made him profoundly uncomfortable.[5] In an editorial for Le Devoir that same year, he wrote pessimistically of Quebec’s prospects for modernization pronouncing “I’m confident French Canadians will once again miss the turn…At least, they’ll miss it if their political authorities continue to cultivate mediocrity”.[6] In the forward to his compiled work Federalism and the French Canadians, Trudeau wrote that his entry into politics in 1965 was a direct response to the “Lesage government and public opinion in Quebec [magnifying] provincial autonomy into an absolute” and was an act aimed at defending federalism from the forces of nationalism.[7] The substitution of socialism for nationalism was a line Trudeau was not prepared to cross.

But his hostility to nationalism did not amount to a denial of the French fact in Canada. In a 1965 essay written at the University of Montreal, he wrote that bilingualism should become a national fact in the face of a pluralist reality, reasoning that “the [Anglophone] majority [must stop] behaving as if it held…exclusive rights, and [must accept] the country’s federal nature with all its implications”.[8] In a subsequent address to the Canadian Bar Association he argued that reforms of this nature – aimed at recognizing and institutionalizing the country’s plural character– must ultimately be realized at the constitutional level such that they are free from the prospect of statutory encroachment and enshrined as supreme law.[9] Importantly, like his contemporaries at Cite Libre and the ministers in Lesage’s government, he called for Quebec to pursue a program of rapid economic expansionism:

Quebec must assert itself as a province that fosters moral, intellectual, artistic, scientific, and technical values. When Quebec has produced or attracted a sufficient number of real philosophers, real scientists, real film directors, real economists, real experts in computer technology, and a large number of true statesmen, the ‘French fact’ will prosper in North America, and will have no need of the separatist crutch.[10]

Rattrapage and epanouissement were thus as central to Trudeau’s political project as they were to Lesage and Lévesque. But his conception of Quebec’s modern self-assertion saw a French fact that preserved itself through cultural achievement within an improved federal framework, rather than one that succumbed to the nationalist demand for autonomy. In contrast, he called for the Quebecois to “abandon their role of oppressed nation and decide to participate boldly and intelligently in the Canadian experience”.[11]

The revised federal arrangement envisioned and campaigned for by Trudeau was not one of increased centralization, but rather of more concretely distinguished jurisdictional responsibilities. His defied expectations by siding with conservative nationalists in the late 1950s to oppose postsecondary subsidies offered by the government of Prime Minister Saint Laurent, arguing that Canada’s bifurcated form of sovereignty needed to keep areas of provincial and federal responsibility discrete if it was to remain successful and accountable.[12] Appropriating an idea championed by the federal CCF (of which Trudeau was then a member)[13] and a number of Quebec trade unions in the 1950s he called for a form of fiscal federalism built around the principle of equalization, by which the federal government would redistribute national wealth among the provinces to ensure comparable fiscal capacity and service provision across the country as a whole. Such a model of federalism, he asserted, would preserve provincial autonomy and democratic accountability in the context of a cooperative and cohesive political enterprise.[14]


As we have seen, the federalist model of intergovernmental relations developed by Trudeau during the 1950s and 1960s had as its primary goal the promotion of a liberal egalitarianism in which provinces were yielded their distinct areas of jurisdiction within a framework that treated them as equal partners within a cooperative arrangement. The cultural pluralism of Canada was to be protected by legal reforms that entrenched bilingualism in federal institutions and transformed their exclusively anglophone character. Nevertheless, this vision was aggressively distinguished from the nationalism, which, by the mid-1960s, was strongly on the ascendancy in Quebec. The nationalism of self-determination, by which a particular ethnic group asserted sovereignty through its own state, was not simply an incorrect formulation, but a profoundly dangerous one.

To insist that a particular minority must have complete sovereign power is to pursue a self-destructive end. Because every national minority will find, at the very moment of its liberation, a new minority within its bosom which in turn must be allowed the right to demand its freedom. And on and on would stretch the train of revolutions until the last-born of the nation-states turned to violence to put an end to the principle that gave it birth.[15] 

For Trudeau the nation-state was a remnant of prewar myopia, an obstacle to modernization that had to be condemned to the dustbin of history.

Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister was overwhelmingly spent promoting this vision of federalism. The Official Languages Act of 1969 guaranteed the equality of the French language with English in the federal government and succeeded in bringing a much greater share of francophones into the civil service.[16] His controversial National Energy Program, with its emphasis on fiscal redistribution from richer provinces to poorer ones[17], built on the theory of cooperative federalism he had developed during the 1950s. What was undoubtedly his greatest political achievement, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, embodied the liberal egalitarianism he had once promoted on the pages of Cite Libre in opposition to the more communitarian outlooks of many of his colleagues.

