Canada in the early 21st century is a place where the rhetoric of “democratic reform” has been sounded in diverse quarters, without as yet delivering much of real substance. Its bright charms for political leaders in opposition seem to fade quickly once they come into office.
The subject nonetheless remains a key practical concern, because the country’s long-term future almost certainly depends on achieving some degree of serious enough democratic reform in the not all that distant future … [Cweditors' note: the material that follows was prepared almost three years ago and is now being updated and revised. As they say on the subway in Rob Ford's Toronto: "Our apologies for any inconvenience" ... ].
Some deep background …
Back in February 2005 the Hill Times in Ottawa declared that “Democratic reform has emerged as one of most vibrant areas of public policy.”
In early October 2007, just before Ontario’s version of BC’s unsuccessful electoral reform referendum, the Globe and Mail in Toronto alluded to the “push for democratic reform in Canada, a rising tide for the past decade.”
Martin Liberal minority government
At the federal level of government Prime Minister Paul Martin, when he succeeded Jean Chrétien in December 2003, appointed a Minister responsible for Democratic Reform — “to address the ‘democratic deficit,’ an issue Martin campaigned on when he ran for leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.”
The position continued under the minority government Mr. Martin became head of after the June 2004 federal election. It was re-designated Minister responsible for Democratic Renewal, when it was assigned to Belinda Stronach, who crossed the floor from the Conservatives to the Liberals in May 2005.
Harper Conservative minority and majority governments
A democratic reform cabinet position has been retained under the federal minority and majority governments of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada, that first came to office in the January 2006 federal election (though not without further subtle changes in nomenclature). The position was first held by Harper’s first two House Leaders (Rob Nicholson and Peter Van Loan) as “Leader of the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform.” Then Steven Fletcher, Member of Parliament for Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia in Manitoba, became the “Minister of State (Democratic Reform)” in 2008. This position is now (Spring 2013) held by Tim Uppal. MP for Edmonton-Sherwood Park, who “was born in British Columbia in 1974 and has spent most of his life in Edmonton.”
The current federal government website on the subject highlights three particular Democratic Reform headings — “Role of the House of Commons” , “Role of the Senate,” and “Legislative Initiatives.” And the Harper minority government actually has managed to shepherd one related piece of legislation through Parliament — the November 2006 “Act to Amend the Canada Elections Act,” which “requires that each general election is to take place on the third Monday in October, in the fourth calendar year after the previous poll, starting with October 19, 2009.”
This federal requirement for “fixed date elections” every four years has yet to be, as it were, implemented in practice. And some have argued that the October 14, 2008 federal election — called in the old non-fixed-date style by Prime Minister Harper — was illegal (though the courts, along with eminent constitutional authorities, have so far rejected this argument: minority governments complicate fixed election dates, in any parliamentary democracy of the sort we have in Canada). At the same time, governments in three Canadian provinces and one territory have now passed fixed-date election legislation, and actually held fixed-date elections: British Columbia, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Northwest Territories.
The current federal government Democratic Reform website lists three pieces of current legislation — Bill C-7, Senate Reform Act (a controversial proposal whose constitutionality the government has now asked the Supreme Court to evaluate) ; Bill C-20, Fair Representation Act (an act to bring representation in the Canadian House of Commons more into line with recent population growth, that has already received royal assent) ; and Bill C-21, Political Loans Accountability Act ( a bill that “builds on our flagship Federal Accountability Act by closing a loophole allowing corporations and unions to make political loans,” still in committee stage in the Canadian House of Commons). [CURRENT REVISIONS STOP HERE].
Democratic reform in Canada, today and tomorrow … broader and bolder conceptions
It is easy enough to be cynical about virtually all federal and provincial government attempts to act on democratic reform agendas so far. These kinds of issues are difficult for politicians and government officials to deal with, all by themselves.
(1) Campaign finance reform
The Chretien Liberal government in Ottawa did introduce a useful enough campaign finance reform measure in 2003, towards the end of its life.
But the Harper Conservative minority government’s more recent impulses to end the per-vote public subsidy brought in by the Chretien government have helped stir up sometimes bitter controversy about opposition majority coalitions and parliamentary prorogation, in the wake of the October 2008 federal election.
