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John Fraser: Canada stands alone in still celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday. That’s a fitting thing, even in our post-colonial times

Commentary

So then: happy 205th birthday dear old Queen Victoria. Rather remarkably, strangely even and embarrassing for some, Canada is the only one of Victoria’s many realms (or former realms) that still celebrates her birthday with a day off from work and civic fireworks.

And even in Canada, of course, you could not say this was a universally admired birthday celebration. Our “two solitudes” endure, and in Quebec, Victoria’s birthday has never been celebrated, although there are still lots of places and institutions named after her throughout the province. As for Anglo-Canada, there are also—always—voices decrying “colonialism” who are keen to come up with a whole bunch of rollicking names to replace “Victoria Day”, no doubt plucked from blameless obscurity.

So how on earth has the holiday endured? Very good question, class. Except we hardly have any classes in Canada anymore explaining civic and constitutional history. Even as we embrace self-laceration as the new alternative to national pride and inadvertently keep imbibing an echo culture from south of the border, the Old Girl’s annual birthday celebration keeps popping up on our calendars. At the very least, you could say, it does inject something distinctively different into the echo chamber. On the other side of that chamber, by the way, there are a number of sweet folk down south (and, God help us, possibly also in our own home and native land) who think Tim Horton was a former president of Canada. 

Up until the seemingly endless reign of Queen Elizabeth II, Victoria held the prize for longest serving Sovereign (63 years on the throne). When she died in 1901, the British Empire and its realms and colonies were either at the zenith of their relationship with the Crown or on the way down, judging by Rudyard Kipling’s famous Diamond Jubilee poem, “Recessional”, in honour of the Queen-Empress:

The triumph and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart…

Far-called, our navies melt away,
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

That was written in 1897, a century and a quarter ago. So the question can be asked again: why is Victoria Day still a deal today, and only in Canada?

I think part of the reason is very hum-drum and ranges between Canadian orneriness, some residual strands of respect for our own distinctive history, and perhaps also because, deep down, many Canadians understand instinctively that a country that keeps eschewing or rewriting its past will end up with not much of a future. The corollary to this last point is that a truly mature country—one with a system of continual self-governance that is older than most countries on the globe today can boast—rather likes those elements in its national life which seem distinctive. Canada during the long reign of Queen Victoria came of age as a self-governing dominion and managed to carve out a democratic entity of significance set against the horrendous Civil War in the United States. 

And then there is the Indigenous issue which wouldn’t even have entered a public discussion about Victoria Day up to a couple of decades ago. Prior to being even a self-governing colony, and well prior to Confederation in 1867, the Crown had a distinctive relationship with the original occupants of these lands. It is only recently that we have been able to see that the treaty relationships between the Indigenous nations and the Crown offer a far better reconciliation matrix to move forward in some degree of harmony than anything that has been tried before or since.

Fact: on a fair day in 1838, barely two years into Queen Victoria’s reign—before Prince Albert came a-courting, while rebellion was still very much in the air in Upper and Lower Canada, and a year before Lord Durham’s report was presented to the parliament in Westminster—a young, confident and handsome Mississauga Ojibway chief named Kahkewaquonaby (meaning “sacred waving feathers”) came knocking at the doors of Windsor Castle dressed in his finest leather from head to toe and asked to make an appeal to his Sovereign. The door was opened and tea and sympathy were offered. The Mississauga chief had come to settle a dispute back home with colonial administrators and asked the young Victoria if she would intercede on behalf of the Mississauga community to have the title deeds of their land handed over to their own care so that future incursions into their treaty territory could be parried with documentation. The Queen promised to look into the request and in due course the deeds were handed over.

London, England 22 June 1897. Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession. CP Photo: 1998 (National Archives of Canada) C-028727.

More recently, the relationship between the Mississauga Nation and the Crown received a sweet enhancement when Queen Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, approved a third Canadian Chapel Royal upon a joint appeal by Massey College in the University of Toronto and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. The other two chapels, associated with the Mohawk nation, are in Brantford and Deseronto. Not only is Canada the only country in the world that remembers Queen Victoria with a national holiday, it is also the only country outside the United Kingdom itself with Chapels-Royal which owe their legitimacy directly to the Sovereign. 

When the Chapel Royal designation at Massey College was first proclaimed on National Indigenous Day in 2017 during the muted sesquicentennial celebrations, it was the strangest of time journeys. This is typical of the unpredictable ways of unfolding history, and in this case, there was a metaphysical link made between the day Mississauga Chief Kahkewaquonaby (whose Christian name was Peter Jones) came calling on a young Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, and the then-chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit, Stacey Laforme, was acknowledging the significance of the renaming:

“My people’s ancestors were at Niagara when the Silver Covenant Chain of Friendship was extended into these lands over 250 years ago,” said Chief Laforme at a historic gathering around a council fire created in the centre of the College’s beautiful quadrangle. “It is in the spirit of that gathering that this chapel will serve as a place to gather regularly for this and future generations.

