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CHAPTER XXXVII: general review of canadian politics - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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general review of canadian politics
To say that a Government is democratic through and through is not to say that it is free from defects. Of those which appear in Canada, some may be set down to the newness of the country, and others either to the form of the institutions or to those faults in their working which spring from the permanent weaknesses of human nature.
Taken as a whole, the institutions are well constructed, being in the main such, as long experience has approved in Britain. Canada has made the first attempt to apply the Parliamentary system to a Federation; Australia and South Africa have followed. The experiment has been successful, for the machinery has worked pretty smoothly. Though some say that the Provincial Governments, each in the pursuit of its local interests, try to encroach on the Dominion sphere, while others complain that ten Legislatures and Cabinets, each with its administrative staff, are too many for a population of less than eight and a half millions, yet it must be remembered how difficult it would be to govern from any single centre regions so far apart and so physically dissimilar as the Maritime Provinces, the East Central Provinces, the Western Prairie Provinces, and British Columbia beyond the barrier of the Rocky Mountains.
Upon the working of the institutions, however, both of the Dominion Government and of the Provincial Governments each in its own sphere, divers criticisms may be made which need to be enumerated.
(1) There has been bribery at elections, though extensions of the suffrage have latterly reduced it, and from time to time and in some districts, a recourse to election frauds. Few elections — so it is believed — would stand if either party pressed the law against its opponents. Large sums are spent in contests, illegally as well as legally; Government contractors and persons interested in tariff legislation contributing to campaign funds, and until the days of Prohibition liquor flowed freely at the expense of candidates or their friends.
(2) How much corruption there is among legislators it is hard to discover, probably less than is alleged, but doubtless more than is ever proved. Members rarely sell their votes, though a good many may be influenced by the prospect of some advantage to themselves if they support a certain Bill or use their influence to secure an appointment or recommend a contract. Two or three Provincial Legislatures enjoy a permanently low reputation: in the others scandals are more sporadic, while the Dominion Parliament maintains a passably good level.
(3) Suspicion has from time to time attached to Ministers in the Dominion as well as in Provincial Cabinets. Charges have been brought of the abuse of official position for purposes of personal gain, which, though seldom established, have obtained sufficient credence to discredit the persons accused and weaken the Administrations of which they were members, the heads of which were thought too lenient in not cutting off those branches which were becoming unhealthy. Calumny has never assailed any Prime Minister. Sir John Macdonald was blamed and forced to resign for having received from a great railway company large contributions to party funds, alleged to have been given in return for benefits to be conferred on it, but he never took anything for himself, and grew no richer through office.
The position may be compared with that seen in the United States for some years after the Civil War, when scandals were frequent, though they were both more frequent and grosser in scale than they are now in Canada, and when public opinion, though shocked, was yet not greatly shocked, because familiarity was passing into an acquiescence in what seemed the inevitable. However, things slowly improved, and the public conscience became as sensitive as it is now in New Zealand and was in England from 1832 till 1914. So it may become in Canada when the pace of material growth slackens, when temptations are less insistent, and men cease to palliate the peccadilloes of those who are “developing the resources of the country.”
(4) The power of large financial and commercial interests over legislation and administration has at times been so marked as to provoke a reaction; so public opinion now looks askance at the great Companies, and sometimes deals rather hardly with them.
(5) There is, especially in the Dominion Parliament, which has larger funds to handle, plenty of that form of jobbery which consists in allotting grants of public money to localities with a view to winning political support for the local member or for his party.1
(6) The intrusion of National party issues into Provincial Legislatures has resulted in lowering the quality of those bodies, because persons who would not be chosen by the voters on their merits are supported as “good party men,” and because their colleagues of the same party are apt to stand by them when they attempt jobs, or are arraigned for jobs committed.
(7) There is, as in all democratic countries, lavish expenditure and waste. The insistence of members who want something for their friends or constituencies, and the multiplication of offices in order to confer favours,2 are the unceasing foes of economy, while the prosperity of the country makes the people splendidly heedless.
(8) The permanent Civil Service, though not inefficient, and containing some few admirable scientific experts, has not risen to the level of modern requirements, because too little care was taken to secure high competence, and favour prevailed even where special capacity was needed, affecting promotions as well as appointments at entrance. There has not yet been time to test the working of the recently created Civil Service Commission.
(9) The career of politics does not draw to itself enough of the best talent of the nation. This defect is often remarked elsewhere, as in Australia, France, and the United States, but in the last-named country there are obstacles to be overcome which Canada does not present, viz. the power of the nominating party Machine, and the habit of choosing as representatives none but residents in the district. In Canada the attractive opportunities opened to ambition by other careers partly account for the phenomenon, the general causes of which all over the world will be discussed in a later Chapter (Part III.).