While he may have rejected the atavistic relation between nation and state that came to be championed by Lévesque, the residual traces of the Quiet Revolution’s rattrapage and epanouissement were transmuted into Trudeau’s overall constitutional vision for Canada. Christian Dufour has importantly observed that, given this fact, Trudeau’s federalism can hardly be separated from a kind of nationalism. The essential difference was that, while his “French power” projected itself outside of Quebec and onto a Canada which it sought to make newly assured and self-confident, Lévesque’s nationalism asserted itself inwards. In this sense, “Quebec Nationalism and French Power were two means for the Quebec identity to assert itself.”[18] Through Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the Quiet Revolution became a pan-Canadian phenomenon. But his French Power substituted the communitarianism of the Canadiens for a rationalist liberalism in which individuals rather than groups would form the basis for legitimacy and a constitution that enshrined it, rather than an ethnic identity, would serve as the icon of collective identification.

Fragments of a Revolution, so far: 

Part I https://lukesavage.wordpress.com/2015/02/24/fragments-of-a-revolution-part-i-1759/

Part II https://lukesavage.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/fragments-of-a-revolution-part-ii-conservation-and-contestation/

Part III https://lukesavage.wordpress.com/2015/03/20/fragments-of-a-revolution-part-iii-the-quiet-revolution/


[1] Trudeau’s editorial was originally published unsigned.

[2] English. 149.

[3] Trudeau, Pierre E. “Quebec and the Constitutional Problem.” 1965. Federalism and the French Canadians. English ed.: Macmillan, 1968. Print. 21.

[4] Trudeau, Pierre E. “Federal Grants to Universities.” 1957. Federalism and the French Canadians. English ed.: Macmillan, 1968. Print. 79.

[5] English. 336-337.

[6] Ibid. 338.

[7] Trudeau, Pierre E. Federalism and the French Canadians. English ed.: Macmillan, 1968. Print. xix.

[8] Quebec and the Constitutional Problem. 5.

[9] Trudeau, Pierre E. “A Constitutional Declaration of Rights.” 1967. Federalism and the French Canadians. English ed.: Macmillan, 1968. Print. 54-55.

[10] Quebec and the Constitutional Problem. 34.

[11] Ibid. 31.

[12] Federal Grants to Universities. 79-80, 87.

[13] English. 261.

[14] Trudeau, Pierre E. “De Libro, Tributo…Et Quibusdam Aliis.” 1954. Federalism and the French Canadians. English ed.: Macmillan, 1968. Print. 71-76.

[15] Trudeau, Pierre E. “New Treason of the Intellectuals.” 1962. Federalism and the French Canadians. English ed.: Macmillan, 1968. Print. 158.

[16] English, John. Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968-2000. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2010. Print. 129-130.

[17] Ibid, 483.

[18] Dufour. 76.


The weirdness of “anti-Americanism”


In Jonathan Kay’s first note as EIC of The Walrus we find him trotting out the chimera of “anti- Americanism” – something which he says the Canadian left has in abundance but which is also (break out the tissues, comrades!) present on the right.

The phrase “anti-Americanism” is one I remember hearing a lot of around the time of the Iraq war. Then, it seemed to denote anyone who thought the invasion and occupation of Iraq – premised as it was on a combination of malicious lies and utopian fantasies – was wrong, and said so. A few years later the National Post ran a thinkpiece on “the Golden age of Canadian anti-Americanism”, accusing figures in the 1960s intelligentsia such as George Grant and organizations on the left for promulgating this insidious yet almost completely undefined disease. During the 1988 federal election, in which the issue of free trade with the United States was front and centre, the phrase “anti-American” had another renaissance – this time describing anyone who thought the distinctiveness of Canada as a social and cultural entity would be threatened or compromised by the unrestricted access of American companies to our economy.

As you may have noticed, I find the construct of “anti-American” irritating. For Kay, it appears to be motivated by a mix of provincialist prejudice, conspiracy theory, and fear of the modern. Stephen Harper, he suggests, has instilled our meek little backwater with a bit of confidence and ambition (he can’t count the number of times Canada now appears at the top of surveys! *international* surveys, for that matter…).

