How Management Theory Helps Us to Understand Why the Canadian Government’s Celebrations of the 150th Anniversary of Confederation Ignore Confederation

3 06 2017

How Management Theory Helps Us to Understand Why the Canadian Government’s Celebrations of the 150th Anniversary of Confederation Ignore Confederation

Management academics are increasingly interested in the uses of the past (see here).  For a good gateway into this literature, see the very recent article in Administrative Science Quarterly by  Mary Jo Hatch and Majken Schultz (both of Copenhagen Business School). The focus of much of this research how managers and other social use ideas about history to get what they want in the present. In this blog post, I’ll try to show how this body of theory is useful in understanding a recent development in Canadian politics.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I’m now every interested in social memory (i.e., how perceptions of the past influence thought and action in the present). In an early stage of my academic career, I published extensively on the process by which the Canadian constitution of 1867 was created.  This process is called Confederation. British North America Act of 1867, which united several British colonies into a federal state, still forms the basis of Canada’s written constitution, which is why 2017 is considered to be the 150th anniversary of Canada.


The 150th anniversary has been marked with public celebrations and commemorative projects all across the country, some of which are funded by a special program of the Canadian government. To mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the entry fees to all national parks have been temporarily lifted.  The government has decided to use the 150th anniversary of Confederation as an excuse to fund a variety of perfectly worthy projects that range from making playgrounds more accessible disabled children to orchestra tours to more funding for a ParticiPACTION, a campaign to make Canadians exercise a bit more.  (see full list here).


Most of these fine projects have zero heritage or historical content and are thus similar to the civic projects that marked the 100th anniversary of Confederation in 1967. The 1967 Centennial project fund resulted in the construction of a string of municipal swimming pools, hockey arenas, roads,  libraries, etc all across Canada, all of which have the name Centennial.   As someone who was born in the 1970s, I was able to make use of some of the facilities built in 1967, so I would imagine that the facilities that will be opened this summer will benefit future generations.


[I must confess that I am less certain that the gigantic rubber duck that Toronto has rented for the summer to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation will actually benefit future generations, or indeed current residents of that city. The plan is to let the duck drift around Toronto harbour for the summer in a “whimsical” fashion. Although we are assured that the duck does not pose a threat to navigation, its arrival in the city has generated some debates about cost effectiveness].


Ok, let me get back to my main point. Some people have observed that the projects that the government has funded to mark the sesquicentennial of Confederation do not have anything to do with the actual event being commemorated (Confederation). Some historical or heritage projects are being funded, but they are designed to share stories about many events and historical periods in Canadian history rather than the events of 1867 itself.  For instance, there has been an oral-history initiative called Red Couch, which invites people to sit on a sofa in a public place and reminisce about what they have observed during their lives. Since nobody born in the nineteenth century is still alive, of course, this form of heritage will say nothing about Confederation in 1867. Similarly, children are being invited to make short videos called Here’s My Canada in which they talk about whichever events in Canadian history are of interest to them. From what I can see, the children were not asked to speak about the events of 1867 and they probably weren’t even told of them.


The legal academic Leonid Sirota has recently noted that while academics are using the sesquicentennial of Confederation as occasion for debating Canada’s  past and future constitutional development , the same is not true of the non-academic events designed to mark the sesquicentennial. In other words, whilst law school professors and political scientists interested in the constitution have organized scholarly conferences and journal special issues about that discuss the events of the 1860s, the government-funded events for the public have avoided discussing this issue.   In management journals, we have the concept of “organizational forgetting.” My fellow business-school professors have published a great deal of work on this subect. That’s what appears to be taking place in Canada right now—a conscious desire to try to supress discussion of 1867 and to get people to forget about the snippets of historical knowledge they have from high school that relate to the process that resulted in Confederation in 1867.


An Iconic Image of the 1864 Quebec Conference



Another Canadian-Famous Picture. The London Conference 1866

Most Canadians vaguely remember a little a bit about the various constitutional conferences in Charlottetown, Quebec City, and London that resulted in Confederation in 1867. The iconic pictures of these conferences taking place used to be very common in Canadian history textbooks and can still be found hanging in Canadian public buildings. These conferences have also been depicted on postage stamps (see below).


The organizers of the Canada 150 celebrations could have used this summer’s celebrations as a teachable moment for building on the public’s rudimentary knowledge of politics in the 1867 to teach people about the process by which their constitution was created. It appears that they consciously decided to avoid doing so.