(10) That decline in the quality of members of which Canadians complain has helped to create, here as elsewhere, a certain want of dignity in the public life of a nation that has already risen to greatness. The imputations which party violence scatters loosely even against men of spotless character must not be taken too seriously: they do not exclude a large measure of good nature and kindly personal intercourse. But they lower the tone of politics, and affect the respect of the citizens for the men who direct the affairs of State, bringing those affairs down to the level of that type of business life in which a man's only motive is assumed to be the making of a good bargain for himself.
Against these criticisms, which have been stated as nearly as possible in the way I have heard them made in Canada, there are to be set certain main ends and purposes of government which democracy has in Canada attained.
Law and order are fully secured everywhere, even in the wildest parts of the West. There is no lynching, and there had been, till the Winnipeg strike of 1919, hardly any unlawful action in labour troubles, on the part either of strikers or of employers. Civil administration goes on smoothly in all the Provinces.
The permanent Civil Service of the Dominion is, taken as a whole, honest, fairly competent, and not given to bureaucratic ways.
The judiciary is able and respected. Criminal justice is dispensed promptly, efficiently, and impartially.
The secondary schools and the elementary schools in the towns are excellent, and particular care has been bestowed on the provision for scientific instruction in agriculture.
Legislation of a public nature is as a rule well considered and well drafted. The finances of the Dominion, apart from those grants to localities already referred to, have been managed with ability though not with economy. National credit stands high, and taxation is not oppressive, having regard to the capacity of the people to bear it. No abuses have arisen comparable to those which Pension laws have led to in the United States.
There are those who regard the prohibition of the sale of intoxicants as an inroad upon individual liberty, however great the benefit to the community. Apart from that controversial matter, the citizen is nowhere, not even in Britain and the United States, better guaranteed in the enjoyment of his private civil rights. The Executive interferes as little as possible with him. Neither does public opinion.
A government may deserve to be credited not only with the positive successes it has achieved, but with the negative success of having escaped evils that have vexed other nations living under somewhat similar conditions. A few of these may be mentioned.
Demagogism is supposed to be a malady incident to democracies. Canada has suffered from it less than any other modern free country except Switzerland. Some of her statesmen have been not over-scrupulous, some have deserted sound principles for the sake of scoring a temporary triumph, but few have played down to the people by lavish promises or incitements to passion.
Strong as party spirit has been, party organization has not grown to be, as in the United States, a secret power bringing the legal government into subjection for its selfish purposes.
Municipal administration, though in some cities extravagant, has been in most of them tolerably honest and efficient, not perhaps as pure as in English, Scottish, or Australian towns, but purer than in the cities of the United States, and than in some at least of those of France.
The spirit of licence, a contempt of authority, a negligence in enforcing the laws, have been so often dwelt upon as characteristic of democracies that their absence from Canada is a thing of which she may well be proud. To what shall we ascribe the strength of the Executive, the efficiency of the police, the strict application of criminal justice, the habit of obedience to the law? Partly no doubt to the quality of the population, both French-speaking and English-speaking; but largely also to British traditions. The habit was formed under governments that were in those days monarchical in fact as well as in name, and it has persisted. Though it is often said that the law is strongest when the people feel it to be of their own making — and the maxim is true of Switzerland — there is also another aspect of the matter. The sentiment of deference to legal authority, planted deep in days when that authority was regarded with awe as having an almost sacred sanction, has lived on into a time when the awe and sacredness have departed, and rooted itself in the British self-governing Dominions. It was in England never a slavish sentiment, for the citizen looked to and valued the law as granting protection while it demanded obedience. This is not the only point in which the Common Law of England has resembled the law of Republican Rome. Both, while they enforced submission to duly constituted authority, gave a legal guarantee to the individual citizen for the defence of his personal rights against any form of State power, always associating Liberty with Law.
ACTUAL DEMOCRACIES: CANADA
The student of Canadian affairs who compares what Canadians have accomplished in developing by their own energy the material resources of their magnificent country, creating in many districts a wealth and prosperity which amazes those who remember what seemed the stagnation of half a century ago, feels some disappointment when he surveys the field of politics. Struck by the advantages which popular government enjoys in a country whose people, exceptionally industrious, intelligent, and educated, have a vast area of fertile land at their disposal, and enjoy the comforts of life in far larger measure than do the inhabitants of war-wearied and impoverished Europe, he expects to find democratic government free from the evils that have impeded its path in the Old World. Here, where there are no memories of past wrongs, no dangers to be feared from foreign enemies, no lack of employment, no misery or other ground for class hatreds, ought there not to be honest and efficient administration, general confidence in the government and contentment with the course which public policy has followed? These things, however, he does not find. He does indeed find much to admire and to rejoice at, yet the people, proud as they are of their country, are dissatisfied with their legislatures and their ministries. There is an unmistakable malaise, a feeling that something is wrong, even among those who are not prepared to say where the cause lies.
