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.

can150intro

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).

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Most of these fine projects have zero heritage or historical content and are thus similar to the civic projects that marked the 100th anniversary of Confederation in 1967.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.

170310worlds-largest-rubber-duck

[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.

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An Iconic Image of the 1864 Quebec Conference

 

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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).

canada_3_cents_1917

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





The Political Economy of Arenas

16 09 2010

Andrew Ross, a business historian based at the University of Guelph, has posted some thoughts about the ongoing controversy about the proposals to use federal money to subsidize professional hockey arenas in Quebec. Ross has written an economic history of the NHL, so he can speak with some authority of this subject.

A couple of passages in his blog post caught my eye:

The lack of Canadian support for this aspect of the hockey business seems paradoxical given the general sense that Canadian government is more interventionist than American, and more willing to directly support business. (This is a big generalization, but no time to discuss here.) In sports, this is not the case.

Whenever state funding for arenas comes up, I think of my favourite character from the NHL’s history, Conn Smythe, who was the guiding force behind the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1927 to 1961 and the builder of Canada’s most famous arena, Maple Leaf Gardens. Smythe was a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative (Stephen Harper, take note) who could have been said to have been in favour of “small government” (in our current parlance) and was immensely proud that the Gardens had been built without any kind of state support whatsoever. (However, Smythe’s son and successor, Stafford, and his partner Harold Ballard followed the new American trend and tried to get municipal support for an Arena in Vancouver, but failed.)

Read more here.





Which Historical Books Should Canadian Politicians Read?

25 05 2010

Library of Parliament, Ottawa

Sarah Richardson, a historian at Warwick University who is also involved with the History and Policy website, has some thoughts about what sort of historical books British MPs should read over the summer. Listen to this short interview here. The other person being interviewed is Douglas Hurd, a former British Foreign Secretary, who has written a book about Sir Robert Peel. Prof. Richardson refers to Peter Marsh’s biography of Joseph Chamberlain.

My question to readers of this blog is: which historical books would you recommend to Canadian politicians as summer reading? If you had to give just one historical book to each Canadian MP to read, what would it be? You have an unlimited budget– it can be a paperback book or a $100 hardback– but you need to think about which book is most likely to have a positive influence on MPs that would ultimately translate into better public policy.You also should select a book they are likely to read as opposed to simply leave on the shelf.

I know that some people are tempted to joke that Canadian MPs aren’t as bright as their British counterparts and that maybe we should just assign them some children’s books.  The fact is there are some intellectual people in the Canadian parliament — the Speaker Peter Milliken is one of them. I would appreciate it if people could take this exercise seriously.





Robert Gates, Afghanistan, and Your Laugh For the Day

24 02 2010

Robert Gates With Friend

Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, has criticized the unwillingness of most European countries to get involved in the Afghanistan war, claiming that the new-found aversion of Europeans to war threatens world peace. Gates’s claim is astonishing and laughable on many levels. I literally burst out laughing when I read his comments.

First, the cowboy attitude of the last US administration was itself a major threat to world peace. Second, anyone familiar with twentieth-century history should rejoice if Europeans are inclining towards a more pacific, post-nationalist frame of mind. Third, the death of European militarism has been greatly exaggerated: France continues to intervene militarily in its former colonies. The UK refused to participate in the Vietnam War, but then fought its own war over the Falklands, a conflict in which the US ambassador to the UN sided with Argentina. Moreover, most European countries have mandatory military service for young males, a policy that involves a tax in time that doesn’t necessarily show up in the stats on military spending as a percentage of GDP. Fourth, do we really think the world would be better off if Greece spent more on its military, or indeed any other branch of its bloated public sector? Fifth, can the US still afford the luxury of fighting these essentially recreational wars overseas? In the Bill Clinton era, the US was on track to discharge its national debt. The US budget deficit is now huge. Perhaps Angela Merkel should be put in charge of US public finances. Either that or the US has subscribe to the EU growth and stability pact.

What Gates’s statement amounts to is a plea for European taxpayers to bail out the US military. What the US needs to do is to let its military downsize and restructure in the same way General Motors is doing. When Gates opens his mouth, we hear the mating call of the spendthrift. One hopes that this is one mating call that echoes through the woods and goes unrequited.

Holdings of US Govt Debt By non-Americans are indicated in red, which is coincidentally the primary colour of the Chinese flag.

The basic problem with the imperial posturing of the US is that it wants to play at being an Empire, but it has a tax-averse population that objects to its current level of taxation, even though it is one of the lowest in the western world. Britain was able to defeat Napoleon because its wealthy classes were more patriotic than those of France and more willing to pay income tax. That willingness contributed to Britain’s ability to become a superpower while maintaining a low debt-to-GDP ratio. The United States of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Tea Parties can only be a superpower by using its credit card. That can’t last for long, and arguably that’s a good thing in the sense it would restore the US to the principles of laid out in Washington’s Farewell address, which was delivered at a time when the Americans were even more anti-tax than they are today. In any event, fighting little wars overseas is a distraction from the things the Americans are really good at, like integrating lots of immigrants and making nifty consumer products

A Symbol of the True Source of America's Greatness

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I’m not saying that European countries are blameless. They do endanger world peace in a number of ways.  Preventing second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants from becoming citizens is a recipe for social disaster. Having established churches (as in England and, until 2000, Sweden) and crucifixes in government offices (as in Bavaria) is a formula for social exclusion. Voting for neo-Nazi and anti-immigrant parties is also a threat to world peace. Nominating the Danish politician associated with the Mohammed cartoon controversy to head NATO (!!!) is also a measure likely to exacerbate tensions between Christendom and the Muslim world. What the European need to do, however, is to imitate the multiculturalism of Canada and Australia, not America’s neo-Disraelian imperialism.