So we have a very curious pattern: there is a concerted effort to  ensure that little is said about the making of the Canadian constitution of 1867 in a series of celebrations designed to mark the 150th anniversary of this constitution.  The journalist Andrew Coyne recently mocked the whole Canada 150 project for, er, forgetting about Confederation.  Lawyers, who are naturally inclined to think that the 1867 constitution is rather important, have also noted that the celebrations are skipping over the thing they are supposed to be celebrating.

In a recent issue of the magazine of the Canadian Bar Association, Sirota speculates that part of the Liberal government’s evidence reluctance to mention the events of 1867 may be a desire to avoid accusation of partisanship and the manipulation of the historical record. He notes that  “both Liberal and Conservative governments have a record of playing politics with history and refusing to honour figures associated with the other [main] party, and it would have been difficult to mark Confederation without talking John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier” who were both Conservatives.

I have a somewhat different explanation for the policy of not mentioning the war not mentioning Confederation.  Anniversary celebrations can themselves be “performative” to use a fancy social-science term. That means that discussing a historical events may encourage people to think about doing something similar.  The historical event or figure becomes a sort of role model.

Consider the case of the firm du Pont Company, which was founded in 1802. According to the historian Alfred Chandler (1962, p.52), the process of planning  the 100th anniversary in 1902 forced the firm’s senior leaders to reflect on the future of the firm and whether dramatic administrative reorganization was required to deal with certain real changes in the firm’s operating environment. In the next few years, Du Pont, dramatically changed its internal organization. The firm likely would have made the same changes  anyway had the anniversary not focused the minds of its leaders of fundamental issues, but it does appear that the anniversary had at least some impact on their thought process.

A more dramatic case of anniversary celebrations being a focal point that encourages people to think about institutional change is the 1967 centennial celebrations in Canada. The 100th anniversary of the introduction of a new constitution (the British North America Act of 1867) prompted the political leaders to think about whether the constitution needed to be changed. The public celebrations of Confederation coincided with a meeting of senior politicians called The Confederation of Tomorrow where future changes to the constitution were discussed.


Confederation of Tomorrow Conference, 1967

Now there was no obvious reason why constitutional change was urgent in Canada in the mid-1960s: although a very small nationalist movement was present in Quebec, the existing institutional arrangement represented by the 1867 constitution appeared to be working well—the country was politically stable, GDP was growing rapidly, unemployment was low, etc. Canada was a net recipient of migrants from the US, which was another sign the existing institutional arrangements were performing well. In some societies, constitutional change is necessary. In Canada in the 1960s, it was a solution looking for a problem. However, I can understand why Canadian politicians of the 1960s wanted to hold meetings and change the constitution. That’s because they had been brought up in a political culture that valorizes well, politicians who sit around in conferences and talking about changing the constitution. In some countries, they way to get your face on a postage stamp is to lead your country into war. In Canada, the way earn a place in the historical record is to attend meetings where you negotiate changes to the constitutional order. The men in the picture from 1967 I’ve pasted above may well have grown up licking postage stamps that celebrated the men who attended the 1864 constitutional conference in Quebec City. (I’ve also pasted a 1917 Canadian postage stamp that celebrated this meeting and the men who attended it).  Come of think of it, the politicians who attended the 1967 Confederation of Tomorrow Conference probably did see the 1917 postage stamp as boys.


I would speculate that staring at pictures of the Canadian constitutional meetings of the 1860s inspired Canadian politicians of the 1960s to become constitution-makers themselves. They had a role to perform! At around the time of the 1967 confederation celebrations, Canada’s federal and provincial leaders began a series of grand conferences devoted to the subject of how the constitution should be modernized.   These meetings were, visually, rather similar to the constitutional meetings that led to Confederation in 1867: they involved representatives of all of the provinces sitting together to talk about details of the constitution. The clothing styles were different and there were TV cameras rolling, but in other ways the process was basically similar to the earlier constitutional conferences.


1981 Constitutional Conference Meeting

Constitutional politics came  to dominate Canadian politics from the 1970s to the early 1990s, when the last of these attempts at macro-constitutional change failed, when the they so-called Charlottetown Accord, a package of constitutional amendments was rejected in a deeply divisive national plebiscite.  For symbolic reasons, this accord had been negotiated in the city of Charlottetown, which has also hosted the famous 1864 constitutional meeting (see pictures below).

From about 1993 to the present, the Canadian political class has sought to avoid  marco-constitutional politics—the use of the so-called C-word (i.e., “constitution”). The focus has been economic policy, healthcare policy, global warming, the war on terror,  and pretty much everything except the constitution. The focus of politics has been on making decisions within the existing constitutional framework rather than changing the constitutional issues themselves.

