The next ambassador in Washington : diplomatic immunity for a new Dominion of Canada?

Jan 18th, 2005 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

The news that former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna will be the next Canadian ambassador in Washington can prompt at least a few bigger early-new-year thoughts, on just what is going on these days in the true north, strong and free.

It suggests some larger questions about the nature of Canada’s future relationship with the United States – and how this may or may not relate to its now largely historic relationship with the United Kingdom. (And if these same questions also have their raw humourous sides, that is just another attraction of a country that is good at humour, as Hollywood already knows.)

As both the early press reports and the Council of Canadians have observed, Mr. McKenna’s appointment is in some ways more in keeping with American than with Canadian traditions in such matters. It is the US practice that turns former politicians into ambassadors. To date the Canadian tradition has largely been to prefer professional career diplomats.

Yet nowadays most Canadian voters who are actually paying attention might prefer an able and friendly provincial politician like Frank McKenna as Canadian ambassador to the United States, to some faceless federal bureaucrat whose name hardly anyone outside Ottawa knows.

You could say that Mr. McKenna’s appointment just fits into a now longstanding pattern of gradually shifting from British to North American official customs, as the former first self-governing dominion of the British empire has o-so-gradually and moderately grown up. (As Ed Helms recently noted on the Daily Show, the fabled civility and moderation of Canadians is just so adorable – nice Americans at last, or something like that, in some respects.)

The pattern has long been especially identified with the federal Liberal Party. It is arguably all a quite benign and healthy part of Canada’s ultimate inevitable recognition of “our common North American heritage” – in the late 1940s words of the University of Toronto economist Harold Innis, the first and only Canadian to be elected president of the American Economic Association, unless you think that John Kenneth Galbraith is still a Canadian too.

There may nonetheless be a few reasons for Canadians to ponder such things a little more deeply in January 2005. They flow from nagging suspicions that the latest round of benign North Americanization is being accompanied by quiet revivals of the wrong kind of British customs, from the now discredited parts of the old imperial past.

Or as Harold Innis also put it as an academic joke in the late 1940s and early 1950s, “from colony to nation to colony” and all that.

The earlier decline of “the Dominion of Canada”

One current source of such suspicions that you can put your finger on is the rather recent revival of the once almost vanished concept of “the Dominion of Canada.”

Some of us are now alas old enough to still vaguely remember the last days of the real Dominion of Canada, in the late 1940s and 1950s. Then, as we also remember, all of this began to fade in the 1960s, in official Ottawa and the hearts and minds of more than a few people of Canada.

Canada started to turn into something that at least aspired to be more democratically mature than the first self-governing dominion of the British empire (and commonwealth too, by this point) – as well as some kind of post-colonial new country that more democratically acknowledged all the assorted non-British North American strands in its real deeper history in the global village.

Lester Pearson’s new Canadian flag in 1965 probably launched the first big wave of the new Canada of the 1960s. John Diefenbaker had already discovered that the United Kingdom itself was inevitably becoming more interested in the rising new Europe than in the declining old global empire – which also helped lead to the Canada-US Auto Pact of 1965. Then there was the 1967 Centennial of the original 1867 Canadian Confederation. Surely, it seemed in those days, a country that had been around for as long as 100 years ought to be starting to grow up.

Then there was the arrival of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1968. Whatever else, he endured, with only one brief interruption, until 1984. Early on, in the October Days of 1970, he invoked the War Measures Act and put troops on the streets, to combat the terrorist fringes of the early independence movement in French-speaking Quebec – and to show that the rising new united and officially bilingual Canada had some steel in its young bones.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, as some saw it, the earlier Dominion of Canada, whose main “written” constitution was known as the British North America Act, was almost systematically drained out of Trudeau’s new Canadian federal regime, in Ottawa and regional office buildings from coast to coast to coast.

In 1971 the Dominion Bureau of Statistics became Statistics Canada, and Trudeau launched his official multiculturalism policy, side by side with official bilingualism. In 1977 immigration reform that began in 1967 was carried several steps further, and the last vestiges of the historic status of “British subjects” were removed from Canadian citizenship law.