(2) Fixed-date elections
Some progress has been made on fixed-date elections, especially at the provincial and territorial level, probably because this has proved one of the easiest and least controversial democratic reform issues for politicians to deal with.
(Along with the fixed-date provincial and territorial elections that have already been held, as noted above, New Brunswick has a first contest of this sort scheduled for this coming September 2010, and Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba have similar events scheduled for various dates in 2011.)
As already noted, however, even here the Canadian people’s apparent recent passion for electing minority governments in Ottawa has prevented any actual fixed-date election at the federal level so far. The next federal election is not likely to conform to fixed-date legislation either?
(The scheduled fixed date for the next federal election is the third Monday in October 2012. But Election Almanac.com, eg, suspects there could be a contest of this sort as early as 2010!)
(3) Electoral reform and proportional representation
British Columbia has so far held two unsuccessful referendums on electoral reform or proportional representation (i.e. changing our current “first past the post” electoral mechanism, so that a political party’s number of legislative seats is more or less proportional to its share of the provincial or federal popular vote) — one in 2005 and one in 2009. Prince Edward Island and Ontario have held one such unsuccessful referendum each — in 2005 and 2007 respectively.
At the end of May 2010 Chantal Hébert wrote in the Toronto Star: “From Canada’s perspective, the overdue rehabilitation of the concept of coalition building in a minority Parliament was just one of the beneficial collateral results of the recent British election … Another could be to put electoral reform squarely on the federal agenda.”
At the same time: “Since Ontario and British Columbia foundered in their attempts to move to more proportional voting systems, the issue has fallen off the parliamentary radar … The failed provincial bids have just about killed the notion that a Medicare-style domino effect would, in time, provide a compelling provincial model for a federal reform … If this debate is going to regain momentum, it will have to come from a change in the dynamics at the federal level.”
Ms. Hébert went on: federally, “the NDP has been the only party to champion the cause of electoral reform in Parliament.” A deeper look at the present circumstances of the Liberal Party of Canada, however, suggests that, here as elsewhere, it could constructively think harder about somehow coalescing with its NDP progressive brethren: “If the Liberals are serious about restoring their status as a national institution, it is time for them to abandon their faith in short-term electoral short cuts and rethink their approach to a more proportional voting system.”
(4) Senate reform
A quite extensive scheme of reform in what Stephen Harper has aptly called the “19th century relic” of the still strictly appointed Senate of Canada was included in the Charlottetown Accord, defeated by Canada-wide referendums in 1992.
Thorough-going Canadian Senate reform of this sort requires a constitutional amendment supported by seven provinces representing at least 50% of the Canada-wide population. The swamp that the failure of the Charlottetown Accord seems to have left such constitutional discussion in has acted as a disincentive to continuing debate. (Reinforced, no doubt, by the broader Machiavellian caveat: “there is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes in a state’s constitution.”)
Meanwhile, in the early 21st century the Harper minority government — with a major part of its political base in the province of Alberta, where the so-called “Triple E” Senate reform concept was born in the 1980s — has tried to advance the broader cause through a “step-by-step” process, focused on term limits for senators and “advisory” or “consultative” elections, that arguably do not require constitutional amendments.
The first Harper minority government (2006–2008) made two failed passes at step-by-step Senate reform in the 39th Parliament of Canada. The second Harper minority government has now launched another such attempt in the 40th Parliament, through the introduction of Bill C-10, Senate Term Limits, and Bill S-8, Senatorial Selection, as referred to above. Meanwhile, Mr. Harper himself has finally wound up appointing a remarkable 34 senators, on the old unreformed patronage model.
(5) Republican options and Governor General selection methods
Over the past several years, some among its dwindling band of most passionate defenders have urged that the British monarchy in Canada — or Canada’s own so-called constitutional monarchy, if that still makes any sense to you — has actually been a crucial ingredient in the evolution of the modern Canadian democracy.