I have no insider knowledge of the process by which the planners of the Canada150 celebration decided to ignore the actual events of 1867. However, I suspect that they were thinking that any public events that commemorated earlier rounds of constitutional bargaining (e.g., high-profile visits by political leaders to the sites of the constitutional meetings of 1864 and 1866-7) might encourage political actors to re-open the subject of constitutional reform. The last thing any Canadian Prime Minister wants is to legitimate calls for another set of constitutional conferences.  Instead, the Prime Minister wants to simply enjoy the festivities, which will culminate on 1 July, Canada’s national holiday and the precise moment when the Canadian constitution turns 150 years old. There will be a massive party and outdoor music festival in front of the Canadian parliament.

As if on cue, the Quebec government announced on 1 June that it was seeking to re-open  the subject of the constitution. It proposed a gathering of political leaders from across Canada so that the constitution can be re-written so as to satisfy its five demands for constitutional change, along with demands that may come from Aboriginal Peoples. In releasing a document with its proposals for constitutional change, the Quebec government explicitly stated that the timing of its publication was connected to sesquicentennial celebrations. The government’s 200-page policy paper  (available in French here and in English here) refers to the sesquicentennial and the events of 1867 and declared that:  “We must work to re-establish what Quebecers have always wanted since 1867: a Canada that accepts them for who they are….” The first 40 or so pages of the document consist of a historical narrative covering Quebec history from before 1867 to the 1995 Referendum on Quebec independence.

The timing of the Quebec’s government decision to re-open the constitution strongly suggests that historical anniversaries can become performative. In my view, it illustrates the utility of the growing body of research in management, and indeed across the social sciences, on social memory and the power of history to shape action in the present.









My Talk in Banff

28 07 2015
"Banff, Alberta, Canada (230089894)" by Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States - Banff, Alberta, Canada. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Banff, Alberta, Canada (230089894)” by Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States – Banff, Alberta, Canada. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Are you interested in state formation, constitutional change, and sovereignty in North America in the 1860s? If so, check out the programme of the Rethinking North American Sovereignty Conference in Banff Alberta.

Masonic Lodge, Banff, Alberta

I will be speaking at the Masons Hall, 103 Caribou Street, in Banff, Alberta on Thursday, 30 July at 6:30pm. The event is free and open to the public.

Andrew Smith, University of Liverpool, “Confederation as a Hemispheric Anomaly: Why Canada Choose to Remain a Colony -draft July 2015

Steven Hahn, University of Pennsylvania, “The United States from the Inside Out and the Southside North”

Comment: Thomas Bender, New York University

This conference is sponsored by the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University and supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech University and the following academic units at the University of Calgary: the Department of History; the Centre for Military, Security, and Strategic Studies; the Faculty of Arts; the Latin America Research Centre; and the Office of the Vice President for Research.

Why Ukraine Should Study Canadian History

6 09 2014

A research collaborator sent me a recent article on Ukraine by the famous political scientist John Mearsheimer, who writes:

“Imagine the American outrage if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico…This is Geopolitics 101: great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory…”

This offhand remarks reveals how the US policy-making establishment views Canada and Mexico– dependencies in the same way that, say, Belorussia is a dependency of Russia.

Ukraine Crisis

It has the ring of truth– not that there is anything inherently wrong with being a dependency! One of the great things about Canada is that it doesn’t making a fetish over sovereignty or maintaining control over every last inch of its territory. It acquiesced long ago to previous acts of US territorial aggression (thinking Oregon and Washington states, plus the Alaska Panhandle and a some other bits of land. That was probably a good thing. Moreover, Canada allows the US military to tramp over Canadian soil without getting too worked up about it. Mexico has also given up pining for the territories it lost in the 1840s and is now busy exporting stuff to the US.

US Territory in 1842

Perhaps there is a lesson there for Ukraine. Learn to compromise. Learn to roll over. Then focus on getting rich.

Just sayin’.

My Presentation at St Antony’s College Oxford, 4 November 2013

31 10 2013

I’m going to be presenting a paper entitled  “In the Shadow of William Henry Seward: Relations Between Canada and the Caribbean in the 1860s” Monday, 4th November 5:00 – 6:30 PM in Pavilion Seminar Room, Gateway Buildings in St Antony’s College. (62 Woodstock Road).

