- Insiders and Outsiders: Alan Cairns and the Reshaping of Canadian Citizenship
For forty years, Alan Cairns has towered over the Crisis of Canada, as patriot, prophet, and political theorist. He was among the first to understand the epochal significance of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a transmogrifying agent of the Canadian imagined community. He has been a most significant and subtle (if hardly the most vociferous) interpreter of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. He added his own clarifying 'Plan C' to the Plans A and B to the sovereignty- vs.-federalism struggle. This often rewarding festschrift brings together twenty-nine scholars, mainly political scientists, who have all been influenced by Cairns's remarkable writings. One of its many virtues is that, unlike most collections in this genre, it makes so much room for incisive critiques of the work of the scholar it honours – who enjoys an enviable record of quietly reshaping every major debate he enters.
Cairns's own brief contribution helps us grasp why he could make such an original contribution. He was trained at Oxford as an Africanist, and approached the Canadian scene with a sharp sense of the turmoil that empires can leave behind them. His assumption was that if the Canadian centre could survive the centrifugal forces of modernity, conflicting nationalisms, and the rights revolution, it would be only through its self-disciplined disavowal of absolutes and its openness to complexity. Cairns was thus prepared by his training as an Africanist to make a uniquely cosmopolitan and mature contribution to the discussion of the Canadian Crisis – although, to his and many of his colleagues' cost, they do not exhibit many signs of having read much recent Canadian history per se.
Read against its grain, this collection documents a liberal order enmeshed in ever-deepening, perhaps fatal, contradictions. As Cairns shows, and subsequent experience largely confirms, the electoral system routinely generates results unreflective of the political diversity of the country's regions. As contributors to the outstanding four-chapter section on Aboriginal–non-Aboriginal relations variously demonstrate, the upshot of First Nations nationalism is to de-legitimize the conventional Canadian narrative. As Cairns showed so clearly, the colonial status quo cannot be preserved. It also seems impossible to change it. The voices of our political scientists wisely counsel calm discussion, active listening, moderate words. Many do not seem to grasp the deep pattern of the crisis. They cannot grasp the structural contradictions of a [End Page 137] liberal order dangerously incapable of understanding its conflicted past or theorizing its post-colonial future.
One has to wonder if all's well with this liberal world when as eminent a publishing house as UBC Press permits a book with its imprint to include the following sentence: 'After all, it is not self-evident that spousal benefits as a justiciable right belong to lesbian couples, or that men may collect kiddie porn instead of stamps' (109).