Some Reflection on Recent Events in Canada

5 07 2021

Part of my research in about the uses of the past, about how companies and other organizations use their histories. A sub-set of that strand of my research is about how organizations respond they have been accused of having committed truly horrible human rights abuses in the past. I also published a paper in Journal of Business Ethics on how executives of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was founded in the seventeenth century to trade with Indigenous people in present-day Canada, has responded in recent decades to the accusations from Indigenous activists that the original source of the firm’s wealth was the systematic exploitation of Indigenous people. I’ve also published on the political economy of Confederation, the process by which the Canadian state was formed in the 1860s. The cover of a book on the subject that I published is above. I’ve also acted as an expert witness in a Canadian constitutional court case that turned on the interpretation of the Canadian constitution of 1867. My published work on this subject has been characterised, I think, by nuance and a balanced treatment of historical figures as well as the application of a theoretical lens that is critical of the empire-building, illiberal, dirigiste, mercantilist and social-engineering ideas of many of the creators of the Canadian federal state.

I’ve therefore followed with interest the recent controversies in Canada over the legacies of the residential schools for Indigenous children that the Canadian federal government created after the 1860s. In recent months, the graves of children who died of diseases while attending these schools have been identified (the fact that several thousand of these children died while at these schools was previously known, part of the agreed statement of facts produced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and discussed in books published by Canadian university presses). The discovery of the graves led to protests, arson attacks against Roman Catholic churches, the toppling  of statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II, and, in many communities, the cancellation of Canada Day, a national holiday on 1 July that marks Confederation. I’ve been asked what I think about this issue so I am sharing some very preliminary observations here. I’ve organised my thoughts under four headings. 

Departure from What the Standard Model Would Predict

There is a large body of social-scientific research on demands for historical apologies by the governments of liberal democracies. Essentially, this literature contains a large number of case studies of incidents in which activists in a nation accuse the government of having been involved in some horrible human rights abuse in the past. The accusation could relate to, say, the French government’s actions in Algeria before independence, what Britain did in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, or the historical mistreatment of African-Americans in the US context. Now reading a bunch of studies from different liberal-democratic countries leads one to discern the pattern that I call the Standard Model.

 The Standard Model goes like this: a group, usually on the left of the political spectrum, makes a public claim that the national government was involved in a horrible human rights abuse in the past. They demand an apology, perhaps with money attached, and symbolic action such as the renaming of streets, the removal of statues, and the cancellation of a national holiday (Bastille Day, Australia Day, whatever). Now the Standard Model predicts that any given individual’s response to these accusation will be largely determined with great accuracy simply by determining where the person is on the country’s left-right political spectrum. If they are a supporter of the main centre-right political party (say the Conservatives in Canada or the UK or the Republicans in the US or France), they will typically say “Well, what happened then wasn’t very good and was clearly wrong. However, we shouldn’t dwell on it too much. The minority group that is complaining about this historical injustice should focus more on making money in the present day”.

In other words, the centre-right person tends to minimize or downplay the present-day significance of the historical injustice. In contrast, supporters of left-wing political parties tend to have the opposite view and they tend to maximize the significance of the historical misdeed. As you go to the extreme left of the spectrum, you get people expressing this sort of sentiment: “What our country did is horrible. We were basically as bad, if not worse, than the Nazis and the minority group that was victimized back then now needs lots of help from us. Our country and other Western countries are in no position to lecture [insert name of authoritarian regime here] about human rights. We should discontinue our national holiday and tear down the statues etc linked to the bad guys responsible for the historical human rights abuses.” We see this pattern here in Britain, in the US, in France, and so forth.

Based on the polling data and academic studies from various countries I’ve seen, the Standard Model usually has pretty strong predictive accuracy (0.8 or 0.7 or something in that range). However, when I look at the terms of debate in Canada right now about residential schools, I get the impression that the relationship between one’s position on the left-right political spectrum and position on historic crimes is broken, or at least, weaker than it is in the other cases covered by the Standard Model. First, which of Canada’s two official languages one speaks seems to predict how you view the historical issue of residential schools: I’ve sampled the debate in  the French-speaking province of Quebec on this issue people there tend to frame this story less about racial issues and more within a narrative about the Roman Catholic church’s history of human rights abuses around the world. Second, in the English-speaking parts of Canada, one’s prior attitude towards the Roman Catholic church, which is still largely independent of one’s position on the left-right political spectrum, appears to be driving attitudes towards this issue. People who never liked the Catholic church, either because they were left-wing feminists or hardcore Protestant evangelicals or  centrist followers of the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins, have worked the newly revealed evidence of abuse in Catholic schools into their existing narratives. Such people maximize the historical injustice now being discussed, even if they are politically conservative. Needless to see, we’ve seen a festival of confirmation bias on all sides that is going to be depressing to any social scientist.  The situation is very awkward for the governing Liberal Party, a traditionally centrist party that has recently lurched to the left, because historically there was a statistically significant linkage between being at least nominally Roman Catholic and voting for that party.

