reflections on a one-party state

the wheels have finally come off the bus

First, some housekeeping. I initially set up this blog to post occasional thoughts/comments on Newfoundland and Labrador’s political scene, but considering a) I get paid to post some of those thoughts and comments elsewhere and b) anything else of substance I do want to contribute I will pass along to my wonderful comrades at The Independent, it may not be a bad idea to broaden my writing horizons. I’ve also spent the last few months up to my eyeballs researching the last 120 years of Alberta’s political history, and since there’s a lot going on my province of current residence, maybe I could start using this space to jot down my developing thoughts on Western politics too, if only to keep friends back East abreast of this strange and alien place to which we’re constitutionally linked.

Ok! So that said: what the heck is happening in Alberta?

As far as I can tell, we are in the closing chapter(s) of the province’s latest conservative civil war. The Wildrose Party, rather suddenly, is apparently considering a “reunification agreement” with the Progressive Conservatives which would see them folded into Jim Prentice’s government. The non-legislative wing of the Wildrose says they intend to fight it, no doubt deepening the internal conflict that has been wracking Wildrose for the past year-ish. Cataclysmic conflicts between the grassroots and legislative wings of Alberta’s political parties have a very long precedent going back to the United Farmers, so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. But either way, I think this spells the end of the Wildrose.

There are a few reasons for this, but the most immediate reason is Jim Prentice himself. As far as ‘fiscal conservatism’ goes, they’re basically on the same page with premier Prentice, a bona fide Harperite. Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford were aberrations, and while Wildrose certainly spearheaded the drive to oust Redford it probably could have been accomplished with a good old-fashioned caucus revolt (which did happen to an extent within the PC Association of Alberta itself). In retrospect, it’s possible history will come to see Wildrose as just a louder, more organized caucus insurrection.

The major difference between the two parties was arguably Wildrose’s commitment to social conservatism, but this was also the biggest Albatross around the party’s neck. The more extreme positions (the gays will burn in Hell, God gave Alberta to the white man, etc etc etc) just can’t play in Alberta’s increasingly urban, multicultural and liberal (note the small-l) environment. As for their more publicly palatable positions, they’re again pretty close to the Tories. Both parties are willing to pay lip service to human-driven climate change while committing to the vast expansion and subsidization of the tar sands and the oil industry. When Bill 10, the Tories’ tepid reaction to a private member’s bill encouraging and facilitating Gay-Straight Alliances in high schools, they waffled and stumbled around the government’s line about “respecting parental rights [to teach their kids to be homophobes]” but generally came down in the same camp. The ‘progressive’ in the PCAA is definitely not a stumbling block for the more intense reactionaries in Wildrose. It’s clear that both parties are pretty close here as well. In fact, one of the most recent Wildrose defectors basically said the Tories are more socially conservative than his old party, so, there’s that.

I also think that for all the handwringing that’s going on about the province’s major opposition party collapsing back into the government fold, there is a lot of historical precedent for this in Alberta. I’m a firm believer that ‘history accumulates’ and nowhere is this more true than in political institutions and culture. There’s a long tradition here of acquiescing to single-party, ‘consensus’ government. When the province was established in 1905, territorial premier Fred Haultain and many others wanted to keep the non-partisan form of government we see in the territories.* But turn-of-the-century Canada being what it was (ie. hilariously corrupt), Wilfred Laurier’s Liberals more or less imposed the two-party system on Alberta in order to gave provincial Liberals access to power and levers of patronage, etc., in order to secure future Liberal power in the province. Yes, really.

Arguably (in my opinion) Alberta rejected this in 1921 when they swept the United Farmers into office with a super majority and effectively returned to a non- (or, more accurately, less-) partisan model of government. Government has only changed hands a few times in Alberta (1921, 1935, 1971), and since roughly 1925 (and the premiership of John Brownlee) those governments have all operated from the same, broadly conservative orientation (the 1935-43 Aberhart Insurrection notwithstanding, although what Bible Bill lacked in fiscal conservatism he made up on the social side).

There is also some history of government parties here tending to ‘police’ themselves – backbenchers had (and maybe still have, though I’m not as familiar with more recent political history) a fairly large degree of power to dissent and challenge the government (eg. the 1937 Insurgency when Social Credit backbenchers almost forced Aberhart to resign). And this has generally been the model for years since – there are moments where the opposition wells in strength a little bit (eg the Independent MLAs in 1940; the Liberals under Decoure in the early 1990s before Klein established himself) but for the most part, people have been content with keeping the conservative course for 3 or 4 generations now. Even many Wildrose supporters (in and out of the Legislature) aren’t opposed to the Tories on ideological grounds so much as they are interested in making sure they were accountable, in avoiding the corruption Alison Redford embodied, etc. Insofar as Prentice represents a change in course back to ‘proper management’ for the provincial conservative movement, the Wildrose has outlived its purpose.**

It’s always possible the merger won’t go ahead, but even if that is the case, the conflict this is going to cause within the Wildrose has already sealed its doom.

The Alberta counter-revolution is dead; long live the counter-revolution.

* – Haultain also wanted the region, encompassing what is now both Alberta and Saskatchewan, to remain one province in Confederation, in order to give it more power and representation in Ottawa. Naturally, the federal government split it up for exactly that reason, to reduce it’s power vis-a-vis the interests of Central Canada. But Alberta’s colourful history of federal-provincial relations is a story for another time.

