By Janet Ajzenstat

"Conservatives made this country." So said Mr. Harper said in a campaign speech recently. And yes, that's the way the story's often told: John A. Macdonald, our first prime minister was a Conservative. Canada was Tory blue from the beginning.

But see Adrian Humphrey's "Historians revisit Conservatives' Creation Claim" (National Post (April 13).  Michael Bliss and Michel Ducharme note that in the crucial period just before Confederation, Macdonald's Tories were allied with George Brown's Liberals. Bliss puts it bluntly: "A Conservative-Liberal coalition made Canada."

Bliss and Ducharme are right. Or perhaps it would be better to say that all political leaders of the period – whatever the party – Liberal, Conservative, Liberal-Conservative, Grit, Independent, knew that the constitution they were making had to be as free of ideological bias as possible.

In a free and democratic country, the constitution should be neutral. It should erect no barrier to the contestation of political parties for office.

The best guide to colonial thinking on this issue comes from the debates of the Confederation period in the colonial parliaments. The Canadian constitution was drafted at the Quebec Conference of 1864 and then went to each colonial parliament for ratification. No colony could be yanked into Confederation without a ratifying "yea" vote in the local legislature. For excerpts from these crucial debates, see Janet Ajzenstat, Paul Romney, Ian Gentles, and William D. Gairdner, eds.,Canada's Founding Debates (University of Toronto Press, 2003). It's an over-sized volume of 500 pages – 550 in the French translation directed by Guy Laforest for the University of Laval. But it rattles along.

Here's a hint of what you will find on the subject of the neutral constitution:

"Confederation is a matter calculated to affect the interests and welfare of every subject in British North America, irrespective of party, race, or faith; and consequently, to divest it as much as possible, from a party question, three members of the government, three members of the opposition, and one independent member of this house were appointed to proceed to [the Quebec conference of 1864] as delegates." (The speaker is J.H. Gray, Prince Edward Island House of Assembly, 1 March 1865.)

"[This] is a miraculous and wonderful circumstance, that men at the head of the governments in five separate provinces, and men at the head of the parties opposing them, all agreed at the same time to sink party for the good of all, at the risk of having their motives misunderstood, from associating together for the purpose of bringing about this result." (Thomas D'Arcy McGee, Canadian Legislative Assembly, 9 February. 1865.)

"For myself, Sir, I care not who gets the credit of this scheme … The whole feeling in my mind now is one of joy and thankfulness that there were found men of position and influence in Canada who, at a moment of serious crisis had nerve and patriotism enough to cast aside political partisanship, to banish personal considerations, and unite for the accomplishment of a measure so fraught with advantage to their common country." (George Brown, Canadian Legislative Assembly, 8 February 1865.)

What's the lesson? Partisan politics is necessary if a country is to remain free. Without the continuing debate between and among Conservatives, Liberals, and Whoever, oligarchy threatens. But. But! What secures the contestation of parties is the constitution. And the constitution must not be partisan. Political debate is partisan; the constitution is not. The British North Americans knew that. They did well, those old guys.

[From The Idea file]

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