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From the archives

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

A Sort of Equilibrium

Revisiting the debates of old

Jeffrey Simpson

The Daily Plebiscite: Federalism, Nationalism, and Canada

David R. Cameron; Edited by Robert C. Vipond

University of Toronto Press

326 pages, hardcover, softcover, and ebook

Here’s an old chestnut that’s appeared in these pages before. Several people of different nationalities are asked to propose the title of a book about an elephant. The Brit replies with The Elephant’s Role in the British Empire. The French person suggests La vie amoureuse de l’éléphant. The American proposes The Elephant: An American Invention. The Canadian offers The Elephant: A Federal or Provincial Responsibility?

For 155 years, this country has been a federation, which means its legal and political powers are shared between two levels of government. Since Confederation, political arguments, court cases, crises large and small, moments of high drama and bathos, federal-provincial negotiations, and rearrangements of power have all been part of the warp and woof of public life.

Confederation did not sail easily into a safe harbour. Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island sniffed at the possibility of joining but turned away. A majority of those elected from Nova Scotia to the first Canadian Parliament favoured withdrawal. In Quebec, a sizable minority of the French-speaking population had its fears about being swamped within an English-speaking country, but no popular consultation in the form of a referendum was held. Referendums would come much later.

In other words, Confederation was a fragile, fingers-crossed attempt to knit widely separated self-governing colonies into a nation and to make French Catholics and English Protestants coexist — their forebears having been at war with each other in Europe for centuries. For this unlikely arrangement to have endured without a civil war or disintegration is an achievement of historic significance.

Canadians, of course, would never think of anything they do as being of historic significance. Today, many in English-speaking Canada depict our past as a steady stream of oppression, colonialism, and exclusion at the expense of Indigenous peoples, among others. This new unyielding narrative seems to have displaced the memory of all else, including the durability of what was created in 1867. Case in point: next year’s annual Congress of the Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences, to be held at York University, will focus on “new reckonings for how to live in non-hierarchical relationships that respect our human differences, while protecting the environment we depend on.” Of this we can be sure: there will be no sessions on federalism or anything positive about Canadian political history. The first is passé, the second apparently an impossibility.

It might be remembered in an international context, however, that three other countries were either founded or dramatically reformed around the same time as Canada’s creation: the German states were unified under Bismarck, Italy came together through the Risorgimento, and Japan began to modernize with the Meiji Revolution. For nearly eighty years now, Germany, Italy, and Japan have been admirable countries, but in previous iterations they inflicted massive pain on others through wars they started. Of the four, only the Canadian federation has survived intact and in peace, even with all its internal arguments and blind spots.

The academic study of our federation was of marginal interest until the 1960s. Constitutional law was about the elephant: which level of government should do what. The early cases were referred to the Privy Council in Britain, which produced rulings that tilted the balance of power toward the provinces. In the nineteenth century, premiers such as Honoré Mercier in Quebec and Oliver Mowat in Ontario railed against federal intrusions into their jurisdictions. Other premiers from these provinces also inveighed against Ottawa, as did Prairie leaders from time to time.

Not until the Quiet Revolution did the study of federalism take off in Canadian universities and become of defining importance to governments. The possibility of Quebec breaking free focused the minds of those in power, in the academy, and in the media. Peter H. Russell, one of Canada’s great political scientists, described the period from the mid‑’60s to the mid‑’90s as one of “mega constitutional politics.” Understanding the pressures of those years consumed the occupational lives of an army of political thinkers, legal scholars, and journalists — leaving some of us wondering today if we would have been better off having studied computer science or Chinese history.

Those decades now seem distant, vague, even somewhat surreal: a blur of conferences, white papers, grey papers, reports, commissions, federal-provincial conferences, task forces, legal cases, parliamentary committees, referendums, high-octane rhetoric, dramatis personae now long gone, and a vocabulary of phrases and formulas (deux nations, asymmetrical federalism, special status, et cetera) for which little demand remains.

Canada has moved on to new “mega” issues that are as complicated as the previous ones, albeit in different ways. These swirl around what might loosely be called the identity politics of race, sexual orientation, and Indigeneity. The knowledge and preoccupations of the experts from the previous era are not easily transferable, especially since most of those experts are white males and therefore are likely to be seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

David R. Cameron was among those who began examining federalism in the early ’60s, when he studied at the University of British Columbia. UBC’s was then one of English-speaking Canada’s premier political science departments, along with those at Queen’s and the University of Toronto. (The eminence of Queen’s in political science has long since disappeared.) His intellectual interests and subsequent career led him down both sides of federalism’s streets, as a university professor and later a dean at the University of Toronto, as an adviser to both federal and Ontario governments, and as research director for the Task Force on Canadian Unity, one of the various groups established during the mega-constitutional years to take the public pulse and propose solutions for keeping Canada united.

