Andrew Coyne and Stephen Harper – two 50-something political thinkers looking for a proper judiciary in Canada

May 8th, 2014 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

Former Bank of Canada Governor James E. Coyne, on front steps of his Rockliffe Park home in Ottawa, July 17, 1961, with three of his five children, (L to R) Nancy Riley, Andrew, and Susan. (CP PHOTO).

GANATSEKWYAGON, ON. THURSDAY, MAY 8, 2014. 2:00 AM ET. As elsewhere in the global village (the ongoing vast democratic election in India, eg), there are some interesting things going on in what the late great George Grant used to call “the Great Lakes region of North America” these days – and especially (maybe?) in the region’s far northern or Canadian zone.

To take just one case in point, maybe because I’ve just stumbled across it so early in the morning, when the dead quiet of the house let’s you focus more easily, I have been suddenly struck by the unusual seriousness of “Andrew Coyne: Harper courting controversy by picking unprecedented fight with Canada’s top judge.”

Coyne’s piece appeared on the National Post website this past Monday evening, but I am only catching up with it now.  (I was finally directed to the fountain by a posting of a posting on twitter, earlier this evening – or morning, more exactly I guess : “My latest, on Harper’s wild attack on the Chief Justice: a gov’t, and a PM, that appear to be spinning out of control”)

Andrew Coyne, columnist with Postmedia News, visited the University of Alberta Faculty of Law on Monday, November 4, 2013, to participate in the 2013/14 Merv Leitch QC Memorial Lecture.

Very briefly, Andrew Coyne thinks Prime Minister Stephen Harper has probably done something utterly beyond the pale, by criticizing  Canada’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Beverley McLachlin, for apparently trying to get in touch with the august prime ministerial presence, regarding the appointment of Marc Nadon to the Court, etc, etc, etc. (blah, blah, blah).

Or, as Mr. Coyne puts the matter himself : “It is one thing to savage a political opponent or beat up on a distinguished civil servant. But to accuse the nation’s highest judge of professional misconduct – for that is what was insinuated, if not quite alleged, an ethical breach serious enough to warrant her resignation – is so ill-considered, so destructive of both the court’s position and his [ie Prime Minister Harper’s] own, that it leaves one wondering whether he is temperamentally suited to the job.”

* * * *

Coyne ends his column with : “As I say, we’ve never seen anything quite like this, not even from this Prime Minister. Which raises the question: at what point do Conservatives of goodwill become concerned about the long-term damage being done to their party’s reputation under its present leadership? Differences over policy come and go, but this kind of behaviour, left unchallenged, will lead many people to conclude that the institutions of government cannot be safely entrusted to them.”

I am not sure that I entirely share Andrew Coyne’s displeasure with Stephen Harper here. They are two men from different Canadian worlds, but almost the same age. (Harper is not quite a year and three-quarters older!) At least some part of what is going on, I’d guess myself, has something to do with old but continuing antagonisms between Western Canada (PM Harper) and the old Upper Canada. (Of which Mr. Coyne can almost certainly be regarded as at least a somewhat flawed but still  distinguished present-day representative – he did waste some time at the University of Manitoba, but then redeemed himself with a BA from Trinity College at the University of Toronto, and an MSc[Econ] from the London School of Economics!).

Andrew Coyne (r) and colleagues on CBC TV.

At the very end, however, I can perhaps only acknowledge that I too have degrees from the University of Toronto – though I was at University College with its alleged Jewish Common Room, rather than the resolutely Anglican Trinity College. I disagree utterly with Andrew Coyne as well about the future of the British monarchy in Canada (an issue on which he does again reveal his spiritual empathy with the old Family Compact in Upper Canada).

Andrew Coyne’s cousin, Deborah Coyne, with Pierre Trudeau and his and her daughter, Sarah, many years ago now.

But I suppose I finally have a certain respect for Mr. Coyne, and what he represents in our current Canadian democratic political culture. I suppose I ultimately feel that, living in both Southern Ontario and Toronto as I have done, I have had to put up with and adjust to all too many Andrew Coynish lectures on political etiquette, etc, still embedded in the modern political culture of Ontario or Central Canada. (Which actually does have at least half-rebellious analogues in Vancouver and Victoria, and other such places, and possibly even Halifax too, tho no one will admit any of this, of course ????) So Stephen Harper should have to do the same. Why not?

Being elected prime minister by less than 40% of the cross-Canada democratic electorate does not give you the right to flout all the old rules. (Especially if you are also proclaiming your love for the British monarchy in Canada – in at least some senses the oldest and craziest rule of all, which I do personally agree we should freely and democratically get rid of, ASAP.)

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