Several things are curious about the phrase “anti-Americanism” and its frequent appearance in the lexicon of our political right. The first is simply that anyone would characterize something like opposition to the War in Iraq or Free Trade as the product of a prejudice. George Grant’s “anti-Americanism” consisted of an opposition to the placement of American nuclear weapons on Canadian soil, and the belief that the preservation of a society distinct and separate from the United States on the North American continent was something to fight for (even though he thought that fight was doomed to fail).

This brings us to the second and more decisive reason why the phrase “anti-Americanism” is a curious construct on the Canadian right which is that conservatives, having founded the country with the explicit intention of building a society with different values from those of the radical liberal tradition in the United States, now frequently decry expressions of that very same effort.

This gets at the subtext lingering behind the phrase “anti-Americanism”, which is that Canadian conservatives now ultimately want Canada to be more like the United States and others, particularly though not invariably on the left (and not because of anti-modernism, conspiracy theories, or fear) want it to be something different.


TAs, public goods, and what we talk about when we talk about strikes

Strikes in the public sector have always had a different political economy than those in the private sector. Sure, the people who nurture a parochial distaste for the labour movement will always get angry about both, but the most acidic bile is often reserved for the former. The TA strike now entering its third day at my alma matter (and its companion strike at York U, which also involves sessional lecturers) has been no exception.

In their opening salvos at CUPE 3902, Unit I the administration has already trotted out nearly the full menu of anti-union demagogy familiar to anyone who’s ever followed or participated in a strike, especially in the public sector. In a rather terse Huffington Post column published yesterday, for example, U of T Provost Cheryl Regehr repeated the oft deployed and utterly chimerical figure of TAs’ generous hourly wage in defence of the university’s proposed deal. The administration has also produced a rather comically-titled “fact sheet” (which reproduces the same bogus hourly wage figure) and declared its “disappointment” in the CUPE 3902 membership’s decision to reject an offer that would keep them earning a sum well below the poverty line (TAs have their hours capped, meaning their take home pay is around 15K/year).

At first glance, these manoeuvres look like pure brinksmanship. Strikes are essentially controlled warfare between employers and their workforce and winning the public relations battle is crucial for both sides. But there’s more to it than that. Behind the university administration’s political posturing, and also behind CUPE’s attempts to secure a better deal for its membership, there are two very different conceptions of what the university is, what it’s for, and who it belongs to.

The nature of the antipathy provoked by strikes like the ones currently underway at York and U of T reveals a lot about what’s really at stake. What we talk about when we talk about strikes, particularly by workers in the public sector (TAs, civil servants, teachers, firefighters, garbage workers, or the janitors who clean up for TAs, civil servants…) is more than just the particular character of an individual strike action. Anti-union rhetoric has a storied history but certain motifs remain immortal, and they’re pretty revealing. They include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Devaluing the labour performed by workers: If TAs or civil servants are on strike, we hear frequent intonations that they belong to a privileged group doing privileged work which lacks broader social value. If the strike involves members of a blue collar profession (say, garbage workers) we hear something like the opposite – that the workers are performing basic labour which also doesn’t constitute “real work” (“They should have gone to university!”).
  • Representing existing compensation schemes as generous and charitable: Workers are privileged to be working at all, and we pay them better than [somewhere which pays even less well]. This is the paternalistic face of corporate capitalism.
  • Contrasting the material and/or social wellbeing of workers to others who are worse off: This talking point runs something like this – “Someone always has it worse off than you, so why are you complaining?”. Its unfortunate potency comes from its ability to divide and conquer workers in the the middle and working class, thus undermining their ability to organize.

Let’s take a look at a few of these in relation to the strike action undertaken by the members of CUPE 3902. The U of T admin’s “fact sheet” (scare quotes mine) details the various “support” (scare quotes mine again, sorry!) graduate students receive from the university in the form of scholarships and the like. These it distinguishes from the pay they receive for teaching part-time, which it also frames as an extension of the university’s generosity, rather than as compensation for labour upon which the university’s daily functioning absolutely depends. TAships are not “support”: they’re a mandatory component of many funding packages and they represent a sizeable share of the teaching that goes on at the university. Employers who compensate their workforce aren’t acting charitably, they’re paying for labour without which their factories, offices, or classrooms would remain empty and useless.

Moreover, the hourly wage figure offered (and disgracefully repeated by Provost Regehr in her Huffington Post column) and put up against lower figures at other schools not only completely misses the point, but ignores the fact that the cost of living in Toronto is much higher than in other cities. The same sheet conveniently neglects to mention that graduate students are expected to conduct research on a full-time basis or that this research is one of the primary reasons that the university exists in the first place. This omission tells us something else about the ideology underlying the administration’s position, as it implicitly demarcates between the teaching work conducted by TAs (which it nevertheless devalues as a form of “support”) and their research. The implication is clear: graduate research isn’t real work.