“Confederation set aside our treaty relationships, beginning a very dark chapter in the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples on these lands. The establishment of a Chapel Royal—a space to reflect, learn and reconnect—by Her Majesty and the Massey community 150 years later is a profound act of reconciliation. It will become, in effect a new council fire for our peoples to gather around in love and friendship.”

So happy post-colonial Victoria Day. Thanks to the better parts of our history, there are still good reasons to raise a glass, enjoy the day off and be grateful to live in such an amazing country which, for any of its flaws, still struggles towards the light and is not yet cut off from its past.

The Weekly Wrap: Being young doesn’t make you right

Commentary

In The Weekly Wrap Sean Speer, our editor-at-large, analyses for Hub subscribers the big stories shaping politics, policy, and the economy in the week that was.

Student protestors aren’t on the ‘right side of history’

As the pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel encampments on Canadian university campuses marked another week, we increasingly heard the dubious argument that we ought defer to these student-led protests because they’ve been right in the past.

Daniel Manulak, a historian of Canada’s anti-apartheid movement, took up this case in a recent Globe and Mail op-ed. His basic argument is that the anti-apartheid movement, like the current pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel protests, was similarly driven by young Canadians’ demand for equality and justice and that while it was seen as radical in its days, it’s now rightly viewed as a crucial catalyst for moral progress. 

Two weeks ago, the New York Times Matter of Opinion podcast made a comparable argument about today’s student protests and the American civil rights movement which was by and large fueled by the passions of young people. 

While it’s of course true that social movements tend to be overly represented by young people—and in fact, there’s even evidence that youth participation is associated with successful movements—it’s a historical fallacy to assume that young people necessarily have better moral judgment than others or every social movement involving young people must be self-evidently just.

For the examples of the civil rights or anti-apartheid movements, one can point to highly destructive cases of youth-driven movements, including, most notably, twentieth-century communism and fascism. Think for instance of student-led movements to help establish Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, Mao Zedong’s Red Guards, violent French student strikes in 1968, the Marxist students who helped Ayatollah Khomeini come to power in Iran, and of course various instances of harmful student radicalism in North America. 

One can argue in fact that the positive examples of youthful radicalism are aberrations and the negative cases of radical or reactionary movements driven by young people have tended to be the norm. They’ve just as frequently—and actually more frequently—been on the wrong side of history. 

This doesn’t mean of course that a political or social movement comprised of young people should be summarily dismissed. But it also shouldn’t be instinctively affirmed. We owe young people the same treatment that we ought to grant anyone in a democratic and pluralistic society: a fair hearing of their ideas and agreements. 

This topic was taken up this week in the Munk Debates podcast. If you haven’t listened to the episode, I’d encourage you to check it out.  

We shouldn’t just accept economic stagnation—despite what our leaders say

Statistics Canada released a study this week that reinforced what has increasingly become conventional wisdom: Canada is suffering from a sustained period of economic stagnation. One has to go back decades to find a comparable period in which output per person was flat or declining for as long as we’ve seen in recent years. 

The paper’s key contribution to understanding our economic challenges is as follows: given that GDP per capita has fallen in five of the past six quarters, it’s now 7 percent (or $4,200 per person) below its long-term trend and would need to grow faster than the historical norm over the next decade (1.7 percent rather than 1.1 percent) in order to get back to its pre-pandemic trajectory. 

The paper has generated considerable discussion and debate including a reference in a Conservative Party fundraising email. It hasn’t been fully endorsed though. Claude Lavoie, a former Department of Finance official, published a column in the Globe and Mail on Wednesday that was critical of Statistics Canada’s paper on the grounds that the agency ought to have known that its findings would be politicized. 

Setting aside the obvious problems with the argument that the federal bureaucracy ought not to say or do anything—including releasing basic economic data—that’s contrary to the political interests of the incumbent government, there are other problems with the column.  

The main one is what can be described as a “secular stagnation” mindset. It effectively says that we shouldn’t take for granted that historical growth rates are still possible. There are inherent limits to comparing past economic growth with the future. And we should reconcile ourselves to lower growth—we’re living inescapably in an era of the “new mediocre.”

This line of fatalistic thinking is flawed for three principal reasons.  

