The Canadian Regime

269 pages,
ISBN: 1551111128

Post Your Opinion
More Blood, Please!
by Peter Russell

In a "Note to Political Scientists" at the beginning of this book, Patrick Malcolmson and Richard Myers tell us that their objective is to contribute to a revival of "the traditional Canadian approach". This tradition, which they associate with R. MacGregor Dawson and James Mallory, is sober, pragmatic, and, above all, highly institutional. The reassertion of this tradition in a text designed for both university students and Canadian citizens will, they hope, check "seductive but facile calls" for further Americanization of the Canadian regime.

Well, this is certainly no mean objective. Canadians' capacity for self-government is constantly undermined by the massive and asymmetrical exposure of its citizens and its scholars to the American political system. And it is true that the most recent generation of Canadian political scientists have undervalued the importance of institutions in shaping what is possible in our politics. As Malcolmson and Myers observe, one of the most dangerous practical consequences of a public inadequately educated in the institutional structures of their democracy is the cynicism that arises from unrealistic expectations about what can be accomplished in politics.

They do deliver a clear and straightforward account of how Canadian political institutions operate. But if there is a classic Canadian political science tradition-a distinctive way of understanding politics-it is considerably more than this. Canadian political science has from its earliest days harboured a critical political economy tradition. Harold Innis and C. B. Macpherson are as much a part of a distinctive Canadian political science as their University of Toronto colleague MacGregor Dawson. Though Malcolmson and Myers did their doctoral studies in that same department, their rendering of the classic Canadian political science tradition captures only one side of its intellectual legacy. Theirs is a very bloodless institutional analysis. It has little to offer by way of understanding how political institutions respond to and interact with domestic and international economic structures.

The institutional analysis offered in this book is bloodless in a second sense. Readers of the Canadian Regime get very little sense of the deeply diverse nature of the Canadian political community, and its preoccupation with questions of "national unity". Bored and frustrated as we Canadians tend to be these days with this feature of our body politic, it is this, not federalism or a constitutional bill of rights, or the parliamentary system that make the Canadian regime truly distinctive. It is Canada's fate to operate these classic instruments of liberal democracy in a nation-state in which the most important political issues arise from the contested nature of the nation(s) with which its citizens identify. It is success or failure in pulling this off that makes the Canadian regime of interest to the world.

Though Malcolmson and Myers work from limited conceptions of both the Canadian political science tradition and the Canadian regime, they provide a thoughtful and elegant account of the constitutional and institutional structures, formal and informal, through which Canadians conduct their politics. There are excellent chapters on responsible government, federalism, and the Charter, with just the right balance of theoretical insight and empirical detail. Their treatment of responsible government is particularly good and much needed. Many Canadians today have hardly a clue as to how our parliamentary/cabinet system of government differs from the congressional/presidential system. The discussion of responsible government prepares the ground well for chapters on executive and legislative institutions, which, the reader has learned, are not separate branches of government in a parliamentary system. The chapter on the judiciary, which most definitely is a separate branch of government, though strong conceptually, makes the normal mistake of underplaying the role of so-called "inferior" courts, the courts organized and staffed by provincial and territorial governments. It gives the impression that the significance of the adjudicative work performed by these courts matches their designation as "inferior", when actually it is in these courts that the trial of most serious criminal matters takes place. The final section of the book deals with the less formal institutions of Canadian political life: elections, political parties, interest groups, and the media.

The book's coverage of Canada's political and governmental institutions is succinct, well-informed, and, except for two notable omissions, comprehensive. The omissions are Canada's territorial governments-the Yukon, NWT, and the soon-to-be born Nunavut-and its reviving Aboriginal order of government. These are serious omissions, as they leave out developments that add significantly to the distinctive character of Canadian governance.

It would be unfair to compare this book with Dawson's The Government of Canada or Mallory's The Structure of Canadian Government. In those works Dawson and Mallory, writing near the end of distinguished scholarly careers, brought together much of the Canadian political science scholarship of their generation. Canadian political science today is far too vast, diverse, and complex for such a grand synthesis to be attempted. Malcolmson and Myers, much closer to the beginning of their scholarly careers, have more modest scholarly objectives. They are as interested in contributing to public political education as in writing for the university classroom. This is an admirable ambition. But if their work, like Dawson's and Mallory's, is to have enduring value and subsequent editions, they will need to transcend the conceptual and empirical limitations of this first edition of The Canadian Regime. 

Peter Russell is University Professor in the University of Toronto, in the department of political science.


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