12.07.2006

framework

Only five months after we moved to Canada, Paul Martin was unseated as prime minister. Watching the proceedings as the government fell was fascinating. No matter how many times the Parliamentary system had been explained to me, I never really understood it until I saw it work.

Then we experienced our first campaign and our first election. Both were fascinating, both for themselves and for Canadians' reactions to them. Our points of reference being American, the campaigns were intelligent and substantive.

Also soon after we moved here, a new Governor General was appointed. I didn't even know the GG existed, never mind what the position was.

Now we'll soon have another election. That alone is so new and noteworthy to me. We've lived here less than two years and we're already seeing our second election! I like it.

Dion's election and his debut as Leader in the House of Commons, along with Harper revisiting the same-sex marriage debate, had Allan and I talking a lot about the Canadian political system again. I see how much more I've come to understand, and the areas where my knowledge is still hazy.

I've learned a lot about modern Canadian history through this blog, both from debates among commenters, and from sites and Wikipedia pages that readers have directed me to. Back when RobfromAlberta, Lone Primate and Wrye used to have at it, the words Meech Lake Accord, Charlottetown Accord and "Night of Long Knives" were always being thrown around.

I confess I'm still struggling to understand those, in part because the debates were always so charged, laden with sarcasm and innuendo that I couldn't follow. When I would asked for help, I still had to figure out what repatriation and the BNA meant! (I got it now.)

Among the many things that amazed me about Canada was how new the Charter and the Canadian Constitution are.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a thing of beauty. I love the US Constitution and revere it as one of the country's three great contributions to civilization*. But the US Constitution's great strength is also its terrible flaw: its purposeful ambiguity. Written in a different world by men whose way of life no longer exists, it must always be interpreted and re-interpreted. But the Charter is such a modern document - so specific and inclusive. (I believe the Charter is the first bill of rights to specifically include the rights of people with disabilities.) Also - correct me if I'm wrong - I think the Charter is immutable, cannot be changed.

The British, on the other hand, have the Parliamentary system, but without a Supreme Court, a Constitution or a Bill of Rights. Canada has made a great improvement and modernization of that.

Early readers made sure I knew about the notwithstanding clause. Through their perspective, I was under the impression that those words were universally hated. Since being here, however, I see that many Canadians support the notwithstanding clause as a check on power. The fact that it has never been invoked helps ensure its use will not be taken lightly. The longer that stands, the weightier the moment, also a good thing.

Last night, as Allan and I were talking about all this, I realized another area of my ignorance: we couldn't think of who appoints justices to the Supreme Court of Canada. You never hear about that in connection with Prime Ministers or Parliament, the way you do during US Presidential campaigns.

We discovered that those justices are appointed by the Governor General, on advice from the Privy Council. Ah, a depoliticized appointment, very sensible. But who are the Privy Council? Where do they come from?

If this post is a bit bumpy, it's because I just wanted to put down these various thoughts and observations, and leave the rest to you. I've learned so much from wmtc readers, and I have a long way to go. Your thoughts on any of this are most welcome.



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* The other two are baseball and jazz. Thanks to historian Gerald Early for this.

39 comments:

MattInTO said...

I found this definition for Canada's version of the privy council. Other commonwealth nations have similar organisations:

Definition: In Canada, the Privy Council, formally called the Queen's Privy Council, is an honorary body appointed by the Governor General of Canada. It is made up of all current and former federal cabinet ministers, speakers of the House of Commons and speakers of the Senate, premiers of the provinces of Canada, chief justices of the Supreme Court of Canada, and other distinguished persons recommended by the prime minister as a special honour. The group as a whole does nothing, and very rarely is called together.

Members of the Privy Council are given the title "Honourable" for life, and use the initials P.C. after their names. (Prime ministers and chief justices of the Supreme Court receive the title "Right Honourable.") Members of the Privy Council are honoured by half-masting of the flag on the Peace Tower of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa when they die.

