Post Your Opinion
Liberty or Citizenship
by Darcy Wudel

"Canada is a table filled with beer." "Canada is the loneliness of a long distance folk singer." These and other lines like them cover the front of this book. One might suspect that it is a sort of pop-culture treatment of Canada's identity question. It is not. Canada's Origins is, rather, a collection of essays that seriously addresses the question of what Canada was intended to be and the question of what Canada ought to be today.
If the cover is deceiving, so too is a first glance at the introductory material and the table of contents. The book seems to address an academic debate about which "ideology"-liberal, tory, or republican-truly shaped Canadian history. The interpretation of Canadian history, the editors do indeed tell us, has been dominated by two camps. On the one hand, a liberal camp stresses the Canadian devotion to Lockean principles, particularly capitalism and property rights. On the other hand, a Laurentian or conservative camp stresses a tory or feudal legacy in the Canadian founding that makes the country different from the United States, Canada being more given to the use of government power for the sake of the greater good of society, or, in other words, more given to socialism. The editors agree that these interpretations are flawed because they fail to recognize the depth and seriousness of the debate in Canadian history between republicanism (which stresses radical democracy and citizen participation) and liberalism (which stresses the creation of institutions to preserve liberty in the face of radical democracy).
But the book is more than an attempt to present better historical scholarship. Ajzenstat and Smith are antagonists as well. Ajzenstat champions liberalism for Canada today; Smith, for his part, champions republicanism. At the end of the book, the two of them present themselves in a dialogue about contemporary Canada and explicitly point to the significance of their historical work for contemporary political debate. Smith and Ajzenstat-along with the various other authors in the book-do not disagree so much about what Canada's origins are. They disagree about who should have won, about which is the political theory that ought to shape the lives of Canadians. Speaking historically, it is clear that the liberal view won, though it is now somewhat beleaguered. But it is now time, say the republicans, to revive republicanism in Canadian political life. The liberals, in turn, ask us to reconsider the virtues of liberal political order, as it is threatened by illiberal tendencies.
The basic argument for the importance of republicanism to the country's origins is expounded by Smith and Louis-Georges Harvey. Smith writes about the ideological origins of Confederation and about the political thought of the Loyalists. In Confederation, he finds the ascendancy of various branches of liberal thought. But there he also finds a persistent strain of republicanism that stressed local autonomy over the strong central government favoured by liberals. With respect to the Loyalists, Smith presents compelling evidence that they were not overwhelmingly liberal and that they were certainly not tory or feudal in outlook. Likewise, Harvey's examination of the political discourse in Lower Canada reveals that republicanism decisively shaped political thinking in the period leading up to the Rebellion of 1837.
For Smith, the discovery of republicanism in the founding and its absence as a strong force today mean that politicians thinking liberal thoughts are able to attack what is good and distinctive about Canada. He believes that it needs its republican legacy. He thus hopes, for example, that an awakening of republicanism might to help save Canadian health care, which is threatened by "liberal ideas" that "lead away from the use of the state to solve common problems."
The liberal side of this story is presented by Ajzenstat and three others. Ajzenstat writes about Lord Durham (the Governor of Upper and Lower Canada after the Rebellion) and John Beverley Robinson (a Chief Justice of Upper Canada) in one chapter, and about Etienne Parent and Joseph Howe (politician-reformers from Quebec and Nova Scotia) in another.
Rainer Knopff writes about Wilfrid Laurier and his dispute with the Catholic Church in Quebec about the Church's right to interfere in politics. Colin Pearce describes the broad outlines of the thought of Egerton Ryerson (a shaper of politics in Upper Canada and the Dominion). And Robert Vipond discusses David Mills, who, as the editor of the London Advertiser, provided a theory for the provincial rights movement, and, who, as a cabinet minister in Ottawa, moved against certain assertions by the provinces of the right to govern as they pleased. These chapters all present careful analysis of the arguments made by each thinker for the worth of various aspects of a liberal political order: strong government, commerce, religious toleration, for instance.
Ajzenstat's chapters are an excellent short course on liberalism in Canada. Her analysis of Durham, Robinson, Parent, and Howe points to a certain liberal wisdom in Canada's origins. These liberal thinkers all aimed to put in place institutions that would, above all, preserve freedom. For all of them, that meant building institutions that would provide positions of power and prestige for the politicians whose ambition had led them to attack the old order in Upper and Lower Canada. To put it simply, she argues that thinkers like Durham, Robinson, Parent, and Howe rightly sought to control republican sentiment because its outbursts led to disorder.
Republicanism had to be domesticated for the sake of preserving freedom. She confesses a grudging admiration for republicanism and its emphasis on participation and the virtues that are supposed to follow therefrom. But she thinks that republicanism is probably impossible to institute, or, if it happens to be possible, that its democratic element would ultimately endanger freedom. From Ajzenstat's standpoint, the important conclusion to be drawn from the historical research presented is that Canadians do not fully understand or appreciate the worth of the liberal tradition in Canada. Thus Canadians should be dwelling on freedom, or, better, on the institutions that make a life of freedom possible and enduring-not on the differences between Canada and the United States or anything else that might distract from the task of preserving freedom. Now at the same time as the careful reader takes in this conclusion, he or she must note that not all the liberals presented are completely committed to the liberal agenda.
Here Pearce's essay on Egerton Ryerson is particularly provocative. He points out that Ryerson, in spite of endorsing crucial features of liberalism like toleration and commerce, was wary of the erosion of national culture by the homogenizing forces within liberalism. In particular, Ryerson voiced stern opposition to Goldwin Smith's argument that Canada ought to consider union with the United States for economic reasons. For Ryerson, there are values beyond economic growth.
As we North Americans enjoy our rights and race through our malls shopping at the Gap and Radio Shack, renting at Blockbuster, drinking coffee at Starbucks, eating at Burger King, we are called to think seriously, along with Ryerson, about the charms-good and bad-of differentiation.
This volume of essays, then, succeeds in a number of ways. First, it does much to give us a clearer picture of Canada's history, particularly the period that led up to Confederation. Anyone who reads it will have a better sense of the questions that had to be addressed and of the politicians and statesmen who were involved. Secondly, the essays here point beyond themselves to documents that should be better known. The sound study of American politics begins with a few well-known authors and documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist, for instance). Canadian politics has a rich documentary history that has not been tapped as it ought. (Any reader of Canada's Origins intrigued by the documents cited ought to turn to Canadian Political Thought, edited by H. D. Forbes, and published by the Oxford University Press, for further help.) Thirdly, Canada's Origins could well enliven contemporary debate. Looking into Canada's past we encounter the debate between republicanism and liberalism. Having looked at an original version of that debate, we are better prepared to understand the debate as it is played out today-if we care to listen to it.
The cover of Canada's Origins would have us believe that "Canada is a last cigarette" or that "Canada is scrap metal." What this volume shows us, instead, is that Canada is a country of complex origins, origins that we must understand if we are to make sense of our complicated contemporary debate.

Darcy Wudel teaches political science at Averett College in Danville, Virginia. He is originally from Edmonton. He recently completed the doctoral program at the University of Toronto.


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