We are apt to expect public as well as private virtue wherever the conditions of life are simple; and it would be a pity if this amiable presumption in favour of human nature were to vanish away. But do the facts warrant the presumption? A virgin soil just cleared of trees may be made to wave with wheat, but it may also cover itself with a luxuriant growth of weeds.
The difficulties due to the differences of race and religion in the population do not explain this discontent, for those differences have not corresponded with party divisions and have not prevented the growth of an ardent national patriotism in both races. When on festive occasions one hears the English-speaking Canadian singing “The Maple Leaf,” and the French-speaking Canadian the softer and sweeter air “O Canada, mon pays, mes amours,” one perceives they are both alike expressions of devotion to Canada, and of sanguine hopes for a happy future. Whatever political difficulties may arise in the Dominion Government from the necessity of keeping the two racial and religious elements in good humour do not arise in Provinces where one or other element is entirely preponderant. Administrative errors, financial waste, the rather low tone of public life in three or four Provinces, cannot be thus accounted for; and they are the same defects that are complained of in Dominion Government. May there not, however, be certain conditions incident to a new country which help to explain the dissatisfaction which seems to be felt by thoughtful Canadians?
The charge most frequently brought against Canadian statesmen is that of Opportunism. It is a word which may be used, with no dyslogistic implication, to describe the action of a statesman who finds himself obliged to postpone measures which he thinks more important to others which he thinks less important, because he can carry the latter and cannot carry the former. In politics one must use the flowing tide, one must turn to the best account a people's fluctuating moods. But the term is more frequently meant to impute to a politician the absence of convictions, or at any rate of any fixed policy based upon principle, a trimming of the sails to catch every passing breeze so as to retain office by making the most of whatever chance of support may come from any quarter. If this latter kind of Opportunism has been frequent in Canada and has told unfavourably upon its public life a reason is not far to seek. Since 1867 the large and permanent issues of policy, such as that of Protection against Free Trade, have been comparatively few, and have sometimes been allowed to slumber; and in their absence the smaller but nearer issues by which votes are captured have occupied the field. Such were questions relating to public works, including that of transportation facilities, particularly by the construction and financing of railways. To a country of vast spaces like Canada canals and such facilities are of supreme importance, but they are treated as questions not so much of principle as of practical needs, involving the claims of different localities in which local wishes have to be regarded. There have been many occasions in other ways also in which questions of material benefit to a district, or a city, or a great undertaking, or a strong financial group came before ministries and legislatures. As the country grew, demands for assistance from public funds went on growing, and those who planned enterprises for their own gain had occasions for securing benevolent help, or acquiescence, on the part of Government, whether Federal or Provincial. Administrations placed in the middle of this struggle for favours demanded by the representatives of the districts affected, used their opportunities to strengthen themselves in the country and make sure of seats that had been doubtful, while now and then individual ministers as well as members were not above turning to personal account the knowledge or the influence they possessed. In every country a game played over material interests between ministers, constituencies and their representatives, railway companies and private speculators is not only demoralizing to all concerned, but interferes with the consideration of the great issues of policy on a wise handling of which a nation's welfare depends. Fiscal questions, labour questions, the assumption by the State of such branches of industry as railroads or mines and the principles it ought to follow in such work as it undertakes — questions like these need wide vision, clear insight, and a firmness that will resist political pressure and adhere to the principles once laid down. These qualities have been wanting, and the people have begun to perceive the want. In the older countries of Europe there is a body of trained opinion, capable of criticizing and more or less even of controlling the action of Governments, and the upper ranks of the Civil Service are a reservoir of knowledge and experience upon which ministers can draw. Canadian ministries enjoy these advantages in slighter measure, and the element of educated opinion is dispersed over an enormous country in cities far from the Federal capital and far also from one another. That opinion has not been strong enough nor concentrated enough to keep legislators and administrators up to the mark in efficiency or in a sense of public duty.
This last-named function may seem incumbent not on the few but on the many, that is on the great mass of honest and sensible citizens. But how are they placed? The worthy hard-working farmer in Ontario or Alberta reads in his newspaper attacks on Ministerial jobs, but as the newspaper of the opposite party denies or explains away the facts, he does not know what to believe. The seat of his Provincial legislature is far off, and Ottawa still further. If some gross blunder or crying scandal is brought home he may punish the offending Ministry by voting against it when next he gets the chance, but the candidate for whom he votes may be no better than the member his vote rejects, and may support a Ministry of no whiter a hue.