(The earliest beginning of the end for the real Dominion of Canada, right on the heels of the Second World War, was probably the Canadian Citizenship Act of 1947, which first created the legal status of a Canadian citizen as opposed to a British subject in Canada.)

Then late in 1981 Trudeau, with some inadvertently helpful pressure from the sovereigntist movement in Quebec, finally managed to strike a flawed but legally practicable federal-provincial deal to “patriate” the Canadian constitution from the United Kingdom. Among other things, the UK legislation known as the British North America Act would now be more simply known in Canada as the Constitution Act 1867.

This was a task that, despite recurrent trying, no one else in Ottawa had managed to accomplish, however imperfectly, since the need first arose in the late 1920s. (In the wake of the immortal King-Byng Crisis of 1926, between the Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and the British governor general of Canada, Lord Byng. But enough of all that.)

Trudeau’s flawed federal-provincial deal of November 1981 was given its ultimate legal effect with the Constitution Act 1982 – a kind of final joint fundamental law-making act of both the British and Canadian parliaments, which included the quasi-democratic-republican Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in its Canadian version.

By this point the Government of Canada was no longer alluding at all to the Dominion of Canada in its official rhetoric. The July 1 holiday originally known as Dominion Day was legally changed to Canada Day by the federal Parliament on October 27, 1982.

The old dominion’s more recent revival

By the late 1980s the story of late 20th century Canadian constitutional development had begun to grow more murky. It was further punctuated by Brian Mulroney’s so-called Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in 1989 (to say nothing of the failure of his Meech Lake Accord, just in time for the celebration of Canada Day 1990).

Then there was the failed Canada-wide referendum on the Charlottetown Accord of 1992. And then there was the second Quebec sovereignty referendum of 1995, in which the Oui side almost won a bare majority of the province-wide vote. (Up from a mere 40% in Ren Lvesque’s first Quebec sovereignty referendum of 1980.)

By the late 1990s, and no doubt understandably enough, certain among the increasingly diverse cultural and regional political currents of English-speaking Canada had concluded that it was time to start trying to bring something of the old Dominion of Canada that Trudeau had largely deflated back into Canadian public life. A sign you can particularly put your finger on here is the establishment of a domestic non-government organization known as the Dominion Institute.

The Dominion Institute, which was “was established in 1997 by a group of young people concerned about the erosion of a common memory in Canada,” appears to remain quite alive and well during the early new year of 2005. Its executive director is the aptly named Rudyard Griffiths. Its “Patrons” include the former Liberal prime minister of Canada John Turner and the Toronto financier (and former lieutenant governor of Ontario) Hal Jackman.

The Institute’s “Advisory Board” includes Richard Gwyn of the Toronto Star, the Liberal pollster Warren Kinsella, Peter White of the now-embattled Hollinger Inc., Phyllis Yaffe from Alliance-Atlantis Broadcasting, the Canadian historian Jack Granatsetin, OC, and William Christian, a professor at the University of Guelph noted for his work on certain legacies of Harold Innis (who among many other things was also a great inspiration for the career of Marshall McLuhan).

The Institute’s “Corporate Council” is buttressed by Bell Canada and Magna International. Its “Honourary Patron” is “His Excellency John Ralston Saul, C.C.,” consort of the current Canadian governor general of Canada, Madame Adrienne Clarkson, who was born in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. Executive Director Griffiths, “operates with a full-time staff of seven, a yearly operational budget of $250,000 and yearly programming expenditures of $1,500,000,” from offices on the western frontier of the downtown Toronto financial district.

With such resources behind it, it is no wonder that, as the official website explains: “In the space of seven short years, the Dominion Institute has had a far-reaching impact on Canadians’ perceptions of their history and shared citizenship, through groundbreaking public opinion research, high-profile Internet, education and television programming, book publications, and meaningful curriculum reform.”

More concrete immediate evidence of the Institute’s growing influence quite recently appeared in an amusing and otherwise excellent piece of Canadian journalism by Doug Saunders of the Toronto Globe and Mail. It was wittily entitled “Martin’s midnight at the oasis,” and reported on the rather bizarre encounter between Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and Moammar Gadhafi, in a tent in the Libyan desert, just several days before Christmas 2004.

