Canada’s Founding Debates – AJZENSTAT et al (CSS)

AJZENSTAT, Janet; ROMNEY, Paul; GENTLES, Ian; GAIRDNER, William D. Editors. Canada’s Founding Debates. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. 380p. Resenha de: LeVOS, Ernest. Canadian Social Studies, v.39, n.2, p., 2005.

Here is a book that will interest Canadianists, and those high school and university students interested in constitutional and political developments. Students wanting to do some reading and research on Confederation, and who may not have the luxury of time to read the original legislative records on Confederation, will find Canada’s Founding Debates a valuable source. There is an enormous amount of material packaged into this one volume. Do not skip reading the introduction, since it explains very succinctly that this book is about Confederation. But more specifically, it is a book of excerpts from official reports of the debates in the different colonies (p. 7), that is, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Canada, Red River and British Columbia, on whether they should join a more viable union. One will read the views of less familiar names such as Robert Carrall, Francis Barnard, and James Ross, along with those more familiar figures like George Brown, George Etienne Cartier, John A. Macdonald and Louis Riel.

The authors have neatly divided the book into five parts covering what was said by the politicians of the seven British North American colonies on liberty (constitutional liberty, responsible government, parliamentary government, the Upper House, equality of representation); individual as well as collective economic opportunity; American, British and Canadian identity; the new nationality(federal union, majority and minority rights), and how to make a constitution (consulting the people and the issue of direct democracy). The book is a convenient source for the views of Macdonald and Brown as well as other lesser known figures. The reader will detect not only individual perspectives and tones, but also the anxieties, enthusiasm and urgency these politicians shared in establishing a new union.

The conservative and liberal views held by the supporters and opponents of Confederation are included in this volume. They were very much like us today, concerned about the future of their country and the well being of future generations. Indeed, they were very concerned about the purpose and form of a new government that would work properly. One will observe that these politicians, at the crossroads of change, brought about by such events as the Civil War in the United States, did not hesitate to study other constitutional models and political systems seeking the best pragmatic insights from these models and systems. As a group of legislators, they were a reservoir of experience and knowledge, men who illustrated their arguments with references to European history through the centuries, the great poets and the Bible, and men who subscribed to the belief that good arguments lead to good resolutions (p. 2).

But the legislators from each colony had their respective concerns. Those from Prince Edward Island did not think they would gain anything from being in the new union. The delegates from Newfoundland worried about their fisheries and the starving population, and feared that they would lose control over their properties, liberties and lives (p. 61). In the Red River Colony, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, there was the concern that their respective colonies would be overwhelmed by Upper Canada and swamped by newcomers. Above all, they feared the lost of their individual identities.

A large book such as this one can be viewed as a book filled with a lot of details and speeches, but is can prove to be a valuable source. It can be a useful reference source to high school students interested in what the fathers of Confederation had to say on issues such as liberty and identity, and it can be a valuable source to college and university students who wish to compare and contrast the views of either Macdonald and Brown, or another set of politicians, on topics such as responsible government, representation by population, whether the vote should be given to householders, or on other related issues that were debated in their respective legislatures.

While some readers may not bother reading footnotes, it would be a disservice to themselves to ignore them since there are many valuable explanations. The footnotes provide the reader with an understanding of the historical context in which political developments such as responsible government, developed. One example is John A. Macdonald’s view on the debate, in the parliament of the province of Canada, on responsible government: I speak of representation by population, the house will of course understand that universal suffrage is not in any way sanctioned, or admitted by these resolutions, as the basis on which the constitution of the popular branch should rest and in the footnote, William D. Gairdiner, one of the authors, offers this explanation: Macdonald is giving his assurance that the house need not fear the spectre of mob rule, which is what many informed people at the time would have expected from universal suffrage in a democratic system (p. 70-71). These are more than footnotes, they are explanatory notes. Read and reflect on these notes for a fuller understanding of the developments on the road to Confederation.

The book offers much potential for assignments and research topics on the internal aspects of Confederation, as well as on the external influences. It is interesting to learn, as William Ross from Nova Scotia noted, that the Quebec scheme is largely copied from the Constitution of New Zealand (p. 268). Bear in mind, however, that the book is a compilation and, as such, critics of the book may accuse the authors of not portraying the complete views of certain politicians. In this case, one should read the entire speech of that politician in the legislative records. This book, however, is a very good reference source.

Ernest LeVos – Grant MacEwan College. Edmonton, Alberta.

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