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Political Science History & Theory

Sir John's Echo

The Voice for a Stronger Canada

by (author) John Boyko

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Apr 2017
History & Theory, Nationalism, Commentary & Opinion
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The Hill Times: Best Books of 2017

As Sir John A. Macdonald intended, the federal government must be recognized as the nation’s voice.

Power. It is the capacity to inspire while encouraging and enabling change, and it matters. When handled in a positive way, power is the key to the state’s ability to strengthen the nation and improve lives. But state power, John Boyko argues forcefully, works best when concentrated on a federal level, as Sir John A. Macdonald and Canada’s other founders intended.

Provincial governments are essential, tending to local matters, administering and helping to fund national programs, and sometimes acting as incubators for ideas that grow to become national programs. But in fighting for scraps of power, premiers have often distracted from and occasionally hindered national progress. It is the federal government, as Boyko explains, that has been the primary force in nation building and emergency response, and is the only entity with the authority to speak for all Canadians. Canada has been at its best, and its strength will continue to grow, if we are true to Macdonald’s vision, with the federal government speaking for us in one voice, a voice that will remain Sir John’s echo.

About the author

John Boyko has earned degrees from McMaster, Queen's, and Trent universities. Bennett is his fourth book addressing Canadian history and politics. Reviews of this biography of Bennett, praise him for his "encyclopaedic knowledge of Canadian history," his "engaging style," and his ability to "make the most arid political debate interesting." He has written a bi-weekly newspaper column and a number of op. ed. articles, has spoken throughout the country, and appeared on regional and national radio and television programs. He has been elected to municipal council and served on a number of boards. John Boyko is also an educator. He is the Director of Entrepreneurial Programs and Northcote Campus at Lakefield College School. He lives in Lakefield, Ontario.

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Excerpt: Sir John's Echo: The Voice for a Stronger Canada (by (author) John Boyko)