** – Anyone still interested in challenging the Tories from the right still has the Alberta Party (I think – I can’t figure out what they stand for or if they even really do anything), and those of us on the left can choose from any number of anemic, flailing, and self-cannibalizing parties both inside and outside the legislature. I really have a fondness for Rachel Notley and the local NDP (Liberal leader Raj Sherman was also a nice guy the one time I met him), but as long as they and the Liberals are going at each other I can’t see much changing. Albertans are – at least in Edmonton/Strathcona, which is admittedly not a representative sample – more progressive than 71 years of unbroken conservative rule might suggest, but given the state of their parliamentary options that voice will be minimal in political affairs unless either the party system or electoral system is altered (ie. the left parties are united or we get proportional representation).

Being a leftist in Alberta is basically a lot like being an Oilers fan – you know they did great things, once, a million years ago, but things have been abysmal for so long you can’t imagine them getting any better without a literal revolution even though everyone at the helm is telling you to keep patient because someday soon the conditions for victory will finally come around and also your primary means of bonding is commiserating with other fans about how garbage your team is and why do you even bother watching the game at all anymore really and buhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh


in case you guys are wondering about my weird fixation on bible bill aberhart

If you’re unlucky enough to either know me in real life or read my posts on Facebook, you have probably noticed that I am lately obsessed with William “Bible Bill” Aberhart, Social Credit Premier of Alberta from 1935-1943. Well, there are a lot of reasons. I really do think he’s one of the most interesting characters in Mainland political history – Smallwood remains the eternal wacky premier of my heart. I have a thing for 1930s-40s radio demagogues, I guess. Anyways, I thought I’d share a short excerpt from a project I’m working on that (partly) highlights why I dig Bible Bill.

Oh and I’m also working on my dissertation proposal, stay tuned because I might post that eventually. Right now my draft reads more like a manifesto than a research proposal for the social sciences but that’s just how I roll.

things really came off the rails there for awhile

The Great Depression had stretched the constitutional structure of Confederation to its absolute limits. By 1935, the only thing standing between the provinces and total bankruptcy was the federal government. Ottawa had suddenly found itself in the position of ‘lender of last resort’, forced to continually bail out provincial governments in order to keep them from defaulting on their debts. Naturally, the federal government was not pleased with the fact that the provinces could borrow whatever they liked while Ottawa was left to absorb the damage. Prime Minister Mackenzie King moved to put a stop to this, and in 1935 brought forward a proposal to establish a federal loan council – a board would be established in each province to oversee the loan process, staffed by someone from the provincial government and someone from Ottawa. This would give the federal government some oversight with regard to how the provinces borrowed money, and in exchange the provinces retained some financial autonomy and were now backed by the credit rating of all of Canada. King assumed it was a straightforward win-win situation.

[Alberta Premier William] Aberhart, however, balked at the idea that Ottawa would increase its control over Alberta’s finances. The Social Crediters saw the federal government as beholden to the Big Banks of Eastern Canada and felt they would leverage Ottawa’s power to destroy the Social Credit movement. Aberhart refused to play ball and never signed on to the loan council; accordingly, Ottawa refused to bail out Alberta, and on April 1, 1936 it became the first province in Canadian history to default on its debt. Aberhart felt this gave him some legislative leeway, so the province then unilaterally reduced interest payments on all outstanding debts in Alberta.

This was immediately placed before the courts and ruled unconstitutional, but Aberhart ignored them and continued passing similar laws. This was a recurring theme, and part of Aberhart’s political genius. Given that control of monetary policy was both the central mechanism for implementing Social Credit and unambiguously a power reserved for the federal government under the 1867 constitution, it was basically impossible for Aberhart to institute many of his policies. But he had found a clever, if contentious and crude, legislative loophole.

The biggest priority of Social Credit was always to reduce the worst pressures of the Depression on farmers, small businesspeople, and homeowners. The average Albertan’s biggest problem was an inability to make interest payments on their debts, leading to the banks seizing their assets, which often included farms and homes. Aberhart’s government made a point of passing legislation that barred the banks from collecting interest payments until people had enough money to actually make them. Like earlier legislation on provincial interest payments, these laws were brought to court and quickly struck down. But there was a catch: as long as that legislation was before the Assembly or the courts, it was considered legally effective, and the banks couldn’t seize any assets in Alberta. So every time the courts struck down a law, Aberhart would introduce another one that was virtually identical and stall the banks all over again.

It was a dirty trick, but it worked. In many cases, there was a statute of limitations on debt, and often it would expire while Aberhart’s legislation was still in play. This gave many Albertans enough breathing room to scrape by until better crop prices and economic conditions put them in a position to pay off the banks. Thousands of homes and farms were saved this way, and the banks themselves came out of it no worse for wear. He may have never have won in court, but Bible Bill at least won this battle on behalf of his people.

