Canada votes 2008 .. at least the bad old days of Tory Toronto are gone

Sep 1st, 2008 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

Barbara Yaffe at the Vancouver Sun writes: “We should have known an election was in the cards. Conservatives lately have been mailing a blizzard of political flyers across the country.” But back here on the old east-end Toronto waterfront we seem to have escaped this particular storm. No doubt, no one in Stephen Harper’s party imagines that they are going to win any seats in this part of the country.

Of course it still isn’t dead certain that we are going to have a Canadian federal election as early as October 14 yet. But Mr. Harper has now met with all of Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe, New Democrat leader Jack Layton, and Liberal leader Stephane Dion. And the Toronto Star is telling us: “PM to launch election at week’s end: Sources.” Meanwhile, someone in this office is so old that they have nothing better to do on a beautiful late summer day than look up the Canadian federal electoral history of the east Toronto neighbourhood where the office is located. It seems there once was a time when “Tory Toronto” ruled the roost. (The west-end Richview Collegiate graduate Mr. Harper is a throwback to this era. And Toronto wasn’t really plugged into Ottawa then either.)

1. York East, 1867-1903: Liberal beginnings (and the Hon. Alexander Mackenzie)

Back at the very beginning of the present confederation, in 1867, this now passionately urban neighbourhood was still mostly family farm country, some distance to the east of the City of Toronto. (Even now it is a half-hour streetcar ride from the old city downtown, at the corner of Queen and Yonge streets.)

In those days the Liberals, or the Reformers, or the Grits, as they were variously known, were the family farm party, especially in Ontario. (Which is not by any means to say that no farmers voted Conservative, of course.) And what was then known as the riding of York East was won by the Liberal James Metcalfe in 1867 – and in the subsequent elections of 1872 and 1874 as well.

In the watershed election of 1878 – when Canada’s legendary (and understandably alcoholic) Conservative leader, John A. Macdonald, introduced his so-called National Policy (of industrial development for Southern Ontario, among other things), and returned to office after the first great scandal in Canadian federal politics (over what finally became the Canadian Pacific Railway) – York East was won by the Conservative Alfred Boultbee.

Mr. Boultbee’s tenure, however, was short-lived. In the elections of 1882, 1887, and 1891 York East was won by the Hon. Alexander Mackenzie, the dramatically dour Scotsman who had served as Canada’s first Liberal prime minister, from 1873 (when the so-called Pacific Scandal broke) to 1878. During this earlier period the Hon. Alexander Mackenzie had sat for the riding of Lambton in Southwestern Ontario. He died with his boots on in 1892, at the age of 70, while still serving as MP for the riding of York East. Then a by-election held following his death was won by one William Findlay Maclean, who sat for a party identified in the official parliamentary records as “I Con” – which means “Independent Conservative.” Mr. Maclean also won York East under a similar designation in the elections of 1896 and 1900.

2. York South, 1903-1914: “Independent Conservative” William Findlay Maclean hangs on

Definite hints of our neighbourhood’s ultimate urban destiny had appeared by the early 20th century, when it became part of a new federal riding known as York South in 1903. (As the official records put it, this “riding shall consist of the township of York, and the towns of East Toronto, North Toronto, and Toronto Junction.” Our neighbourhood qualifies as part of what had by then become the town of East Toronto.)

Despite these changes the new riding of York South continued to be held by William Findlay Maclean – who continued to sit as an Independent Conservative, and won each of the elections of 1904, 1908, and 1911. (One somewhat intriguing change during Mr. Maclean’s career is that when he first sat as MP for York East he had reported his occupation in the official records as “Journalist.” Later, when he sat for the new riding of York South, he reported his occupation as “Farmer.” This may or may not suggest that he was more concerned to identify with the township of York in the new York South, than with any of the towns of East Toronto, North Toronto, and Toronto Junction.)

3. York East, 1914-1924: Joseph Henry Harris and the old Tory Toronto begin

The Toronto area federal ridings were re-configured again in 1914. By this time the town of East Toronto had been annexed by the official City of Toronto. For at least two elections our now increasingly urban (or at least “streetcar suburban“) east-end city neighbourhood, on the shores of Lake Ontario, became part of another new riding known as York East. And the old Tory Toronto of ancient legend began to put down some serious roots.

