The American Civil War captured the rapt attention of our Fathers of Confederation during the Confederation Debates in 1864 and 1865, and the prospect of another American invasion into Canada (a repeat of the War of 1812), as remote as it might have been, and the Fenian incursions into New Brunswick in 1866 spurred the British North American colonies to unite into one federation for their common defence. Thomas D’Arcy McGee, who had lived in Boston for several years before settling in Montreal in 1857, warned repeatedly that the most committed American Manifest Destinarians had long set their sights on Canada. George Brown, who had also spent some time in New York before settling permanently in Toronto, similarly warned that the United States would annex Rupert’s Land and British Columbia.
I took this photo of the building which houses Quebec’s National Assembly in May 2008, which ended an unusually snowy 2007-2008 winter season.
Last spring, I wrote about the prospect that the Legault government in Quebec would implement mixed-member proportional representation in time for the next provincial general election scheduled for 2022 in a piece for Policy Options. Recent developments answer this question in the negative – but in an interesting way. The Legault government has still taken a unique approach which distinguishes it from what governments in other provinces have done.
To recap, during the lead up to the provincial general election in 2018, Legault pledged that his party would table a bill in the National Assembly to switch to MMPR and rejected what British Columbia and Ontario did with citizens’ assemblies and referendums. Legault even promised during the provincial election campaign in 2018 that he would not “do what Trudeau did” and abandon electoral reform if his party won a parliamentary majority. The Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec won a parliamentary majority in 2018, and Premier Francois Legault pledged in his Opening Speech that his government will by October 2019 introduce a bill to switch Quebec’s electoral system to MMPR for the next scheduled provincial election in 2022.
During this lockdown and quarantine, I recently re-watched Ken Burns’s epic documentary series on the Civil War, serenaded with the dulcet, non-rhotic tones and mellifluous commentary of the late Shelby Foote. I also read several speeches and essays by one of our Fathers of Confederation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee. The Confederation Debates and much of the public discourse in British North America of the 1860s focuses on the Civil War and its potential consequences for Canada. Thomas D’Arcy McGee, to the extent that he endures in our national memory today at all, mostly features as the “Poet of Confederation” and for having earned the ignoble distinction of becoming the first of only three Canadian politicians ever to die by assassination. But we should also treat him as a serious political thinker and theoretician of federalism, constitutional monarchy, and parliamentary government.
The combination of Burns’s documentary and McGee’s writings prompted me to read for the first time the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, and it contained for me two surprises: first, that its text expressly rejects the “States’ Rights” narrative, which, in turn, has greatly contributed to the “Lost Cause” mythology; second, more innocuously – if it’s even possible to examine a secessionist polity steeped in slavery and expressly founded upon racial inequality in such a manner – its small concession (dare I say, surrender?) to parliamentary government.
Governor General Lord Aberdeen
On 8 July 1896, Governor General Lord Aberdeen forced Prime Minister Sir Charles Tupper from office by refusing to promulgate his constitutional advice and sign off on Orders-in-Council to summon senators and make other appointments. Tupper sought to fill up vacancies knowing full well that the Liberals had just won a parliamentary majority for the first time since 1874 in the general election held on 23 June 1896. When Aberdeen refused to sign the Orders-in-Council, Tupper wrote back that he had no choice but to resign the premiership, because the prime minister cannot remain in office after a governor general has rejected his constitutional advice and withdrawn his confidence from him. Lord Aberdeen then appointed Sir Wilfrid Laurier as Prime Minister, and Laurier would stand astride Canadian politics like a colossus for the next fifteen years. At Tupper’s insistence and at Aberdeen’s acquiescence, their written correspondence from July 1896 became part of the public record in the Sessional Papers of the House of Commons in the 1st session of the 8th Parliament that September. Tupper and Laurier then debated the propriety of Governor General Lord Aberdeen’s actions in a fascinating exchange which revealed competing narratives of parliamentary sovereignty versus popular sovereignty, what we would now call the Caretaker Convention versus the Spoils System, and the circumstances under which the Governor General can or should reject ministerial advice.
The plots of some films hinge upon fundamental misunderstandings of how parliamentary government works, and I thought that outlining an example would prove both entertaining and instructive. Sherlock Holmes from 2009, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. and his ridiculously contrived attempt at Received Pronunciation, presents one such example.
The preposterous villain, played by Mark Strong, faked his own death after murdering several young women, in what the film no doubt considers an allusion to Jack the Ripper. He then relied on occult trickery to carry out his climatic Bond Villain plan of releasing a poisonous gas into the House of Lords and assassinating all his rivals in one fell swoop. Hans Matheson’s character — hilariously called “Lord Coward” — plays an implausibly young Home Secretary and Blackwood’s most loyal and fanatical follower. He set Blackwood’s plan in motion by nodding ostentatiously to other peers and by addressing his fellow peers to order by yelling out “My Lords! Milords!” (As Tywin Lannister told Arya Stark, the high-born would never say “Milord”). In this universe, the Lord Speaker does not preside over debate in the House of Lords either. Blackwood then made his dramatic entrance on queue and gave one of those grandiosely evil speeches.
He attempted to execute his plan, and several peers, after dramatically re-appearing in the chamber of the House of Lords itself, in which he himself apparently had the right to sit as a member of the nobility. This attack would have killed only the peers who did not support him because he had already given an antidote to the peers on his side. That would seem to preclude the possibility of convincing any of the other peers from changing their minds, but no matter!
This mass assassination would, in turn, somehow have enabled him to impose a personal rule and dictatorship over the entire British Empire. He had mentioned earlier in the film another plot to re-annex the United States of America into the British Empire as well, which he could apparently achieve simply because he assassinated the United States ambassador to the United Kingdom. Presumably, he would also have sought to abolish the self-government of the Dominion of Canada, the Dominion of New Zealand, and the Australasian colonies, too, though he and his supporters don’t say.
Needless to say, none of this makes any sense.