(Not all of Aberhart’s legislative abuses were benign, however. He occasionally used state power towards incredibly petty ends. In an effort to silence internal critics, Aberhart attempted to pass the ‘Accurate News and Information Act’ in 1937, which would have forced Albertan newspapers to print government press releases alongside regular columns to “correct misinformation” – ie. anything in the papers that Aberhart didn’t like – as well as forcing reporters to name their anonymous sources. When the lieutenant-governor refused to give Royal Assent to the bill, Aberhart cut off his expense accounts and kicked him out of his official residence. Even the party faithful balked at the tyranny implied in these bills, and in the end they never became law.)

the stakes of Senate reform

In case you missed it yesterday, the Supreme Court just dropped a landmark ruling on Senate reform (tl;dr – the federal executive can’t unilaterally alter the institutional structure of Canada, which is a ruling that should surprise nobody). Now that we have a clear picture of what constitutional reform would require in Canada, I thought it might be interesting to revisit some of the work I did in my Canadian politics comprehensive exam about the functioning of Parliament (i.e. the Commons and the Senate) and some possibilities for reform. I’m not exactly holding my breath here – constitutional reform in Canada has been, historically, nothing short of a nightmare – but I think what I have here at least sets up a discussion of what it is that we’re trying to reform, and why. You’d be surprised how much of this gets lost in the public debate (God knows I never thought/cared about much of this until I was forced to sit down and study it).

For the record, I think something definitely needs to be done with the Senate – the current arrangement is obviously not working for a host of reasons. But I’m uncomfortable with proposals to neuter it or abolish it altogether, because I think it’s the only federal institution capable of giving regions/provinces a productive counterweight against the federal government, and in this sense abolishing the Senate would actually make democracy in Canada, broadly speaking, worse instead of better. I’m including a discussion of the House of Commons here too because I really do think you can only make sense of the Senate as part of the greater representative unit that is ‘Parliament’.

[I left the citations in here because I didn’t feel like going through and editing them out, but I also didn’t feel like going through my bibliography to take out the sources to include them here at the end. On the off chance you’re reading this and you actually care where I’m getting this information, hit me up and I can connect you with the sources.]


For obvious reasons, institutions of parliamentary government have been the subject of intense study in Canadian political science. Since at least the 1950s, they have also been the centre of (often acrimonious) debates on how best to reform them to function more in line with ‘democracy’, however it is defined. As many scholars have observed, debates about the proper functioning and role of the Commons and Senate are really debates about how best to represent different visions of Canada.

What, exactly, the House of Commons is supposed to do, and whether or not it is any good at doing it, hinges largely on the observer’s conception of democracy and the role of government in society (and society in government). C. E. S. Franks gives the most catholic defence of Parliament, specifically admonishing would-be democratic reformers from tampering with its (necessarily) executive-dominant design (Franks, 1987: 6).1 Franks insists Parliament should remain executive-dominant – and that the reach and power of the cabinet outside of the legislature should be expanded – because it is the best vehicle for Canadian nation-building. An elite-centred “central [parliamentary] government, (…) especially the prime minister and cabinet, are the main institutions and forces holding the country together and asserting a national purpose, national standards, and national concerns over and above those of provinces, regions, and particular groups” (ibid.: 268).

Though less reverent than Franks, David Smith agrees that “the House gives institutional expression to the concept of a national community. (…) The House of Commons symbolizes the unity of the Canadian people achieved through the conversion of individual acts of voting. By incorporating the people, the House creates the Nation” (Smith, 2007: 5-6). This ‘incorporation,’ however, is the site of a contest over the meaning and practice of ‘democratic sovereignty’ by three distinct visions: ‘parliamentary democracy’, ‘electoral democracy’, and ‘constitutional democracy’ (ibid.: 142). The British model of parliamentary supremacy rests on a substantive degree of public trust in their representatives, and as deference to authority waned, so did the institution’s legitimacy with the Canadian public (ibid.: 7). The Canada West Foundation puts it bluntly: “Canadians lack (…) confidence in, and respect for, their institutions of government” (Canada West Foundation, 1994: 2).

As a result, parliamentary democracy has come under fire from two competing conceptions. ‘Constitutional democracy’ is the name Smith gives to the view that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has “[created] a constitutional state [that] replaces a defective form of governance by depriving legislatures of their general supremacy over the essential features of liberal democracy” (Smith, 2007: 10); conversely, ‘electoral democracy’ sees more direct, populist control over the legislature as superior to either constitutionalism or representative democracy (ibid.). The conflict between these competing visions of “who rules?” came to a head in the 2008 ‘Coalition Crisis’ (see: Russell and Sossin, 2009).

It is also not clear what nation is represented in Parliament. Andrew Sancton has argued that approximately 61% of Canadians are underrepresented in the House of Commons due to “the pressures of regional politics [working] to undermine Canada’s commitment to the principle [of representation by population]” (Sancton, 2010: 1); he suggests this undercuts Canadian democracy and should be remedied by “a provision allowing provinces to lose seats in the House of Commons in accordance with changes in their populations” (ibid.). This is a problematic attitude for a number of reasons. Most immediately, it would obliterate the representation of smaller provinces, already comparatively marginalized in the Commons. David Gussow (2012) suggests the need to strike a balance between fair representation and maintaining representation for smaller provinces and groups, which is a view backed by the Supreme Court of Canada; as it stands, Canada’s institutional commitment to group rights has meant the Supreme Court has “allowed for greater deviations from equality between electoral districts than are tolerated south of the border since (…) the 1960s” (Williams, 2005: 28) in order to secure more effective representation for distinct ‘communities of interest’. The representative capability of the House of Commons is also challenged by high levels of public disenchantment with government institutions, as well as consistently low voter turnout (Docherty and White, 2004).

