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What Canada Can Teach America About Peace, Order & Good Government

Canada isn’t a utopia but it does have something to teach the United States about the value of community and the proper role of government

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By Craig Axford | United States

According to the Canadian historian John Bartlett Brebner, “Americans are benevolently ignorant about Canada, while Canadians are malevolently well informed about the United States.” When my wife and I initially began contemplating a move up north the first half of Brebner’s statement certainly applied to us.

We had visited Canada two or three times, so we were confident that culturally and linguistically most of the country was similar enough to ensure adapting wouldn’t be too difficult. And of course, there was single-payer healthcare. Like every other American we had an opinion on that topic. In our case, it was a favorable one. If affordable healthcare wasn’t going to come to us, we were willing to try going to it.

But beyond a very basic understanding of its healthcare system and the fact that most of the country spoke English, we lacked even a fundamental knowledge of Canadian history. The cultural attitudes that made something like universal healthcare possible north of the 49th parallel while it remained maddeningly impossible below it was even more of a mystery. After living there for seven of the last eight years we are still figuring that out. Now, as we prepare to return to Canada again after a year in the United States, we are looking forward to continuing our field research.

The decision to move north can best be described as prompted more by a push than a pull. Political discourse had already deteriorated in the US by the time we left 2010. In spite of the wave that brought the Democrats back into control of Congress in 2006 and the financial crisis that helped propel Obama into the White House in 2008, getting a debate on proposals such as a public healthcare option remained impossible. In addition, the Tea Party movement was tightening its hold on the Republican party and public figures like Donald Trump were actively promoting crazy theories about things like President Obama’s birthplace.

I had been working for the DNC as a party organizer but felt frustrated as attempts to hold the party’s “big tent” together consistently translated into watered down messages that everyone could more or less agree on but no one could get excited about. The vision once so eloquently and proudly expressed by leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy seemed increasingly unlikely to return in my lifetime.

I was tired of hearing bold ideas being consistently dismissed as “impractical” by Democrats and attacked as “socialist” by Republicans. If other developed countries had managed to implement successful programs that few US politicians were willing to seriously consider, then it seemed a safe bet that these nations must necessarily have some cultural or political advantage the US lacked. Canada was the closest, most convenient, and most affordable option available under the circumstances.

Shortly after our arrival in 2010, I returned to school as a student at the University of Victoria. Among my first courses was a class in Canadian government. My understanding of the parliamentary system at the time is best described as a vague impression formed by American high school history courses that focused on the Revolutionary War period and included some antipathy for the monarchy. In the years since I had gotten a glimpse now and then of question periods in the British House of Commons that left me wishing C-Span’s congressional coverage could be as entertaining but unconvinced having a prime minister was necessarily preferable to having a president.

The acronym POGG is so familiar to Canadians that it never occurred to the professor teaching my Canadian government class that she should actually use the full phrase once or twice for the benefit of uninformed students like me. To the only American in the room, POGG sounded like a children’s toy or a game rather than the acronym for a phrase found in the British North America Act of 1867.

Peace, order and good government (POGG) was, it turned out, a line commonly inserted by the British Parliament throughout the 19th century into laws granting colonies greater autonomy from London. In Canada’s case, it was written into section 91 of the British North America Act. Section 91 describes the extent of the Parliament of Canada’s authority. As you might imagine given there are 90 sections that precede it, it lacks the lofty rhetorical quality that America’s founders successfully achieved in the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the US Constitution.

“It shall be lawful for the Queen, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate and House of Commons, to make Laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada, in relation to all Matters not coming within the Classes of Subjects by this Act assigned exclusively to the Legislatures of the Provinces; and for greater Certainty, but not so as to restrict the Generality of the foregoing Terms of this Section, it is hereby declared that (notwithstanding anything in this Act) the exclusive Legislative Authority of the Parliament of Canada extends to all Matters coming within the Classes of Subjects next hereinafter enumerated; that is to say, [a list of 29 enumerated powers follows]

But in spite of its placement deep into the pages of the British North America Act and the context, Canadians have given the phrase “Peace, order and good government” roughly the same status Americans give to “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It was upon realizing the emphasis Canadians place upon POGG that many of my own frustrations with the United States became clearer.

