The True North Strong and Free

November 6, 2017 § 2 Comments

Last week, Canadian Governor General Julie Payette gave a speech at what the Canadian Broadcast Corporation calls ‘a science conference‘ in Ottawa.  There, she expressed incredulity in creationism and climate change denial, and called for a greater acceptance of scientific fact in Canada.  Payette is a former astronaut, holds an MSc in computer engineering, and has worked in the field of Artificial Intelligence.  In other words, when she speaks on this matter, we should listen.

Her comments ignited a storm of controversy in Canada.  Some people are upset at her comments.  Some people are upset the Governor General has an opinion on something.  With respect to the first, Payette spoke to scientific fact.  Full stop. Not opinion.  Fact.  With respect to the second, Governors General and opinions, I will point out that our former Governor General, David Johnston, also freely expressed his opinions.  But, oddly, this did not lead to massive controversy.  What is the difference between Payette and Johnston?  I’ll let one of my tweeps, author Shireen Jeejeebhoy answer:

But then I found a particularly interesting tweet.  The tweet claimed that for the very reason that Canada has the monarchy, the country cannot have democratic elections.

Um, what?  There is no logic to this tweet.  I asked the author of the tweet what he meant. In between a series of insults, he said that he thinks the Governor General, which he mistakenly called an ‘important position,’ should be an elected post.  That gives some clarity to his original post, but he’s still wrong.

Canada is a democracy, full stop.  Elections in Canada are democratic, full stop.

Canada is a constitutional monarchy.  Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of State.  The Governor General is her representative in Canada (each province also has a Lieutenant-Governor, the Queen’s representatives in the provincial capitals).  The Queen does appoint the GG (and Lt-Govs), but she does so after the prime minister (or provincial premiers) tell her who is going to be appointed. In other words, Payette has her position because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau selected her.

Canada, unlike the United States, did not gain ‘independence’ in one fell swoop.  In 1848, Queen Victoria granted the United Province of Canada, then a colony, responsible government.  This gave it (present-day Ontario and Québec) control over its internal affairs. All legislation passed by the colonial assembly would gain royal assent via the Governor General.  Following Confederation in 1867, the new Dominion of Canada enjoyed responsible government (which the other colonies that became Canada also had).  But Canada  did not control its external affairs, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland did.  In 1931, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster, which granted control over foreign affairs to the Dominions (Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand).  In 1947, Canadian citizenship was created.  Prior to that, Canadians were subjects of the monarchy.  In 1949, the Supreme Court of Canada became the highest court in the land. Prior to that, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London was.  In 1982, the Canadian Constitution, which had been an act of the London Parliament (the British North America Act, 1867) was patriated and became an act of the Parliament in Ottawa.  So, choosing when Canada became independent is dicey.  You can pick anyone of 1848, 1931, 1947, 1949, or 1982 and be correct, at least in part.  We tend to celebrate 1867, our national holiday, July 1, marks the day the BNA Act came into affect.  That is the day Canada became a nation, but it is not the date of independence.

Either way, Canada is an independent nation.  Lamarche’s claim that, because we are a constitutional monarchy, we do not have free elections is ridiculous.  The role of the monarchy in Canada is entirely symbolic.  The Queen (or the Governor General or Lieutenants Governors) have absolutely no policy input. They have no role in Canadian government beyond the symbolic.  None.

 

I’m not even sure how someone could come to this conclusion other than through sheer ignorance.

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Equalization Payments in Canada

July 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

Over the weekend on Twitter, I was caught up in a discussion with an Albertan who didn’t believe that the province, along with British Columbia, is forecast to lead Canada in economic growth.

She argued that the province is still hurting, that big American gas companies had pulled out, and that people were leaving Alberta.  Indeed, in June, Alberta’s unemployment rate was 7.4%, but even then, that was an improvement of 0.4% from May.  But, economic growth does not mean that one can necessarily see the signs of a booming economy.  Alberta’s economy, however, shows signs of recovery, and this 2.9% economic growth, as well as a decline in unemployment rates, shows that.

She also expressed a pretty common bitterness from Albertans about Equalization payments in Canada.  These payments might be the most mis-understood aspect of Canadian federalism.  The common belief in Alberta, which is usually a ‘have’ province (meaning it doesn’t receive equalization payments), is that its money, from oil and gas and everything else, is taken from it and given to the ‘have-not’ provinces (those who receive equalization payments).  This is made all the more galling to Albertans because Quebec is the greatest recipient of equalization payments.