Historically, the term Privy Council refers to private counsellors to the sovereign or governor general.

Hope this helps!

Lorna said...

I'm very impressed with the vigor with which you've immersed yourself in Canadian history and the political system. I'm Canadian and I've learned from your blog! As you may have noticed I tend to only comment on things of a cultural nature, not a political nature. This is due to the fact that I'm woefully uninformed on most of these topics. I take full responsibility for that, but I must say that your blog has inspired me to try and stay more up to date on what is going on back home. Thanks!

L-girl said...

Thanks Matt!

The group as a whole does nothing, and very rarely is called together.

:-)

So this do-nothing group of "distinguished persons" appoints Supreme Court justices? A glorified old boys' network (that of course now includes new girls and boys)? Hm. Interesting.

I also noticed that although the Queen appoints the GG, it is on recommendation from the Prime Minister. Does that make the choice of GG somewhat political, even though it's not supposed to be?

Anyone?

L-girl said...

I'm very impressed with the vigor with which you've immersed yourself in Canadian history and the political system.

Thank you, Lorna. This is kind of thing I love, and unless I understand it, I will always be a stranger in Canada. The more I understand this stuff, the more at home I will feel.

Perhaps this need-to-know distinguishes the political immigrant from the economic immigrant. The economic immigrant wants to live somewhere where the quality of life is better, where there is more economic opportunity. The political immigrant is ultimately concerned with the state of democracy.

I'd love other moving-to-Canada bloggers (including those already here!) to comment on this. Perhaps I'll make it a separate post.

Scott M. said...

"Appointed by the GG on the advice of the Privy Council", in practicality, means "appointed by the Prime Minister".

The Privy Council meets for ceremonial purposes only. In times of (big) war they can have a more powerful consultative role to the PM and cabinet.

The Charter, like any parts of the Constitution, can be changed through the amending formula. This requires a majority vote in both Federal houses as well as the approval of 2/3 (7) Provincial Legislative Assemblies *representing at least 50% of the poulation*.

Scott M. said...

Oh, and the Liberal government passed a federal law giving all regions (West, Ontario, Quebec, East) vetos over any constitutional change, though this somewhat crazy law could easily be repealed.

Scott M. said...

Oh, and a point of history, the BNA act was actually our second constitution and now officially referred to as the Constitution Act 1867. Both constitutions are in force, with Constiution Act 1982 superceding where necessary.

If I remember my history correctly, the first constitution was from the Constitutional Act 179..1? (I sucked at History) building on the Quebec and Upper Canada Acts which layed out the basis of governance for those areas.

L-girl said...

Hey Scott, thanks for the info, and for your other comment, too. I knew this post would our friend around.

L-girl said...

"Appointed by the GG on the advice of the Privy Council", in practicality, means "appointed by the Prime Minister".

Oh! Then in essence the PM does appoint Supreme Court justices?

The Charter, like any parts of the Constitution, can be changed through the amending formula.

Another interesting fact. Many people - Canadians - have told me the Charter cannot be changed, ever. Hm.

Thanks again.

Scott M. said...

Yep, the PM appoints Supreme Court Justices. Harper has promised a consultation with all parties on future appointments, though it's still his decision.

Practically it would be very difficult to change the Constitution due to the amending formula. Not impossible, but bloody difficult.

An interesting note: sexual orientation is *not* protected under the Charter, however it has been "read into" it by the courts. The government could very easily pass a law (without the notwithstanding clause) saying that it explicitly is not covered under the constitution and, IMO, the court would likely respect it. If they struck down that law, the government would be forced to use the notwithstanding clause.

M@ said...

There are other rights that are read into the charter, too -- a great example is the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of citizenship (ruled on in 1995 IIRC).

This idea that reading same-sex rights into the charter is a new or unique thing is a little tiring to be honest (not directing this at you Scott, but in general). It's not relevant and is often used by anti-SSM forces to try to delegitimize same sex rights. Where were the rallies and demonstrations in 1995 against the unchecked power of the courts?