The first of the two elections, in 1917, during the First World War, was won by a Toronto butcher, unusually successful real estate investor, and longtime municipal politician known as Thomas Foster. In 1917 he “was elected as a Union Government candidate,” or supporter of the alleged wartime non-partisan regime in Ottawa, headed by the Nova Scotia Conservative Robert Borden. But Foster then “lost in his party’s nomination … so he ran as an independent and lost his seat in the 1921 election.” Not to worry, however: Foster “returned to City Council for the next three years,” and was “then … elected as mayor in 1925.”

Mr. Foster had an intriguing career in later life as well, to which he has left a monument that still endures, in what is now the Greater Toronto Area countryside. As explained on a Wikipedia website dedicated to his life and times: “He was a great traveler and on one of his trips he was inspired by the Taj Mahal. In 1935 and 1936 he had a memorial temple constructed on a hill between Leaskdale and Uxbridge, Ontario, for his family at a cost of $200,000 … He died at the age of 93 and is buried in the massive memorial on a hill …on Durham Regional Road 1.”

There was something of a whiff of the old Tory Toronto about Thomas Foster. (Like so many local municipal politicians of his era, e.g., he was a member of the Orange Lodge, proud crusader for the cause of Anglo Protestant domination north of the Great Lakes.) But the era really begins in earnest with the election of Foster’s official Conservative Party opponent, Joseph Henry Harris, in the postwar election of 1921. As Mr. Harris’s Wikipedia website explains, he “was a Toronto manufacturer and politician. He was first elected to the Canadian House of Commons as the Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for York East in the 1921 federal election. In 1938, he was a candidate at the Conservative leadership convention, placing third. He remained a Tory MP until his death in 1952.” Put another way, Mr. Harris would be our east Toronto Conservative neighbourhood representative in Ottawa for more than 30 consecutive years – from the early 1920s to the early 1950s.

4. Toronto-Scarborough, 1924-1933: Joseph Henry Harris carries on …

Even though Joseph Henry Harris carried on as MP for 30 consecutive years, the name (and exact geographic definition) of the riding he sat for would change two more times. In the elections of 1925, 1926, and 1930 (all of which, again, Mr. Harris won for the local Tories) it was known as Toronto-Scarborough.

The Canadian federal election of 1926 was in fact the notorious “King-Byng” contest. In this the Liberal leader William Lyon Mackenzie King in effect ran against the Governor General, Viscount Byng of Vimy, for refusing to grant King’s Liberal minority government a fresh election only eight months after the 1925 election, when Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives were conceivably in a position to form an alternative minority government that might work. As it happened Meighen’s government did not work (i.e., command enduring majority support in a Parliament that also included “28 Progressives, Labour and Independents).” There finally did have to be a fresh election in 1926. Mackenzie King’s Liberals discreetly campaigned against the British aristocrat Lord Byng’s interference in the nascent Canadian democracy – and won a majority government that would last until 1930.

In Toronto-Scarborough in 1926 Joseph Henry Harris nonetheless handsomely won his riding for the Conservatives (14,938 votes against a mere 3,556 for his Liberal opponent Frank Norman Walker) – and by implication, perhaps, for Lord Byng as well!

Mr. Harris won the 1930 election by a similar vast margin – 17,122 votes against 6,156 for his Liberal opponent, one William Henry Ford. (This 1930 election was also the only election in Mr. Harris’s entire more than 30-year career in which the Conservative Party he supported actually won a majority government in Ottawa – under Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. The great age of Tory Toronto, in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, was also the great age of the Liberal leader William Lyon Mackenzie King in federal politics – famous for his characteristic Canadian compromising Second World War slogan “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription,” artfully titled toward his supporters in both Quebec and Western Canada.

5. Danforth, 1933-1966: Tory Torontonians Harris and Small finally give way to New Democrat Reid Scott

In 1933 Joseph Henry Harris’s Toronto-Scarborough (and our neigbourhood) riding became known (with some geographic adjustments) as Danforth. And in this guise it would endure even somewhat longer than Mr. Harris himself.

Mr. Harris himself did win the riding again – in the elections of 1935, 1940, 1945, and 1949. The one wrinkle here is that his party changed its name to “Progressive Conservative” in 1943, when the former Progressive premier of Manitoba, John Bracken, became leader of the federal Conservative Party.