This argument, though, is based on a fundamental mis-understanding of how equalization payments work in Canada.  Equalization payments date back to Canadian Confederation in 1867, as most taxation powers accrued to the federal government.  The formal system of equalization payments dates from 1957, largely to help the Atlantic provinces.  At that time, the two wealthiest provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, were the only two ‘have’ provinces.  And this formal system was enshrined in the Constitution in 1982. Section 36, subsection (2) of the Constitution Act reads:

Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.

The general idea behind equalization payments is, of course, that there are economic disparities across the nation.  There is any number of reasons for these disparities, which are calculated on a provincial level.  These can include the geographic size of a province, population, the physical geography, or economic activity.

Quebec is a traditional ‘have not’, which seems incongruous with the size and economy of the province.  Montreal, after a generation-long economic decline from the late 1960s to the mid 1990s, has more or less recovered.  If Quebec were a nation of its own (as separatists desire), it would be the 44th largest economy in the world, just behind Norway. It contributes 19.65% of Canada’s GDP.  But Quebec’s economy is marked by massive inequalities.  This is true in terms of Montreal versus much of the rest of the province.  But it is also true within Montreal itself.  Montreal is home to both the richest neighbourhood in the nation, as well as two of the poorest.  Westmount has a median family income of $220,578.  But Downtown Montreal ($32,841) and Parc Ex ($34,211) are the fourth and fifth poorest, respectively, in Canada.

The formula by which equalization payments are made is based on averages across the country.  Here, we’re talking about taxation rates and revenue-generation, based on the national averages of Canada.  Provinces that fall below these averages are ‘have not’ provinces.  Those who fall above it are ‘have’ provinces.  The three wealthiest provinces are usually Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta.  But all three of these provinces have fallen into ‘have not’ status at various points. In 2017-18, in order of amounts received, the have-nots are: Quebec, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island.  Quebec, it should be noted, will receive more than the other ‘have-nots’ combined.  The ‘have’ provinces this year are Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland & Labrador, and Saskatchewan.

The equalization payments, though, are not a case of taking money from Alberta to pay for Quebec’s social programs.  The funds are not based on how much one province pays for its health care system, or for a universal child care system, or cheap tuition at the province’s universities (Quebec has both universal child care and cheap tuition for in-province students).  Rather, the funds come out of the same general revenue stream that Ottawa has to fund ALL of its programmes and services.  And, each and every Canadian contributes to this revenue stream.  Thus, the fine people of Westmount contribute more to equalization payments (and general revenue) than the middle-class residents of suburban Calgary, or a person in a lower income bracket in Saskatchewan.  And, because there are more Quebecers than there are Albertans, Quebec actually contributes more to the equalization payment scheme.

It is not just angry Albertans who believe they are getting hosed by the federal government.  Many Quebecers will rail against their province’s funding priorities and point to the province’s status as a ‘have not’ as to why it should not have these programmes.  Both positions are factually wrong, and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Canada’s equalization payments.

The Truth and How to Deal With it When Studying History

November 19, 2013 § 6 Comments

In two of the books I’ve read recently I found myself incredibly frustrated by the authors’ insistence on “The Truth” and the “True Story.”  It is worth noting that neither book was written by a professional historian, despite the fact that both dealt with historical subjects.  So I began to think about how we historians are trained to think about “truth” in graduate school, how we deal with various truths in the documents, and by obvious attempts at obfuscation by historical actors.  And how we deal with gaps in the sources.

Each author deal with these problems differently.  In Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, I was troubled by Weatherford’s inability to deal with at least one of his sources critically.  Weatherford makes great use of a source called “The Secret History”, which covers the early history of the Mongols in Temujin’s (Chinggis Khan) rise.  I found myself continuously wondering if The Secret History was actually verifiably true, or if it was something to be taken with a grain of salt, which is what my sense was in reading Weatherford’s book.

But the bigger problem came in C.J. Chivers’ The Gun.  Chivers was understandably frustrated throughout his research and writing process by the varying story of the development and proliferation of the AK-47 in the Soviet Union.  Mikhail Kalashnikov himself has published multiple autobiographies, both during the Soviet era and after, and has given countless interviews to the media, both before and after the fall of the USSR.  And in almost everyone of them, he gave different versions of his own biography, of his development of the AK-47 and so on.  I would’ve been frustrated in Chivers’ shoes.

