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Howard Anglin: Canada, a love story


What follows are remarks I offered remotely, on November 24, 2021, to a private gathering in Ottawa. I was asked to speak about an article I wrote for The Hub after the federal election, in which I had suggested that we are more divided, and the divisions are more irreconcilable, than our national commentariat acknowledges. Because I have been told that my article was too pessimistic, I decided to make the case to this gathering that, on the contrary, my account is probably as good as it gets. It is, in fact, a love story—and just as bittersweet, passionate, and infuriating as the best love stories.

I have been asked to speak today about an article I wrote in the wake of the last federal election. I have had several people—friends as well as habitual critics of mine—tell me that it was too pessimistic. So, today, I intend to make the case that my article was not pessimistic at all; that it was, in fact, a love story.

Now, before I go any further, I should remind you that love stories do not always have happy endings. Many of the best do not: Romeo & Juliet, Anthony & Cleopatra (my personal favourite), Gone with the Wind, Doctor Zhivago, Casablanca … Justin Trudeau and the world’s media.

Our love story begins in medias res in 2018. On November 19, 2018, to be exact, a little over three years ago, at a meeting between the premiers of our two largest provinces: Quebec and Ontario—or, as I believe they are known in Ottawa, both halves of Canada.

Before the meeting, Francois Legault had expressed concern that Ontario was not doing enough to support the language rights of Ontario’s francophone minority. This was after Ford had canceled plans for a francophone university and announced that he would fold the office of the languages commissioner into the provincial ombudsman’s office.

A couple of days before the meeting, Ford had defended his decisions by saying that, while there may be 600,000 francophones in Ontario, there are also 600,000 Chinese Ontarians and 600,000 Italian Ontarians, and that the “province couldn’t please everybody.”

After the meeting, Legault said: “I made it clear to Mr. Ford that I didn’t like that francophones were being compared to Chinese or other cultures.” Legault’s wording ran right down the fault line between Quebec and the Rest of Canada. To many Québécois ears, what he said was just common sense; to many other Canadians, especially in Toronto or Vancouver, however, it was a jarring statement.

Legault’s reaction was a reminder to those of us who live outside Quebec or the National Capital Region that the idea of “two founding nations” is still very much alive, even as it has been almost entirely eclipsed outside Quebec, and especially for anyone under 50, by a competing “multicultural” ideal.

Doug Ford, the former Toronto city councillor for Ward 2 of Etobicoke Centre, and Francois Legault, who grew up in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue at the western tip of the Island of Montreal, were perfect avatars for the two visions. According to the 2016 census, 60 percent of the population of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue spoke English at home, 32 percent spoke French, and only 8 percent spoke another language. By comparison, in Etobicoke Centre, 70 percent of the population spoke English at home while only 0.4 percent spoke French, which didn’t even crack the top-15 languages other than English.

I am not here today to argue for one vision over the other. I am here to record that the tension between two competing conceptions of “who we are”, or three conceptions if you include First Nations (or maybe even four, if you include post-nationalism) was eventually going to reveal fundamental differences that can’t be patched over forever. Sometimes, as in that 2018 meeting, the disconnect between the lived realities and conceptions of Canada in different parts of our country is uncomfortably exposed.

An important contributing factor in this mutual incomprehension has been the methods used over the last 25 years, since the 1995 Quebec referendum, to reduce Quebec separatist sentiment to the lowest level in several generations. These methods, which include recognition of Quebec nationhood plus continued devolution of political power to the National Assembly, have bought national peace at the price of further isolating Quebec from the Rest of Canada. We are, really, “two solitudes” again. At least.

The vision of Canada implicit in Legault’s objection was the vision expressed in the mission statement of the 1963 Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism: to “inquire and report upon the existing state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada and to recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races, taking into account the contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada.” (Italics added.)

