9 07 2009

Today’s Globe and Mail has a story on the controversy surrounding the decision of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Protestant, to take communion in a Roman Catholic church in New Brunswick. There were initial reports that Harper discarded the wafer he had received from the priest. It has now been confirmed that Harper swallowed a communion wafer. However, this is also a problem, for Catholic Church says that as a Protestant, he should not have done so.  Harper was attending the funeral of former Governor General Romeo Lebanc and decided to eat the wafer as a sign of respect.

Some may dismiss this controversy as a tempest in a tea pot. This story is interesting to me as a historian because it shows that the Catholic-Protestant split still has relevance in Canadian politics despite the fact Canada has become a profoundly secular country. While not quite as low as the ones found in continental European countries, church attendance rates in Canada are a fraction of what they were in the 1940s and much lower than in the United States. See here and here.   As Canadians have become less religious, the old division between Catholics and Protestants, Orangemen and ultramontanes, has ceased to be relevant in the way it was at, say, the time of the Manitoba Schools controversy. (The Canadian Orange Order, by the way, is still active, but just barely. See here).

Most Canadians today describe themselves as Christian but rarely attend church services, save perhaps on Christmas Eve. Some might argue that the real division today is between the minority of Canadians who are actively religious (many of whom are non-Christian immigrants) and the majority who are not. However, for reasons that are debated by political scientists, Roman Catholics still vote Liberal in disproportionate numbers. They still don’t trust the Conservatives.

Article in Guardian About Ignatieff

2 06 2009

Yesterday’s Guardian carried a piece by Michael White comparing current Canadian and British politics. It is rare to find an article that comments on both the UK MP expenses row and the Tory attack ads.

If only Ignatieff had a moat that needed cleaning, that would make for a great attack ad.

Harper’s Bad Idea

1 06 2009

Canada’s Conservative government has proposed a law that would allow victims of terrorism to sue foreign governments and organizations that sponsor terrorism in Canada courts.

This law is a terrible, terrible idea.

First, this law appears to infringe on provincial jurisdiction. Suits for the loss of life, limb, and property are connected to property and civil rights,  which are clearly a matter of provincial jurisdiction according to the British North America, er, I mean, Constitution Act, 1867. If a provincial government wished to pass a similar law, I would have fewer objections.

Second, this proposed law would further politicize our judiciary by forcing judges to define “terrorist”.  Defining terrorism is much more complicated than it might sound.  Nelson Mandela once used tactics that that can reasonably be described as terrorist. Some Western countries regard the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization, while others do not. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Third, I’m disturbed that Mr Harper announced this law at an ethnic organization.  (The identity of the ethnic group in question is not really important, although for the record it was a Jewish organization.) This law risks drawing the Canadian government into Old World ethnic-nationalist strife. What the Canadian government needs to be doing is to promote a sense of unhyphenated Canadianism, a civic nationalism that embraces all citizens. We should be encouraging all groups to identify primarily with Canada and to forget, as much as possible, where their ancestors are from. The proposed law, which would probably lead to lawsuits by competing ethnic groups, will do nothing to advance this aim.   It will set ethnic group against ethnic group.

Anyone who lives in a major urban area in Canada is aware that some immigrants bring Old World rivalries with them to Canada (e.g., Serb vs. Croat, Sikh vs. Hindu, Jew vs. Arab). Like most old stock Canadians, I sometimes find myself wishing that we could wipe the memories of certain classes of immigrants.

Ask yourself this question: had this law been in place in 1985, would it have promoted healing in the wake of the Air India bombing? I think not.

It will be interesting to whether Michael Ignatieff, the noted expert of ethnic conflict, reacts to Mr Harper’s proposal.