 62 Woodstock Road Oxford

This paper examines what Canadian leaders thought about the non-white populations of the British West Indies and their future relationship with the British colonies in mainland North America.  In 1866, a group of prominent British North Americans were sent by the Fathers of Confederation to observe conditions in the West Indies and Brazil. Although ostensibly just about improving commercial relations,  the 1866 trade mission was a precursor of future Canadian proposals to annex all or part of the British West Indies.   Our paper places the Canadian 1866 mission paralleled William Henry Seward’s expansionist programme, the cancellation of the Canada-US Reciprocity Agreement [i.e., free trade],   the racial politics of contemporary North America, the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica, and the ongoing movement to federate the British colonies on the North American mainland. Our paper is based on correspondence in the Colonial Office files, Canadian archival materials, and newspapers.

In the Shadow of William Henry Seward: Canadian Expansionism and the British West Indies in the 1860s

19 09 2013

In the Shadow of William Henry Seward: Canadian Expansionism and the British West Indies in the 1860s.

That’s the title of the paper I will be presenting at St Antony’s College, Oxford on 4 November 2013. The co-author of the paper is Kirsten Greer, who used to be at the University of Warwick here in Coventry and who is now at Nipissing University in Ontario. She won’t be with me at the presentation.

Essentially, our paper examines what the Fathers of Confederation thought about the British West Indies and their future relationship with the British colonies in mainland North America.  In 1866, a group of prominent British North Americans were sent by the Fathers of Confederation to observe conditions in the West Indies and Brazil. Although ostensibly just about improving commercial relations,  the 1866 trade mission was a precursor of future Canadian proposals to annex all or part of the British West Indies.  [I’ve published on one such initiative and my co-author has published on other linkages between British North America and the British West Indies]. Our paper places the 1866 mission in its context, which included William Henry Seward’s expansionist programme, the cancellation of the Canada-US Reciprocity Agreement [i.e., free trade],   the racial politics of contemporary North America, the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica, and the ongoing movement to federate the British colonies on the North American mainland. Our paper is based on correspondence in the Colonial Office files, Canadian archival materials, and newspapers.

Who was the William Henry Seward referenced in our title?  He was the Secretary of State in the administrations to Presidents Lincoln and Johnson. During the Civil War, Seward’s focus was, of course, on using US diplomacy to help defeat the South. After 1865, he focus turned outwards.  Seward had an ambitious program of territorial expansion he advocated the acquisition of a variety of territories in the Western Hemisphere by the US.  Had his plan been implemented, the United States would be larger and would have a population with a much smaller proportion of whites, which is one of the reason’s his plans were opposed. Seward’s plan for the annexation of Russian America (Alaska) was actually implemented: in 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from the Tsar for $7,200,000. Needless to say, the actual inhabitants of Alaska had no say in this process.  Seward also attempted, unsuccessfully, to acquire  others territories near the United States. In 1865, he attempted to purchase the Virgin Islands from Denmark.  He also attempted to increase US power in other parts of what might be called “Greater North America.”  Between 1865 to 1867,  the United States support the rebels in Mexico who were attempting to overthrow the French-backed Emperor. Seward also spoke about annexing all or part of Canada to the United States.  In the 1860s, it was seriously proposed by a number of US policymakers that Britain simply give Canada to the United States in lieu of a cash payment for the damage to the US merchant marine that had been done by the Confederate commerce raiders constructed in British shipyards. Such proposals overlooked the fact that British North America had its own elected governments and population with their own identity and belief in their right to self determination.

W.H. Seward

The mid-1860s were a crucial turning point as it saw Canadians going from being objects of Great Power politics to being actors in the international arena in their own right. The 1860s is also when we start to see the first stirring of Canadian sub-imperialism, that is the desire of Canadians to acquire overseas colonies of their own.  Seward and other Americans implied that Canadians could be traded from Britain to the United States are bargaining chips in a complex diplomatic bargaining game. In the 1860s, the Fathers of Confederation came to imitate Seward’s imperialism by developing their own expansionist vision that embraced both the British territories in western North America and the British possessions in the West Indies.

No actual tariff agreements resulted from the commissioners’ travels in 1866. In the short term, the main practical result of the mission being a semi-monthly steamer service between Halifax and the West Indies. The conversations British North Americans had around the trade mission are chiefly important because they reveal different elements of the emerging Canadian identity on the eve of Confederation. Even though the trade commissioners did not confine their attention to British colonies, visiting the New World monarchy of Brazil and two of the possession of the Spanish Crown, the ideology of Britishness influenced the commission, as did contemporary ideas about race. Monarchism and the belief that monarchical institutions of any sort were better than the republican constitutions that were predominant in the Western Hemisphere also influenced the commission. After 1867, all of these ideas would continue to shape public policy in the new Dominion of Canada.

