Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Note on Canadian Culture

There is a myth about Canadian culture propagated by the state’s intellectual class. Some these “opinion-molders” include (but are not limited to) George Grant, C.B. Macpherson and Charles Taylor. Since the state needs to justify its collectivism, it has an interest in promoting the ideas of, what Robert Meynell calls, Canadian Idealism. As religious leaders have lost their prestige, the role of intellectuals crafting civic religions has increased. These idealists speak of Canadian culture being more collectivist than individualist. By limiting the terms of the debate, the idealists keep the liberal philosophy off the table. Ironically so, since Canada was founded with a liberal constitution.

An often neglected aspect of Canadian Confederation is the ratification process.[1] Prior to 1867, British North America consisted of self-governing countries linked to Britain but independent of each other. In order to confederate, these sovereign parliaments were required to abolish themselves. A new federal government, “balanced” with the new provincial parliaments, would govern the Dominion. The Quebec and Charlottetown conferences hammered out the details, but it was the sovereign parliaments in the colonies that voted ‘yea’ or ‘nay’. Confederation needed the consent of the people.
Nevertheless, Canada’s founding is an apparently quiet affair. Nothing like the American experience. Any argument against the Hegelian-influenced view is not refuted but ignored as “anti-Canadian.” It’s simple: They rebelled; we didn’t. They crafted a liberal constitution; we merely transferred power from one parliament to another. Some even go as far as to imply that Confederation was a Tory special-interest.[2]
Idealism embraces multiculturalism as its own, but British North America always consisted of many cultures, languages, religions and nationalities. Canada was founded on multiculturalism, but not the top-down collectivist approach today’s governments embrace. The founders assumed that if there was some kind of “Canadian culture” it would develop after Confederation, “when the people did great things together.” And thus we get to the crux of the issue. Is Canada fundamentally more collectivist than individualist? It’s been 147 years. What is our culture?
First off, it’s ludicrous to suggest that Canada was founded on collectivist principles. The founders were politicians, but they had to put their cronyism aside to create a constitution. They never would have gotten the consent of the people unless they at least paid lip service to Enlightenment ideas. The Canadian Constitution Act of 1867 didn’t embody any “cultural” traits or references. It was a neutral, bare-bones constitution that delegated governing powers between a legislative, executive and judiciary. It’s purpose was to govern the new Dominion, not define it. For all intents and purposes, it was a “perfect” liberal constitution. The War Between the States proved secession wrong-headed; centralized liberal governments were the wave of the future. Not that anyone needed to convince British North Americans, most of whom wished to see the vast continent under a British flag.
But what after Confederation? I don’t know if the founders predicted a cultural identity shaped by government schools and a concentration of mass media. At the time, cultural identities were localized and influenced by religion and former nationalities. Free men had liberty in the “negative” sense, not the “positive” terms used by the idealists. Confederation took place in a society that viewed liberty as “freedom from aggression” not “freedom to goods and services.” The kind of culture first-generation Canadians expected to develop is probably very different from the one imposed on us today by the state’s intellectuals. Man must eat before he can produce art. Arts and culture have historically been funded by private interests; not state bureaucracy. States can’t even calculate properly. Funding ideas through taxes erodes the culture, incentives power and destroys real wealth.

[1] For more history I suggest reading Janet Ajzenstat. The criticisms of Canadian Idealism are my own opinions. See Canada’s Founding Debates and The Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament

[2] R.T. Naylor, History of Canadian Business

Also available at Mises Canada 

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