On Joseph Henry Harris’s death in 1952, his position as Progressive Conservative candidate in the Danforth riding was assumed by one Robert Hardy Small, who variously reported his occupation as “advertising executive,” “production manager,” and “consultant.” In fact, there was a job in advertising agencies of the era known as production manager and that may partly explain the matter – and/or perhaps Mr. Small found that identifying yourself too obviously with the advertising business is not a good policy for elected politicians. In any case, Mr. Small won the elections of 1953, 1957, and 1958. Yet only in the 1958 election, in which the Progressive Conservative leader John Diefenbaker won the largest parliamentary majority of any Canadian prime minister to date, did Mr. Small win by the kind of dramatic margins that Joseph Henry Harris had commanded almost until his very last election in 1949.

By the 1960s, in Toronto as in other similar places elsewhere, a new universe was blowing in the wind. And as a sign of the times, in the 1962 election Robert Hardy Small was narrowly defeated in the Danforth riding by the New Democratic Party lawyer Reid Scott – as the more or less socialist (or at least social democratic?) hordes began to descend on the neighbourhood. Mr. Small lost to Mr. Scott again in 1963 (and this time the Progressive Conservative Robert Hardy Small actually finished third, behind both Reid Scott and the Liberal candidate John Whitehead. Then in 1965 Reid Scott won the riding for the NDP again, by a quite commanding margin over both his Liberal and Progressive Conservative opponents.

6. Greenwood, 1966-1976: Andrew Brewin for the NDP

In another electoral redistribution in the mid 1960s our neighbourhood’s share of the Danforth riding disappeared into an adjacent, long-established riding known as Greenwood.

In its earlier incarnation Greenwood had been represented by New Democratic Party MP Andrew Brewin since the 1962 election. Rather than foolishly challenge Mr. Brewin for the reconfigured Greenwood seat in the 1968 election (when Pierre Trudeau first became prime minister of Canada), Reid Scott turned to municipal politics, where he “served as a Toronto City Councillor from 1969 to 1976.”

(Much more recently, Mr. Scott, who will turn 82 years old this coming October 23, “announced that he was joining the Liberal Party of Canada because of his admiration of Stephane Dion as well as the Liberal leader’s advocacy of a carbon tax.”)

Andrew Brewin won Greenwood for the NDP in the elections of 1968, 1972 (when the Trudeau Liberals could only manage a minority government, kept in office by support from the New Democrats), and 1974. The Greenwood riding was then abolished in the redistribution of 1976 – but the redistributed ridings did not take effect until the election of 1979.

7. Beaches, 1976-1987: A last Tory Toronto wave … and then Neil Young for the NDP

In Ontario provincial politics our neighbourhood had been part of a Beaches riding in the east end of the old City of Toronto since the middle of the 1920s. It had been held without interruption by the Conservative (and then Progressive Conservative) Thomas A. Murphy, down to the provincial election of 1948 – when a very youthful Reid Scott (the same as above) won it for the old CCF predecessor of the NDP. (Scott could not hold onto the seat, however, and it went back to the Progressive Conservatives in the provincial election of 1951.)

In the redistribution of 1976 a new federal Beaches riding was created as well. Its first election was in 1979, when Joe Clark’s Conservatives won their brief minority-government intergnum in the later era of Pierre Trudeau. In this election the new Beaches riding was actually won by the Progressive Conservative Robin Richardson – who defeated the NDP candidate Neil Young by a mere 518 votes. When Joe Clark’s minority government was defeated in the federal House by the clever tactics of interim Liberal opposition leader Allan MacEachen, Neil Young won the Beaches riding for the NDP in the election of 1980. And he won it again in the election of 1984.

8. Beaches-Woodbine, 1987-1997: Neil Young and Maria Minna

In the federal electoral redistribution of 1987 the Beaches riding was reconfigured somewhat and renamed Beaches-Woodbine. (The north-south old Toronto and region artery known as Woodbine Avenue, some will tell you, is the traditional western boundary of the Beaches neighbourhood in east-end Toronto. But the area west of Woodbine and north of Queen Street to Kingston Road has long been known as the Beaches Triangle, and with recent new housing development on the site of the old Woodbine and then Greenwood racetrack, the Beaches neighbourhood has no doubt expanded west of Woodbine and south of Queen Street too.)