But the blanket liberal egalitarianism of Sancton’s suggestion is also problematic from the perspective of representing distinct nations within Parliament. Although (until recently) the Québécois nation was represented fairly effectively in Parliament by the Bloc Québécois (Gagnon, 1996), it would do nothing to address the lack of federal representation among indigenous peoples. How to even go about addressing this problem is conceptually complicated; as Melissa Williams notes, “egalitarian inclusion through shared representative institutions [and] political autonomy through separate representative institutions (…) appear to be mutually exclusive political goals” (Williams, 2005: 28). While both the 1991 Lortie Commission and the Charlottetown Accord offered to mandate set representation for indigenous peoples in Parliament without acknowledging this difficulty, RCAP (1996b) suggested the need for a House of First Peoples to join Parliament alongside the Commons and the Senate. This constitutionally-entrenched House of First Peoples would be significantly more powerful than a simple advisory body in the sense that it would be empowered to “initiate legislation [and] to advise on legislation and constitutional affairs relating to Aboriginal peoples, in addition to review and oversight, and fact finding and investigative functions” (Hawke, 2001: 158).

Claudette Tardiff and Chantal Terrien (2009) have suggested that some of these representative impasses might be addressed through Senate reform. But how ‘the Nation’ is to be represented (and how it is to be constituted through that representation) is also contested in the Senate. This conflict is exacerbated by the fact that the Senate’s legitimacy is continually in question. The Senate, as it was established in 1867, was meant to serve a ‘unifying function’; according to David Smith,

because of the nature of its appointments and because it has no constituency base, (…) the Senate is better situated to offer a national outlook. Yet that national perspective must be qualified; the Supreme Court said [in] 1980 (…) that the smaller provinces only consented to Confederation on the understanding that there would be a regional upper house. In this respect the Senate helped define (…) Canada’s all-embracing identity. (Smith, 2003: 20).

Disputes about the Senate’s design and purpose, then, reflect differing visions of how Canadian national identity is best articulated. Writing in 1990, before the final collapse of the Meech Lake Accord, Randall White argues (in a book tellingly titled Voice of Region) that “an elected, effective, and more equal federal Senate for Atlantic and Western Canada,2 will be the at the centre of the most realistic and durable answer to the Canadian question in the twenty-first century” (White, 1990: 20). Pressure for Senate reform has come predominantly from Western and Eastern Canada against the Centre; for reformers, the Senate’s (potential) value lies in giving representation, and political counterweight, to smaller regions and groups who are otherwise marginalized by the legislative clout of Ontario and Quebec. But reform is complicated by the “constitutional indeterminacy of the function of the Senate, which inevitably leads to enormous variety in people’s ideas of reform” (Smith, 2009b: 3).3

A productive articulation and representation of regional perspectives within a national framework, then, has always been the purpose of the Senate; there would have been no Confederation without an upper chamber (Smith, 2009a; Ajzenstat, 2009). In fulfilling this function as a regional representative body, the Senate brings local perspectives to bear on national problems, without necessarily constraining national concerns with local agendas (Ajzenstat, 2009). Although it is nebulous, and tremendously complicated, Senate reform remains an urgent task; it presently lacks public legitimacy, and actively detracts more from a functioning federal government than it meaningfully contributes to it (Kent, 2009; Segal, 2009).

Reform (or outright abolition) is more in the public consciousness than it has been in some time in the wake of the present Senate corruption scandal. But while abolition may seem like an easy way out of the complexities of Senate reform, it would likely simply exacerbate regional problems further by removing even the faintest, formal check from the power of the political executive, and give provincial elites even more power and authority in articulating divergent regional interests. The Senate, theoretically, at least provides a way to articulate regional perspectives in a way that is still bounded within a national framework; abolition would put executive federalism and regional tensions up on bust, and would further marginalize smaller provinces from the seat of political power. Ultimately, “such executive federalism imperils democratic accountability” (Kent, 2009: 168).

1The House of Commons, which Franks seems to believe was bequeathed to us by God (or at least His representatives in Charlottetown), actually works quite marvellously; at least, it would if we would stay faithful to its original design. Democratic reformers’ struggle for consensual democracy against rigid party discipline is counter-productive, because in an elite-dominated institution the adversarial model serves us better. MPs should be given more wealth and prestige (thus attracting higher-calibre candidates); the reach and influence of political parties outside parliament should be expanded; and bureaucrats and provincial governments should be subordinated to the federal cabinet (Franks, 1987: 5-7). Franks is basically a parliamentary reactionary.

2Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador have historically bookended the drive towards reforming the Senate. In 1989, the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador issued a statement to the effect that the province has “little or no hope of ever achieving [its] rightful place in the Canadian federation until Canada has a Triple-E Senate” (ibid.: 268).

3For instance, while the idea of a purely non-partisan, deliberative, consensus-based technocracy has been floated as a model of Senate reform (and seems to be the approach taken by the Liberals under Justin Trudeau), Ron Watts observes that political parties can actually serve to mitigate and harmonize some of the otherwise more antagonistic regional differences that might be expressed in the Senate (Watts, 2009).


much ado about nothing

The best way to understand how something works is to start looking at the point where it breaks down. So, right now, the by-election in Virginia Waters (and the PC leadership contest happening alongside it) gives us a pretty excellent place to start thinking about the state of party politics in Newfoundland and Labrador. Provincial political parties have been going through a metamorphosis over the last few months, and a symptom of this deeper dis-ordering was Twitter’s collective partisan meltdown directed at The Telegram’s James McLeod on Saturday.

