A Constitutional Thanksgiving


Peter RussellIt is true that we, in Canada and Ontario, may not have the bounty of the new world and the hospitality of its native people that Americans celebrate on their Thanksgiving weekend.

But we do have some remarkable constitutional roots for which to be deeply thankful. Indeed these founding constitutional circumstance are the source of what makes our country such an exceptional political community.

We can begin with the fact that Great Britain, after defeating the French on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, did not to try to complete the conquest by driving the Roman Catholic Canadians into exile, which is exactly what they had done to the Acadiens in Nova Scotia just a few years earlier.

Of course, the British really didn’t have much choice. Les Canadiens outnumbered them by 75,000 to 5,000, and most of the British were soldiers anxious to return home.

Even though Britain’s decision was based more on prudence than principle, it planted the seed of diversity and ethnic accommodation that would become a hallmark of Canada.

Fifteen years later the incompleteness of the “conquest” was consolidated in the Quebec Act passed by the United Kingdom Parliament in 1774. The Canadians could remain French and Catholic, hold public office in Canada and enjoy their system of civil law. Though this fell short of recognizing Quebec as a nation, it enabled les Canadiens to survive and flourish as a distinct people within Canada.

For that we should be thankful.

After the fall of New France, Indian nations to the west of Quebec were uneasy about Britain succeeding France as the dominant European power in North America.

In 1763, an alliance of western nations led by the Ottawa chief Pontiac, fearing a flood of British settlers into their territories, burnt eight of the forts the British had taken over from the French, put Detroit under siege and attacked English settlements in the Ohio country.

In July 1764,  representatives of these nations met with British emissary Sir William Johnson at Fort Niagara.

At Niagara, Johnson presented George III’s Royal Proclamation to the “Nations with which we are connected.”

The Crown promised that there would be no settlement on Indian lands without proper treaties.

On the basis of this commitment, the Indian nations made peace with the Crown. The rights and freedoms of Aboriginal peoples contained in the 1763 Royal Proclamation are now recognized in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

For this too we should be thankful – and not forgetful.

A few years later when American rebels arrived in Quebec, we should be thankful that the Canadians were grateful enough for the freedoms they enjoyed under British rule, to not fall for Ben Franklin’s offer to be “conquered into freedom”. 

And we should be equally thankful, that when the Americans invaded our country again in the War of 1812, that His Majesty’s Indian Allies provided military support that was crucial in repulsing the American attack. Although our gratitude should be tempered with shame for the Crown’s failure to honour its promise to protect the western Indian nations from American invasion of their country. 

We should also be thankful for the Loyalists, arriving here with a liberal understanding of parliamentary government.

They were indeed “liberty’s exiles.” Their government in Upper Canada was the first in North America to abolish slavery.

And we should be thankful that when their theory of parliamentary government as a balance between the Crown, the propertied class and the people, became in practice too hierarchical, William Lyon Mackenzie found support for resistance among the people. Not enough support to overthrow the government by force, but enough to convince the mother country that democratic reform was needed. 

Finally, we should be thankful for colonial leaders like Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, who convinced Great Britain that in Canada the representative of the Crown, in whom the executive power of government is formally vested, must act on the advice of politicians who command the confidence of the elected house of parliament.

This gave us responsible democratic government as early as 1848 - at the very time the flickering flames of democratic reform were being doused in Europe.

None of these developments were carefully planned. But when we add them up they are what gave us our legacy of liberal and democratic constitutionalism.

We should be thankful for that legacy and ever mindful of the principles it embodies.

Peter Russell is one of Canada's leading constitutional experts, advisor to Governors-General and Professor-Emeritus in Political Science at the University of Toronto

About Peter Russell

Peter H. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars, has published widely in the fields of aboriginal policy, the judiciary and parliamentary democracy, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian government and politics. He is the founding Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. Peter Russell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Posted date : October 02, 2012

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