- The Constitutions that Shaped Us: A Historical Anthology of Pre-1867 Canadian Constitutions ed. by Guy Laforest, Eugénie Brouillet, Alain-G. Gagnon, and Yves Tanguay
This collection of essays about Canada's constitutional history posits that in order to understand Canada's constitution we must understand the people and situation from which it emerged — the United Province of Canada — in terms of its own constitutional history. The key takeaway point is that the Constitutional Act of 1867 is Canada's only successful constitution, following a slew of earlier, failed ones. By "constitution" the editors mean something like a basic governing charter that lays down the rules and institutions for politics. The Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Quebec Act of 1774, the Constitutional Act of 1791 that separated Upper and Lower Canada, and the act that reunited them in 1841, were all constitutions. Here, we get to revisit historical analyses of those experiments, so as to understand what they aimed at and why they failed. The collection makes for sobering reflections on "the best laid plans o' mice an' men."
A constitution is a teleology, an expression of purpose. It is supposed to engineer history, understanding history as a series of events. It is like political science in that respect, and the collection's editors are political scientists. History as a discipline, on the other hand, aims to explain events in terms of their causes. It is not supposed to be teleological any more, but teleologies still tend to sneak in because historians orient their causal explanations around what they see as the outcome. Constitutional history here is a war between causes and purposes, one that sees the triumph of experience over intentions. The early constitutions failed because they were designed by British politicians; the British North America Act (bna Act) was the first to be drawn up by Canadians. The historians quoted in [End Page 364] this collection generally argue that if British legislators were not stupendously ignorant about Canada, as was usually the case, then they reasoned badly about what could or should be done. If you were to think of imperial governance as a science, Aristotelians were still running the show. They tried to coax new political realities into being but they got French Canada wrong. They thought that French Canadians were not politically rational and that political rationality could be imposed from above. French Canadians had their revenge and they rewrote the meaning of political rationality, so that not they but British institutions would be the thing assimilated to events. The editors have their own teleology: they see in these events a growing "political maturity."
There is an irony for constitutional history here. The editors lament a contemporary taboo around constitutional analysis and try to rehabilitate classical constitutional history. But the real lesson to be derived from this collection is that a constitution — or a science — not grounded in deeper social, cultural realities cannot teach you anything. It is the mouse nesting in the field, ignorant of the harvest ahead, that Robbie Burns (no mean political critic) addressed in his poem of 1786. Constitutional history declined because it did not explain enough; historians turned to social history because it reflected a deeper analysis of causes and consequences. Good constitutional history debunks itself, and in this book we get to see historians coming to that conclusion. They do so according to very different premises and teleologies of course. Some focus on British intentions, others on Canadian ones (virulent critics of French-Canadian nationalism are simply left out). Where one story, say Arthur Lower's Colony to Nation, culminates in the triumphant perpetuation of French Canada within a sophisticated, multiethnic community, another, say sovereigntist Denis Vaugeois instead sees subjugation and subordination, French Canada's inability to move toward "maturity or self-affirmation as a group."
Vaugeois's remarks reflect the early 1960s, when French Canadian nationalism was enjoying...