Mel Hurtig and (very) early second thoughts about where the new Trudeau government is taking Canada ??Aug 8th, 2016 | By Counterweights Editors | Category: In Brief
The recent Radio Canada report “Noted nationalist and author Mel Hurtig dead at 84” has coincided with several bursts of fresh interest in old Justin Trudeau articles on this site. See, eg :
* “The quiet evolution of ‘La femme de Justin Trudeau’ carries on” ( 5 Mar 2012) ;
* “The unbearable lightness of being Justin Trudeau” (28 Sep 2012) ;
* “Is Jean Chretien right — ‘today marks the beginning of the end of this Conservative government’?” (15 Apr 2013) ;
* “A new moment of truth for Justin Trudeau” (17 Apr 2015) ;
* “Are the Mulcair New Democrats doomed already??” (29 Sep 2015) ;
* “Justin Trudeau is a rock star .. and that’s the simplest truth?” (18 Oct 2015) ;
* “Back to the real Canadian future with Justin Trudeau .. maybe?” (20 Oct 2015) ;
* “On the new era in Canada .. Alexandre Trudeau, Mélanie Joly, Harjit Sajjan, and Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould” (7 Nov 2015).
What does it all mean? Until now we’ve shared the general sense (among all but diehard Conservatives, hard-core New Democrats, and old-style Quebec separatists?) that Justin Trudeau has been doing quite well as Canada’s 23rd prime minister : Not perfect, of course, but …
However, a CBC report last week reminded us that the Trudeau II regime has also already shown what strike us as signs of a potential tragic flaw. And this could place strict limits on what the son of Pierre Trudeau from Montreal and Margaret Sinclair from Vancouver will finally prove capable of doing for the long-term future of Canada.
The headline on the CBC report was “PM Trudeau to join royals on Yukon visit next month … Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire will be in Whitehorse with William and Kate …”
This is, certain Canadian citizens with whom we sympathize will urge, just one more nail in the coffin of the theory that Justin Trudeau’s early 21st century Liberal Party of Canada will ultimately usher in the free and democratic Canadian parliamentary republic that the confederation of 1867 has been logically evolving towards for the past 150 years.
And this is the free and democratic republic that today’s Canada has actually been in practice for the past half century or more. Note, eg, the allusion to “a free and democratic society” at the start of the Constitution Act, 1982.
And read the political scientist Frederick Vaughan, a retired professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario who now lives in Nova Scotia. In a book published in 2003 he argues that the Charter of Rights in the Constitution Act, 1982 is “based upon republican principles … the closest Canadians have ever come to a document that affirms the rights of the people.”
Unfinished domestic nation building
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his advisors seem to have calculated that it is to their short-term electoral advantage to cultivate the dwindling hordes of those anglophone Canadians who still find some version of a Canadian identity in the British monarchy.
This may be a shrewd calculation. Canadians with various good feelings about the continuing extremely vague role the British monarch still officially plays in Canadian government and politics may have been among the 39.5% of the cross-Canada electorate who voted for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in October 2015.
(And gave them an “undeserved” strong majority of seats in the Canadian House of Commons, thanks to our traditional first-past-the-post electoral system — that an all-party parliamentary committee is now trying to figure out how to change! So that never again, etc …)
Yet it nonetheless remains true that the continuing official role of the British monarch as Canadian head of state has not been supported in opinion polls by anything like a majority of the adult population of Canada for some considerable number of years now. (Since the middle of the 1990s, some students of the subject will tell you.)
And , like many others nowadays, we believe that a Canada which continues to claim (or even just absent-mindedly accept) the hereditary monarch of the United Kingdom as Canadian head of state can have no even half-serious long-term future in the challenging global village of the 21st century.
Consider, eg, as just one of one many such quiet urgings over the past number of years, a piece in the Globe and Mail on Canada Day 2014 by the former Canadian diplomat Paul Heinbecker : “The monarchy hurts Canada’s standing in the world. It’s time to let go.”
On similar views of Canada’s history since the Second World War, the Liberal governments of both Lester Pearson (who gave us the modern Canadian flag) and Pierre Trudeau (who gave us the Constitution Act, 1982) wisely began the long-term project of clarifying a Canadian democratic political culture that can and will survive both Quebec separatism and the disappearance of the old global British empire — of which the old Dominion of Canada became the “first self-governing dominion” in 1867.
One attraction of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party for some Canadians has been the historically rooted possibility that it will finally pick up the remaining pieces of the earlier democratic nation-building of the Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau governments — delayed by Quebec sovereignty referendums in the 1980s and 1990s, and various Canadian regional adjustments to quite massive changes in the global economy during late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Most people don’t quite think of it like this, no doubt, but that is the end result. And some voters arguably do have a sense that what the Pearson-Trudeau governments from 1963–1984 did about the Canadian future was good, but left unfinished business. Brian Mulroney tried to finish the business too early and quickly, and left a fear of failing again. But almost a quarter century later there can be plausible mass perceptions that finishing the business more successfully at last has somehow become a quest of the Trudeau political family. And it is easy enough to see Pierre Trudeau’s eldest son as the successor who will complete the quest, in this as in other respects.