Laura -- you definitely arrived in quite the hot spot in Canadian political history! I had never seen a government fall before either -- I was about six the last time it happened.

Scott M. said...

This idea that reading same-sex rights into the charter is a new or unique thing is a little tiring to be honest (not directing this at you Scott, but in general).

No offense taken! Just pointing out the fact that may not be obvious to folks.

While I agree that it shouldn't be a source of discrimination, and I am glad that it is codified in the Human Rights Act (along with a number of other non-charter proscriptions), I do find it interesting that many think it is (an other things are) explicitly protected under the charter.

L-girl said...

Laura -- you definitely arrived in quite the hot spot in Canadian political history! I had never seen a government fall before either -- I was about six the last time it happened.

I'm lucky! I mean that. It was exciting, and so interesting. I am planning to see it again this spring. ;-)

Tom said...

Scott,
You just made me a little nervous. I thought the charter covered us gays.

I certainly hope there never is a Conservative majority. Then again, lately I am thinking I would take the Conservative Canadian party over the US Democratic party.

L-girl said...

I certainly hope there never is a Conservative majority. Then again, lately I am thinking I would take the Conservative Canadian party over the US Democratic party.

There's a man after my own heart.

You know, a lot of Canadian conservatives support the right of same-sex marriage. They are not necessarily social conservatives.

Also, as Scott mentioned, sexual orientation is covered under the Human Rights Act.

Scott M. said...

You just made me a little nervous. I thought the charter covered us gays.

Unfortunately it wasn't a big enough issue to consider in the early 80s... in fact, it may have been completely overlooked!

You will be happy to hear that the motion to reopen debate on SSM was handily defeated 175-123 Against the motion was 12 of the 124 Conservatives, including some prominent cabinet ministers.

There would be a huge hue and cry if there was ever a rewrite of the Human Rights Act to exclude sexual orientation, so I wouldn't be too worried.

L-girl said...

Where were the rallies and demonstrations in 1995 against the unchecked power of the courts?

What does this refer to?

L-girl said...

Canadian Human Rights Act

PART I
PROSCRIBED DISCRIMINATION
For all purposes of this Act, the prohibited grounds of discrimination are race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability and conviction for which a pardon has been granted.

L-girl said...

More on the Human Rights Act here.

Tom said...

Gracias for the information.

I find it disgusting that we cannot get the ENDA (Employment Non Discrimination Act) passed here in the US while Canada has this beautiful Human Rights Act.

I do converse with some Canadian Conservatives online, they mostly seem like libertarians to me.

L-girl said...

You're most welcome.

Hey, we couldn't even get the Equal Rights Amendment passed in the US.

Lone Primate said...

Also - correct me if I'm wrong - I think the Charter is immutable, cannot be changed.

I don't believe this is the case... I think the Charter is amendable by the general process, which is: the consent of the Parliament of Canada and no fewer than seven of the legislatures of provinces totaling at least 50% of the population of Canada. Still, that's going some. Like the US Bill of Rights, or any other such document, it has to be open to change as time and circumstances change.

Lone Primate said...

Unfortunately it wasn't a big enough issue to consider in the early 80s... in fact, it may have been completely overlooked!

The Supreme Court has read sexual orientation into the Charter based on section 15 (equality rights section) since 1995, and effectively since 1992. It's also been re-enforced by the various human rights acts of the country and the various provinces and territories.

L-girl said...

I think the Charter is amendable by the general process, which is: the consent of the Parliament of Canada and no fewer than seven of the legislatures of provinces totaling at least 50% of the population of Canada. Still, that's going some. Like the US Bill of Rights, or any other such document, it has to be open to change as time and circumstances change.

Ah, interesting. Makes sense. Thanks, LP. Scott also posted how amendments can be made, above.

The Bill of Rights itself, thankfully, can't be changed, because it is actually the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. But as you know, the Constitution is open to change, by tacking on amendments.

