Janet Ajzenstat’s books The Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament (2007) and The Once and Future Canadian Democracy: An Essay in Political Thought (2003) gave me a better appreciation of Canada’s classical liberal / libertarian heritage.
The author is convincing in arguing that Canada’s founders professed the classical liberal ideals of philosopher John Locke: individual rights and representative government. To quote the back cover:
“Convinced that rights are inalienable and that legimate government requires the consent of the governed, the Fathers of Confederation – whether liberal or conservative – looked to the European enlightenment and John Locke…”
I also found Ajzentstat’s books very helpful in gaining a better understanding of Canada’s history and constitution. For one thing, I can see why the parliamentary system implies freedom of speech, since it is designed to institutionalize opposition and diversity of opinion.
The author argues effectively that Parliament was intended to protect individual rights. Instead, the legitimacy of Parliament has been eroded by three factors in particular. Two of these are the Canadian “penchant for constitutional reform” and the “use of the courts to effect change in public policy”. I am impressed that she also acknowledges the third factor, “recourse to international tribunals to resolve Canadian disputes”(1).
Ajzentstat has a section on this in the Canadian Founding, Ch. 10
“Globalization in the sense that I have described is our new imperialism. … Parliamentary deliberation and parliament’s claim to represent and speak for Canadians go by the boards.”(2)
In other words, international government – the political side of globalization – has eroded John Locke’s principle of representation in our parliamentary system.
Because of this, I prefer The Canadian Founding to the earlier Once and Future Canadian Democracy where she seems to lump skepticism of globalization and American hegemony into the “romantic” category. To explain, she designates two categories of people – rational “liberal” and discontented revolutionary “romantic” – and based on her descriptions, I felt divided between the two. So I’m not sure how much in sync I am with all of her views.
There are so many valuable topics covered by these books. I just wanted to comment on a couple of issues.
First, I think that both the Canadian and U.S. systems of representative government are failing to represent the best interests of their publics. From a Lockean or libertarian point of view, the failure level is getting closer and closer to total failure every day.
I do not believe that Canadians understand and value the current political system – for good reasons I think. It just is not possible to represent each individual’s actual points of view on various issues through a representative in Parliament. In my view, power needs to be put in each individual’s hands through direct democracy, meaning virtual assemblies and direct votes issue by issue, so that all proposals can be considered and all past legislation and decisions can be put on the table for consideration.
In my opinion, for many Canadians, direct democracy would be very appealing, because politics would then become relevant and those of us who favor greater individual rights could work for that goal in such a system and debate others directly without any intermediaries.
I oppose any authoritarian system or majority tyranny that seeks to control people who do no harm to others, but I believe there is a better chance of reaching this libertarian ideal through negotiating individual rights within a direct democracy that retains constitutional restraints on government power.
Second, I don’t want to try to interpret the author’s views but I want to assert my own views in response to discussions in her books about minority identities.
I think it’s healthy to identify with the positive things in one’s own culture if individuals choose to do this. But I do not identify the Canadian, British and Western cultures or political systems with classical liberal ideals. The Canadian political system contains true liberal (some say “true conservative”) principles which freedom advocates can point to, but it also contains the opposite. What if the political system is mistaken or the reality doesn’t match the theory? In that case it fails to be the universal solvent that perhaps the founders wanted it to be. Membership in Canada as a nation – confederation – should be voluntary and based on whether people appreciate what Canada stands for.
What I mean is that there is no liberal system existing called “Canada”, “America”, or “Western civilization” that is truly liberal or democratic. And even if it was truly liberal or democratic, which is a fantasy, it would not have the right to lord it over “conquered” aboriginal nations, the Red River settlement, Quebec, Alberta, or any other province or nation in the name of its presumed superior ability to protect individual rights. This kind of blind collective pride in “our freedoms” obscures the truth about our lack of freedoms and the conduct of our own governments historically and in the present day.
Canadian identity and history is more like Jekyll and Hyde or Two-Face! On the one face, we have Lockean ideals and respect for rights and freedoms, but on the other face, we have imperialism, colonialism, militarism, socialism, mercantilism, social engineering, denial, delusion, etc. Libertarians should not allow these two faces of Western culture to be confused anymore. The free market should no longer be falsely identified with corporatism and imperialism. Anti-imperialism should no longer be falsely identified with socialism. We should always separate libertarian ideals from coercive ideologies of “left” and “right”. And for that monumental effort, we need to have both our rational and compassionate faculties in place!
So there is no moral superiority which gives Canadians and Americans the right to force our system – whatever it is – on other nations. Let them learn on their own! They can find libertarian ideals about freedom and equality in books and on the Internet – not at the end of bayonets, tanks and gun-ships!
Truly to be a hard-nosed classical liberal, as per Locke, we need to recognize the self-government rights of groups of individuals who did not voluntarily submit to the Canadian government’s rule. Let’s recognize the reality of where we are at with respect to aboriginal Canadians, for example, instead of continuing the idealistic fantasy that Canada is undivided. This is the myth that we have been taught by the school system, the myth of the Canadian map drawn in a single colour.
And I’m not talking about guilt about what “we” have done. I’m talking about living in denial about our history and continued abuse of each and every citizen and their freedoms by institutions of taxation and regulation – governments that fail to represent, that are out of our control. We need to recognize our own powerlessness politically before we can have the motivation to do something about it.
And even though I wish they would be more sympathetic towards aboriginal Canadians, I think most Canadians are not going to be sympathetic towards their grievances until individual rights – liberty and property rights and freedoms – are put on a pedestal again. Each individual needs to find himself/herself empowered politically within a new system of government that is ultimately moving in the direction of responsible voluntary self-government.
Until Canadians start to set our own house in order by openly expressing our discontent with the chains on our backs (if we can see them), the political system will become ever more oppressive and unrepresentative. If we are waiting for the political class to fix it for us, we are headed for disaster. We Canadians need to recover our founding ideals about freedom and individual rights and ditch the top-down political system.
1) Janet Ajzenstat, The Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament, 2007, Ch. 10, p. 186.
2) Janet Ajzenstat, The Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament, 2007, Ch. 10, p. 191.
July 26th, 2008