Responsible Government Instead of Tribal Government

Canada’s is one of the most progressive and tolerant societies (and is arguably the world’s only genuinely multicultural country). Yet, Canada’s greatest political achievement isn’t multiculturalism, tolerance or providing equal protection for every citizen under the law. Arguably what makes the country truly unique is the role political restraint[1] has played in the country’s evolution (especially compared to other countries). More often than not, governments resort to first to violence and more diplomatic methods a distant second; this reflects the high priority governments place on maintaining public order and preventing chaos.

Historically speaking, citizens actually expect governments to resort to violence. In 1524 tens of thousands of German peasants rose up demanding democratic reforms; they knew the German aristocracy would crush them eventually and crush them they did, i.e. after a year of bloodshed over 300,000 German peasants were killed. In 2011 tens of thousands of Egyptian protesters occupied Cairo’s famed Tahrir Square protesting the corruption of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak. Mubarek ordered troops to fire on the protesters killing 13 people. Within a month of the killings, Mubarak was removed from power and a new government was established in Egypt.

Regardless of either region or century, governments appear to deal with disagreement the same way: the government does something they should or shouldn’t do; peasants, plebeians, serfs or citizens gather to protest (sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently); and then the government “cracks down.” Even Canada has at times followed this pattern: for example, in 1917 thousands of French Canadians protested the Canadian Government going back on its promise not to introduce conscription (forced military service). The Canadian Government brought in conscription to meet its military obligations in Europe during the Great War. Subsequent protests in Quebec grew violent lasting several weeks. Thousands of soldiers were deployed and once the dust settled dozens were injured and five people dead; or more recently, in 1999 students in British Columbia peacefully protested an APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting; they were pepper sprayed by the RCMP with little to no warning. In the 1830s and 40s it was not uncommon for armed members of the Orange Order[2] to beat, chase off and even kill French Canadiens trying to cast votes during elections. Members of Canada’s colonial elite—who often belonged to the Orange Order—felt entitled to use violence to maintain their privileged position (believing themselves ethnically, linguistically and culturally superior to French Catholics). The lesson all of these events teach is governments tend to worry first about maintaining order as opposed to meeting to the immediate demands of the citizenry.

Despite the French-English tension in those early days, Canada eventually overcame ethnic division and in so doing broke this pattern of violence; that is, Canada has developed a society that greatly values ethics like fairness and political restraint while downplaying the importance of the raw exercise of power. By contrast the United States (and every other country) continues ordering its society on the basis of race and power. Race was so central to the American identity and psyche the country almost destroyed itself in a bloody civil war (1862-1865) fought largely to end the practice of slavery. Although the Civil War ended in 1865, America strangely continues struggling with unresolved issues around race in the present day. Canada is not perfect (not by a longshot); however, even a quick glance at American news sites reveals significant differences between American and Canadian attitudes towards race, religion and ethnicity.[3] American politician Michelle Bachman publicly observed African-Americans fared better under slavery;[4] and more recently, during an exit poll following the 2016 presidential election approximately 20% of President Donald Trump’s supporters literally acknowledged they believed Abraham Lincoln should not have freed the slaves[5] (a further 10% were undecided on the issue). So, while Canada is not immune to the occasional expression of violence[6], interactions between the Canadian People and its government are for the most part diplomatic and “restrained.”[7]

The Swiss-French Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau once observed human beings are born free but everywhere they are in chains. The chains Rousseau spoke of were in one sense real and in another sense imaginary: the chains were real in the sense that in order to live in society people necessarily had to give up some of their freedom, i.e. President Abraham Lincoln argued perfect liberty for the wolves (the elite) meant death to the lambs (everyone else); thus, reasonable limits had to be imposed on personal freedom. In terms of imaginary chains—and that’s what they are, imaginary—when people believe their tribe is best—a tribe based on either race, ethnicity, gender, or religion—they naturally exclude others; and in the process of exclusion, society repeats the same tired pattern of the strong devouring the weak accompanied by all the racism and dysfunction that continues plaguing humanity (preventing it from progressing and enjoying peace). For several reasons Canada has either already overcome, or is currently working to overcome, balancing the interests of the powerful and the weak while also dealing constructively with racism. Yet, before any of this was possible old patterns of behavior had to be broken; the temptation to use violence to solve social problems (or get rid of social complexity and diversity) had to be resisted and overcome; and someone had to emerge to break the mould showing us a new way of organizing ourselves and looking at the world.