The US is obviously bullying its allies into sending more young men and/or money to Afghanistan. Canada has made it clear that its troops are coming home, its government having recently developed vertebrate tendencies in its relations to the Pentagon. Let’s hope that Canada’s government stays strong and tells the US to bugger off when it asks for more of our money!





Simpson on the Monarchy

2 11 2009
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Queen Victoria, 1845

 

Jeffrey Simpson has published a good piece in the Globe and Mail calling for Canada to end its connection to the British monarchy.





Head of State Controversy II

19 10 2009

I have posted earlier on the “head of state” controversy and the future of the monarchy in Canada. Political analyst Randall White has published a piece in the Toronto Star on this subject. White has some interesting comments about Canada’s unwritten constitution, an issue I have discussed with blogger Janet Ajzenstat.

I have earlier posted links to polling data that shows that most Canadians want the country to become a republic. I would also like to draw your attention to a poll about Canadian attitudes to the monarchytaken by Angus Reid in September 2007. The poll’s designers sought to find out whether there was a connection between people’s partisan leanings and their attitudes on the monarchy question. The poll found that while virtually all BQ voters are republicans, the other parties’ supporters are divided on the issue.

However, while the monarchy is not an issue that divides English-speaking Canadians on straightforward, left-right lines, there is a statistically significant connection between voting intentions and republicanism. People who vote Conservative in federal elections are the most likely to be the strongest republicans, while NDP voters are most likely to be strong monarchists. Anti-Americanism and monarchism in Canada, which were once the hobby horses of the political right (the Conservatives from Macdonald to Diefenbaker) are now the pet issues of the left. Most Conservatives are now continentalists who want Canada to be more like the United States.

Statue of United Empire Loyalists in Hamilton, Ontario

Statue of United Empire Loyalists in Hamilton, Ontario

In contrast, leftist Canadians are the more likely to be sensitive about differences between Canada and the United States, and thus most likely to defend institutions, such as the monarchy, that illustrate those differences. The picture above is of the monument to the United Empire Loyalists in Hamilton, Ontario, a city with a very left-wing political culture.  Polls like this show just how different the modern Conservative Party of Canada is from historical Canadian conservativism.

The poll also found that men (60%) were more likely than women (45%) to be republicans. I’m not certain what this means.





A National Securities Regulator for Canada

16 10 2009
There was a story in the news today that reminded me of the need to update Canada’s antiquated, steam-engine age constitution. The story concerned the regulation of securities.
Toronto Stock Exchange in 1856. Image from Library and Archives Canada

Toronto Stock Exchange in 1856. Image from Library and Archives Canada

Toronto's Financial District Today

Toronto's Financial District Today

Canada has always been something of an anomaly in the sense that it is the only industrialized country without a national securities regulator. In Canada, securities and securities markets are regulated by the provinces, which is widely regarded as an arrangement that makes the country less competitive internationally.

For years, the possibility of creating a national securities regulator has been discussed, but without anything being done: Ottawa was scared that such a move would be denounced in Alberta and, of course, Quebec, as an unconstitutional assault on provincial autonomy. The federal government is now taking steps to regulate securities. It announced today that it will ask the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of creating a national securities regulator. (See here, here, here, and here).

I strongly support the idea of a national securities regulator and commend the Harper government for moving on this issue. (For the record, I tend to think that unitary states are more efficient than federations. There would probably be many benefits if the provincial governments were abolished).  However, I’m a bit disturbed by the fact some commentators appear to think that the creation of a national securities regulator is a done deal. There is already lots of talk about the transition team.

Supreme Court of Canada

Supreme Court of Canada

We don’t know yet how the Supreme Court will rule on this issue or how the current SCC justices feel about the issue of centralization vs. provincial rights. If the courts say yes, Canada may have a national securities regulator within a few years, but the whole thing may be derailed by an election. Moreover, even if the courts give the green light and Ottawa passes the required legislation, Quebec, which is now recognized as a nation within Canada, will probably retain its own regulator.

Predicting how power will be distributed between the federal and provincial governments is a

John A. Macdonald, 1875. Image from Library and Archives Canada

John A. Macdonald, 1875. Image from Library and Archives Canada

tricky business. Some of our greatest statesmen have had a poor track when it came to making predictions in this field. In December 1864, when Canadians were debated whether to proceed with Confederation, John A. Macdonald that the federal constitution outlined by the Quebec Conference would soon become a unitary state.  In a letter to a conservative politician in Toronto who wanted to create a unitary state right away, Macdonald said that proposed provincial governments would not last for long. He wrote:

“If the Confederation goes on, you, if spared the ordinary age of man, will see both Local Parliaments & Governments absorbed in the General power. This is as plain to me as if I saw it accomplished but of course it does not do to adopt that point of view in discussing the subject in Lower Canada.”

Sir John A. Macdonald Papers, vol. 510 Macdonald to M.C. Cameron, 19 December 1864.

For better or worse, Macdonald’s prediction did not come to pass. Instead, the provincials governments grew so powerful that some of them began to act as if they were sovereign states. Lower Canada Quebec maintains quasi-diplomatic offices abroad, seeks representation in international bodies such as Unesco, and considers itself to be a nation, not just a province.