Mid-way through his report, Mr. Saunders felt compelled to observe that Gadhafi’s “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” has “little in common with the Dominion of Canada.” (Some Canadians might still think that “the Dominion of Canada” has little in common as well with the Canada of today, as bequeathed by Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, and Jean Chretien. But that is getting a bit too far ahead of the argument.)

To end his report, Doug Saunders noted that during a concluding press conference at the tent in the desert, “Col. Gadhafi “praised Canada’s multicultural democracy and commitment to rights.” Very soon, the Libyan leader went on to say, he expected “Canada to be a Jamarahiriya” too. And then he “roared with laughter, rocking back in his sofa.”

Prime Minister Martin, Mr. Saunders observed in his very last paragraph, “allowed himself a tight smile and a brief chuckle” in response to this particular comic-opera outburst from his host. But “he seemed too shocked by the whole affair to propose, in return, that Libya maybe ought to turn itself into a dominion, or maybe a constitutional monarchy.”

Doug Saunders’s use of such once-archaic terms as “dominion” and “Dominion of Canada” here, late in the year 2004, might be read as just an eccentric sign of his own private tendency to take the blandishments of Rudyard Griffith’s still very youthful Dominion Institute a bit too seriously. Yet only a few weeks later, the same kind of language resounded again, on an early 2005 edition of the TV Ontario public affairs program Studio 2.

The context here was a debate on the current arrangements between Canada and Mexico, that allow migrant Mexican agricultural workers to pick tomatoes in southwestern Ontario for eight months of the year. On the one side was Min Sook Lee, who has just made a quite interesting critical National Film Board documentary on these arrangements, called El Contrato. On the other side was a gentleman called Warren Burger (not the former US Chief Justice of course), who manages the arrangements for Ontario tomato growers.

Mr. Burger, who looks as if he might have grown up among the same crusty Scotch farmers of southwestern Ontario who also gave John Kenneth Galbraith his start in life, did a very smooth, civil, and moderate (if still not altogether convincing) job of defending the current arrangements for Mexican farm workers in the most northern part of North America. But at a key point in his arguments he too alluded forcefully to the present laws and customs of both “the Province of Ontario” and “the Dominion of Canada.”

Does a new kind of American dominion loom on the horizon now?

Many of those in English-speaking Canada who nowadays support some quite deliberate return to the once largely discredited symbolism of the old dominion no doubt do so because they want to reconnect with certain things that remain valuable in the British North American past, but have been lamentably undermined by the turbulent pressures of the later 20th century.

The notion that Canada remains some kind of “constitutional monarchy,” e.g. – a concept that has always been linked with the concept of the Dominion of Canada, as Doug Saunders aptly enough noted in his recent report on Paul Martin’s adventures in Libya – does continue to distinguish Canada from the United States, in some quite obvious way.

At a time when the now very ancient pressures on Canada to at last just become part of the more perfect union in the USA appear to be in yet another of their intermittent historical upswings, even some very liberal Canadians can see the British monarchy as some kind of continuing worthwhile shield against the apparently never-ending predations of American Manifest Destiny.

It is also true enough that the compromises by which Trudeau finally managed to engineer the Constitution Act 1982 did include retaining the so-called Queen of Canada (also the same person as the Queen of the United Kingdom) at the symbolic apex of the new and altogether independent country that finally managed to patriate its constitution from the United Kingdom. The subtleties of all this still seem lost on the likes of Moammar Gadhafi, and many others outside and even inside Canada. But it is no doubt quite obviously different from the United States.

Yet, as seems all too likely when you really start to think about it, the inescapable and still more conservative deeper truth may prove to be that history does indeed have many cunning passages. In the 21st century the old concept of the Dominion of Canada is probably the exact opposite of a Canadian shield against residual annexationist impulses in the United States.

The ultimate negative political point about being “a dominion” in the old Canadian sense is that, say what you like, it finally is a dependent political status. In 1940 France refused an offer to fuse constitutionally with the United Kingdom, as one approach to dealing with the all too rapid advance of the armies of the Third Reich on Paris. One key objection was that this would reduce France to the status of a mere British dominion in the eyes of the world at large.