McGill-Queen’s University Press

In 2008, the Canadian government offered an apology and compensation to the Indigenous individuals who suffered because of the residential school system. The government also funded Truth and Reconciliation Commission to  undertake extensive research into the residential schools and to produce an agreed statement of facts that could be basis of discussion about how to go forward. The many volumes of the TRC’s report were published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (full disclosure I’ve published with that press and happen to be an alumnus of one of the universities that owns it). Volume 4 of the report deals with the issue of how many children died while attending the residential schools, what we know about their remains, and what we know about what caused their deaths. This scholarly work, which was published in 2015, would allow interested readers to answer the following questions that have recently been the subject of intense and, sometimes ill-informed speculation, in Canada:

  1. How many children died while attending residential schools?
  2. How did this mortality rate change over time?
  3. How did the mortality vary between the residential schools run by the Catholic Church versus the Protestant-run schools?
  4. How did the mortality rate for these groups of children differ from that of otherwise similar children who lived with their parents and were educated at day schools or did not attend any school? What baseline child mortality rate should we use in determining whether the residential school system increased the mortality rate for Indigenous children?

All of my priors make we think that that a rigorous analysis would reveal that the residential school policy would have increased mortality relative to the counterfactual of allowing parents to educate their children as they saw fit. My priors and my knowledge of the enormous differences between nineteenth-century Protestantism and nineteenth-century Roman Catholicism also make me predict that the effect would be more pronounced for Catholic-run schools than Protestant-run ones. However, until I can see the work of the real experts, we can’t say for certain, let alone talk about effect size. One of the things the recent pandemic has taught all of us is to show greater humility in making causal claims linking particular government policies with changes in the mortality rate. That’s doubly true when we are talking about historical data with big gaps.

Anyway, all of this is to say that the research on the impact of the residential school project on Indigenous child mortality should, I think, be freely available to journalists and all others who want to base their opinions on the best available data and analysis. Unfortunately, both the relevant research and contact details of the academics who did it remain behind paywall which means that is hard for journalists in Canada’s woefully funded newsrooms to access. Volume 4 “Canada’s Residential Schools: Missing Children and Unmarked Burials” which was published by MQUP in December 2015 can be ordered here but is very expensive.  I would strongly encourage the Press to immediately release at least Volume 4 to everyone by putting its contents, including the description of the statistical methodology used online in open-access format. They could do so with a few key strokes!!!!

Recent Events Demonstrate the Need for Research Capacity Building in Canadian Universities

Canadian universities have become weak in the types of quantitative historical research methods that are necessary to investigate issues of this type.  They certainly have less capacity in this regard than do universities in this country. Quant historians such as George Emery, a historian whose research rigour was honoured with an award from a group of leading American economist, have retired and were replaced by scholars with different research capabilites. My impression that there will, after this month, be nobody in a Canadian university who does anthropometric history or the other types of history relevant to answering the questions identified above. Vincent Geloso, who works at a university in Ontario that used to be very strong in economic and demographic history, will soon be leaving for George Mason University’s famous econ department. In response to the recent debates about residential schools, Geloso has recently published some interesting insights into the political economy of settler-Indigenous relations in Canada that draws on his earlier peer-reviewed research in Public Choice. The core ideas he presents here, which involve applying concepts from public choice theory and constitutional political economy, are similar to those that I used in a paper that I wrote about 15 years ago but which never saw the light of day because of hostile peer reviewers. I’m glad that Vincent re-discovered these ideas independently and got them published as they can inform debate on how to go forward. I would add here that some of the research of Prof. Terry Anderson into Indigenous economies can also be of use in thinking about these issues.

The End of Canadian Originalism?

Canada Day holiday on 1 July marks the coming into force of the Canadian constitution of 1867. The holiday and the associated iconography implies that the politicians who created this constitution were heroes, or at least great statesmen whose memory should be honoured. Respecting the drafters of this constitution is thus congruent with the doctrine of constitutional interpretation known as originalism, which holds that in interpreting the meaning of the constitution’s text, judges should act effectively as agents on behalf of those who originally wrote it. Many countries with written constitutions have originalists (see here). There are smart Canadian lawyers and legal academics who are originalists (see here). They include Benjamin Oliphant and Leonid Sirota. Given that statutes of that 1867 constitution’s creators are now being dismantled, I suspect that originalism will die as a doctrine in Canada. When the creators of a document are regarded as evil, rather than imperfect, individuals it is almost impossible for people to continue to be seen as supporting a theory of constitutional interpretation that says that we must understand and defer to how those individuals intended the document to be understood. It fact, I suspect that it would be career harming for an academic working in a Canadian university to continue to be a Canadian originalist in the current context. The demise of Canadian originalism would probably be unfortunate because there are strong theoretical reasons for supporting at least some variant of originalism as William Baude argued in a recent conversation with Julia Galef.



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