(At the same time, the nation building ultimately involved was also at least half-inspired by the last real British imperialist-prairie populist prime minister of Canada, John Diefenbaker. And before that of course, by The Incredible Canadian Mackenzie King and his Quebec lieutenant Ernest Lapointe. And then before that there was Pontiac, War Chief of the Ottawa, and what Pierre Trudeau himself called the “more important … struggle of nameless Canadians to improve their lives in our often hostile environment.” The result is the independent member state of the United Nations we are almost all so lucky to live in today. Especially as we watch the 2016 US election on TV.)
“Who will speak for Canada?” in the 21st century ??
Something of this older Liberal history (as in Frank Underhill’s 1960 essay collection In Search of Canadian Liberalism, say, or the Canadian republicanism of Mitchell Sharp) may in fact still be very cautiously alive in the current federal Liberal brand. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recurrent bows to anglophone monarchist sentiment increasingly raise increasing doubts.
Does he have the same passion and concern for “Who will speak for Canada?” as his father? Why is it important to invite the Queen’s eldest grandson and his wife to Canada right now? So that “Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire will be in Whitehorse with William and Kate”?
Does Justin Trudeau just think it’s a good thing generally for politicians to be seen with popular celebrities? What would/will his government do, eg, if we were/are suddenly confronted by the immediate prospect of a King Charles III as Canada’s new hereditary head of state in the age of the free and democratic society, guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Constitution Act, 1982?
Probably nothing at first, of course. And the constitutional lawyer and Liberal MP for Vancouver Quadra, Edward Watson “Ted” McWhinney, QC (May 19, 1924 – May 19, 2015) gained notoriety a while back for suggesting (or appearing to suggest) that a willing federal government might actually be able to end the British monarchy in Canada (or at least begin a perhaps more extended process of retirement), simply by not formally declaring the authority in Canada of the monarch who succeeds Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace!
It is also certainly true that one of the great continuing strange strengths of the British monarchy in Canada today is that it does absolutely nothing of practical consequence in the 21st century northern North American confederation, beyond making official visits.
So in some ways it is hard enough to get yourself worked up about the fate of such an apparently harmless old colonial institution, no matter how irrational and undemocratic it may be in the early 21st century … And no matter how many times our well-paid diplomats living in other countries tell us : “The monarchy hurts Canada’s standing in the world. It’s time to let go.”
Still, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (among many other things a sometime bankroller of the Australian Republican Movement) has observed : “My own view … is that the next occasion for the republic referendum to come up is going to be after the end of the Queen’s reign … I think that will be the next watershed event, if you like, to make that issue relevant.”
What happens in Australia on this front, at the very least, is bound to have more impact in Canada today than it did in the late 1990s, when the Land of Oz last canvassed the issue. Shouldn’t someone in Ottawa be thinking more or less seriously about all this, even just a little?
A footnote on Mel Hurtig’s Canadian nationalism in 2016
To return very briefly and finally to the point where we began here, Paul Wells’s piece in the Toronto Star this past Friday — on “Mel Hurtig’s vision a path not chosen by Canada … Canada’s new generation believes it can be open to the global economy without losing its independence” — can help clarify the difference between an earlier Canadian nationalism and the Canadian republican cause of the early 21st century.
We agree that Mr. Hurtig made important contributions to the growth of a modern Canadian historical consciousness, especially through the development and publication of his Canadian Encyclopedia. And we continue to believe that we do need something today to bolster Canadian independence in the age of the global economy.
But in the end Mel Hurtig’s National Party of Canada went nowhere in the 1993 federal election that brought Jean Chretien’s Liberals back to office. His kind of economic nationalism, still tied to the principles of John A. Macdonald’s old high-tariff National Policy of the late 19th century, no longer speaks to the political and economic realities of Canada in the global village today. (And we’d respectfully disagree with at least the main thrust of Thomas Walkom’s Toronto Star column today : “Mel Hurtig and the renaissance of economic nationalism …Canadian politicians may find economic nationalism passé. But as a look around the world shows, it is not.”)
What Canada does need at the present juncture, we strongly believe ourselves, is a little more of the open-ended democratic political nationalism that animates current support for a “democratically selected Canadian head of state” in Canada.
And who knows? Justin Trudeau’s Liberals may not finally be all that interested in this issue. Or have any mature plans for dealing with what may or may not happen in various remaining “Commonwealth realms” when Queen Elizabeth II sadly moves on to her next kingdom? And that could finally give one fresh opening for the federal New Democrats …
Stranger things have certainly happened in Canadian politics before! Anyway, we’re keeping our ears open … for whatever might be said or otherwise communicated on the ultimate fate of the modern free and democratic society in Canada over the next few years …