Street Scene in Jamaica, 1861

Some Thoughts on Confederation 150 and the Dialogue Between Historians and the Heritage Community

26 06 2013

Yesterday, I posted some thoughts about the Confederation 150 conference, which will be taking place today (26 June 2013) at the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec. Participants will be discussing how the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017 should be celebrated. I objected to the fact that none of the historian who actually study Confederation (including yours truly) were invited to the conference.  The speakers are mostly heritage professionals (e.g., people who work in museums or for broadcasters).

I’m disturbed by the fact scholars who study Confederation won’t be part of this conference. People who organize heritage events should be in a continuous dialogue with working historians (i.e., with people who do primary source research and then publish their findings). It’s dangerous for all concerned if these groups don’t remain in contact. For one thing, you can end up with heritage organization disseminating an outdated or otherwise inaccurate version of history.  This is particularly the problem when historians abandon the task of communicating with the public to journalists, civil servants, and politicians.

In recent years, we’ve seen examples in a number of countries of politicians and journalists either communicating half-truths (e.g., Vimy Ridge was a great WWI battle and the birth of Canadian nationalism) or, in some cases, displaying an astonishing outright historical ignorance. Some readers will recall that in 2006, the British government prepared a guide for prospective citizens that was filled with factual errors about history. In 2012, a minister in the Canadian government declared that France was allied with Britain in the War of 1812, which clearly demonstrates that he knows little about the origins of this war.

Moreover, engaging with the heritage community can keep historians, especially academics, grounded. I’ve always believed that historians ought to write in such a way as to be accessible and interesting to both academics in allied fields (e.g., political science) and, more importantly, to the broader public.





Two Presentations by Jatinder Mann

15 01 2013

I thought I would draw  your attention to two forthcoming presentations at the Institute of Historical Research in London.

On 29 January, Dr Jatinder Mann (King’s College London, Menzies Centre for Australian Studies), will present a paper called “ ‘To the last man and the last shilling’ and ‘Ready, aye ready’: A comparison of the conscription debates in Australia and Canada during the First World War” to the military history seminar at the institute.  A podcast of his talk will be placed online within a few days. 

On 11 June, Dr Mann will present “The British World during the First World War: Australia, Canada and New Zealand and the question of Japan” to the international history seminar at the institute. 

Dr Mann is a postdoctoral research fellow at Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King’s College, University of London. He defended his PhD at the University of Sydney in 2011. His publications include: “The introduction of multiculturalism in Canada and Australia, 1960s-1970s”.Nations and Nationalism, vol. 18, no. 3, July 2012. And “The evolution of Commonwealth citizenship, 1945-48 in Canada, Britain and Australia”. Commonwealth & Comparative Politics (CCP), vol. 50, no. 3, July 2012: 293-314.

Ian McKay on “The Empire Strikes Back” and Canadian Historiography

31 03 2011

Ian McKay, professor of history at Queen’s University, recently delivered an engaging and provocative talk titled “The Empire Strikes Back: Militarism, Imperial Nostalgia, and the Right-Wing Reconceptualization of Canada”.  McKay’s talk was the keynote address of the 15th annual New Frontiers Graduate History Conference at York University.

The talk is available here for audio download.

McKay argues that there has been in an attempt in the last few years by right-wing historians in English-speaking Canada develop a new narrative of Canadian history to counter the previously hegemonic left-liberal interpretation of Canadian history. The left-liberal narrative celebrates such things as the growth of Canadian independence from Britain, the development of multiculturalism in Canada, the advent of socialized medicine,  Canada’s efforts to remain separate from the United States, accommodation between French- and English-speakers, and Pearsonian peacekeeping.

The new conservative narrative discussed by McKay pines for the old days of the British Empire, is tinctured by monarchism, and has a celebratory attitude towards Canadian participation in imperial conflicts such as the First World War.  Some of its proponents are hostile to multiculturalism, although others argue (in my view correctly) that multiculturalism is part of Canada’s legacy from the British Empire.

I share McKay’s dislike of the neo-conservative narrative of Canadian history. However, I’m not certain that it has a lot of traction with ordinary Canadians, certainly not with the younger generation. I find that many Canadian undergraduates find the most visible institutions left over from the old British Empire, (e.g., the Governor-General) to be funny rather than either  awe-inspiring or offensive.  Many immigrants think it is hilarious that Canada requires them to swear allegiance to the head of state of another country as a condition of citizenship. This aspect of the citizenship ceremony makes it hard for immigrants to take Canada seriously as “real country”.