After Senator Paul Yuzyk pointed out that the terminology of “biculturalism” ignored the one-third of Canadians who were of neither French nor British descent, Trudeau Sr. implemented the report through two major new federal policies: official federal bilingualism (Official Languages Act of 1969) and official multiculturalism (first announced in 1971). Both ideas were subsequently enshrined in the Constitution Act, 1982, and they have been on a collision course ever since.

When multiculturalism was first promoted as an idea, it was a recognition of the fact of a growing ethnic diversity that began with the importation of Chinese labour to build the CP Railway and Clifford Sifton’s open immigration policy that brought immigrants from Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe, especially to the prairie west. It continued in a post-Second World War wave of immigration that brought Italians, Portuguese, and displaced Europeans. The idea of multiculturalism was a concession to a lived reality, especially on the prairies and in the large cities.

In 1956, when Norman Levine boarded a steamship back to Canada from England to write what would become his book Canada Made Me, it was exactly the mid-point in time between Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes (seven years earlier) and the “Bi and Bi Commission” (seven years in the future). At the time, the myth of two-founding nations was our unchallenged national origin myth, but everything Levine recorded on that trip pointed to our rising multicultural identity.

When Canadians talk about “who we are,” we can mean very different things.

Everywhere Levine goes, he encounters immigrants, loners, and displaced people like himself (the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland). Even when he ventures into the bush to visit a mine he once worked at, or to the Cariboo or to Fort William, the world he encounters is an unsettled world quickly being settled by non-traditional newcomers: Polish labourers, a Lithuanian architect, Finnish book store owners, a Chinese homeless man, and Germans shooting pool.

In the sixty-five years since Levine’s journey, those immigrants, their descendants, and more recent arrivals have built up those unsettled regions and transformed our cities and provinces. Calgary, for example, is no longer the dusty backwater Levine dismissed in two pages. And as the regions have grown, they have developed their own distinct identities shaped by this immigration, as well as by their geography and by local resources and industry.

These non-French and non-British Canadians are no longer merely cultural appoggiatura to the two founding nations, as the Bi and Bi Commission implied. In many neighbourhoods and even in some whole cities, the people the commission called “other ethnic groups” are now the majority. This was the reality that Ford reflected, and to which Legault reacted, in 2018.

If this clash of visions has not yet translated into a major national political issue, it is testament to a useful national trait: our distinctly Canadian negative capability. “Negative capability” was Keats’s term for what he called a great poet’s “ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.” We’ve sustained our peaceful pluralism by not forcing resolutions of latent contradictions, by not insisting that our different lived realities be reconciled to one national vision. But is that sustainable?

What we saw in Ford and Legault’s meeting is that when Canadians talk about “who we are,” we can mean very different things. Some of us are focused more on “who we were,” some on “who we are becoming,” some on “who we should be,” and some of us rather hopefully deny there has to be a choice.

One way that the second Trudeau prime minister tried to avoid such conflicts early on was to move our national identity from one of two or three founding nations to an abstracted post-nationalism with “no core identity.” He caught a lot of flak for saying that, especially from conservatives, but he was essentially right as a descriptive matter.

The problem with that way of avoiding the question, however, is just that: it avoids the question. It doesn’t offer a practical answer to how we can be at once a bilingual and bicultural country, a multicultural country, a post-colonial country, and a post-nationalist country. Or a dozen or more regions with different ideas about who we are as a country.

I’m a fan of the Keatsian approach to Canada and I hope it can be sustained. But increasingly I doubt that it can and I am concerned about what happens if it can’t. When even the premier of Saskatchewan is calling for his province to be recognised as “a nation within a nation,” we need something a little more practical than theoretical post-nationalism.

Less than a year after Ford and Legault’s meeting, Albertans elected a new government on a wave of anger against Ottawa and central Canada. I remember at the time many central Canadian pundits accusing Jason Kenney of fomenting anger against Ottawa or against Trudeau or against Quebec to feed his decisive victory. As someone who was there on the ground, I can assure you that it is not true. There was no fomenting required and any politician who did not channel that anger into party policy would have been dead at the doorsteps.