Collected in this volume, edited by his erudite University of Toronto colleague Robert C. Vipond, are Cameron’s various writings on federalism as it evolved between the Quiet Revolution and the second Quebec referendum, in 1995. Some are newspaper articles; most are scholarly essays and conference papers. His writing is precise, sometimes dry, but aways thoughtful. At the risk of overgeneralizing: on balance, Cameron favoured a more decentralized federalism throughout this period, with perhaps some kind of constitutional special status for Quebec in linguistic and cultural matters.

The book’s title, The Daily Plebiscite, a phrase that’s repeated in multiple essays, comes from “What Is a Nation?,” the famous 1882 lecture by the French philosopher Ernest Renan. “A nation’s existence,” Renan said, “is a daily plebiscite”— an observation especially relevant to Canada, which was not born in or ripped apart in a defining war, which lacked a stirring constitution, and which depended on dialogue to remain together. Ours was an agreement without a common language or ethnicity, but it would last, provided it suited the constituent parts or because other options seemed worse: dismemberment or integration into the United States. Keeping the arrangement going in the decades of mega-constitutional politics was the focus of Cameron’s work.

Despite his UBC years, Cameron was and remains an Ontarian; students and practitioners of federalism in that province tend to worry more about Quebec’s turmoil than about Western Canadian angst. This focus is manifest throughout the essays, which is understandable since only Quebec’s unhappiness threatened to break up the federation.

This collection offers a trip down memory lane for those who, through choice or consignment, spent (wasted?) some of our most energetic years following constitutional debates and federal-provincial struggles. The search for solutions was intense — as reflected in the fact that within a brief period in the early ’90s, the topic was taken up by one federal commission, two parliamentary committees, six constitutional conferences, and ten provincial commissions. Cameron himself served as director of research and one of the co-authors of the text of the three volumes from the Task Force on Canadian Unity, created in 1977 after the 1976 election of the Parti Québécois. Its recommendations for a more decentralized federation were stuffed in the wastebasket by the prime minister, Pierre Trudeau.

For younger readers and older ones who had better things to do with their lives than follow the twists and dramas of the unity file, Cameron’s essays may call to mind a question: What endured?

Canada, for starters. One referendum on giving the Quebec government a mandate to negotiate “sovereignty-association” lost by 60–40 in 1980, as did another in 1995 on a slightly sharper question, by 50.6 percent to 49.4. The second victory for federalism, by such a small margin, was the closest Canada has ever come to fracture. Since then, as Cameron explains, the heat has faded from the secessionist movement, although secessionist parties continue to win some seats in both Quebec City and Ottawa.

The threat of dismemberment has passed, but the cost of avoiding it was large although incalculable for Quebec in lost investment, slow economic growth, diverted intellectual energies, and internal divisions. Nationally, too, Canada kept the prize of unity, but priorities and energies became distorted, federal policies were distended to satisfy one province, and frustration grew in Western Canada because of a belief that its priorities were sacrificed on Quebec’s altar.

Canada got a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, the most consequential change to the Constitution since Confederation. It was, of course, Pierre Trudeau who drove that change, both for its own sake and as a way of blunting Quebec secessionism. Much has been written about how the Charter came about, and Cameron adds his useful perspective to that literature. He correctly notes that Trudeau, in retirement, intervened to attack savagely and help scuttle the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. Both were attempts under Brian Mulroney to entice Quebec to sign on to the constitutional changes that had included the Charter.

The Charter in short order empowered judges and altered the relationship between them and legislators, deepened the sense of Canadians as rights-bearing citizens, and gave new powers to Indigenous people. In the years under review by Cameron, Indigenous leaders and their concerns began climbing onto the national stage, but it was only after this period that their issues became among the dominant ones of today.

What else did these years bequeath us? Constitutional exhaustion. Touch the Constitution at our peril, we learned. These essays remind us how and why attempts to change the Constitution summon resentments, conflicting demands, and ill feelings best left alone. Constitutional changes are worked on and understood by intelligent and well-meaning experts such as Cameron, but ultimately the average citizen either does not grasp their complexities or does not care and tends to respond with raw emotion. During the debate over the five proposals in the doomed Meech Lake Accord, for example, the public seized upon only the description of Quebec as a distinct society. That statement was considered obvious in Quebec and was therefore symbolically popular, whereas elsewhere it conjured up notions of special treatment and was therefore unpopular. Moreover, trying to deal with the demands of one province or interest group inevitably invites other demands to be affixed to the constitutional reform project, which then becomes unwieldy, incoherent, and doomed. And opponents who have nothing else in common can seize upon different parts of a reform package and contribute to its demise, as happened with the opposition to the Charlottetown Accord by the Council of Canadians and the Reform Party.

As an academic and internal adviser, David Cameron brought intelligence, integrity, and commitment to all he tried. He believed in dialogue, compromise, and seeing the world as others did in order to find solutions. Minds like his are to be valued and admired. Without them, the arrangement that is Canada would founder. No wonder he likes the Renan description of a nation as a daily plebiscite. Cameron’s collection, however, recalls the title of another French classic: Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. It’s a remembrance of things past.

Jeffrey Simpson was the Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist for thirty-two years.

Related Letters and Responses

Heather Menzies Gabriola, British Columbia