In 2005 it is a mark of the hip intellectual sophistication of the new Dominion of Canada revivalists that they do appreciate this point. They confront it by, as it were, trying to wisely and moderately see the negative as some kind of only realistic positive, and all that.

Another intriguing Globe and Mail column by Doug Saunders, from the late summer of 2003, spelled this side of the message out nicely. This time the witty title was “What are the democracy wonks smoking?” The piece raised some apt enough scepticism about those who “want to replace Canada’s creaky voting system with something far more dramatic known as proportional representation, in which Canadians would elect not individuals but parties to office.”

Mr. Saunders agreed that Canada’s present democracy “is flawed.” But he urged that proportional representation would finally “do nothing to fix this.” Then he ended his piece in an unusually interesting way: “We could easily fix Canada’s democracy by replacing the governor_general with a directly elected executive. This is a very exciting idea indeed, but I fear that Canada is still too young and dependent to invite it between the sheets.”

The most fundamental trouble with all this, however, is that, if you are going to choose to be dependent, even just because you think it will be better for your own development for the time being, you still need someone or something to be dependent on. And if the contemporary history of Tony Blair and the War on Iraq makes anything clear enough, it is that Canada in the 21st century can no longer depend on the great global majesty of the United Kingdom, as it certainly did for as much as the first 100 years of the present confederation.

For better or worse, the old anglophone Mother Country can no longer be any sort of Canadian shield against any continuing real or imagined Manifest Destiny of the neighbouring United States. In fact, the new global village having changed as much as it has over the past half-century, the probably only realistic – and certainly most logical – candidate for a dependent new Dominion of Canada to depend on nowadays would of course be the United States itself.

As it happens, just such a new kind of American dominion of Canada, so to speak, has already been at least very gently and briefly proposed in recent American diplomatic literature.

In the wake of the second Quebec sovereignty referendum of 1995, Charles F. Doran of John Hopkins University in Baltimore published an article entitled “Will Canada Unravel? Plotting a Map if Quebec Secedes,” in the September/October 1996 issue of the prestigious US policy journal Foreign Affairs. The main point of the article was that the “United States must take the possibility” that Quebec will eventually secede, in one way or another, “seriously enough to draw up plans for a form of supranational affiliation with the remnants of Canada.”

Professor Doran’s sketch of this concept of Canadian “political affiliation” with the United States, in his 1996 article, does sound very much like an updated version of the old dominion status that the confederation of 1867 was granted by the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

The “resulting entities,” as Professor Doran put it, “would retain their own governments, pay for the bulk of their own services, and for the most part act as self-governing units.” But the “United States would provide foreign security … apart from an indigenous police force.”

However you turn it, this does look quite a lot like the arrangements the original Dominion of Canada had with the United Kingdom, back in the palmy days of John A. Macdonald (who, it could almost be said, had no Canadian foreign policy at all, beyond his immortal declaration: “a British subject I was born, and a British subject I shall die”).

As Professor Doran also briefly noted at the end of his 1996 article, by the end of the 20th century at least the old 19th century American Manifest Destiny concept of simply having the Canadian Provinces accede to the Union as new American States (with the Canadian federal bureaucracy in Ottawa vanishing altogether) no longer had much domestic political attraction in the USA.

Among other things, “most Canadian constituents would vote to the left of the American mainstream. Addition of new states north of the 49th parallel would thus affect the partisanship and voting balance of the American electorate.”

Just where do the Martin government and its new ambassador stand?

A bit more then eight years after Charles F. Doran’s Foreign Affairs article in the US, Quebec has still not actually seceded from Canada. And, if you seriously ponder the real Quebec sovereignty referendum questions in both 1980 and 1995, there does seem a good enough chance that it never will exactly “secede” from Canada – in quite the way that would have the practical consequences for all of North America that Professor Doran was worried about in 1996.

Meanwhile, however, there have been the September 11, 2001 Islamist terror attacks on New York City and Washington, DC. And it does seem that, for some people on both sides of what George W. Bush has recently re-christened “the unfortified border,” 9/11 has given fresh resonance to the speculations about the very broad and open-ended concept of supranational political affiliation between Canada and the United States that Doran sketched in 1996.