In response, the new provincial government—for which, full disclosure, I worked at the time—tried to channel that anger away from separatism and into workable solutions. One of those solutions was an old one, in fact, the original Canadian constitutional solution: federalism. Federalism is a policy much older than either official bilingualism or official multiculturalism, one born out of the need to accommodate regional differences that were acknowledged as intractable long before Confederation.

The sources of our divisions today are different and more complex than in 1867, but addressing local issues locally and national issues nationally is still the best idea we’ve had about how to deal with them.

Here I want to be clear about one point: federalism is not a solution to our regional divisions—it was never meant to be—it is a recognition of them. From the beginning, it has been a way to reassure diverse parts of the country that they will not be dominated by a single cultural or economic vision driven by the most populous and electorally powerful provinces.

Remember that Prince Edward Island, despite being the site of the 1864 Charlottetown Convention, refused to join Confederation in 1867. The reason, as former premier Edward Palmer said at the time: “We would submit our rights and our prosperity, in a measure, into the hands of the general government and our voice in the united Parliament would be very insignificant.”

One way in which Alberta pursued this principle was to join several other provinces in challenging the federal carbon pricing scheme. This was part of a larger attempt to push back against national policies that intruded into areas of social and economic policy that the constitution reserves to the provinces. We have since seen more of these national policies, most recently a childcare mandate that comes with more strings attached than a spider marionette.

A renewed respect for the principles of Confederation is the best hope we have for accommodating our many solitudes.

Although the provinces eventually lost their cases at the Supreme Court of Canada, for my money the best opinion in any of the courts that heard the case was the majority opinion in the Alberta Court of Appeal. I want to quote from that opinion because, quite aside from the specific context of the carbon tax, it eloquently (rare for a Canadian judicial opinion!) captures why some of Canada’s regions put so much stock in federalism. The court wrote:

“Time has not eroded the provinces’ rights to have the powers assigned to them under our Constitution sedulously respected. While some may view the division of powers as anachronistic or a barrier to uniform action in service of a common good, the division of powers remains key to our federal state. It is part of the fabric of Canada itself. The federal and provincial governments are co-equals, each level of government being supreme within its sphere. The federal government is not the parent; and the provincial governments are not its children.”

My modest suggestion is that a renewed respect for the principles of Confederation is the best hope we have for accommodating our many solitudes. Federalism and decentralisation may leave us without a unifying national identity, or at best a loose symbolic one, but the alternative is a procrustean imposition of a single, central idea of Canada, which by definition will be alien and unwelcome in some parts of the country. As I wrote in my article: “The real virtue of federalism is not that it allows for policy experimentation, though it does, but that it does not impose a single vision of government on a diverse country.”

I realize that I promised at the beginning of my talk that this is a love story, and it may not sound like I have talked much about love. But I have: everything I’ve said so far is part of our national love story because through it all—our changing character, growing apart, misunderstandings, quarrels, and two near divorces—we have stayed together as a country.

Most of you will know that the title of Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes comes from the Austrian poet Rilke. In one of his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote that: “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” That is one translation of Rilke’s notoriously elusive style, but there are others.

Mary Herter Norton’s 1934 translation rendered the line as: “The love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” And in 1945, the year MacLennan published his novel, Reginald Snell translated it as: “The love which consists in the mutual guarding, bordering and saluting of two solitudes.”

There are subtle differences here: “protecting” is not quite “mutual guarding”; “touching” sounds rather different than “bordering”; and “greeting” is not the same as “saluting.” But all the variations have this in common: love both depends upon and must overcome difference.

This makes sense. You don’t love your husband or wife because they are like you, or because they are different from you, but because they are like themself. Love is the recognition of another person not as someone who is different from you but as someone who is like themself, someone to be loved as themself, just as you would want to be loved as yourself.

