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Canadian federalism and the would-be nation builders

by Gary Caldwell

The Canadian federation was the product of a particular history and geopolitical context. It will survive only if the original political considerations remain pertinent and if we continue to share the political culture that inspired our institutions. Should one or the other cease to apply, chances are Canadian federalism, as we have known it for almost a century and a half, will come apart. Hence the first question is: do the formative geopolitical and cultural conditions still apply?

The geopolitical context

In the beginning, the Canadian federation was a strategy to sustain two distinct nations in what was left of British North America. The nations in question were the British nation in America, descendants of those who had chosen to stay out of the Great Republic to the south, and French Canada, descendants of the French colonists, mostly from Normandy, who were themselves among the first European settlers on the continent. This strategic consideration was prominent in the minds of the “fathers.”

The political reality of overwhelming economic and military power to the south was there at the beginning, is there today and will be there for a long time to come. We are on the same continent as the Romans of our time. Our geopolitical fate is inescapable. Hence our destiny, if we are to remain Canadians, is to be non-American. It simply will not do, if one wants to understand our federation, to ignore this destiny, as does Will Kymlicka, or to sublimate it into a more general and universalistic discourse, as does Michael Ignatieff in his writing on nationalism.1 By contrast, Janet Ajzenstat, in her recent The Canadian Founding, points out how large the threat of American invasion loomed in the minds of the colonial legislators.2

Canada in its pre- and post-Confederation manifestations has been invaded five times by the Americans; and if circumstances require it – their need for our energy and water, for example – invasion may happen again, although not necessarily by military means. At the time of Confederation, both British and French Canadians had an antirepublican political-cultural heritage. The descendants of British Canadian loyalists had inherited memories of their families’ dispossession and expulsion by the American revolutionaries, while French-Canadian political attitudes were deeply affected by the horrors of the French Revolution of 1789. One of the surprises of Christopher Moore’s writing on Confederation is that many of the fathers had read not only John Locke and John Stuart Mill but also Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.3

At the time, Americans’ sense of “Manifest Destiny” and their having the world’s largest standing army were obviously perceived as threatening to the success of Confederation. Having won the Civil War in 1865, the Union was poised to consummate its Manifest Destiny in the north as it had done in the south (New Mexico, Texas) and the west (California). How many recall that the strategic motive for building the Canadian Pacific Railway was to establish effective sovereignty over western Canada? For that matter, how many know that the Rideau Canal network and the Citadel of Quebec were built as defence works after 1814 in response to the American threat? And finally, how many know that the choice of Ottawa as the capital was also made on defence considerations: the need to keep the capital as far as possible from the border? Both Montreal and Toronto had been overrun in previous invasions.

It would be naive to think that this geopolitical factor is not still pertinent today. The Americans may perhaps invoke the “Monroe Doctrine” whereby anything on the continent that impinges on American interests is their legitimate concern – be it in Cuba, Grenada, Quebec, Newfoundland or Baffin Island. The Americans’ adamant refusal to recognize Canadian sovereignty over the recently opened Northwest Passage is emblematic of this utter disregard for our interests when those interests conflict with their own.

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About the Author

Gary Caldwell
Gary Caldwell is the author of several books on Quebec and a frequent contributor to Inroads. He lives in Ste-Edwidge-de-Clifton, Quebec.


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