Towards a Republican Canada?

Translated from the original French by Jamie McLennan© 2011 Gaston Murdock Translations

Before I go on my last few days of summer vacation, I feel the need to reveal a sneaking suspicion: the former Clerk of the Privy Council and current Director of the Centre for Global Challenges, Alex Himelfarb, is actually a republican!

No, I’m not suggesting he’s a card carrying member of the GOP. And I doubt he loses sleep over the future of the monarchy in Canada. But many of his blog entries have a strong republican ring to them, in the classic sense of the word.

Republicanism has little in common with the G.O.P.

Let me be clear – republicanism is not the ideology espoused by George Bush. It is actually one of the world’s earliest political philosophies, an intellectual tradition advanced in turn by Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Monstesquieu, Rousseau, Harrington, Madison and Tocqueville. Its ever-relevant goal is the liberation of citizens from all forms of tyranny.

Defending the res publica is an idea as old as it is widespread. It took centre stage in the Athenian agora and roman forums, stoked the fires of the Italian renaissance, and inspired Britain’s Commonwealth Men as well as American and French revolutionaries. In Canada, republicanism rallied the « Patriotes” of Upper and Lower Canada and the Metis of the North-West Rebellion (Chevrier, 2009;  Smith, 1987; Papineau, 1867; cf. Ajzenstat & Smith 1995).

More recently, republican thought can be found in modern writings on the history of ideas (Baylin, Harvey, Pocock, Skinner, Smith), political philosophy (Blattberg, Pettit, Sandel) and constitutional rights (Ackerman, Sunstein). And these thinkers display a far more progressive world view than the so-called « Republican” party in the United States. According to them, true republicans are opposed to the subjugation of women, workers, consumers, minorities and environmental victims (Pettit 1994; Maynor 2003). They accept taxation graciously when it is required for the common good and for the strengthening of freedoms and liberties (Holmes et Sunstein 1999). And they don’t have much in common with the ideas of Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin or Pat Buchanan.

Monarchist Republicans

For many people, republicanism evokes images of Marie-Antoinette at the guillotine or loud antimonarchist activists protesting royal visits to Ottawa. In reality, many classic republican treatises (e.g. Cicero, Montesquieu, Machiavelli) accept a monarch as head of state. For republicans, the hereditary system of command is less important than the limitations imposed on its power (Pettit, 1997: 20).

Neo-republicans would ostensibly accommodate the Maple Crown, as long as the rules governing the Governor General’s nomination and responsibilities were clear and codified. However, blatant contradictions between the British North America Act and current constitutional conventions have given rise to ambiguities and loopholes.  Consider the prorogation saga: for a true republican, this kind of constitutional instability is far more perilous than the Windsors’ pseudo-reign.

Republicanism in the here and now

Republican values don’t simply define a political regime, they also inform its public policies. And while  republicans share the liberal’s respect for freedom, their concept of freedom is far more substantial and interventionist. For republicans, freedom is not achieved merely through non-interference. The state must actively participate in minimizing the subjugation of vulnerable individuals by other citizens.

This republican concept of freedom is three-fold. First, the state has a responsibility to protect the citizens against its own caprices. It must not exert its power arbitrarily. This requires the rule of law, constitutional constraints, institutional checks and balances, a certain distribution of power, judicial review of laws, minority rights and the right of citizens to the democratic process. With some exceptions, these principles are already entrenched in the Canada system.

Secondly, the government has the right and duty to intercede in the lives of individuals in order to promote the common good through non-arbitrary laws. It is here that republicans and liberals part ways. For republicans, the state cannot remain neutral vis-a-vis the countless individual concepts of the good life. It must rise above personal preferences, corporate interests, political factions and regionalism in order to protect the common interests of its citizens.

From the republican point of view, Ottawa should actively promote social progress and must constantly revise its public policy. Collective decisions should not be made behind closed doors by special-interest groups (with undue influence accorded to more powerful players), nor should they be a composite of individual preferences (which may in fact go against the public’s interest). Decisions must instead proceed from transparent democratic debate.

Finally, this interventionist approach applies, a fortiori, to relationships between citizens of varying levels of power. For example, the law must protect women from domestic violence, strengthen unions to prevent the exploitation of workers, and protect minorities from discrimination. Despite its many achievements, Canada still has a long way to go in these areas.

A republican voice?

Regular readers might recognize that many of these ideas surface not infrequently in the former Clerk of the Privy Council’s blog. It’s true these blog entries are written as spontaneous responses to current events, but they also reveal a fairly coherent view of Canadian political life. And this view seems (to me) to be pretty close to neo-republican thought. Here are its main themes:

Put together, these ideas form the basis of an inspiring agenda for Canada and Québec. Himelfarb may or may not agree with my interpretation of his impromptu reflections, but the central tenets of republicanism remain startlingly relevant today. Republicanism underlines the importance of the common good and political participation, it calls for a stronger state and seeks the emancipation of marginalized citizens. These notions are currently being neglected in today’s public discourse, and they are worthy of much broader consideration.



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Translated from the French original by Jamie McLennan, March 2011 (c).


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