Others have urged that this is a piece of patent sophistry, beyond all reason and common sense. Although the British monarchy plays virtually no practical role at all in the country today, the surviving symbolism of Canada’s mid 19th century monarchical principles just continues to prop up archaic anti-democratic elements in Canadian political culture. Any thorough-going process of democratic reform in Canada will culminate (or perhaps even begin?) with the replacement of the symbolism of the old colonial-era monarchical sovereignty by the explicit symbolism of the ultimate popular sovereignty of the Canadian people, in a modern parliamentary democracy.
The University of Guelph professor emeritus of political science, Frederick Vaughan, has even argued, in his 2003 book, The Canadian Federalist Experiment: From Defiant Monarchy to Reluctant Republic: “The Constitution Act, 1982 was the instrument that, with one stroke, severed Canadians from their ancestral monarchical foundations.” With the new Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in this Act, “Canada began a new life as a nation, a republican nation … based upon republican principles.”
At the same time, the Constitution Act 1982 also provides that: “ An amendment to the Constitution of Canada in relation to … the office of the Queen, the Governor General and the Lieutenant Governor of a province” must be “authorized by resolutions of the Senate and House of Commons and of the legislative assembly of each province.” This may make abolishing the British monarchy in Canada somewhat more challenging than Senate reform. (Although not at all impossible: an assortment of constitutional amendments in the 1992 Charlottetown Accord were in fact authorized by resolutions of the Senate and House of Commons and of the legislative assembly of each province. What finally defeated these amendments were two not strictly necessary popular referendums — one in Quebec and one in “the rest of Canada.”)
Meanwhile, especially since the Second World War, the Governor General has taken over virtually all remaining even symbolic responsibilities of the British monarch in Canada. The recent run of minority governments in early 21st century Ottawa has also shown that in such circumstances the Governor General retains certain prerogative powers of the crown, that can be quite important practically. And the current method of selecting Canadian governor generals — in effect appointment by the Canadian prime minister alone — tends to reduce the credibility of holders of this office in exercising their prerogative powers when necessary.
In early May 2010 the Toronto Star editorialized: “the office has taken on a larger role than mere ribbon-cutting in recent years, with minority governments seemingly entrenched. As our de facto head of state, the Governor General has had to make decisions on issues ranging from the prorogation of Parliament to the replacement of the government by an opposition coalition. Surely someone with this kind of mandate should not be chosen at the whim of the Prime Minister of the day … What are the options? Many have been advanced, from direct election of the Governor General by the public to selection by some non-partisan body, like the members of the Order of Canada. These and other ideas could be examined by a joint committee of Parliament, reporting back in the fall.”
There is as yet no serious indication that the federal political system in Canada today is about to actually take this kind of advice. But the issue is now closer to the real world of practical politics than it was even a year ago. Reform in the process of selecting governor generals — using some variation on the advisory or consultative election theme proposed by the Harper minority government for Senate reform — may also be possible, on an interim or step-by-step basis, without formal constitutional amendments in the first instance.
This kind of democratic reform of the selection method for the office of governor general could set the stage as well for eventually replacing the British monarchy with a strictly Canadian head of state, on a model that has already been ably pioneered by such contemporary parliamentary democracies as Ireland and India. (And India, along with many other present-day Westminster-style “republics,” remains a member of the current Commonwealth of Nations. Indeed the majority of people in the Commonwealth today live in India!)
(6) Some other issues: Canadian citizenship oath, aboriginal law, and Quebecois nation in a united Canada
We would just quickly conclude by noting three further topics (or “issues” if you like) under the “lots more — send suggestions” category:
CANADIAN CITIZENSHIP OATH … Since the 1990s the Toronto civil rights lawyer Charles Roach has been challenging the current requirement that new Canadian citizens swear “to be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen,” and her “heirs and successors” — on the grounds that this violates the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Perhaps inevitably, Mr. Roach’s progress has been slow but, especially more recently, his and his fellow challengers’ efforts have met with increasing success. Two justices in the Ontario courts have advanced propositions with particular relevance for the broader cause of democratic reform:
Justice Linden: “It may be argued that it strikes at the very heart of democracy to curtail collective opposition and incentive for change by demanding loyalty to a particular political theory. Similarly, it may be said that it is wrong to build a barrier to joining associations dedicated to a different political theory.”