Lone Primate said...

An interesting note: sexual orientation is *not* protected under the Charter, however it has been "read into" it by the courts. The government could very easily pass a law (without the notwithstanding clause) saying that it explicitly is not covered under the constitution and, IMO, the court would likely respect it.

I don't believe this to be the case. The Supreme Court has ruled that section 15 extends to sexual orientation, regardless of whether or not it is explicitly mentioned. A number of rights are not explicitly mentioned in the Charter (many are in what the Canadian courts have traditionally held to be part of "the implied Bill of Rights"), and the Charter itself says that rights are not exhaustively delimited by it. It is the specific duty of the courts, not the legislatures, to interpret the Constitution, and the Constitution takes precedent over any ordinary statute, not the reverse. The courts having ruled that sexual orientation is protected by section 15, a constitutional amendment to the contrary would be required, or the use of the notwithstanding clause every five years till the end of time. Not to put a fine point on it, but when Alberta neglected to include sexual orientation in its human rights act, it was specifically ordered to do so by the courts, and did. In light of that, it's hard to imagine that Parliament could simply wave off the right, even by changing the Canadian Human Rights Act.

L-girl said...

Not to put a fine point on it, but when Alberta neglected to include sexual orientation in its human rights act, it was specifically ordered to do so by the courts, and did.

That says something right there.

(And not only to confirm that I wouldn't want to live in Alberta.)

redsock said...

the motion to reopen debate on SSM was handily defeated 175-123

This seems way closer than I would have thought. Is this really considered a rout?

Lone Primate said...

the motion to reopen debate on SSM was handily defeated 175-123

This seems way closer than I would have thought. Is this really considered a rout?


Given that last year's enabling legislation, Bill C-38, only passed 158-133, I'd certainly say so.

Scott M. said...

the motion to reopen debate on SSM was handily defeated 175-123

This seems way closer than I would have thought. Is this really considered a rout?


Strategic voting is always a big part of Canadian politics, not only during elections but even in the house. Because there was never any chance of the motion to reopen the debate passing, more members felt free to vote in favour to appease voters. If it was a squeaker, it's likely that many members would have changed their vote from yea to nay.

West End Bound said...

As a future Canadian Permanent Resident, your synopsis of the governmental system is greatly appreciated. We're trying to learn by listening to CPAC, Question Period, etc., and at times it does get quite confusing.

In general, though, it is most refreshing to see that Canadian government at least has viable minor parties involved in the process. I am so tired of the dems and repugs in the US battling for $$$ to the detriment of what America used to stand for . . . .

Wrye said...

I confess I'm still struggling to understand those, in part because the debates were always so charged, laden with sarcasm and innuendo that I couldn't follow. When I would asked for help, I still had to figure out what repatriation and the BNA meant! (I got it now.)

Ah, apologies. It is a weakness of the blog format that we can't just digress and follow all the loose threads, beacuse the conversation thread has to keep rolling along. I may be in your neck of the woods in the spring, and if so, we'll have to have a nice long yack about the last 20 years.

Martin's fall is the end of a certain generation of politician, I think. Dion and Harper are politicians formed in the wake of the modern constitution, rather than framers of or reactors to it. It's strangely like a Shakespeare history, just how small and how entwined the cast of characters has been, but Martin was basically the last. It was like one of Shakespeare's history cycles, in miniature.

Does that make the choice of GG somewhat political, even though it's not supposed to be?

Absolutely, though it's usually more along the lines of scoring brownie points with the electorate. A craven political pick would go down very poorly, I think--the acual, non-partisan merit of the candidate is what reflects on the Government. Sometimes the pick has a hint of currying favor with a region or province, and once, it was used to "promote" a prospective federal NDP leadership candidate out of active politics, so it certainly isn't an entirely apolitical thing, but it's basically a question of, did they pick someone competent who we'd trust with the country in an emergency?

