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.

This geopolitical context precipitated the formation of our federation, and has been present ever since. And herein lies my point: the federation has been successful in that it has allowed us to maintain distinct societies apart from the Great Republic. Should the federation fail, it is not at all certain that English Canada, French Canada and the “First Nations” would survive as they have done for nearly 150 years under the umbrella of Confederation. How, in day-to-day terms, we should manage our political, economic and cultural relationship with the Great Republic is a topic for another article. However we choose to manage it, our geopolitical position as a small country adjacent to the modern Rome remains an important factor determining the nature of our federation as long as the United States of America remains intact.

The withering of Canada’s political culture

We come now to the second question, the withering of the political culture prevailing at the time of Confederation. The then-prevailing political culture was crucial in creating the institutional machinery of our federation and in making it work for the next century. Incidentally, I embrace the distinction between political and social culture that Ajzenstat insists on in her analysis.

For those living within this political culture, the major political institution was parliamentary government as forged in the British tradition, responsible government in a constitutional monarchy. These institutions were in place in the pre-Confederation British colonies, and the British North America Act extrapolated them to create a new asymmetrical federation, with the American counterexperience in mind. In the British parliamentary tradition, the operative entity is the country (the United Kingdom or the Canadian or Australian federation); nations may be recognized but only at the provincial level (for example, Scotland in the U.K. or Quebec in Canada). Nations are a matter of social culture. The Canadian federation – or the U.K. for that matter – is not a nation. It is a multinational country, not a multicultural nation.

The multinational character is important to an understanding of the nature of our federalism. In this regard, I am totally in agreement with Kymlicka. The entire second half of Finding Our Way is devoted to the argument that Canada is and should be recognized as a multinational country (not a nation). He comes to the conclusion that Canada’s survival is dependent on acceptance of this vision of our federation by English Canada. Ajzenstat’s position on this question – with which I also wholly agree – is that Canada came into being as a political and not a social or cultural project.

Very succinctly, Kymlicka and Ajzenstat argue, as I do, that the federation was created by preexisting nations that, by treaty or quasi-treaty arrangements, undertook to enter into a parliamentary federation. For French and British Canada, the “treaty” is the British North America Act of 1867, at which time a British nation lived in Upper Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and some parts of Lower Canada, and a French-Canadian nation lived largely in Lower Canada. Later, subsequent to the founding, other territories were incorporated. British Columbia and Prince Edward Island were clearly British cultural colonies, the three prairie provinces a mixture of British and French settlers. Newfoundland, the very first colony of the British Empire, joined in 1949. Formerly a Canadian colony, the Inuit nation was allowed to reorganize a portion of the Northwest Territories and reenter Canada as a nation presiding over Nunavut. More than 500 First Nations, many of which have some sort of treaty relationship with the British Crown, have also been recognized as nations within the federation. The Canadian Crown inherited the responsibilities of the British Crown, and subsequently assumed other treaty responsibilities with respect to the First Nations.

The French-Canadian nation has become concentrated in the territory of Quebec. By dint of this, the Quebec Crown and legislature have increasingly become the de facto political representation of this nation. As for the British nation in Canada, it has, unfortunately, simply faded away (or has gone into hiding). Since the mid-1960s it has become meaningless to speak of the Canadian British nation. Kymlicka speaks of “English Canada” (not English-speaking Canada) as its replacement. Ajzenstat, who is primarily occupied with the question of political culture, does not address the question of contemporary Canadian social culture, limiting herself to “civic identity.”

And this is where, Kymlicka argues, a major problem arises. No longer a nation, English Canada has embarked on a nation-building enterprise to make of all Canada a new multicultural and bilingual Canadian nation. Having abandoned their British cultural heritage, English Canadians have been in a nation-building mode since the 1960s. The 1982 Constitution Act was the first formal embodiment of this new unitary multicultural pan-Canadian nation.

This nation-building program is an attempted refashioning of the history of the federation. Try as the new English-Canadian “national” elite may – rewriting history and pumping out publicly funded Canadian nationalist rhetoric – this exercise perverts the nature of the federation and imperils its future; as well, Kymlicka argues, it is a missed opportunity. Ajzenstat worries that the 1982 constitution leads to the demeaning of Parliament and parliamentary deliberation, and hence weakens the political culture on which the federation was built.