Neil Young once again won the riding for the NDP in the election of 1988 – the so-called free-trade election, which also gave Brian Mulroney his second Progressive Conservative government in Ottawa, after Trudeau’s retirement in 1984. But in the election of 1993, which finally brought the Liberals under Jean Chretien back into office, Neil Young lost Beaches-Woodbine to the new Liberal candidate for the riding, Maria Minna. And in what would prove yet another sign of the times, the Liberal Ms. Minna defated the New Democrat Mr. Young won by a quite dramatic margin – 17,582 to 8,151 votes. (In 1988 Mr. Young had won the riding with 15,760 votes, compared to 14,900 for the Liberal candidate Terry Kelly, and 13,107 for the Progressive Conservative Jim O’Malley.)

9. Beaches-East York, 1997 : Maria Minna’s long reign as Liberal Queen of the old east-end waterfront Toronto

The Beaches-Woodbine riding was reconfigured somewhat in 1996, and then its name was changed to Beaches-East York in 1997. It was reconfigured somewhat again in 2003. Yet in all four elections of 1997, 2000, 2004, and 2006 the riding has been won handily enough for the Liberals by Maria Minna.

The New Democrats have tried valiantly to regain what they once regarded as their own turf – ever since the days of Reid Scott in the 1960s. In 1997 and 2000 they ran the well-known University of Toronto economist and Canadian nationalist Mel Watkins against Ms. Minna, but to no avail.

In 2004 they ran Peter Tabuns, who subsequently won a seat in the Ontario provincial legislature and is now frequently talked about as a possible successor to retiring Ontario provincial NDP leader Howard Hampton. In 2006 they ran Marilyn Churley, a popular and long-established NDP figure in the Ontario provincial legislature. In both cases Ms. Minna won handily enough for the Liberals again. (Though she did beat Ms. Churley by only 2,778 votes in 2006.)

You might guess from Ms. Minna’s name that she is a Canadian of Italian descent. And her official biography confirms the point: “Maria Minna was born in Pofi, Italy, on March 14, 1948, and immigrated to Canada at the age of nine. She grew up with her family in Toronto, taking a job at an early age to assist in paying off the family mortgage and to provide for her younger sisters’ education. Maria completed her Honours BA in Sociology at the University of Toronto as a mature student.”

A person unfamiliar with the demography of Beaches-East York might also guess that Maria Minna is as successful as she is in the riding, because it has a substantial Canadian-Italian population. But it does not (although it does probably have a substantial population of people who nonetheless like traveling to Italy for vacations).

All this does likely say something about how the Liberal Party of Canada works, or has traditionally worked at any rate. The Italian community in Canada has been an important strategic part of the Liberal Party political base for well over a generation now. And this probably has helped Ms. Minna, you might say, secure the Liberal nomination in what is now Beaches-East York. But traditionally at least there has been more elitism than populism in the Liberal Party electoral machinery. Ms. Minna’s strength is that she is a hard-working local MP who builds and nourishes her local networks, and supports the Liberal machine in Ottawa. The people who vote for her in Beaches-East York are pleased enough that she has Italian roots, because, while not in most cases of Italian descent themselves, they like to think they support Pierre Trudeau’s multicultural Canada. (Besides, nowadays being of Italian descent in Toronto is almost like being an Anglo Protestant in the Toronto of the 1920s. Something similar might be said about being French Canadian, and nowadays too it is not all that uncommon to hear French spoken in this riding. As people of African or Asian descent sometimes complain, there are still at least such updated whiffs of the old local Anglo Protestantism in Beaches-East York, much to the regret of many who live in the riding now – and everyone in our counterweights office, especially those of African or Asian descent, etc, etc, etc.)

10. What will happen here in 2008?

Assuming we are now going to have a Canadian federal election on or about October 14, 2008, what is going to happen in Breaches-East York?

One thing that seems clear is it’s quite unlikely Stephen Harper’s Conservatives will win the seat – even if, Canada-wide, “Harper Tories on the brink of majority, poll finds.” The bad old days of Tory Toronto, in this riding as elsewhere, are now long gone. The most likely prospect, apparently, is that, as in 2006, it will be a dust-up between Maria Minna for the Liberals and Marilyn Churley for the NDP.