I suspect that the neo-conservative interpretation discussed by McKay will remain an unpopular paradigm for the simple reason that it is fixated on symbols that many Canadians regard as risible. I really don’t think that there is much of an appetite for people to re-fight the 1964 flag debate.

McKay’s Liberal Order Framework: Promise and Pitfalls

14 07 2010

My review of Liberalism and Hegemony : Debating the Canadian Liberal Revolution. Edited by Jean-François Constant and Michel Ducharme. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 2009 has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review. see here.

I was asked to write a short review by the CHR and the CHR’s quite legitimate space constraints prevented me from developing all of my ideas about this book and about McKay’s Liberal Order Framework, which is the intellectual paradigm that underpins both the essays in the book and a vast body of literature. This is why I am posting this short essay here.

The book I have reviewed in a collection of papers that were presented at a 2006 workshop at McGill University. The workshop was inspired by an article by Ian McKay that appeared in the Canadian Historical Review in 2000.  In that article, McKay argued that Canadian history in the period from c. 1840 to c. 1940 must be understood with reference to the rise and hegemony of liberalism. Although McKay did not define liberalism precisely, it is clear that he was denoting a pro-capitalism ideology similar to what C.B. Macpherson called “possessive individualism” or what others might call classica liberalism. McKay argued that the Canadian state should be understood as a project of liberal rule in North America. Canada was a more of a “liberal Empire” and the expression of a particular ideology than a traditional ethnic nation. McKay’s basic argument was that liberalism drove the creation of Canada as a nation state. He says that Macdonald and his National Policy embodied economic liberalism. McKay alludes to the Soviet Union several times in his works on the Liberal Order Framework. One can see why, for the Soviet Union was an ideological project of rule, a Marxist empire, not a traditional nation state: some people in Russia applied the ideas of German and other thinkers and the created a vast Empire devoted to putting these ideas into practice. In McKay’s telling of Canadian history, the Dominion of Canada created in 1867 served a similar purpose– it was an empire allowed a clique of liberal-minded to implement the ideas of John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and other liberal thinkers on the peoples of a vast territory. McKay, how is a former Marxist and is old enough to have known the Soviet Union, is making a very interesting comparison here. It’s interesting, but I don’t actually buy it.


It is hard to understate the importance of the article by McKay. Today, many young Canadian historians situate their work within the Liberal Order Framework. Whereas in the past, a scholar might declare that they were going to provide, say, a Marxist or a feminist interpretation of X, Y, or Z, many emerging historians of Canada say that their research was informed by McKay’s Liberal Order Framework. If you pick a half dozen current Canadian history PhD theses at random, I bet you will find the McKay’s Liberal Order Framework has influenced at least three of them.In some cases, PhD students pay intellectual tribute to McKay’s 2000 article in the title of their thesis– e.g.,  “Mohawk Land Practices and the Liberal Order: An environmental history of Kahnawake”.

Ian McKay is an important and prolific scholar who has said many interesting things in the past. His ideas deserve to be taken seriously. That being said, I am unconvinced by his Liberal Order Framework. In fact, I am uncomfortable with the fact that the “thesis” or “theory” that McKay advanced in 2000 is already being described as a “framework”, which suggests that the accuracy/explanatory power of the thesis has already been established through rigorous empirical testing. 150 years after Darwin published his theory of evolution, we still refer to it as a “theory”. It is a good theory that has held up well in the face of masses of research done by scientists on different continents. Why then have Canadian historians been so quick to elevate this theory into a framework before it has been tried with the acid test of empirical investigation by historians working in different sub-disciplines of history. Few of the adherents of the Liberal Order Framework appear to have given much thought to falsifiability. Falsifiability means that a theory could possibly be refuted by through new empirical research. That something is “falsifiable” does not mean it is false; rather, that if it is false, then this can be shown by observation. In the physical sciences, theories are tested in the lab. In history, theories are tested through the process of primary source research. I would ask those who support the Liberal Order Framework to imagine what sort of evidence could potentially undermine or disprove their thesis.