I came of age during the Reagan years. During most of my lifetime “good government” has been something American conservatives have been willing to consider a possibility only if it comes in a very small package. Ronald Reagan liked to refer to the sentence “I’m with the government and I’m here to help” as “the nine most terrifying words” an American could hear. Some of us are convinced to this day that it was his administration’s primary mission to prove it.

There’s a significant qualitative difference between a debate about the minimum a government can/should do and one about the maximum. The former involves deliberating about the question of how low it’s reasonable to go while the latter is contemplating how high it’s possible to climb. For all the current talk about making America great again, its reach exceeding its grasp has never been in its problem.

Obviously, there are many millions of people living in the United States that don’t share the Republican conviction that government can’t be a force for good or that it’s relative smallness matters more than function. The difference between the US and Canada isn’t that one country has people that have faith in their government while the other doesn’t. The primary difference appears to be that in one country the debate about government’s responsibility to be a positive force is still raging while in the other all the political parties, including the Conservative Party, start every policy debate with that as their premise.

Canada is an evolutionary culture, not a revolutionary one. As such, it’s no surprise that the phrase it so strongly identifies with is less stirring than “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and can be affectionately referred to by its acronym without the slightest hint of disrespect. Moving to Canada made me conscious for the first time that I prefer evolution to revolution and gave me the reason why. Adaptation means allowing people time to reflect upon the society they want and to make the necessary adjustments. Revolution, on the other hand, involves a sudden reactionary change that leaves the details to be worked out later. America is often referred to as an ongoing experiment in democracy precisely because more than two centuries after its successful revolt those details are still being worked out.

Of course, the words “Peace, order and good government” are not by themselves a panacea. Like “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” the aspiration is left to each citizen and generation to define. Canadian governments, like their American counterparts, have been guilty of promoting systemic racism and other injustices. Both church and state forced generations of indigenous children into residential schools in an effort to “civilize” and “Christianize” them. The effects of this practice continue to be felt within Canada’s native communities and were the subject of a truth and reconciliation commission whose findings the country is still working to implement.

But that there’s been a truth and reconciliation commission at all is a reason for hope. In contrast, the United States has strenuously resisted launching any similar effort to reconcile itself to its history of slavery and the genocidal atrocities committed against its own native population. Exceptionalism and rugged individualism remain very much a part of the American myth and both of those beliefs keep getting in the way of a true reckoning with the injustices of the past.

The name Canada derives from the Huron-Iroquois word “kanata,” which means “village” or “settlement.” In a very real sense that it took a village to raise a child was never nearly as controversial there. On our first Canada Day in British Columbia, we noticed that the country’s annual celebration of its autonomy had a more communal feel to it. As we traveled into downtown Victoria to join the throngs gathering to celebrate people broke out into choruses of Oh Canada! on the bus. On the lawn of BC’s parliament, citizens gathered to listen to the performers on the large outdoor stage and dressed in red and white t-shirts to compete with other major cities across the country to form the largest human Canadian flag.

This was a city coming together to celebrate their country in a way we had rarely if ever seen in the United States. It was a day of organized chaos that included everything from browsing at the booths merchants had set up along the waterfront to watching street performers and drinking beer on the outdoor patios of local pubs and restaurants. I was used to family get-togethers on the 4th of July, but not such large community ones. This was as much a commemoration of humanity and cosmopolitanism as it was of Canada. Village or settlement indeed.

In August of 2017, we encountered a visa snafu. Somewhere along the line a box that should have been checked wasn’t or one that shouldn’t have been was. As a result, my application for a new student visa was denied and I needed to leave the country. My entry into a master’s program at Royal Roads University was deferred for a year while we worked it out. In a few days we’ll be crossing the border into Canada again at which point we’ll know for sure whether we have all our I’s dotted and T’s crossed. This time, we hope, everything is in order. We have preliminary approval so we’re optimistic.

It’s not that we don’t love the United States. We do. But we like having a parliament with members from five parties instead of a Congress with members from two (Bernie Sanders and Angus King notwithstanding). Nor will we miss the gridlock that has come to define US politics and which divided government is literally designed to perpetuate. America’s ongoing debate about the role of government has once again devolved into a tribal partisan battle that challenges the value of even having democratic institutions in the first place.

Canada isn’t perfect, but as far as we can tell it has at least put many of the fundamental questions that America continues to wrestle with behind it. That’s not to say Canada is immune to the same undemocratic populist sickness that currently infects its southern neighbor, but it does have a stronger immune system.


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