Justice Belobaba: “There is nothing in the Constitution Act that requires a Canadian oath of citizenship or that a new citizen must swear allegiance to the Queen … in Australia, also a constitutional monarchy, new citizens are required to take a ‘pledge of commitment’ to ‘Australia and its people…and laws.’ This ‘pledge of commitment’ makes no reference to Her Majesty the Queen … Mr. Roach and the other members in this proposed class action would like to become Canadian citizens. But they would also like to see a constitutional amendment that would remove what they believe is an undemocratic vestige of a colonial experience that has no place in a modern and independent Canada. It is important to note that s. 41(1)(a) of the Constitution Act 1982 provides that the office or role of the Queen as this country’s head of state can be changed or even abolished by constitutional amendment.”
ABORIGINAL LAW … Canada’s unique and particular version of democracy today has its deepest roots in the history of the aboriginal peoples of Canada. (Or, as the historian Harold Innis urged as long ago as 1930: “We have not yet realized that the Indian and his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions.”)
Sections 25 and 35 of the Constitution Act 1982 already allude to and effectively guarantee the “existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada.” It is more than arguable that the current push for democratic reform in Canada must go somewhat further still, and acknowledge something like the history of Canadian democracy and the rule of law sketched in a 1996 article written by Brian Slattery of the Osgoode Hall Law School, entitled “The Organic Constitution: Aboriginal Peoples and the Evolution of Canada.”
In this article Professor Slattery proposed what he called the “Organic Model” of Canadian constitutional development, as a replacement for the old and now obsolete “Imperial Model.”
His article ended with: “the Organic Model encourages us to broaden our conception of the sources of Canadian law and to recognize the diverse roles that Indian, Inuit, and Metis peoples have played in the formation of this country and its Constitution. It suggests that Aboriginal peoples should be viewed as active participants in generating the basic norms that govern us — not as people on the fringes … More generally, the Organic Model opens up the Constitution to a variety of perspectives that have long been excluded or assigned to the periphery of our collective life. The Model represents a further stage in the long process of decolonization that Canada has undergone since 1867.”
QUEBECOIS NATION IN A UNITED CANADA … It is not surprising that the long process of Canadian decolonization which hit its contemporary stride around the centennial of the 1867 confederation was accompanied by a “quiet revolution” and beyond in the unique Canadian province of Quebec, with its continuing French-speaking democratic majority, stretching back to the first half of the 17th century.
The real world of democracy is not just an abstract universe. And this too is a key feature of Canada’s unique and particular version of democratic reform today. Quebec’s struggle to find its place in the second century of the 1867 confederation was the driving energy that finally led to the Constitution Act 1982 — which “with one stroke, severed Canadians from their ancestral monarchical foundations,” and started Canada’s “new life as a nation, a republican nation … based upon republican principles.” (Frederick Vaughan, The Canadian Federalist Experiment: From Defiant Monarchy to Reluctant Republic.)
The latest big event in this particular long story of Canadian development took place on the evening of Monday, November 27, 2006, close to the banks of the Ottawa River, when the Canadian House of Commons voted 265-16 in favour of the resolution “That this House recognizes that the Québécois are a nation within a united Canada.”
Like it or not, one way or another (and so forth, on and on), the current push for democratic reform in the country will not reach some stable 21st century termination or resting point, until some practical expression of the recognition of the Québécois as a nation within a united Canada has been somehow enshrined in the current Canadian Constitution (which the province of Quebec can then “sign” at last, as it has still not yet signed the Constitution Act 1982 — even though the Government of Quebec has taken advantage of some of the Act’s provisions).
One option would be for this practical expression to take place in connection with a version of Senate reform, that would also clarify the role in the confederation of all provinces in the so-called rest of Canada as well.
There are no doubt many other options. The almost certain bottom line is that no ultimately successful push for workable democratic reform in Canada will be able to avoid this inevitably crucial issue in the real-world modern history of Canadian democracy. It is no longer the only issue that matters in Canada today (and never was, no doubt). But it still does matter.
Friday 4 June 2010 / Updates and revisions in progress Spring 2013.