This idea is obviously related to Kant’s insistence that we treat others as ends in themselves and not as means to our own ends. Love is not instrumental, but selfless—it does not demand that the other person change to fit your idea of them, even if you think that you have their best interests at heart and know what would be best for them.

The same idea is expressed in the idea of love, or true friendship, that Aristotle describes in his discussion of philia in Book IX of the Nicomachean Ethics, and which Aquinas describes in his discussion of caritas in Book II of the Summa Theologica. The moral and legal philosopher John Finnis, summarises it this way:

“In friendship one is not thinking and choosing ‘from one’s own point of view’, nor from one’s friend’s point of view. Rather, one is acting from a third point of view, the unique perspective from which one’s own good and one’s friend’s good are equally ‘in view’ and ‘in play’.”

Moving from friendship to federalism, the spirit of love means not imposing one vision of Canada on all regions. It means not asking why other parts of the country can’t be more like your part of the country, like Henry Higgins wondering, stupidly, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Nor does it mean other parts of the country becoming more like your idea of what would be best for them, which is something that comes through loud and clear in central Canadian insistence about how a “just transition” would ultimately help the people of Alberta or Saskatchewan if they could only step away from their jobs long enough to listen.

Federal subsidiarity would be worth pursuing even if it were a less efficient way of allocating governance decisions.

Federalism embraces, or at least facilitates, the idea of respectful difference through something like the principle of subsidiarity, which was introduced in Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical letter Quadragesimo Anno. The original idea of subsidiarity is extrapolated from Aristotle’s rejection of Plato’s radical communalism. Like federalism, it is not primarily an efficient solution, it is a principle of natural justice. Because this point is often misunderstood, I will put it in stark terms: federal subsidiarity would be worth pursuing even if it were a less efficient way of allocating governance decisions. (Contrary to the modern meaning of the word “subsidiary,” subsidiarity does not mean subordination: it comes from the Latin for help or assistance.)

Finnis again:

“The principle [of subsidiarity] is one of justice. It affirms that the proper function of association is to help the participants in the association to help themselves or, more precisely, to constitute themselves through the individual initiatives of choosing commitments … and of realizing these commitments through personal inventiveness and effort in projects.”

As I wrote in my Hub piece, the “constitutional defence of federalism is … different from the idea that federal systems create ‘laboratories of democracy.’” The virtue of federalism is that it allows each province to decide, for itself and through its own communal decisions and actions, among a range of policy choices that may promote the common good given the unique natural and social conditions that obtain there.

Self-government is a never-ending process of decision, debate, reflection, revision, rejection, and new decisions. It is the process that constitutes the act of making and being a society, for the two are one and the same. To pre-empt this process, to take away a community’s process of self-government, is a denial of their dignity, their right to self-determination, which is the opposite of love.

With so many more competing visions and diverse regions today than the two solitudes we struggled to reconcile for the first century after Confederation, I submit that a federalism that embraces the principle of subsidiarity is our best option for realizing something close to the idea of love, philia, and caritas within a single country.

“And they co-existed resignedly ever after” may not be the usual fairy-tale ending to a love story, but it’s better than divorce.

I will end with another line from Rilke’s Letters: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.”

Loving the question of national identity while resisting the urge to solve it may stretch the patience of any federal government, but after several hundred years, Canadians should be used to being patient about our loveable but insoluble country.

Pierre Lemieux: Is populism even possible?


Defined as a political regime in which the people rule, populism seems to be growing in many countries. However, opinions on populism often ignore a basic question: who is “the people”? Over the past 50 years, economists and political scientists have demonstrated that “the people” as a governing agent does not exist. Although the topic may appear abstract or theoretical, it has momentous practical implications for how to interpret election (or referendum) results.

The reality is that “the people” does not exist except as a collection of individuals with different preferences and values. Only on very few issues (a minimum of public order, for example) is there presumptive agreement among all members of a society. Should more milk or more cars be produced, and in which quantities? Who should earn more? On such questions, it is difficult to find many individuals sharing the same opinion. Saying that the people should rule or govern thus means, in practice, that a subset of the people will rule over another subset of individuals whose preferences and values will be violated.