I’ll breeze over the PC leadership race first, because it’s pretty straightforward – the battle is between two candidates intent on challenging the party’s record in government and one candidate who wants to celebrate it. Barring some unforeseen catastrophe, Frank Coleman has the leadership on lockdown, almost solely because he’s the only candidate who hasn’t gone out of his way to actively alienate his voting base (whether or not championing the record of a government languishing at ~30% in the polls will win him a general election is another question entirely). Bill Barry, despite being easily the most genuinely interesting and disarmingly sincere candidate, has almost no chance of surviving even the first round of voting at the convention. Besides having declared war on most Tory loyalists and the entire sitting caucus, he’s also trying to win a members-only, delegated convention by focusing on issues and policy instead of digging into the Machiavellian bloodsport that is setting up favourable slates in district associations. It’s respectable in principle, but, tactically, running against the party stalwarts is misapplied given the structure of the current contest – it might have been a good move in a more open leadership format (e.g. what the Liberals did in 2013), but it won’t do much good for him here. The fact that Danny Williams has spoken out against him probably won’t help, either.

More interesting – for all the wrong reasons – is the strange odyssey of Wayne Ronald Bennett. If you’re a giant nerd like me, you might remember Bennett as a leader of the short-lived ‘Newfoundland and Labrador First Party‘, a nationalist party that lived briefly from 2006-2011 and collectively garnered about 0.01% of the popular vote in the 2008 federal election. Bennett’s campaign for the Premier’s Office has been, to put it (politely) in his own words, very ‘non-traditional’ – he launched his Twitter-centric leadership campaign on vacation in Cuba by endorsing Virginia Waters’ NDP hopeful Sheilagh O’Leary over and against his own party. Shortly thereafter he denounced the governing party he wanted to take over as more corrupt than Communist Cuba, and suggested Newfoundlanders should mimic the Cuban Revolution and throw off the shackles of some unnamed oppression.

Not, of course, that I have any problem with a provincial politician calling for a Marxist insurrection. But it seems a little out of place in a Tory leadership contest. And as it turns out, that’s one of the least outrageous things Bennett has said over the course of his brief but beautiful campaign. Bennett is allegedly the victim of a vast and murderous Tory conspiracy that has variously denied him a 42″ flatscreen television and half a decade of Christmas greetings. Literally everyone he interacts with on Twitter, apparently, is actually a PC operative out to destroy his credibility (unless proven innocent), in the same way that all Muslim women and children are probably suicide bombers. If (i.e. when) he’s booted from the leadership contest on grounds of racist tweets, he plans to take the party to the Supreme Court and eventually throw his support behind Barry, who would be well advised to preemptively disavow this entire trainwreck. All things considered, Bennett might have been better off if he’d stayed in Cuba and defected.

Ok, so, admittedly that’s less about understanding party politics and more about indulging our morbid voyeurism for Wayne Bennett’s ten thousand dollar public meltdown. The real story is the Virginia Waters by-election – the stakes are high for all contenders. The Tories need to hold it to prove that there’s still some energy left in an increasingly tired-looking government – especially in the wake of the latest broadly crowd-pleasing provincial budget. Conversely, the Liberals need to win it to solidify the momentum they’ve been garnering in the polls over the last few months – a loss now would be a serious hiccup on their way to winning government. And the NDP need to pull out a respectable showing simply to demonstrate that the party’s even still alive at all.

So in this vein, it was genuinely illuminating when a story broke in The Telegram that Danny Breen, PC candidate in Virginia Waters, signed up as a Liberal supporter in the 2013 leadership. This is interesting for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is that it raises a few deep questions about just how valuable the Liberals’ voter database really is – how many of the ‘supporters’ they signed up can they actually count on to support them on voting day? But many internet partisans seized on these revelations as proof that Breen is some kind of opportunistic monster with no real political allegiance. This is painfully ironic for any Liberal grabbing this as a talking point given that Cathy Bennett – Breen’s closest rival in Virginia Waters – was attacked during her leadership bid as a treacherous Fifth Columnist for past ties to the Tory government.

Of course, we could very well adopt a blanket cynicism here: maybe both Breen and Bennett – hell, all politicians – are just crass opportunists with no loyalties except the naked pursuit of political power. But I think a more generous (and accurate) reading of the situation is that both major political parties – Liberal and Progressive Conservative – are functionally interchangeable at an ideological level. It’s increasingly obvious – as the last few months of floor-crossing attests – that there really isn’t any substantive difference in worldview between the two parties that can’t be chalked up to an intense (and often irrational) brand loyalty.

(In this, there is some truth to the old Dipper adage that “Liberal, Tory, same old story.” The only real site of ideological disagreement in provincial politics is the NDP. But this represents less a principled stand by the Left as such than that party’s failure to adapt to contemporary conditions and articulate an opposition to the dominant (neo)liberal consensus that isn’t stuck in the 1970s. In this case, resolute loyalty to an outdated orthodoxy isn’t exactly a virtue – ditto allegiance to a leader who was willing to destroy her party than relinquish the reins of power. The NDP don’t need to force themselves onto the exact same ideological page as their opponents, but they may want to make sure they’re at least speaking in the same mother tongue.)