We base this on a complaint from Ms. Minna’s website, dated July 29, 2008. It reads, in part: “NDP Leader Jack Layton should repay Canadian taxpayers for the estimated $50,000 cost of printing and mailing two election-style brochures misrepresenting the voting record of Beaches-East York Member of Parliament Maria Minna … This is a dishonest attack on my voting record,’ Maria Minna said today. Canadian taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for sleazy NDP election propaganda’ … The two brochures, mailed within days of each other to homes throughout Beaches-East York, are part of the NDP Leader’s ongoing campaign to have NDP candidate Marilyn Churley, a long-time friend who lives in his riding of Toronto-Danforth, replace Maria Minna as the MP for Beaches-East York … Jack Layton is determined to get me out of here and he has no qualms about making the taxpayers pay for Marilyn Churley’s election material,’ Ms. Minna said.”

At last, all this takes us back to Barbara Yaffe’s complaints about similar practices by the Conservatives in other contexts, as voiced recently in the Vancouver Sun. (And among many other things, by the way, along with being something of a refuge for francophone Quebecers, the Toronto riding of Beaches-East York has sometimes been described as full of “Vancouver wannabees.”) But we think Ms. Minna ought not to be too worried. None of us in the counterweights office, deep in the heartland of Beaches-East York, has as yet ever seen or at least actually noticed any of this “sleazy NDP election propaganda.” So it can’t be having all that much impact. And at least our current guess is that there is a pretty good chance the hard-working Ms. Minna will win again.

AUGUST 27. CANADA VOTES 2008 : Could Obama push Dion over the top, just enough to make a Liberal minority?

[UPDATED AUGUST 29]. It may be that this “CANADA VOTES 2008” will be dismantled soon, if and when it transpires that there actually will not be a 2008 Canadian federal election after all.

But after waiting a few days for greater certainty the headlines are just getting louder and louder: “Stephen Harper set to call fall election” ; “Harper all but declares fall vote” ; “PM cancels Jean’s Beijing trip, fuelling election hype“ ; and “Snap election all but certain, Harper says.”

It also seems that our Canadian fall 2008 election is going to be held before the US election on November 4. (On October 20, say, or possibly even as early as October 14.) Apparently, Mr. Harper fears that a victory for Barack Obama will do the Liberal Party of Canada too much good. So Canada will be voting before it’s clear just who is going to win in the USA.

Subject to further notice, we are nonetheless starting our CANADA VOTES 2008 with a highly preliminary wild guess that the special magic of Barack Obama up north will ultimately give us a Liberal instead of the present Conservative minority government anyway. This flies somewhat against the latest polls. Yet as the legendary Canadian Tory from the West John Diefenbaker used to say, poles are just what dogs relieve themselves against on the Ottawa streets. (And now a very brand new one actually puts the Liberals slightly ahead!)

Will Harper get away with it?

If we Canadians do wind up voting as early as October 14 or 20 this fall, it will be because Prime Minister Harper has managed to steam-roll over various polite fictions of the more ordinary Canadian political tradition – including at least one he has recently installed himself.

Put another way, he will have shown, yet again, just how much unchecked power even a minority prime minister has or can assume (elected by barely more than a third of the Canada-wide popular vote in 2006), in our present Canadian parliamentary democracy.

To start with, it is Mr. Harper’s own government that introduced the so-called fixed-date election legislation in the current 39th Parliament of Canada, according to which the next Canadian federal election is supposed to be held on October 19, 2009. And, contrary to his claims about the reluctance of the majority opposition parties to support his minority government’s grand designs, this legislation has been passed into law, and duly signed by the Governor General, etc, etc, etc.

Mr. Harper himself is now saying that, well, yes, there is that law these days. But it really only works with a majority government. In the nature of any parliamentary democracy, a minority government can always be defeated by a non-confidence vote against it in Parliament, regardless of any fixed-date election law.

Probably … says Lawrence Martin …

All this is of course true enough. On his current election-right-now scenario, however, Mr. Harper is not going to wait for the majority opposition parties to defeat him in Parliament (which is supposed to resume its present sitting on September 15). On the grounds that certain developments over the summer (plus a meeting he is going to hold with NDP leader Jack Layton this coming Saturday) have shown that the current 39th Parliament has become “dysfunctional,” Mr. Harper is apparently going to go to the Governor General very soon – before Parliament resumes on September 15, and even before three scheduled by-elections on September 8 (to say nothing of a fourth by-election currently scheduled for September 22 – and again, all at the instigation of Prime Minister Harper himself).

