Federalism and the French Canadians


in Books and literature, Canada, Economics, Law, Politics, Writing

As part of my preparation for my August comprehensive exam, I read Pierre Trudeau’s 1968 collection of essays: Federalism and the French Canadians. Compared to the other texts on the list, it is short, clear, and accessible. While some of the controversies addressed are too obscure to be intelligible to someone who has never closely studied the politics of Quebec at the time, the book does set out the general thrust of Trudeau’s thinking in areas ranging from the shortcomings of ethnic nationalism to the importance of bilingualism and federalism in Canada.

Written during the middle of what has subsequently been called Quebec’s ‘Quiet Revolution‘, Trudeau’s book argues that the constitutional structure of Canada’s federation, encompassing Quebec, arose appropriately from the historical circumstances of Canada’s founding. (197) Regarding the future of that province, he describes two alternatives: one in which isolation and ethnic nationalism lead to stagnation and an economy and society falling ever-farther below the world standard, and another in which federalism is renewed, particularly through the universal application of bilingualism across Canada. (32, 48)

Trudeau does an acute job of identifying the shortcomings in an ‘asymmetric’ approach to federalism, in which some provinces are granted special privileges or substantially more power than others. For one, how can provinces granted such rights be appropriately accorded equal influence within the federal government to provinces with lesser powers? Trudeau also discusses the contradictions involved in asserting national self-determination for Quebec. If it is a ‘people’ that holds the right to declare political independence, how can they bring with them an Anglophone minority that doesn’t want to come, or indigenous groups that would choose to remain part of the rest of Canada. Similarly, how can they leave behind Francophones in other provinces? (153) He concludes that a modern state must be polyethnic and that such a character actually empowers and enriches a society through openness, diversity, and tolerance. (156-8, 165)

Trudeau stresses the importance of the division of powers to democratic legitimacy – describing the importance of the electorate being able to identify which level of government bears responsibility for a particular policy. The book also describes Trudeau’s perspective on equalization payments as an essential part of a federation in Canada, justified on the basis that they will allow all provinces – regardless of economic circumstances – to provide the same basic standard of social support. (27, 72)

In one long chapter, Trudeau describes what he perceives as the obstacles to democracy in Quebec. These are chiefly the things which the Quiet Revolution arose against: an overmighty Catholic church, restrictions in speech and education, a parochial elite dominating society, and lingering feelings of historical inferiority and exploitation. (106) He highlights, for instance, the enduring alliance that emerged between the English Canadian elite that played a large role in the Quebecois economy and the Catholic Church which was permitted to operate largely unchanged after the Seven Years’ War and 1774 Quebec Act.

Trudeau frequently expounds on the importance of reason and the allure and inadequacy of emotion for making political arguments or justifying political institutions. He is largely dismissive of nationalism as a force for unity in Canada. He also refers frequently to the importance of expanding individual liberty, using this as the criteria for distinguishing between ‘genuine’ revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. Trudeau’s view of constitutional politics is remarkably Burkean, with an emphasis on the idea that Canada’s constitution doesn’t merely reside in one or more constitutional documents, but also in precedents and traditions, and that the fact of standing the test of time is an endorsement of their merit. (20)

In places, the book seems to fall into some of the traps of which the author is wary. In particular, there are segments where close logical argument is abandoned in favour of something more like emotional or rhetorical hand-waving. Nonetheless this is an unusually interesting book. Indeed, it is probably a unique one in Canadian history insofar as it shows the thinking of a politically-minded academic who actually went on to make singular changes to how Canada is governed, via the patriation of the constitution and the Charter.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

oleh July 16, 2013 at 10:19 pm

I was born in 1957. The first political events in my memory are the 6-day war in the Middle East and the election of Trudeau as leader of the Liberal Party and therefore the Prime Minister of Canada. Trudeau became critical in my view of Canada as he was Prime Minister for so much of my life.

This book sounds like it would be quite interesting. To see his views today and how events have unfounded since, particularly regarding Quebec, of which he was a native son yet with a federalist perspective.

Sasha July 19, 2013 at 3:57 am

I feel compelled to read this.

Milan July 19, 2013 at 11:39 am

The Canadian politics book I would most recommend may be Peter Russell’s Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians Become a Sovereign People?.

oleh July 22, 2013 at 2:15 am

I find the topic ” Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians Become a Sovereign People?” intriguing.

Why do you most recommend the book with that title by Peter Russell?

Milan July 22, 2013 at 12:19 pm

I have quoted or mentioned it on a couple of occasions:

Peter Russell on recent decades of Canadian constitutional politics

Burke on rights and generations

I will write a review of the book when I have time. Briefly, it is an informative and well-documented account of Canada’s constitutional history, with an emphasis on English and French Canadians and on the relationship between settlers and the indigenous peoples.

Here is the syllabus for his course: “Canada in Question – a Country Founded on Incomplete Conquests” http://www.sindark.com/phd/POL490H.pdf

. August 7, 2013 at 8:36 pm

“Faced with such contradictory and uncertain possibilities, a man by himself may decide to take the plunge. From dignity and pride – or even in the hope of raising his own social rank – he may declare himself ready to try national independence, especially if he has intellectual or financial reserves to fall back on should the adventure miscarry.

But this does not hold for those people who have, at best, a precarious economic security. Organizations concerned with the working classes in Quebec would plainly be irresponsible to scuttle Confederation with an attitude of ‘Come what may!’ These associations must give the benefit of the doubt to established political institutions that have helped Canadians attain the second or third highest standard of living in the world. Let the burden of proof fall upon people who would lead an entire nation into an unknown speculation.” (p. 20 paperback)

Trudeau, Pierre. Federalism and the French Canadians. 1968

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