There’s something about the sort of frothing hyperpartisanship provoked by the Breen story that has always struck me (and many others) as palpably feigned – internet partisans doth protest too much. By their very nature, of course, public arguments between partisans are not really meant to change anyone’s mind about politics – if it happens, that’s just a bonus. They’re a form of posturing; performances meant to be noticed and ratified by the powers-that-be within the community of a given political party (and the spectacular media apparatus that sustains it). But the latest partisan performances in nlpoli, at their core, betray a primordial neurotic anxiety – these perverse preoccupations with party purity signify that, more than anything else, there’s really no substantive difference between Grit and Tory, Red and Blue.

The more loudly and aggressively they police their partisan boundaries, the more obvious it is how blurred those boundaries really are. On the road to political power, there are few wellsprings of energy and aggression as deep as ‘the narcissism of small differences’.

A Neurotic Nation – The ‘Canadian Question’ in Canadian Politics (and Political Science)

This is a little different from what I normally post here, but this is the text from my presentation at the University of Alberta Political Science Grad Student Association’s conference this past week on ‘Activism, The Arts, and Academia: Beyond the Ivory Tower’. It’s a substantially condensed summary of my comprehensive exam in the field of Canadian politics, and it was received so well I thought I would post a copy online for those who might be interested but for whatever reason (ie. geography) weren’t able to attend. If any of this interests/outrages you and you’d like to read the longer paper from which it is derived, let me know and I’d be more than happy to hook you up.

One of my colleagues in the audience offered a number of helpful suggestions about how to expand and deepen my discussion of indigenous issues, particularly surrounding issues of sovereignty, etc. I fully admit that I remain, in many ways, regrettably ignorant about much of the history and dynamics of settler-colonialism in Canada – which, in the course of my studies, I have gradually come to understand as the biggest political problem (and gravest injustice) in North America today – but I also want to stress that I’m committed to overcoming this ignorance and doing the subject justice. So, if you have any comments or resources about this area in particular, they would be greatly appreciated.


We’re here today, as I understand it, to talk about how our work as intellectuals might come to have some bearing in political struggles on the ground. In that spirit, I am here to suggest that public intellectuals might have a very important role to play in Canadian politics, because many (if not most) of our political problems stem from a problem of ideas, of ideological self-understanding as Canadians.

My starting point is fairly simple. In his essay on the legacy of the Canadian Confederation, Newfoundland philosopher F. L. Jackson tells us that “to be Canadian is to be (…) an ambiguity.” And, of course, we know from Freud that neurosis – as a psychic disposition – is characterized by an inability to tolerate ambiguity. It has therefore seemed to me – in both my lived experience negotiating my identity as Newfoundlander, Canadian, and a legatee of colonial oppression, as well as my intensive 10 month study of the academic literature – that Canadian politics is permeated by a profound anxiety that stems out of the need to end this ambiguity and work out some more or less definitive answer to the ‘Canadian question’. Exploring how this anxiety plays out in the literature of Canadian political science is basically the 60 page monstrosity that is my comprehensive exam.

Obviously I don’t have time here to get into this in much detail, so instead I’m giving you a grossly oversimplified (and partly polemical) historical narrative about Canada’s national neuroses. If any of this interests you, or you want some evidence to back up what you feel is a particularly outrageous claim, just hit me up later and we’ll hash it out.

The ‘problem’ with Canada (or, more politely, the ‘Canadian Question’) is that no one can agree on what Canada is and what it’s supposed to be. The Founders, in their infinite drunken wisdom, never managed to work out a conclusive definition of the political nationality they were creating and we’ve been dealing with the fallout ever since. As I see it, there are – very roughly – three overarching ‘answers’ that have variously been proposed for this Canadian Question: an Anglo-centric, essentially reactionary vision of ‘One Canada’; the Trudeauvian vision of a bilingual, multicultural, pan-Canadian individualism; and a vision of Canada as comprising two, three, or more ‘nations’ within a more properly federal system.

Canada, as it was founded in 1867, was intended to be explicitly anti-democratic and conservative – if the intellectual patron saint of the American Founding was John Locke, for Canada it was Edmund Burke. The BNA Act was legislation from the British Parliament, passed on the advice of a small cadre of colonial politicians, and imposed on the mainland British colonies with no democratic input despite deep unpopularity in the Maritimes. The only jurisdiction where Confederation was put to a vote was Newfoundland in 1869, and there the Confederates were obliterated. Canada was never intended to be a democracy, and many of its institutions (such as the Senate and the sovereignty of the Crown) continue to reflect this.

It was also founded, both explicitly and implicitly, as a proudly imperialist project. In contrast to the ‘degenerate mobocracy and its Negro element’ in the south, Canada was to be quite literally the ‘Great White North’, a Kingdom of the Northern Races. The plains were cleared of indigenous peoples (in part by a policy of deliberate starvation) to make way for European settlers and Aboriginal title was extinguished through the numbered treaties. Alberta and Saskatchewan were designed and constructed as fringe tributaries to “the commercial empire of the St. Lawrence” and the industrial lifeblood of the Maritimes was drained into the imperial heartland of Southern Ontario. Confederation built a country; but it did not build a nation.