This gets at the crux of what’s really behind the administration’s steadfast resistance to giving graduate students a living wage, which is the belief that a university is primarily a vocational institution rather than a public enterprise. In this formulation, graduate students are not partners in the public production and dissemination of knowledge but simply atomized individuals who have chosen to “invest” in a degree. The university’s primary purpose is not to be a public good, but rather to train a workforce in a manner tailored to needs of the private sector. And if your research happens to be about something no prospective shareholder will be interested in, too bad.

This model, unfortunately, is currently winning. Scroll through the biographies of non-student or faculty representatives on the U of T Governing Council and you’ll find a veritable phalanx of non-elected corporate executives who have more say over the institution’s operation than the faculty whose research it enables or the students it ostensibly exists to empower and serve. By rejecting a deal founded upon the pernicious logic outlined above, members of CUPE 3902 have not only demanded fair wages and working conditions but, both implicitly and explicitly, challenged the very model of a university which refuses to provide either.


Fragments of a Revolution, Part II: Conservation and Contestation

In Part I, we examined the incomplete British conquest of New France and its implications for Quebec’s nascent identity. In Part II, we jump ahead to a postwar Quebec where elites continued to resist assimilation even as the order they governed transformed it into an economic colony of its English-speaking neighbours. 

Part II: Conservation and Contestation

The Quebec of the 1930s and 40s remained insular and inward looking. Just as it had been immediately after the conquest, a small cabal of Anglophone elites (now supplemented by a handful of American corporations) continued to run its urban centers and to control its commerce and natural resources[1]. Though some industrialization had occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century, Quebec society did not live “by the socio-economic dictates of the capitalist universe”[2]. The immense social and political power of the clergy, still the self-conscious guardians of its distinctness and particularity, persisted[3]. Popular democracy was spurned in favour of institutionalized cronyism, paternalism, and patronage.[4] In the words of Pierre Vadeboncouer, the government of Premier Maurice Duplessis and his Union Nationale party pursued a conscious policy of “resisting assimilation from without” by “resisting emancipation from within”[5]. The first of these objectives involved equating the provincial economy with cultural survival, while an alliance between the conservative elements in Quebec and the Anglophone business community achieved the second[6]. A radio broadcast read on June 20, 1956 – the eve of Duplessis’ final electoral victory – is a remarkable insight into the politics and ideology of Quebec’s ruling class before the Quiet Revolution.

Sovereign authority, by whatever government it is exercised, is derived solely from God, the supreme and eternal principle of all power…It is therefore an absolute error to believe that authority comes from the multitudes, from the masses, from the people, to pretend that authority does not properly belong to those who exercise it, but that they have only a simple mandate revocable at any time by the people. This error, which dates from the Reformation, rests on the false principle that man has no other master than his own reason…All this explanation about the origin, the basis, and the composition of this alleged sovereignty of the people is purely arbitrary. Moreover, if it is admitted, it will have as a consequence the weakening of authority, making it a myth, giving it an unstable and changeable basis, stimulating popular passions and encouraging sedition.[7]


In spite of the iron grip of the Duplessis regime – which held power from 1936 until 1959, with one interlude between 1939-1944 [8] – economic, technological, and material changes gradually began to alter Quebec’s rural and conservative character. Growing industry prompted increasing urban migration and Montreal’s metropolitan population expanded from 1.1 million in 1941 to 1.6 million in 1956[9]. The proportion of Quebec homes with televisions grew from 9.7 percent in 1953 to 38.6 percent in 1955, and 88 percent by 1960[10]. An influx of consumer goods flowed into the burgeoning metropolitan areas on a newly constructed highway system[11].

As more francophones left the countryside to work in urban factories, the ethnic schisms in Quebec society became increasingly apparent. In an influential study of the industrial transformation of the 1940s, Everett Hughes observed that the typical plant consisted of unilingual francophones working in menial positions and unilingual anglophones in those of seniority, with a bilingual foreman usually serving as the “go between in the two worlds of labour and management”. Francophones earned lower wages than their English-speaking bosses and lived predominantly as tenants under anglophone landlords.[12] This socioeconomic configuration had a distinctly colonial flavor.

