I view the Canadian scholarship on issues like the appropriate extent of the governor general’s reserve power as a clash between two opposing camps whose basic positions have changed little, if at all, over the past eighty years. Only the scholars occupying those competing camps have changed. Eugene Forsey bore the standard of those scholars in favour of a broad interpretation of the viceregal reserve powers and consequently give the governor general great latitude in rejecting a prime minister’s advice to prorogue or dissolve. In contrast, one of Forsey’s contemporaries, the lesser known and under-appreciated R. MacGregor Dawson believed that a governor general could reject a prime minister’s advice only under “the most exceptional circumstances.” Anyone who has also read the article that Nick MacDonald and I wrote earlier this year will know that I favour Dawson’s interpretation because it better acknowledges the trajectory of history of the Crown’s power toward a gradual elimination of most real political power. Forsey, however, deliberately broke with the scholarship that had heretofore supported the limitation of Crown’s power, from Walter Bagehot to Sir William Anson to A.V. Dicey. I will elaborate on this issue in more detail in subsequent posts.
In light of my substantial disagreements with Forsey’s affectation for 17th-century royal power, and that I’ve never really agreed with any of his scholarship on the Crown and its relationship to Parliament, I was shocked this morning to find that my Facebook rant from July 1st invoked almost precisely the same reasoning as that of Professor Forsey before parliamentary committee in 1970. Parliament changed the name of our national day in the early 1980s from the historically significant “Dominion Day” to the historically bereft and pedestrian “Canada Day” – as if Canadians didn’t already know that they lived in Canada and needed the government to remind them of the country’s name. Sarah Hagen brought to my attention transcripts from the House of Commons committees from March 12, 1970 and Professor Forsey’s witty testimony on the issue of changing the name of Dominion Day at the behest of republicans who seek to rid Canada of its constitutional monarchy by stealth over time.
“Dr. Forsey: Well, I think it [Canada Day] is devoid of the historical associations which you do get either in Dominion Day or in Mr. Hogarth’s suggestion Confederation Day. It takes the historical zip out of the thing somehow and it seems to me that you want to have something in the name of the day if possible. You want to have something to commemorate some historical event and this was a meaningful historical event. Just as I would say, if the United States called its national holiday “United States Day”, that would be a rather colourless and banal description of that day. They call it, to the best of my belief, “Independence Day”, and I think that immediately recalls to every American the fact that on July 4, 1776, the 13 colonies became the United States of America. I think it has an evocative touch to it that you would not get if you simply said “United States Day.” […] Similarly, if you called the French national holiday “Bastille Day”, as I think it usually is called, again it seems to me that you would be taking some of the historical significance out of the thing.”
If the Parliament of Canada had to rechristen our national day, “Confederation Day” would have been a suitable replacement, because it dignifies the creation of the Dominion of Canada on July 1st, 1867 with the historical gravitas and significance that the day deserves.