In the review, I say that the papers in this book exemplify both what is good and what is deeply frustrating about McKay’s Liberal Order Framework.  I argue that McKay and his followers are dealing with some really important issues– liberty, property, individualism, collectivism. Their historical research deserves to be communicated to a broader audience– to undergraduates and to history buffs who peruse the shelves of the big box bookstores such as Chapters. McKay’s research also ought to be considered by scholars working in the United States, Britain, and other countries. I think that the debate currently raging in the American historical profession about the weak American state could be informed by looking at events north of the border.  Canada was an important part of the British Empire and it would be a good thing if historians of the Empire-Commonwealth based outside of Canada paid at least some attention the Liberal Order Framework Thesis debate in Canada.

Unfortunately, this book’s readership is likely to remain confined to professional historians of Canada based in Canada. This is true of much of the secondary literature that has emerged in response to McKay’s Liberal Order Framework. Specialized jargon and unexplained references to Habermas and Foucault make the book inappropriate for both undergraduates and members of the public interested in history.  Moreover, some of the essays are highly introspective–one finds very junior historians talking about their personal reactions to McKay, their first encounters with McKay, the process of being hired by Canadian university history departments. This might be interesting to a handful of academic historians, but it is likely to be boring, indeed, repellant to most other readers. Don’t get me wrong. There are some historians who have led very interesting lives and whose autobiographies would be worth reading. Consider Basil Davidson (1914-2010), the historian of Africa who was also involved in the effort to overthrow white minority rule in Angola and South Africa. Alas, few historians working in Canada today are terribly interesting. We are essentially civil servants who have grown up in boringly normal suburban families, have suburban families of their own, and who now write books with three readers.  Lengthy autobiographical/introspective digressions by such folk are ridiculous. Students are very interested in what we have to say about the past, but they aren’t that interested in us as people. I would be much more interested in reading the about the thoughts and lives of, say, an immigrant entrepreneur who runs a restaurant than about another history professor.

This book is also unlikely to be read by historians outside of Canada, which is a big shame because the historians of the United States and of the British Empire/Commonwealth need to pay more attention to Canada and its place in the North Atlantic Triangle and the relations between Europe and North America. Canadian issues were of tremendous diplomatic importance in the 19th century and it seems to me that if McKay’s Liberal Order Thesis is truly a suitable metanarrative/paradigm for understanding Canadian history in this period, it should have something to say about the diplomatic history of the period.

Fort Henry, Kingston, Ontario

Another major problem with this volume is that there is basically nothing about military and naval history in it. This is a shocking omission for several reasons. First, the military, specifically the British military, played a crucial role in the development of Canada in the 19th century. Consider, the city of Kingston, where Professor McKay teaches, a British garrison town that is today physically dominated by the looming hulk of Fort Henry, which was built to protect the settlement from the United States. Kingston is connected by the Rideau Canal to Ottawa, which was planned by the Duke of Wellington. It is not for nothing that the main street of Ottawa is named for the Iron Duke. Second, the military, a branch of the state fully funded by taxpayers and based on a hierarchical chain of command system, is a deeply illiberal institution, which is why 19th century classical liberals were so keen on cutting army budgets. Third, there is a large community of military historians in Canada. Any paradigm that seeks to explain 19th century Canadian history needs to be able to integrate military and naval history if it is going to be taken seriously.

The other problem with this book is the lack of a serious comparative element. In fact, this is a problem that bedevils the entire Liberal Order Framework literature in Canada. First of all, the Liberal Order Framework authors do very little in the way of Canadian-American comparisons. I suspect that if they did more research along these lines, they would find out that the United States was more liberal than Canada in many ways in this period. Government played a somewhat less important role in the American economy, American judges took the idea of freedom of contract much more seriously than Canadian judges, it was much easier to incorporate a business in the United States than in Canada, it was easier to get a divorce. Just as importantly, neither McKay nor his followers engaged in other hemispheric comparisons. Canadian historians of the 19th century should be looking to both the United States and Latin America to make comparisons. McKay and his followers fail to engage in either sort of comparative analysis or indeed any type of comparative analysis at all.

Perhaps the greatest single problem with this collection of essays and most of the scholars who work within the Liberal Order Framework is that  is that none of these scholars really grapple with the fundamental weakness of McKay’s framework, namely, that the hegemony of liberalism in Canada does not really explain why Canada developed as a separate state rather than being absorbed by its superpower neighbour. The United States embodied liberal individualism as least as much as the Dominion of Canada, if not more so. Indeed, there is a vast literature on the ways in which American life has been informed by Lockean and other liberal ideas from the eighteenth century onwards.