L-girl said...

Ah, apologies.

Not at all! Those were fantastic discussions, and it was a great way to learn: the total-immersion method.

I may be in your neck of the woods in the spring, and if so, we'll have to have a nice long yack about the last 20 years.

Or even in the last 2 weeks! If you are out this way, please do drop me a line in advance. I'd love to see you.

L-girl said...

Absolutely, though it's usually more along the lines of scoring brownie points with the electorate. A craven political pick would go down very poorly, I think

I see. Makes sense.

and once, it was used to "promote" a prospective federal NDP leadership candidate out of active politics

Ewww, lovely.

Scott M. said...

someone competent who we'd trust with the country in an emergency

Funny that the dual citizenship question has reared it's ugly head again... last time was with the GG. This time people are calling on Stephane Dion to give up his French citizenship (given at birth due to his mother's French citizenship) so that he doesn't have "conflicted loyalties".

Seriously though... do they think that everyone holding a passport for another country is a spy of that country? People read too many espionage thrillers.

L-girl said...

This time people are calling on Stephane Dion to give up his French citizenship (given at birth due to his mother's French citizenship) so that he doesn't have "conflicted loyalties".

I was disgusted by that. I saw his response on The National last night, he was very good.

I'm planning to post about it later when I have time, probably tomorrow a.m.

Anne alias Purrceyz said...

A quick comment on the dual citzenship...I think the Reform aka Conservative party is making a mountain out of a molehill. It turns out quite a few MPs hold dual citizenship and it's never been an issue. (One of them is Myron Thompson, a Conservative former Reform MP from Alberta...oops, I guess they forgot that.)

I think the Conservative "Reform-a-tories" are trying to whip up some anti immigrant sentiment as they tried when Canada evacuated people out of Lebanon.

The whole thing is very silly. I can't see it being a conflict unless Canada when to war against that country.

I have dual citizenship myself (Canadian/American acquired through my mom) and it doesn't make me any less Canadian. If I had to, I'd chose Canadian as would my American born mom. However, I don't think it's going to necessary.

MSS said...

I am really glad that I can count myself as having been among the rather small number of American university students who took a course on Canadian politics! I wish more Americans understood how Canada's (or other governments) work.

You are most certainly right that you picked an interesting time to move to Canada! (Worth noting here that you also left the US at the tail end of a pretty interesting time. I never thought I would see impeachment and a judicial determination of the presidency, and then they happened in the same decade. "Interesting" isn't always good, is it?)

M@ said...

I can't see it being a conflict unless Canada when to war against that country.

I refuse to see this as an issue, even then. The fact is that our constitution protects people from discrimination on the basis of citizenship, and that doesn't change in time of war or peace, any more than discrimination based on religion or sex. In that way of thinking lies internment camps.

This, btw, was what I was referring to a few comments ago, when I said "where were the protests in 1995?" It was in that year that the supreme court "read into" the constitution the protection from discrimination based on citizenship. It has equal standing with same-sex marriage, but somehow the dander is up about SSM and not about other, similar decisions.

To put it plainly, the problem is not a constitutional issue, much as the theo-cons would like to frame it that way. It's in actuality discomfort with the idea of homosexual relationships, often because of religious beliefs. And I'm not prepared to let the issue drop when it comes up -- which is why I always ask, where were you in 1995? when I hear about how sexual orientation isn't explicitly mentioned in the Charter.

(I agree with Scott that it's nevertheless an interesting issue -- I just feel it's very important to nip that question in the bud, lest people get the idea that sexual orientation is somehow a different or lesser protection in the Charter.)

Phew. I'm back!

L-girl said...

I never thought I would see impeachment and a judicial determination of the presidency, and then they happened in the same decade. "Interesting" isn't always good, is it?

We've lived through some interesting times, for sure. Maybe everyone does?

M@, thanks for the explanation re 1995. Welcome back. I hope NYC was grand. How could it not be.