First, it’s ahistorical to think that the technological developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that drove our step-change growth were somehow easy and inevitable. No one thought that the steam engine or the automobile or penicillin or whatever other major technological advances that pushed us onto a different economic trajectory were low-hanging fruit. They depended on a culture that was committed to progress.

Second, not every advanced market democracy has experienced the same economic stagnation as Canada. The idea that this is somehow inexorably rooted in our current economic and demographic condition loses its explanatory power when compared to the rates of growth elsewhere. U.S. GDP per capita, for instance, has grown by an average of 1.6 percent per year since the onset of the pandemic. 

Third, it underestimates the inherent risks of the politics of degrowth. The implicit bargain of our governing system is that people defer collective decision-making to political elites in exchange for rising living standards. If the political class is now throwing up its hands and saying it can no longer live up to its end of the bargain, the consequences could be huge. 

If one understands the rise of Trumpian populism in the United States as a demand for better economic outcomes among people and places facing economic stagnation, then calls to reconcile ourselves with lower growth amount to extending those populist conditions at scale. 

The good news is that, notwithstanding Lavoie’s pessimism, there’s reason to believe that we’re on the cusp of major technological developments that can pull us out of stagnation, including mRNA medical technology, the rapid growth of AI-driven large language models, and so on.

As the StatsCan report itself notes: 

The ability of Canadian companies to harness the benefits of new competitive technologies related to artificial intelligence, robotics and digitalization will be critical to the link between investment and productivity in the coming years and potentially important contributors to changes in living standards.

The key point: we have greater agency over our economic future than Lavoie and others seem to appreciate. It’s incumbent on political leaders to advance a renewed pro-growth agenda rather than condition people to lower their expectations. 

PSAC National President Chris Aylward and New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh cheer with workers during a Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) protest on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Wednesday, April 26, 2023. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.
It’s time for Canada’s public servants to return to the office

On last week’s Roundtable podcast, Rudyard Griffiths and I were critical of the public sector unions’ over-the-top reaction to the federal government’s new policy that public servants must be in the office three days per week beginning in September. 

Our weekly exchange generated a bigger reaction than normal. Most of the response was positive. But some were critical of our comments, including those who support remote work in general and those who believed we were wrong to single out public sector workers in particular. 

I thought it might be useful to elaborate on our objections to the union reaction to Ottawa’s back-to-work plan. 

Although we generally think that the negative effects of remote work are underestimated and that all things being equal, workers benefit, individually and collectively, from being in physical proximity with their colleagues, we believe that it’s reasonable to have asymmetric expectations of public sector workers. 

That is to say, while our personal belief is that people should generally be back in the office, we recognize that in the private sector those decisions will be made by employers based on their understanding of the interests of their respective companies. 

Government workers, by contrast, should, in our view, be thought about differently. As taxpayers, we have a collective interest in their workplace arrangements.

There are three chief reasons why we think public servants should be back in the office.

First, we’ve discovered through the We Charity scandal, the ArriveCan scandal, and the details of public servants earning millions of dollars as third-party contractors that there’s a “crisis of culture” in the federal government. One proof-point: The federal public service has grown by more than 40 percent since the Trudeau government took office and yet its service standards and state capacity seem to have deteriorated. Getting back into the office is a crucial step to restoring a more performance-driven culture.

Second, the unionization rate is almost five times higher in the public sector which means that there are inherent limits on the employer’s ability to terminate unproductive or underperforming staff. This is important because we know that public-sector productivity is already generally lower than the private sector’s. Working-from-home can enable public sector workers to lower their productivity even further and yet the government has little to no recourse to address it. Getting back into the office should be understood as a key mechanism for accountability in an employer-employee environment in which traditional forms of accountability are weak or essentially non-existent.

Third, as we discussed on the podcast, there’s something inherently unfair about public sector workers who already benefit, on average, from higher wages, more benefits, and greater job security relative to their private sector peers to also have more flexible workplace arrangements. But there’s also a risk that, in an era of labour scarcity, an asymmetry between the public and private sectors could create perverse incentives for where people want to work. A growing concentration of scarce talent in the public sector due its long list of advantages could come at the expense of Canada’s long-run dynamism and productivity.

That’s because, whatever the strengths of the public sector, it’s not generally viewed as a source of productivity. Many in fact would argue that Ottawa is actually a drag on productivity—which is to say, the deadweight loss of financing and staffing the government typically subtracts from the more productive deployment of these resources in the broader economy. Therefore, as we face a combination of slowing labour growth and ongoing weak productivity, we cannot afford for the government’s workplace arrangements to distort the labour market.

The upshot: Federal public servants—it’s time to return to the office.