The Founder’s Intentions

John A. Macdonald was gone. He had missed nearly a week in the pre-Confederation Canadian legislature. A drunk and dishevelled Macdonald yawned open his rooming house door and squinted through watery eyes at a young man who demanded his immediate return to duties. Macdonald mumbled that if the governor general was responsible for the message then he could go to hell, but if the gentleman was there at his own behest, then he could take the trip himself. The door slammed. The tale is either endearing or disturbing.
Sir John is tough to love, but tougher to hate. The lanky man with the high forehead, wiry and unruly hair, prominent nose, and dancing eyes was a rogue, but he was our rogue. He was a charmer and a ruthless operator. Macdonald can be applauded for efforts to afford more rights for women and for promoting better understanding between the French and English, but he should also be condemned for racist attitudes and policies toward Chinese workers and Aboriginal nations. A scoundrel and a scamp, Macdonald was a hail-fellow-well-met, a loyal friend, and a fierce enemy. He was Canada’s indispensable man because nation building is both mechanical and organic and so demands both architects and gardeners. Structures might be put in place, but as with any venture involving unpredictable and often irrational human beings, it is slow growth and adjustment to changing conditions that test and either strengthen those structures or tear them asunder. Fortunately, at its birth and through early, perilous years, Canada enjoyed the perfect marriage of man and moment. Sir John A. Macdonald was Canada’s architect and gardener, with the personality, skills, and vision to be expert at both.
In the fall of 1864, Macdonald was in a small, high-ceilinged, ornate room in Charlottetown. He knew, as did the other delegates from the British North American colonies of Canada (Quebec and Ontario), Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, that they were in trouble. The Americans had been butchering themselves in a civil war for three years. Confederate spies openly operated from Toronto and Montreal, and unscrupulous crimpers were tricking and even kidnapping young men to become Union soldiers. American generals, newspapers, and powerful politicians were advocating an invasion that would quickly overwhelm the thin red line of British soldiers and undertrained colonial militia. Meanwhile, British politicians were falling under the sway of those demanding an end to military and financial support for their expensive and troublesome colonies. Britain had withdrawn from a trade agreement that had greatly benefitted the British North American colonies and the United States had pledged to do the same, with both actions contributing to economic hardship. Beyond all of that, the political structures that had been created in response to disquiet in the Maritimes and rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada had proven themselves dysfunctional and clearly unequal to the challenges of the day. In the face of economic, political, and military hazards, the colonial governments were broken and broke.
After just a few hours of discussion, the Charlottetown delegates agreed that to save themselves they needed to create themselves. Unification was the answer. The question was how. There were two models upon which they could base their new country. The British parliamentary system of government was most appealing to the loyal British subjects around the big table. However, Quebec delegates agreed with those from the Maritimes that, unlike Britain, a new Canada needed not just a central government but a federal system to allow sub-national governments to protect local rights and identities. The essential question quickly became how much power should be placed with the central government and how much should be apportioned to the provinces. It is the question that has shaped our history and haunts us still.
On this matter, the United States offered a compelling and alarmingly negative example. While the American Constitution was brilliant in its conception, the booming Union and Confederate cannons, shattered cities, and armies-worth of mourning widows demonstrated its appalling failure in practice. Sir John and others said the American Constitution’s problem and the main reason the United States was currently eating its young was that too much power had been located in the sub-national state governments.
Macdonald explained to Confederation delegates that he admired the U.S. Constitution and respected the work and vision of its framers. However, he observed, “The dangers that have arisen from this system will be avoided if we can agree upon a strong central government — a great central legislature — a constitution for a Union which will have all the rights of sovereignty except those that are given to the local governments. Then we shall have taken a great step in advance of the American Republic.”1 He repeated the point when the conference moved to cool and rainy Quebec City. Perched in grand rooms offering spectacular views of the thundering St. Lawrence, delegates drew closer to hammering out the new Constitution’s details. Canada would reverse the “primary error” of the United States, Macdonald said, “by strengthening the general government and conferring on the provincial bodies only such powers as may be required for local purposes.”2
The Charlottetown and Quebec City conferences were spectacular successes. Despite the fact that Newfoundland and, ironically, Prince Edward Island decided not to join, the delegates had undertaken a peaceful, respectful state-building project like few in the world had ever done. No armies marched. No shots were fired. No one died or, for that matter, was threatened, beaten up, or arrested. We began our national conversation by talking ourselves into a country.
As the process moved to the ratification stage, Macdonald repeatedly used the American example to remind the wavering and unconvinced of his reason for locating so much power with the federal government. In a speech to the Canadian legislature, he said: 
The American Constitution … commenced, in fact, at the wrong end. They declared by their constitution that each state was a sovereignty in itself, and that all the powers incident to a sovereignty belonged to each state, except those powers which, by the constitution, were confirmed upon the General Government and Congress. Here we have adopted a different system. We have strengthened the General Government. We have given the General Legislature all the great subjects of legislation.3
When Queen Victoria signed the British North America Act in 1867, the provinces were as Macdonald, George-Étienne Cartier, Alexander Galt, George Brown, Charles Tupper, Samuel Tilley, and the other founders intended. They were akin to municipalities. Section 92 of the new Constitution ceded only 16 powers to the four original provinces. They included education; the regulation of hospitals, asylums, and charities; the issuing of shop, saloon, tavern, and auctioneer licences; the solemnization of marriage, as well as the protection of property and civil rights; the administration of justice; the management of public lands, including the sale of wood and timber; and, finally, direct taxation within each province. The only addition was that Section 95 rendered agriculture and immigration as concurrent or shared powers in which the federal and provincial governments would co-operate. It is interesting that while the primary reason Cartier and French-speaking Quebecers demanded a federal system was to protect their language and religion, Section 92 was silent on both.
Among the powers allocated to the federal government in Section 91 were the militia, military, and naval service; defence; navigation and shipping; the postal service; criminal law; marriage and divorce; immigration; and the responsibility for Aboriginals and Aboriginal land. The federal government’s financial powers were immense. They included responsibility for currency and coinage, banking, bankruptcy and insolvency, trade and commerce, public debt and property, and in a phrase that was potent in its ambiguity, “the raising of money by any mode or system of taxation.” By giving the federal government the power to levy direct and indirect taxes and limiting provinces to collecting only direct taxes, the federal government was rendered fiscally powerful and the provinces set up to be poor cousins.
The lists made clear where the fiscal and legislative power would lie, but there was even more. In the United States, to balance legislative representation between big and little states, it was decided to base the House of Representatives on representation by population but to allocate two seats per state in the Senate. In 1867, and until 1913, state legislatures appointed senators. Macdonald and his centralist colleagues determined that House of Commons members would be elected through representation by population. As in the United States and Britain, the upper house would be filled by appointment. However, unlike in the United States, the federal government, really the prime minister, would do the appointing and the Senate would reflect not provinces but regions.
There was more. Provincial premiers were constitutionally bound to work with lieutenant governors, who were appointed by the monarch but became federal government appointees in practice. The BNA Act gave lieutenant governors reserve power. With this power, rather than being obliged to sign all provincial bills into law, lieutenant governors could send questionable ones to the federal government for consideration. Provincial bills could then be killed through interminable delay. Sections 55 and 56 also gave the federal government the power of disallowance. That is, it could deem any provincial law in contradiction of the best interests of the county, and even if legally passed by a provincial legislature and signed by a lieutenant governor, simply rip it up.
Also in Section 92 was the declaratory power that gave the federal government the right, whenever it determined that a particular public work would benefit Canada as a whole, to take control of a project and land, regardless of the provincial government’s opinion or constitutional power over the matter.
Finally, the federal government was given residuary power. While the wording of this portion of the Constitution was infuriatingly vague, its intention was clear: anything that fell between the constitutional cracks or that came up later that the Constitution did not specifically address (who would regulate the Internet or airports, for example) would automatically go to the federal government.
Sir John was a late convert to the Confederation idea. He lent support only when it had become politically expedient as well as the best way forward. Even then, he had opposed a federal state, arguing instead for a more efficient and more British style of legislative union with no sub-national governments. He later relented when Quebec’s George-Étienne Cartier and Ontario’s George Brown made federalism a condition of their support. It is clear that with the new country’s Constitution, much of which was written in his hand, Macdonald had won the next best thing to a legislative union. The provinces were as weak as they could be while still having any power at all.

Editorial Reviews

John Boyko's book illuminates with perceptive precision the dynamic that made Canada work. It is a striking contribution to the understanding of our history.

Lawrence Martin, from the Foreword

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