Such nation-building is a perversion because 1867 was a political pact assumed by the new Canadian Parliament. As a pact between two nations, it allowed for the recognition and later inclusion of other preexisting nations, notably Newfoundland and the First Nations. Canada was created as a country, not a nation. A symbolic manifestation of this is the inscription on Canadian war memorial monuments or honour rolls (except those that have been “renovated”): all Canadians who participated in the two great wars – the supposed crucibles of the “Canadian” nation – went off to fight for “King and Country,” not as citizen warriors of the Canadian nation. At least that is what the parents and friends who erected the monuments thought.

Furthermore, the logic of our British parliamentary institutions does not allow for change in the nature of the original pact unless the original parties to the pact consent, which has yet to take place. Quebec has not endorsed the 1982 constitution. Nor can a British parliament divest itself of its own powers, as happened in 1982 when the Charter of Rights was elevated to extraparliamentary status. Making it an entrenched constitutional element opened the door to broad judicial review and reduced parliamentary power. Vitiating parliamentary supremacy, as the 1982 constitution has done, has created a major challenge to Canada as we know it. For instance, the asymmetry of multinational federalism – whose only intrinsic justification is historical – becomes more difficult to justify in courts basing their decisions on Charter rights, as opposed to “the evolving unwritten constitution” as our parliamentary tradition would have it. For instance, the asymmetry of 1867 embodies conventions dating to the Quebec Act of 1774 and the Constitutional Act of 1791. The Quebec Act allowed for the holding of public office by Catholics at a time when such was not possible in England itself. The protected status of Catholic public schools in Ontario, for example, is a direct legacy of 1774. For the moment, this status has withstood the assault of rights advocates and activist judges educated after the sixties. But for how long?

To summarize, the political culture in which the federation was spawned, and which ensured its success over the subsequent century, was that of mid-seventeenth- to mid-eighteenth-century Europe. Ajzenstat argues that in this culture, the protection of liberties, in the Lockean sense, was fundamental; and this, indeed, is what was meant by “British liberties” (a term still used in political discourse down to World War II). This political culture was nonrepublican and, as was the social culture of the British and French nations living in North America, conservative. This “conservative” nature of both the political and social culture is perhaps best accounted for by Louis Hartz’s notion of “fragment” cultures. British and French Canada were “fragment” cultures (Hartz identifies them as such) of European Greco-Judaic-Christian culture.

The new nation builders are neither mindful of, nor committed to, the future of Canada’s original political culture. Most are republican, liberal and ambivalent about the value to Canada of the Greco-Judaic-Christian tradition. These would-be nation builders pose a threat to the survival of our federation. Their attempts to engineer pan-Canadian or Quebec national identities have been too hasty and too brazen. State-sponsored identity creation, usually an amplification of academic identity engineering, is potentially quite devastating.

It is disrespectful to intimate to grown citizens – be they “French” or “British” Canadians – that the identity they grew up with is no longer of public interest, and should be relegated to the private sphere. Only ideological liberals would attempt such identity theft. It is the inevitable consequence of overzealous nation building.

One identity manipulation in recent Canadian history has been the state-sponsored displacement since the 1960s of the British identity in Canada. Those living outside Quebec and born before 1950 were raised in the culture of British Canada. They were schooled in an identity that represented the best of the British cultural tradition and saw themselves as proud inheritors of this tradition. George Grant was an emblematic case. These Canadians had to unlearn their identity and assume a new pan-Canadian identity. These pre-Charter British Canadians have been reduced from the status of a founding nation to that of an ethnic group in a multicultural Canada. To expurgate so-called “Anglo-conformity” – the term is a product of American sociology – has required much rewriting of history and indoctrination.

Contemporary Quebec nationalism is another example of the force-feeding of a new identity. The cultural and political elite of the Quiet Revolution decided to jettison the existing French-Canadian identity. Unfortunately the operation was botched because it was undertaken too hastily: the cultural underpinnings of the new identity did not have the time to be distilled and to mature into a cultural tradition. Even the Quiet Revolution generation that engineered the new identity is now unsure of what the new Quebec identity consists of, apart from the French language. Such a weak identity may no more have the wherewithal to resist Americanization than has the English-Canadian identity.

As already noted, Kymlicka sees the absence of an English-Canadian identity as one of the major obstacles to the success of a multinational Canada. Yet an identity exists only where there is a shared cultural heritage. What is, or could be, the shared cultural heritage of a multicultural English Canada? Now that we have eviscerated the British cultural heritage, there isn’t one, at least not in the immediate future and perhaps not for at least another quarter century. Too much time has been lost in the futile effort to manufacture a pan-Canadian “national” culture, time that could have been spent in fashioning a multinational Canada.

