A Constitutional Moment

Confederation as a constitutional moment, in George Brown’s words

I take a break from talking about the Saskatchewan Catholic school funding case, and turn from dealing with unanticipated consequences of compromises struck at Confederation to the time when these compromises were being made. It is common enough in Canada to denigrate these compromises, a tendency encapsulated in the former Justice Binnie’s comment, his exit interview with the Globe and Mail, that we couldn’t possibly be originalists because

[w]e don’t have a Jefferson or an Alexander Hamilton or a Benjamin Franklin, for us to read their views on what the Constitution does or doesn’t mean. At the Quebec conference, Sir John A. Macdonald’s most memorable reflection was: “Too much whisky is just enough.” That was the guidance we got as to our Constitution.

The Quebec conference was held behind closed doors, so we don’t actually know what memorable reflections were made there. But we have plenty of other sources to consult, if we take an interest in the thought of the Fathers of Confederation. (Many of these sources are now easily available on the Macdonald Laurier Institute’s Confederation Project’s website, thanks to the hard work of my friend Alastair Gillespie.)

I think it’s fair to say that, on the whole, the Fathers of Confederation did not quite have the philosophical depth or literary talent of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. But that is a rather absurd standard by which to measure any group of statesmen. Considered in their own right, they were much more serious thinkers, not to mention better expositors of their ideas, than they are usually given credit for. Their constitutional endeavours involved a great deal of compromise and concession, as they openly acknowledged (in contrast, perhaps, to the self-assured Publius). But if did not meditate on the meaning of separation of powers, or advance theories of federalism, or leave cryptic thoughts on judicial review for us to decipher, they carried out a practical demonstration of how to solve constitutional and political problems that was, in its own way, no less impressive ― and has arguably better stood the test of time, for now anyway.

As Mr. Gillespie’s work shows, the accomplishments of Confederation are perhaps best appreciated if presented in the words of those who made them possible. So, to finally get to the point of this post, here is an excerpt from George Brown’s speech during the “Confederation Debates”, during which the legislature of the then-Province of Canada considered whether to support the plan developed at the Quebec Conference. Mr. Gillespie’s paper on Brown does not quote it, but it made an impression on me when I read it recently, and I wanted to share it. Having noted that the candidates supporting the confederation plan have been receiving wide popular support in recent elections, Brown goes on to argue that people outside Canada ― which is to say, mostly, in the United Kigdom and in the United States ― have been noticing too:

And well, Mr. Speaker, might our present attitude in Canada arrest the earnest attention of other countries. Here is a people composed of two distinct races, speaking different languages, with religious and social and municipal and educational institutions totally different; with sectional hostilities of such a character as to render government for many years well-nigh impossible; with a Constitution so unjust in the view of one section as to justify any resort to enforce a remedy. And yet, sir, here we sit, patiently and temperately discussing how these great evils and hostilities may justly and amicably be swept away for ever.

We are endeavouring to adjust harmoniously greater difficulties than have plunged other countries into all the horrors of civil war. We are striving to do peacefully and satisfactorily what Holland and Belgium, after years of strife, were unable to accomplish. We are seeking by calm discussion to settle questions that Austria and Hungary, that Denmark and Germany, that Russia and Poland, could only crush by the iron heel of armed force. We are seeking to do without foreign intervention that which deluged in blood the sunny plains of Italy.

We are striving to settle for ever issues hardly less momentous than those that have rent the neighbouring republic and are now exposing it to all the horrors of civil war. Have we not then, Mr. Speaker, great cause of thankfulness that we have found a better way for the solution of our troubles than that which has entailed on other countries such deplorable results?

Now the last paragraph strikes me as an exaggeration. Were the differences between Upper and Lower Canada, British and French Canadians, Protestants and Catholics, truly comparable the conflict over slavery that caused the American Civil War? Brown might have been afflicted with the same blindness about the nature of that war that made Lord Acton, the great liberal, support the South in the name of preserving federalism. But he was also in a self-congratulatory mood (and readers of Mr. Gillespie’s paper will understand why Brown had cause for self-congratulation just then), and no doubt a boastful one, as any politician trying to sell others on his dearly held idea.

Yet despite his rhetorical excess, Brown was fundamentally right. It is true that the differences of religion, to say nothing of the forces of nationalism, had ― and have since he spoke ― often led to hatred, to open conflict, to outright war. The Fathers of Confederation found a way, not to sweep them away for ever, admittedly, but to create a constitutional framework within which opposing forces could be accommodated, and indeed made to work together, in a way that not only kept them at peace, but created one of the most successful polities of the last century and a half.

Contrary to what the denigrators like to say, the mid-1860s (and perhaps the longer period from the late 1850s to the mid-1870s) were a true “constitutional moment” in Canada. It deserves our respect, and our attention. We need not be uncritical of those who made this moment possible. But we profit, to this day, from their practical wisdom and political talents. We should not forget that.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

1 thought on “A Constitutional Moment”

  1. Well said. I would also put a plug in for Cartier’s (equally self-congratulatory) speech on February 7, 1865 as setting out a new political theory, which are more modern than Publius in the sense that they focus on the relationship between political identity and pre-political identities. It is a kind of response to Durham, on the one hand, and the identity politics of the present, with its celebration of the “diversity of the races”, but subject to a common “political nationality” that would turn the war of ethnic identities into a beneficial competition. It is definitely in the spirit of Federalist No. 10, but it addresses identity politics more directly. Unfortunately, Brown and Cartier have both been forgotten in favour of a cartoon version of John A. Macdonald (a cartoon he cultivated himself).

    In addition to innovating binational, bireligious, bilingual federalism, they also created the first example of parliamentary federalism — which was adopted by Australia, the German Federal Republic, India, Nigeria and South Africa and now (more-or-less) the mother country itself. Some sensible Home Rule people looked to the achievement of 1867 for models for Ireland, although sensible people obviously lost that one.

    I just wish you could see that the 1981 arrangement has a similarly deep contribution to these fundamental questions.

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