The Canadian Liberal Revolution

4 05 2009

I’ve been making my decisions about which panels I will be going to at the upcoming meeting of the Canadian Historical Association. I’m looking forward to the panel on Authority and Political Culture in Upper Canada/Ontario. The panel I’m most interested in is the roundtable on Liberalism and Hegemony: Debating the Canadian Liberal Revolution. The panellists are: Janet Ajzenstat, McMaster University, Sarah Carter, University of Alberta, Nancy Christie, Trent University, Jean‐Marie Fecteau, Université du
Québec à Montréal, and Martin Pâquet, Université Laval.

For the uninitiated, the term “Canadian liberal revolution” refers to the theory that British North America experienced a liberal revolution in the first half of the 19th century. (The leading proponent of this theory is Professor Ian McKay of Queen’s University). This liberal revolution saw the dismantling of feudal and communal institutions such as the seigneurial system, the rise of a more individualistic conception of property, and the victory of (classical) liberal political movements.
I’m very interested in the whole concept of a liberal revolution, although frankly I think the proponents of this theory overstate liberalism’s victories and underestimate the extent to which pre-liberal and collectivist modes of political thought persisted in British North America. Historian Jerry Bannister has made this point very effectively, arguing that what distinguished British North America from the hyper-liberal, hyper-individualistic United States was a strong Tory collectivist tradition.

I’ve never accepted the view advanced by Ajzenstat and McKay that the ideology that motivated Canadian Confederation was an individualist or classical liberal one. Far from it! In fact, I showed in a recent journal article that the ideology that drove Canadian Confederation was interventionist Toryism, an ideology that ran completely counter to the main tenets of classical liberalism as handed down by Adam Smith.

There is one curious thing about this panel: Michel Ducharme, who recently edited a collection of essays debating whether the Canadian liberal revolution actually existed, was not invited to participate even though he will be present at the CHA.


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