But while an elitist, anti-democratic, and unabashedly colonial regime might have been palatable in the 19th century, this vision of the Canadian nation began to break down as the 20th century wore on. There are a number of reasons for this, but I’ll keep it short: a liberalizing trend in Canada’s political institutions that provoked increasing distaste for its illiberal foundations, the successful mobilization of sub-national identities (particularly Québécois and indigenous nationalism), and a palpable insecurity over the fact that any distinctive Canadian identity was in danger of being subsumed either into its incestuous closeness to the Mother Country or being sucked into the gravitational pull of the cultural, political, and economic behemoth south of the border.

Out of this generalized national identity crisis flowered Pierre Trudeau’s constitutional revolution. I say ‘Trudeauvian Revolution’ here not because Trudeau is the undisputed Philosopher King of Canadian politics, or even that he was a clear victor in the struggles over the 1982 patriation, but because his tenure as Prime Minister profoundly altered Canada’s institutional and ideological landscape. Trudeau set out to symbolically re-found Canada, and he succeeded; although he arguably created more problems on this front than he solved.

The 1982 patriation is a watershed moment in Canadian political history, but its full impact is as deeply ambiguous as it is momentous. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms in particular has replaced federalism as the central organizing principle of Canadian political life, inaugurating a new regime of individual rights where the Supreme Court, not parliament, is the final political authority. For some, this represents the full consolidation of the rule of law; for others, the full consolidation of the rule of lawyers. In any event, it has had a profound impact on Canadian identity – not only has it substantively altered the way politics are carried out, but the Charter is far and away the most popular national symbol of Canada, particularly among the young.

But I also want to suggest here that the constitutional megapolitics leading up to 1982 served a more direct tactical purpose: to diffuse political movements deemed threatening to the interests of the Canadian state and ruling class (in particular, Québécois and indigenous nationalisms). This was accomplished both by implanting constitutionalism in Canadian soil, and by articulating a national vision that is was profoundly individualistic, where all Canadian citizens are united in a single, if markedly multicultural, political nationality. Many commentators, both conservative and critical, note that this is in many ways “a fulfilment, not a rejection, of British imperialism” and that ‘official multiculturalism’ works to regulate, manage, and subordinate difference in the interests of a white, ‘bilingual’ (though still primarily Anglo) elite which is, in turn, insidiously effaced from view. Leigh [Spanner] earlier today in her presentation cited bell hooks to the effect that in Official Multiculturalism, ‘ethnicity becomes a spice to liven up the mainstream white palate’ and I feel that’s pretty eloquent – I wish I had cited it in my exam!

In any event, it didn’t work. If anything, the ‘national unity’ problem is even worse in the post-Trudeau era, as we know from the failures of Meech Lake, Charlottetown, and the narrowly aborted Quebec secession of 1995. This is because the Trudeauvian vision of ‘One Canada’, however pluralist, is fundamentally a misrecognition of what Canada is supposed to be: many nations united together in a political community structured around principles of federalism – that is, shared sovereignty and divided loyalties.

Indigenous claims to nationhood have been recognized as far back as the 1763 Royal Proclamation, and the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples affirms that not only are these claims to nationhood valid but that they must be institutionally accommodated. It is also undeniable that the Québécois constitute a nation within Canada – Parliament under Harper has asserted as much – and, for the most part, in fact, the robust federalism that defines the Canadian political community is itself a French-Canadian invention.

Newfoundlanders, too, understand themselves to be a nation – University of Alberta scholar Jennifer Delisle has argued we constitute a ‘diasporic people’ (she’s right) – and recognizing this fact both explains the island’s idiosyncratic politics and casts new light on the history of British and Canadian imperialism, as well as underscoring that what is called ‘English Canada’ is not itself homogenous. It kills me that I can’t get into this here – because, as many of you have discovered, I can literally go on and on and on about Newfoundland for hours – but suffice it to say that recovering Newfoundland’s pre- and post-Confederate history of economic exploitation and political autocracy undercuts a lot of the more flattering national myths that ‘British North America’ likes to tell itself.

But don’t take any of this to mean that I am an Anti-Confederate; far from it. We are all greatly enriched by a multinational understanding of Canada built on the institutional recognition and affirmation of difference in accordance with the federal principle. Confederation and its nations must accommodate and respect the ‘many worlds’ within them (that is, Anglo, French, Indigenous, as well as newcomers to this country); insofar as they do this, they are properly ‘Canadian’. Clearly, the political and moral grounding here must come from the decolonizing aspirations of Canada’s indigenous peoples; First Nations must remain first.

Decolonization is a properly revolutionary movement. As Kiera Ladner puts it, it is a project to rethink and restructure Canada’s political, cultural, and economic foundations to “create a mutually beneficial and mutually agreeable future for Indigenous and settler nations alike.” It is an opportunity that all Canadians must seize if we are to make a better life together in this country.

Now: all this is more than simply armchair theorizing. A multinational articulation of Canada enables an anti-colonial, democratic, and substantively egalitarian politics that can best assure the continued structural integrity of Confederation. But this requires acknowledging that Canada has been (and in many ways remains) at its heart a reactionary, colonial enterprise. And so our task is to reiterate (re-iterate) what Samuel LaSelva calls Canada’s moral foundations – a new political nationality founded on deep diversity, multinationalism, equality, and autonomy – in the context of contemporary conditions.