Which finally brings us to the ultimate questions. Does the current Paul Martin minority government in Ottawa have any inclination to start taking real steps towards some new self-governing US Dominion of Canada of the 21st century? Is that what John Ibbitson’s “next Canada” finally looks like in the Martin vision of the North American future? And does Frank McKenna’s appointment as the new Canadian ambassador in Washington, effective at the start of March 2005, add up to a troubling sign of movement in this broad direction?

It no doubt makes for more exciting Canadian public debate to say that the answers to these questions for the moment remain unclear. And this may even be the simplest truth.

The Council of Canadians, which was already writing about “Paul the President’s Man” as early as last spring, has just now sent out an organizing email to its local chapters, entitled “5 Things You Should Know About Frank McKenna.” In various ways all five things point to concerns that the friendly former Liberal premier of New Brunswick may be a bit too friendly towards Canada’s always friendly neighbours in the USA.

The same Council of Canadians email also notes a January 11, 2005 report of the Polaris Institute in Ottawa. It concludes that the position of Canadian ambassador to the United States “holds great importance given the number of controversial, divisive issues that exist between the two countries. Frank McKenna’s views on these issues … are unknown to most Canadians. Even more important are McKenna’s current association with the controversial Carlyle Group, given its connections to the arms industry and the Saudi Binladen Group, and McKenna’s public promotion of the arms industry and closer military ties with the United States. These facts are alarming and raise questions about Mr. McKenna’s suitability for this position.”

At the same time, there is already some evidence as well that the still rather new Martin minority government really does not want to revive any kind of mere Dominion of Canada, that depends for its sovereignty on any kind of supranational political affiliation with either the United Kingdom or the United States (or, for that matter, France or China or any place else).

Paul Martin is no doubt more friendly towards the United States than Jean Chretien. But that is not necessarily such a bad thing, especially during the second term of George W. Bush that now looms before the known human universe.

Martin is similarly remaining faithful to Chretien’s independent Canadian foreign policy of not putting troops on the ground in Iraq. And his visit to Moammar Gadhafi’s tent in the Libyan desert this past December is just one of many international adventures he is subjecting himself to, in an effort to show that Canada under his watch does indeed intend to continue to look after its own national security, and to have a forward-looking foreign policy of its own.

(No doubt not all these adventures will be as amusing for Doug Saunders to write about as the tent in the desert. But especially given Canada’s own vast cultural, geographic, and linguistic diversity, nothing Canadian can ever be exactly perfect.)

Late this past December as well the Prime Minister’s Office announced that references to the Queen will henceforth be removed from Canadian diplomatic credentials, “to more accurately reflect the Governor General’s discharge of all of the functions of the Head of State in respect of Canada’s international relations, and to reflect Canada’s status as a fully independent nation.”

The current Government of Canada, it would seem, is not quite as fearful as Doug Saunders that “Canada is still too young and dependent” to contemplate finally replacing the old dominion’s constitutional monarchy with the sovereign people of Canada, in the kind of new democratic and altogether independent Canadian republic that it would still seem all of Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, and Jean Chretien have been working towards since the 1960s.

Meanwhile, Frank McKenna himself has simply noted that he sees his new diplomatic goals as including “raising Canada’s profile in the United States and encouraging some of Canada’s core values” – such things as “multilateralism,” “social programs,” and “civility.” The former premier of Canada’s only bilingual province of New Brunswick “would like the United States to understand us better. Our greatest enemy in the United States is indifference. So I would like, if it’s possible, to work at raising our profile.”

For everyone who still does want to see the rising new people of Canada continue their struggle along the same bold, new, and altogether independent northern North American path they set out on in the 1960s, just what the friendly and able Mr. McKenna finally does make of his new job in Washington will no doubt bear watching.

Canada at least remains fortunate in having quite a few thriving non-governmental councils, institutes, and individuals who will no doubt be doing just that. For the moment this is probably enough to “keep hope alive,” as Jesse Jackson used to say in the USA.

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