For example, Kalasknikov’s brother, Nikolai, was sent to a Stalin-era prison camp when they were young.  Chivers is frustrated in figuring out what Nikolai’s sentence was.  At the end of the day, I found myself wondering “who cares”?  I am less interested in what sentence Nikolai Kalashnikov received than the fact that he was sentenced to a labour camp in the first place.  And I felt that Chivers spent too much time and space in the book expressing his frustration and inability to get to the fact of the matter there to the detriment of a discussion of the Kalashnikov family’s status as kulaks during Collectivisation during the Stalin era.

Chivers also spends the most time and effort complaining about Kalashnikov’s biography.  He also is downright naïve in expressing his frustration with Soviet-era sources and the multiple truths of the era, as if nothing like that ever happened in the US or any other Western nation.  At any rate, Chivers goes on a long rant about Kalashnikov co-operating with Soviet authorities in the re-crafting of his biography (Chivers prefers the term “white-washing”, which, while being accurate is ahistorical).  Kalashnikov’s family were kulaks, enemies of the state.  They were exiled to Siberia.  No kidding Kalashnikov needed a new biography when he became the inventor of the AK-47, which Chivers makes a strong and compelling argument as the greatest invention of the USSR.  His background as the son of kulaks had to be deleted from the story and a new version be created for public consumption.  To criticise Kalashnikov for participating in this process is almost laughable.  Obviously he had to participate.  He didn’t have a choice in a totalitarian dictatorship.  At least not if he wanted to keep living.

At any rate, it just so happens that, as a public historian, this is the kind of thing I study.  Public historians spend a lot of time looking at how stories get created, whether they are wider cultural stories or individual ones.  If Chivers thinks that what Kalashnikov participated in only happened in totalitarian communist states, he’s deeply, deeply mistaken.  Manufactured histories are part and parcel of almost daily life in Canada and the USA.

But the question of truth is what I’m interested in here.  Fact.  Statistics don’t speak for themselves.  Numbers don’t speak for themselves.  A picture is not worth a thousand words.  Facts are simple things.  Fact: Canadian Confederation happened on 1 July 1867.  But why? And what did it mean?  The why can be answered in many ways, both narrowly and widely.  It can be answered looking at what was happening in the United States, it can be answered looking at British colonial politics.  Or by what was happening in Canada.  Or a combination thereof.  The standard interpretation of what it means is that it was the birth of Canada.  But Canada in 1867 was four provinces, comprised of three colonies.  That’s about it.  It didn’t mean that Canada now had control of its own internal affairs.  That happened in 1848.  It didn’t mean that Canada gained control of foreign affairs.  That happened in 1931.  There was no such thing as Canadian citizenship until 1948.  Nor was the Supreme Court of Canada the highest court of appeal until then.  Canada did not control its own constitution until 1982.  So, in short, facts only cover a very simple corner of the story.  Interpretation is necessary.

To use an example from The Gun: The Ak-47 was developed in 1947.  Or was it?  Chivers does a wonderful job teasing out the details of the weapon’s creation in the late 1940s, to say nothing of the massive re-tooling of the gun that continued into the 1950s.  Even nailing down 1947 as the date of the gun’s creation isn’t as straight-forward as one would think, at least according to Chivers.

So, the truth.  Or the true story.  In my experience, rarely is something billed as the “true story” actually that.  Truth is a messy concept.  And this is what we historians are trained in.  We recognise that the honest truth isn’t necessarily a possibility (or even desirable) in telling a story.  Other things are more important, such as in the case of Nikolai Kalashnikov’s trip to the gulag.  Again, the actual sentence doesn’t interest me as much as why he was sent to the gulag.  In other words, there are varying shades of grey in sorting out the historical story.  And sometimes the actual straight truth isn’t that important to the story.  In the end, Chivers’ story is made all the more interesting for all the work he does in developing and elucidating the various stories of the development of the AK-47 and the various biographies and stories to be told about its inventor (or maybe he wasn’t the inventor, another version of the story could just as easily been that the gun was the result of a collective team), Mikhail Kalashnikov.

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