Well, as it turns out two people—Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine (a French Canadien) and Robert Baldwin (an English Canadian)—emerged in the 1830s who successfully challenged the expectations of their respective tribes setting Canada on its present course away from violence towards peace and compromise.

[1] Political restraint is exercised when a government remains unemotional and moderate. For example, government alone has the authority to order the army to fire upon protestors. Historically speaking, violence is used more often than not to restore law and order; however, using violence never solves the underlying cause of the public’s frustration. On the other hand, restraint (or deliberately avoiding violence) creates a space where government and protesters can actually talk to and work with one another to solve problems. In the case of Canada in the 1849, the government had every right to fire upon the English elite who were violently protesting a bill designed to compensate French Canadiens for property damage and loss during the 1837 Rebellion in Lower Canada; however, firing on the English mob would have created martyrs for future protesters to rally around and would simply escalate the situation. Thus, the government passed the Rebellion Losses Bill into law and used strategic patience to outwait the protestors. In so doing, they established that the rule of law and reason—and not the power of the mob—would determine what path Canada would follow.

[2] The Orange Order was composed of Irish, Scottish and English Protestants. From the early 19th century, members proudly defended Protestantism and Canada’s British heritage. The Order had a strong influence in politics, particularly at the municipal level (town councils) and developed a reputation for sectarian violence (directed usually at Catholics and Jews) and rioting.

[3] For the sake of accuracy it should be noted that there is still a great deal of need for improvements between white people and First Nations; moreover, many Euro-Canadians hold some “complicated” views towards Muslims and Islam.



[6] In 2017, a man broke into a mosque in Quebec City opening fire killing six people.

[7] Canadians tend to value consensus building and compromise. The spirit of compromise is strong among Canadians who typically place greater value on the public good over individual interest. By contrast Americans typically value individual interest over the public good. Michael Adams, Could it happen here?: Canada in the age of Trump and Brexit (Toronto: Simon & Schuster Canada, 2017), 148.

The World Needs More of Canada

My American friend Lane wondered why Canada turned out so different than the United States. While conducting some research for a Canadian Studies class I teach, I came across the following paragraph explaining why Canada followed the direction it did (despite forces pushing it in other directions):

“What was revolutionary in Canada was not so much the arrival of democracy at its conception. Democracy arrived as a broad program of social, political, economic, and administrative policies consciously and intellectually designed to bring together opposing religions, languages and races. What was radical was the idea that a fair democracy could be based not on a definition of race as an expression of a nation state, but on what today we would call diversity; fairness was the key to diversity and diversity to fairness. The second revolutionary fact was that the Canadian movement was based on the rigorous use of political restraint, precisely the opposite of reform and revolutionary movements in Europe (1848) and the United States (1776-1783). Third, the reform movement here would manage to hold on to power while the others collapsed” (Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine & Robert Baldwin by John Raulston Saul (p.5-6)).

Canada’s English elite in 1848 genuinely believed in the importance of a race-based authoritarian form of government (dominated by the English minority); however, two leaders emerged–Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine (a Quebec politician) and Robert Baldwin (from Ontario)–who challenged the notion we had to live in two solitudes or warring tribes by bringing French and English together; these two men faced considerable pressure to give into the temptation to use violence to advance their political vision for the country; nevertheless, they had the courage and foresight to support, unequivocally, a principle of fairness where all of Canada’s stakeholders (relative to the 1840s) were given equal security under the law; and they created a country (and political process) where people were willing to make decisions based on one another’s opinions and well-being instead of one’s origins or tribe.

LaFontaine and Baldwin are my heroes. The world needs more of Canada.…/heritag…/baldwin-lafontaine

Btw, LaFontaine was Canada’s first prime minister (pre-Confederation).