Some elements, particularly those in the trade union movement, began to challenge it. A new generation of Quebecois were ascending to positions of civic and cultural leadership, often having studied or travelled abroad. Pierre Trudeau, who had received a traditional Catholic education at the (appropriately named) Bréubeuf College[13], returned to Montreal in 1949 having been immersed in liberal democratic theory and Keynesian economics at Harvard and experiencing the intellectual and political ferment of postwar Paris[14]. Soon after, he was invited by his friend Gérard Pelletier to participate in a strike of asbestos workers that was paralyzing Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Launched illegally by Jean Marchand, secretary of the Catholic Workers Confederation of Canada, the industrial action was a radical challenge to the province’s existing economic model. Foreign-owned companies oversaw most of the asbestos extraction, while local workers merely took it from the ground and loaded it onto freight cars. Less than five percent was even processed in Canada, and the company managers were all unilingual anglophones. A postwar boom in asbestos mining had brought about only meager wage increases for the miners, whose lungs suffered damage on a daily basis from exposure to the toxic substance[15]. It was a microcosm of Quebec society at large and remains today a fabled moment in the national imaginary[16]. Trudeau was profoundly influenced by his experiences during the strike, later writing that…

…[what he found there was] a Quebec I did not really know, that of workers exploited by management, denounced by government, clubbed by police, and yet burning with fervent militancy…[The strike] was significant because it occurred at a time when we were witnessing the passing of a world, precisely at a moment when our social framework – the worm-eaten remnants of a bygone age – were ready to come apart.[17]


Similar themes – opposition to Quebec’s traditionally clerical nationalism and its socioeconomic reality – came to be emphasized on the pages of Cite Libre, a journal pioneered by Pelletier that sought to “link progressive Catholic faith with analyses of contemporary political and social issues”[18] and which published articles by Trudeau, Pelletier, Charles Taylor[19], and René Lévesque[20] throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In words that strongly echoed Trudeau’s, another founder of the journal, literary critic Maurice Blain, wrote “This generation without masters is seeking a humanism, and is anxiously asking on what kind of spiritual foundation this humanism should be based.” [21] Significantly, Cite Libre’s most prominent contributors were drawn from the same generation of postwar Catholics, exposed to democratic liberalism and humanism while studying abroad. The result was that, for the first time, the links between the Catholic faith and clerical authoritarianism were being challenged by leading figures in the province’s intellectual elite.

The extent to which Cite Libre was actually the centre of opposition to the Duplessis government is contested by historians but it was in any case a powerful register of opinion for Quebec’s rising intellectual class and “a major gathering place and channel of expression for reform liberals”[22]. Alongside the increasingly militant trade union movement which had reared its head during the asbestos strike, the Cite Libre contributors were spreading a more liberal nationalism which drew both on the egalitarian elements of Catholicism and the radical currents of reformism many of them had been exposed to abroad.

Quebec’s lopsided socioeconomic arrangements had reduced its increasingly urban francophone population to the status of tenants in cities where they were overwhelmingly the majority. Its poorly paid workers laboured under the management of bosses who did not speak their language. Its natural resources were the property of foreign corporations. What was more, its ruling clerical and political elite had, under the very auspices of nationalism, conspired to preserve the existing arrangements. The stage had been set for a sweeping cultural and political revolution.

In Part III: The Quiet Revolution, Rattrapage and Epanouissement


[1] Ibid. 179.

[2] Ibid. 173.

[3] English, John. Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2007. Print. 247.

[4] Wiseman. 173.

[5] Saywell, John T. Introduction: Federalism and the French Canadians. By Pierre E. Trudeau. English ed.: Macmillan, 1968. Print. viii.

[6] Ibid. viii.

[7] Trudeau, Pierre E. “Some Obstacles to Democracy in Quebec.” 1958. Federalism and the French Canadians. English ed: Macmillan, 1968. Print. 110-111.

[8] Lévesque, René. My Québec. Toronto: Methuen, 1979. Print. 9.

[9] English. 279.

[10] Ibid. 256.

[11] Ibid. 251.

[12] Wiseman. 179.

[13] English. 112.

[14] Ibid. 125, 145.

[15] Ibid. 199.

[16] Ibid. 199.

[17] Ibid. 202.

[18] Ibid. 238.

[19] Cook, Ramsay. “I Never Thought I Could Be as Proud…: The Trudeau- Lévesque Debate.” Watching Quebec: Selected Essays. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2005. Print. 209.

[20] Redhead, Mark. Charles Taylor: Thinking and Living Deep Diversity. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Pub. 2002. Print. 48.

[21] English. 238.

[22] Ibid. 245.