Canada’s contemporary political history can be read as an attempt to come to terms with its past. Pierre Trudeau attempted to banish it, to break with it completely without confronting it head on; Stephen Harper is returning to it, venerating it, fetishizing it, without really reconciling Canadians to it in all its complexity and all its darkness. Trudeau’s liberal utopia failed because the past is never another country; it persists as the ‘Eternal City’ of our collective unconscious. By closing the door on Canadian history, he could not pull up the roots of white, English privilege which burrowed beneath his new constitutional foundations. Likewise, Conservative efforts to mount a neoliberal restaging of Canada’s imperial Oedipal complex will also come to ruin because images of Imperial Glory have no place in the 21st century, and to reassert them will draw out the drums of the historically dispossessed, which will beat louder and louder until the levee breaks.

Some people reject ‘decolonization’ as something that would “disintegrate the country.” But the country can only avert disintegration, can only truly fulfill the “special role [that] Justice has in sustaining Canada’s existence as a nation,” if the principles of equality and respect for deep diversity are turned against the colonialism in Canada’s heart. This can be the only answer to the Canadian question. Canada can and must survive as a decolonized and truly egalitarian nation, whose identity and citizenship is as expansive and diverse as the peoples it encompasses, or it is not a nation worth preserving.

Thank you.

the lights are back on, but they’re still in the dark

Honestly, there isn’t that much left to say about #DarkNL that hasn’t been already been nailed by Ed Riche or Ed Hollett or this Telegram editorial. But I thought there might be a few things I could add to the discussion before all of this is erased from public consciousness by the 2014 Winter Olympics.

This line was already dropped by my good comrade Jeremy Rumbolt, but it bears repeating: the last few days did see a crisis in Newfoundland – most obviously, a crisis in leadership. Generally, you’d expect to see politicians hamming up the severity of an event like this in order to score points off the emotional crescendo of a distraught electorate. Instead, the Premier breaks a three-day silence to wax philosophical about the difference between a ‘critical situation’ and a ‘crisis’ and then calls into VOCM the next morning to get mad at everyone who wasn’t impressed. While I love a masturbatory debate about semantics as much as the next academic, she probably should have saved it for an occasion that wasn’t her first public appearance since a power plant caught fire.

But then again, what do I know? Maybe Dunderdale is right and this is really just a giant, generalized inconvenience. After all, the hospitals were working and if you were shoveled out by Sunday you could probably drive to McDonald’s. This is basically what Trevor Taylor, the Northern Peninsula’s answer to Chuck Norris, published in the Telegram today: some good old-fashioned conservative wisdom. All our modern conveniences like indoor plumbing and electricity have made us soft and we’d never even have to worry about this if we all tapped into our inner Bay Wisdom and made sure we always had enough wood chopped to survive five days in the dark at -30. Who cares if all our energy infrastructure is past its expiry date and everyone in charge knew about it (and knew that it couldn’t withstand this “completely predictable winter weather”)? Pop trusted only in himself and his Premier, and so should you.

Conspiracy theories that this was a publicity stunt for Muskrat Falls were rightly mocked when they first popped up, but given all the PR mishaps it’s easy to understand where the sentiment comes from – especially when the Premier used her first media appearance to shrug that ‘yeah this sucks but by the way, Muskrat Falls is going to solve all our problems (after three more years of this)’. It’s like the executive is so indifferent to public opinion that they can’t even be bothered with properly pandering to us anymore. Everybody knows that Newfoundland is an oligarchy where a certain ex-Premier sits primus inter pares, but when there’s enough power to put off an Ice Caps game while pipes are bursting across the island and people are still evacuated into hotel rooms, it’s a little bit too obvious. Even as a cynic, I appreciate a little subtlety.

Like Ed Riche above, I want to give Kathy Dunderdale the benefit of the doubt in this situation. But even in this most generous reading, we’re still left with a Premier who is genuinely competent and empathetic but incapable of conveying it. And in a political culture where appearance and perception effectively make reality, there isn’t that much difference in the end. Dunderdale had very little public credibility going into this and she has close to none coming out.

It is, after all, a little hard for people to eat cake when they can’t even turn on the stove.

lest we forget

“…the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” – Milan Kundera

I just have a few quick things to say; I wish I had the time to expand on this and say something more, but I’m already swamped with work. All things considered, I recognize that it is a great privilege to be busy working on intellectual projects that I enjoy.

Anyways, this is a great piece from the Guardian by Harry Leslie Smith, a veteran of the Second World War. Today is always an emotional and complicated day; sometimes I feel like the way we’re told to “remember” is really a way of “forgetting.”

What (and why) are we remembering? Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori? Or the experiences of those who fought and suffered and died in ancient wars, and their dream to build a world without such unfathomable human tragedy? This is an especially pertinent question at a time when the State that commands us to “remember” is undercutting social support for the very veterans we honour.

Today, like every Remembrance Day since I first encountered it at 17, I will be returning to Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and reflecting on its protagonist’s single vow: “to fight against the principle of hate that meaninglessly pits young men of the same generation but different uniforms against each other.”

This is the most important day of the year. Never forget.