The elusive will of the people 

People (the individuals who make up “the people”) can govern through elections (including referendums). However, it has been shown that voting results do not represent what “the people” wants. The results can be as incoherent as if “the people” are irrational. This fact was first discovered by Nicolas de Condorcet, an 18th-century French philosopher and mathematician, and has since been the object of many mathematical confirmations and elaborations. It is called the “Condorcet paradox” or the “paradox of voting.”

To illustrate, consider an electorate composed of three voters, Voter 1, Voter 2, and Voter 3; and three policy options, X, Y, and Z (such as, for example, an employment subsidy, increased family allocations, and a higher minimum wage). Table 1 shows the hypothetical preferences of the three voters. Voter 1 prefers X to Y and Y to Z; hence his ordering can be represented as “X Y Z.” If this voter is coherent or rational, he prefers X to Z—that is, his preferences are assumed to be “transitive.” Voters 2 and 3 have different preferences, which are also transitive.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson

Now suppose that the three voters are asked to choose between X and Y. Given their preferences, it is easy to see that X will win with two-thirds of the vote because both Voter 1 and Voter 3 prefer X to Y (see Table 2). If the choice is between Y and Z (perhaps in a subsequent election), Y will win. But if the alternative presented to the voters is between Z and X, it is Z that will win. The electorate prefers both X to Z (as the first two elections imply, through the transitivity property) and Z to X—a clear contradiction.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson

Despite each individual voter being rational, the aggregation of their votes is not. An incoherent majoritarian cycle will occur even if no voter changes his or her mind. We cannot know what “the people” wants. “The people” does not exist as a rational chooser.

If we modify the hypothetical preferences of our three voters, certain configurations will avoid the Condorcet paradox. However, the more voters there are, the more likely the paradox will mar voting results.

One empirical confirmation of this phenomenon was observed over seven days in January 1925. With only one senator changing his mind (or being incoherent), the U.S. Senate voted to refer a hydroelectric project to a study commission (X) instead of allowing private development (Y); to support private development (Y) instead of public ownership (Z); and then, finally and inconsistently, to approve public ownership (Z) instead of a study commission (X).

It would not be surprising if, as in the old jest, the Quebec electorate once literally favoured (and perhaps still favours) “an independent Quebec in a united Canada,” even if each individual voter had coherent preferences.

A crucial discovery was made when Kenneth Arrow, then at Stanford University, mathematically demonstrated that the Condorcet paradox generalizes to all voting methods that respect a small number of simple axioms (such as transitivity of individual preferences, non-dictatorship, and independence of irrelevant alternatives). He later won a Nobel Prize in economics. To simplify, Arrow’s “Impossibility Theorem” established that the result of a vote is either irrational (somewhat like in the Condorcet paradox) or dictatorial in the sense that one individual’s preferences win, whatever other individuals’ preferences are.

Thus, the people cannot rule. You either have an irrational people (in the aggregate) who rule, or else a dictator (of the right or the left) who claims to embody the so-called “will of the people.” To feed the illusion that there is one unified people, a populist leader has to find “enemies of the people” that are defined out of the people he claims to represent. History provides multiple illustrations of this.

Other problems exist as well. Notably, different voting methods can produce different results. So, too, can control of the agenda to determine which alternatives are put before voters.

What democracy is good for

There is one sense in which populism would be possible: if it is defined as a political regime in which, as much as possible, each individual citizen governs himself—“self-government” literally. However, there is already a label historically associated with such a political philosophy: classical liberalism, as represented by theorists of limited government such as Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, James Buchanan, and many others.

Populism as commonly and historically understood is an exaggeration and corruption of democracy. Democracy is a good way of changing the political personnel in government. But it does not say anything about what “the people” wants; it just reveals whether a majority, the current one, is or is not satisfied with the current government. This is useful enough, and this is the democracy that is realistically possible.