Prime Minister Harper is then going to ask the Governor General to dissolve Parliament before it resumes its present sitting, and declare a fresh election for as soon as October 14 or at least October 20. (“By law, a federal election must be held on a Monday at least 36 days after it’s called, or on Tuesday, if the Monday is a holiday. The earliest date for an election called next week would be Oct. 14, the Tuesday following [Canadian] Thanksgiving Monday, although speculation suggests Monday, Oct. 20 more likely.”)

A Globe and Mail editorial has objected to all this. It has urged that “Stephen Harper and his government should return to face the House of Commons before an election is called. Mr. Harper must show some serious regard for the fixed-election-date reform he himself introduced only two years ago … The Prime Minister is asking to meet with the leaders of the opposition parties by next week in order to determine whether he has support for his government’s fall agenda. Depending on the answers he receives he could advise Michalle Jean, the Governor-General, to dissolve Parliament … A federal election has become desirable, but there is no urgency or necessity. Mr. Harper should respect, and work within, customary parliamentary procedures.”

But what happens if Mr. Harper declines this advice? One of the Globe and Mail‘s own Ottawa columnists, Lawrence Martin, has raised the question “Will the PM get away with his risky election gambit?” and answered ” Probably.” Mr. Martin carries on: “Some will interpret Mr. Harper’s gambit as another example of his brilliant strategic sense. Others will say he’s taken dictatorial liberties too far. Judging by the hundreds of e-mails posted in response to the developments, there’s a pretty even split with partisans of each party hollering at each other the way they usually do … The Harper people are confident that accusations of duplicity will not haunt them, that when the election is under way, stories about what prompted it are quickly forgotten. Though the aftertaste will linger for some, they are probably correct in that surmise.”

What about the Governor General anyway?

According to at least one theory of the present Canadian Constitution, there is a federal institution that is in fact intended to check the exercise of any excessively “dictatorial liberties” by a prime minister. (And perhaps especially by a minority prime minister, whose government was only elected by some 36% of those Canadian people who showed up to vote.)

This institution is the office of Governor General – who in theory still represents the British monarch in Canada, but who in practice has ever since 1947 exercised in his or her own right all the so-called remaining residual or reserve powers of the so-called constitutional monarchy in Canada today. (Or, one might also say, the residual or reserve powers of Canada’s formal head of state in the present-day Canadian parliamentary democracy.)

Thus Mr. Harper might well advise the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and call a fresh election for October 14 or 20. But is the Governor General necessarily obliged to take his advice, completely without question?

The Governor General might say, e.g., well Mr. Prime Minister, you say that this present Parliament has become dysfunctional, and is no longer working for the Canadian people. But you haven’t really consulted all the party leaders.

(Liberal leader Stephane Dion, to take one notable case in point, has so far been a bit coy about agreeing to a date for a meeting: he wants to wait until after the September 8 by-elections, at least. Which could make it that much harder to have a vote before the November 4 vote in the USA, which just might return Barack Obama as President, along with a dramatic Democratic majority in Congress. And then of course there are parliamentary committees investigating various Conservative hi jinks in Canada, etc, etc.)

Perhaps (the Governor General might go on, having read the Globe and Mail‘s recent editorial herself, among other things), “you should at least meet the Canadian House of Commons when it returns on September 15, Prime Minister, and try things out for a bit longer. If it really does become clear after several weeks, say, that you can’t get any legislation passed by the opposition majority – that the 39th Parliament really has become “dysfunctional” – then I will grant the dissolution and fresh election you want. But let’s not rush off the cliff here. The country is not really in the midst of any serious political crisis at the moment. The mere fact that your government has lasted as long as it has is evidence that something has been working, etc, etc.”

Or the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, for that matter …

The big trouble with all this, some will say, is that it has been tried in the past, and it hasn’t worked in the end. But that was back “in 1926 – the so called King-Byng affair.” In those days the Governor General of Canada was a British aristocrat, appointed by the Government of the United Kingdom. When Lord Byng refused Prime Minister William Lyon Mackeznie King a dissolution of Parliament and a fresh election he had asked for, King ultimately used the refusal to attack Byng’s action as a colonialist assault on Canada’s independent democracy.