Is the Canadian federation still workable?

The would-be nation builders who have tried to bring into being as yet nonexistent nations have not served their country well. While they have been successful in deprecating the old “English-Canadian” and “French-Canadian” narratives about the founding of Canada, they have nothing of real substance as a substitute. Nationalism, they have implicitly believed, would bring with it a new shared social culture. This has not yet happened. They have, in the meantime, eroded by design, neglect and historical ignorance the once-prevailing Greco-Judaic-Christian tradition (in addition to the existing political culture) as nurtured and domesticated in the crucible of the New World. The Confederation-era political culture, and the accompanying social cultures, no longer have meaning for Canadians under 50.

One of the major justifications for the multicultural nation-building exercise has been that newcomers from other cultures, particularly non-European ones, do not identify with the old “narrative.” However, these people did choose to come to Canada and they chose a Canada which is the outcome of the political culture of the “founders” (to use Ajzenstat’s term) and the shared Western or European Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition. It is these cultural traditions that produced the Canada they chose to adopt: an open, free and prosperous society. We could have invited them to acquire an adequate understanding and respect for these cultural traditions, while pointing out to them that there is to be found the essence of the Canadian success. Had we done this, there would never have been a need for a republican-style constitution (1982) and a new manufactured civic nationalism which has proven ineffective and dysfunctional in terms of the particularities of Canada’s geopolitical fate.

There is nothing wrong with allowing people the responsibility and freedom of choosing: choosing the Canada of the “founders.” As it is, they cannot choose because we tell them that Canada will be what they make of it – which begs the question of whether a legitimate Canadian narrative currently exists. And if one – a substitute for the pre-nation-building era narrative – does not exist, then we are in dire straits. What do grandparents narrate to their grandchildren? Obviously, there is little to narrate because the civic nationality does not yet exist – only academic and cultural leaders think they know what it is because they are the ones making it up. The rest of us are culturally disenfranchised. This fundamental irresponsibility is essentially what the immigrant author Neil Bissoondath decried in his book Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada.4

Because the shared public values, institutions and narratives that made possible an asymmetrical federation have been displaced, the Canadian federation may well cease to be workable. Will a federation led by republican and “universalistic” political and media elites be able to do what is necessary to accommodate Newfoundland and Quebec nationalism? Will it be able to accommodate the grievances of Nova Scotians who were betrayed when Harper’s government abandoned the “Atlantic Accord”? Will it recognize Native grievances based on violation of treaties with the British Crown? Can it rehabilitate parliamentary institutions treated with disdain by professional politicians such as Stephen Harper and Jean Charest? Will it adequately respect provincial and territorial jurisdictions which are an integral part of the Canadian constitution? And lastly, will such leadership be a source of public inspiration that goes beyond material and short-term group interest? Not very likely.

The Canadian federation may falter and fragment not only because it has been unworkable internally, but – and this is the crucial point – because there will no longer be a political will for the maintenance of such a federation in face of the Great Republic to the south. When our political culture becomes essentially the same as that of the Americans, despite residual differences in social culture, there will no longer be any point in being non-American. Our political destiny of being non-American will no longer matter. At that point, why not become several formally independent nations – Quebec, Newfoundland and the Inuit nation, for example? On the other hand, why not become part of the Great Republic – probably the preferred option in Ontario and western Canada? Many in our political and media class would be enthralled by becoming U.S. senators or New York Times columnists.

However flippantly I may have expressed the conclusion in the preceding paragraph, our Canadian federation has in fact been betrayed by the “nation-building” academic, political and media elites in both English- and French-speaking Canada. Restoring the essential cultural underpinnings of the federation would require a cultural revolution among our elites similar in scope to that undertaken by our “nation-builders.” Is such a cultural revolution likely? That is another subject.


1 See Will Kymlicka, Finding Our Way (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1998); Michael Ignatieff, The Rights Revolution (Toronto, House of Anansi, 2000).

2 “Moreover, in the provinces of the East, much of the debate on union took place under the threat of invasion by the United States. Many of the legislators expected to be at war shortly” (Janet Ajzenstat, The Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament , p. 77).

3 Christopher Moore, 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal (Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1997).

4 1994; revised edition, Toronto: Penguin, 2002.