That’s why I liked Jerry Bannister’s paper on the “loyalist order framework”, which is part of this collection. Bannister’s Loyalist Order Framework provides a far better explanation for why most of northern North America did not become part of the Republic and instead coalesced into a separate country. He reminds us that the leaders of the scattered British colonies were united by a desire to remain British subjects and that Britishness was central to the Canadian identity until the mid-twentieth century. Bannister is correct to suggest that it is the loyalist order and its legacies, not liberalism, that make Canada distinctive from the United States.

I like Bannister’s paper because I believe that 19th century Canada was the scene of a counter-revolutionary project. The British had lost most of their North American colonies in 1783 and they were determined to hold on to the rest. For their part, the United Empire Loyalists, the conservative clergy of Lower Canada, and other pro-British people in British North America were equally determined to remain British subjects and to escape absorption into the great republic. It is impossible to understand such pivotal events as the War of 1812, Confederation, or even the 1911 election without recognizing that the Canadian nation-state was the product of a big counter-revolutionary project that was, in terms of scale, almost as dramatic as the Counter-Reformation or the Holy Alliance, the league of reactionary European monarchs formed in the 19th century to suppress liberal and nationalist movements.

There were, of course, classical liberal movements in British North America/Canada in the 1783-1914 period. There were some republicans, some people who wanted to join the United States, and some ardent Free Traders who loved the ideas of Adam Smith. Some of these liberals wanted Canada to join the United States. Goldwin Smith is one such example. Others wanted to implement the liberal agenda within the context of the inherited political framework, that is, a semi-autonomous colony within the British Empire.  But these people were sailing against the current. For the dominant ideology, the hegemonic political project, was the counter-revolutionary loyalist one, which wanted to create a rival federation that would keep in the United States in check. The strength of this ideology helps to explain why creole nationalism (i.e., the desire to distance Canada from the Old World) was so weak in Canada when it was fairly strong in the rest of the hemsiphere– by the mid-1820s, most American countries had achieved independence from their respective European mother countries. Canada was the anomaly in the 19th century and leaders such as John A. Macdonald were acutely aware of this.

I would argue that the situation in 19th century Canada, where the contest between loyalist sentiment and the nationalist desire for independence from Europe became wrapped up the struggles between economic liberalism and conservativism, was fundamentally the same as the conflicts then raging in other American societies. If McKay and the brigade of scholars he leads would engage in some comparative analysis, they would begin to realize the problems with the view that John A. Macdonald, who was an ardent anglophile, was also the champion of classical liberalism.

Consider this comparison. Most Latin American republics in the nineteenth century were divided between the liberals, who typically admired the United States, and conservatives, who pined for the old days when viceroys had ruled in the name of distant monarchs and the Church had enforced doctrinal orthodoxy and censorship. The liberals saw themselves as the heirs of the revolutionaries who had overthrown Spanish rule and then established republics modelled on the United States. Their hero was Simon Bolivar, the brilliant commander who had led the rebellion against Spain and who had carried a copy of the Wealth of Nations while on campaign At the other end of the spectrum were the conservatives, who had opposed independence and now accepted it grudgingly. Although the specific issues fought over and party labels differed in each Latin American republic, the conservatives were generally Catholics landlords who wanted to preserve as much as possible of the monarchical ancien regime, whereas the liberals were usually anticlerical city dwellers who were inspired by the American and French Revolutions.  One historian has summarized the agenda of the Latin American liberals thus: “constitutional government, the basic human freedoms, economic laissez-faire, opposition to military and ecclesiastical privilege.“ Throughout the Catholic New World, political and economic liberalism and creole nationalism were linked, although not all Latin American liberals were creole nationalists and not all creole nationalists were liberals. The situation was thus similar to Canada, where French Canadian bishops, the Family Compact, and arch-Tory Church of England ministers worked to strengthen the country’s ties to the Old World, with the classical liberals were more receptive to the idea of colonial independence and/or joining the United States, an entity they associated with free thought, science, technology, emancipation from religious doctrine, and individual liberty..

I have based by statements on Latin American political history on John Lynch, Simon Bolivar: A Life (Yale University Press, 2007);  Hubert Herring, History of Latin America (Random House Inc (T), 1968), 585-7, 595, 306-10; John Chasteen, Americanos: Latin America’s Struggle for Independence, First Edition. (Oxford University Press, USA, 2008), 172-3; Frank Safford, “Politics, Ideology and Society in post-Independence Spanish America” in The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 3, From Independence to c. 1870, edited by Leslie Bethell (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2008, vol. 3.

Podcast of Canadian Historian Ramsay Cook

26 04 2010

“Who broadened Canadian history?”

Historian Ramsay Cook answers this question in a podcasted interview.

Listen here.