There are those who think a similar fate would befall any Governor General trying anything similar today. So Don Martin of the Calgary Herald has urged that “it’s looking like a win-win-win for Harper. If he wants an election and Gov-Gen. Michaelle Jean refuses his request, he’ll have a constitutional crisis to champion against a meddlesome monarchy overstepping its bounds.”

The trouble with all this is that, in the year 2008, the excellent Mme Jean is a Canadian citizen not a British aristocrat. (And there were, btw, no such things as Canadian citizens in 1926: Canadians then were just British subjects.) Mme Jean was appointed by the Canadian (albeit Liberal) Prime Minister Paul Martin, not by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (to say nothing of the British monarch herself of course). And then Stephen Harper’s current Conservative Party of Canada is in fact the only Canadian political party today that has a “belief in our constitutional monarchy” actually written into its party constitution.

There are no doubt still some practical problems with Mme Jean’s refusing Mr. Harper’s request for a fresh election. The extent to which it is, as a matter of practice in current Canadian politics, he who controls her, and not at all the other way around (in any sense, and/or for any purpose, alas?), is shown by the speed with which he has cancelled her planned trip to represent Canada at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games on September 6, 2008 – to make sure she would remain in Ottawa, to play her appointed role in what Lawrence Martin has called Prime Minister Harper’s “risky election gambit.”

(And provincial rights enthusiasts who think they like Mr. Harper might also want to read the “Statement by the Prime Minister of Canada, August 26, 2008” on the Stephen Harper Conservative website: “Prime Minister Stephen Harper today announced that His Honour the Honourable David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, will represent Canada at the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, to be held on September 6, 2008. The Lieutenant Governor will travel to China instead of Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michalle Jean, Governor General of Canada.” Remember: it’s the Prime Minister of Canada and not the provincial premiers who in practice appoints the provincial lieutenant governors. And it would seem that Prime Minister Harper regards the Lieutenant Governor of perfidious Ontario as the natural stand-in for the Governor General of Canada, when and as required, as the prime minister sees fit.)

There is much water under the bridge to come on all this, no doubt. (And it is perhaps still possible that there will finally not be an election this fall at all?) For the moment, we are drawing just two conclusions. The first is that the office of Governor General needs to be reformed, so that the Governor General can serve as some credible check on prime ministers who may be inclined to any excessively “dictatorial liberties” with the institutions of the parliamentary democracy from time to time. And second, we do think Mr. Harper is showing just such an inclination in his current risky election gambit. And that’s why we are currently predicting – very tentatively and subject to much potential future change of course – that if he does get his way in all this Mr. Harper is finally going to lose his minority government in the end, even if Stephane Dion remains an improbable prime minister. (In their best moments at least, we do believe the Canadian people are that smart!)

AUGUST 29 UPDATE: Along with the new opinion poll noted above, that says “35 percent of decided Canadians would vote for the Liberals and 33 percent for the Conservatives, ” while the “leftist New Democratic Party trailed at 17 percent,” at least three other items of related note are muddying the waters of today’s news.

First, Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe is meeting with Prime Minister Harper “as election appears imminent.” (And according to the early TV and press reports, things went pretty much as M. Duceppe expected: i.e., an election still appears imminent.) Second, according to the Ottawa-based constitutional authority Errol P. Mendes: “Harper is in a fix … The prime minister’s claim that he can ignore his own fixed election date is legally dubious and morally even worse.” And finally “Harper uses Trudeau’s name to slam Dion … PM tries to calm recession fears; portrays himself as steady hand and Liberal Leader as extreme left-winger.”

This last item suggests Mr. Harper is stumbling a bit as he gets out of the box. On what planet is it remotely credible to call Stephane Dion an “extreme left-winger”? Gilles Duceppe maybe – but even that was long ago. And nowadays even Jack Layton of the “leftist” NDP is not seriously “extreme,” whatever that may mean.

Moreover, as hard as it may be for Mr. Harper to believe, the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau still has many admirers. Putting Stephane Dion in Trudeau’s league may actually do him some good. Whatever else they may think about him, many Canadians would no doubt agree that Trudeau was a strong leader, who stood up for Canada – in a way that Mr. Harper has still not shown us he knows how to do himself! (In fact that’s probably one reason why a majority government continues to elude his grasp?)

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