In every country, whatever its form of government, and where a rapid exploitation of natural resources drags administrators and legislators to an abnormal extent into the sphere of business, opportunities cannot but arise for bringing exceptional temptations to bear on those who have favours to dispense, and the atmosphere which surrounds the tempters and the tempted grows unhealthy. This has happened from time to time in England and in the United States also. Their experience warrants the hope that when normal conditions return, and the air has cleared, the temptations will be reduced and the larger issues of policy again become the chief occupations of legislatures. As the country fills up and the class that is enlightened and thoughtful grows large enough to make national opinion a more vigilantly effective force, the tone of public life may rise, as it rose in England after the middle of the eighteenth century and in the United States after 1880. There are already signs of a keener sensitiveness and a stronger reforming purpose in the general body of the citizens.
The political faults visible in new countries may be disappointing, but they are more curable than those of old countries, so historians note with a graver concern symptoms of decline in European peoples to which the world had looked to as patterns of wisdom or honour. Yet these also may be due to the sudden advent of new conditions bringing dangers hitherto unsuspected, and these, too, may pass away as one generation succeeds another. A young country like Canada must be expected to have some of the weaknesses of adolescence as well as the splendid hopefulness and energy which make the strength of youth. The great thing after all by which popular government stands or falls must be the rightmindedness and intelligence of the people. These Canada has.
Striking the balance between what democracy has done for her and what it has failed to do, it must not be forgotten that the coexistence, not only in the Dominion as a whole but in several provinces, of two races differing in religion as well as in language, contained the menace of what might have become a real danger. Think of Ireland! Canada has so far avoided that danger by the elastic nature of her institutions and the patriotic prudence of her statesmen. To those who have been watching the wild and wayward excesses to which the passion of nationality has been running in Europe, this will seem no small achievement, no small witness to the wisdom of the Canadian people and the spirit of mutual consideration and good feeling which the practice of free self-government can form. As the other general lessons which a political philosopher may draw from the history of democracy in Canada have been already indicated, one only seems to need further enforcement. It is drawn from a comparison of the experience of the United States. The Canadian Constitution was an adaptation of the British Constitution to the circumstances of a new country in which a Federal and not a unitary government was needed. It reproduced, with variations, certain features of the United States Federal system which experience had approved, while seeking to avoid the defects that experience had disclosed. It followed in other points the parliamentary and Cabinet system of Britain; and — what was no less important — it carried over into Canada the habits and traditions by which that parliamentary system had thriven. Hardly anything in it is traceable to any abstract theory. The United States Constitution was also created partly on the ancient and honoured principles of the English Common Law, and partly on the lines of the self-governing institutions which had worked well in the North American Colonies before their separation from the Mother Country.1 But both the Federal Constitution and those of the several States of the Union were also largely affected, if not in spirit yet in form, by abstract conceptions, especially by the dogmas of Popular Sovereignty and of the so-called “Separation of Powers.” 2 Experience has shown that those constitutional provisions in which the influence of these doctrines went furthest are those whose working has proved least satisfactory, both in the National and in the State Governments.3 Here, as elsewhere, history teaches that it is safer to build on the foundations of experience and tradition than upon abstract principles, not that the abstract principles can be ignored — far from it — but because it is seldom possible to predict what results they will give when applied under new conditions. Philosophy is no doubt the guide of life. But political philosophy is itself drawn from the observation of actual phenomena, and the precepts it gives are not equally and similarly applicable everywhere: if they are to succeed in practice they must be adjusted to the facts of each particular case.
This suggests the remark that the experience of Canada has been short. Only half a century has elapsed since the Federal system of the Dominion was set to work. Since then the country has been developing and population has been growing at an increasing rate of speed. Though immigration is not likely to change the beliefs and tendencies of the inhabitants, and though the proportions of the French-speaking and English-speaking elements appear likely to remain for some time the same as they now are, so too the preponderance of the rural population over the urban, of the agricultural over the manufacturing, though it will diminish with time, as it is already diminishing, will apparently remain because depending on the conditions Nature has created. Neither is there any present prospect that institutions which have gained the general approval of the people will be fundamentally changed. But as economic problems arise, threatening internal strife and as intellectual movements are propagated from one nation to another, new ideas inspire new political aspirations and find their expression in politics. This much may be said: Canada is well prepared by the character of her people, by their intelligence and their law-abiding habits, to face whatever problems the future may bring, finding remedies for such defects as have disclosed themselves in her government, and making her material prosperity the basis of a pacific and enlightened civilization.
END OF VOL. I
printed in the united state of america
This is called in the U.S.A. the “Pork Barrel.” It is common in New Zealand also, and not infrequent in France.
This is complained of in France also (see Chapter XX. ante).
Visitors to Canada are apt to be misled by the external resemblances to the United States, in such things as the aspect of the streets, the hotels, the newspapers, the railway cars, the currency, into supposing the people to have been more affected by influences from their southern neighbours than is really the case. In character and in political habits there are marked differences.
This subject will be more fully explained and discussed in the chapters on the United States.
Such as frequent elections, short terms of office, the election of judges by the people, the relations of Congress to the President.