Victoria Day began as a celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday and an even louder celebration of the British Empire and Canada’s place within it. Bands, patriotic addresses, dances and teas were held in gratitude for Canada’s essential Britishness. The long Victorian era of Peace, Order and Good Government, the old flag and the old Queen underpinned the astonishing rigor with which Canada was first settled and then made into an economic powerhouse.
Underlying all that was a sense that the government, at a federal and provincial level had the peace and prosperity of Canadians as its singular priority. While there were better and worse politicians, the apparatus of state, of the Courts, of the military, of the schools and universities was dominated by men who aspired to public service for mainly honourable reasons. If a man sufficiently distinguished himself in the public’s service and kept his personal life free of scandal, he might, in time, expect a knighthood or at least a CBE.
The thing that was striking about this WASP ascendency was just how capable it was. Railways were built, banks founded, canals dug, mines and mills tore wealth from the hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness. Ranches and wheat farms, vast fisheries, and, eventually, steel mills and implement manufacturers and a host of other factories were concieved of and executed by these men.
For the modern sensibility the fact they were all men, all white, almost all – to one degree or another – Protestant is more than a little problematic. They were undoubtably racist, certainly sexist and not at all interested in being “inclusive”. But that took nothing away from their general competence and overall trustworthiness. They would debate particular policies from tarriffs to banking regulation to immigration to relations with “the Mother Country” and the rather doubtful Americans; but they framed their debates in terms of what was best for Canada. They certainly did not always “get it right” but it was not for want of trying or good will.
A great deal has changed in Canada since our Victorian gentlemen first celebrated their Queen’s birthday. Massive, non-British immigration, the political awakening of French Canada, two world wars, the end of the British Empire, votes for women, communications, transportation and medical revolutions: really, the invention of the modern world.
The idea that Canada is for every Canadian and should not be run by an male Anglo elite began its march through the institutions during Pierre Trudeau’s tenure. The visible symbols of the monarchy, the flag, the coat of arms on the mailboxes, God Save the Queen as a second national anthemn, Dominion Day all were replaced or simply forgotten.
A brighter, less traditional, Canada with a logo for a flag, community mailboxes, a national anthemn with constantly changing words and “Canada Day” replaced the dated echos of an Empire which no longer ruled the waves. More fundamentally, Trudeau with his brilliant Chief Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Pitfield, set about to replace the old ways of governing Canada.
The clubish conception of government by a vetted, trusted, mandrainate of gentlemen who had been similarly educated, had often served in the military and who were, by the standards of their peers, “sound” was replaced with a meritocratic, competitive, civil service designed to explicitly include French Canadians and women from the outset. The old system of regionally based political leadership was replaced with a Prime Minister’s Office which bypassed those regional potentates and dealt directly with the Premiers and, more importantly, with now increasingly professionalized provincial public services.
This transformation of Canadian governance was cemented with the Elections Act which formallized the power of a recognized party leader to authorize (or not) candidates running for that party and, of course, by the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Elections Act changes eliminated competing centers of political power within political parties at the federal level. The Charter gave a structure to arguments about personal versus governmental rights and powers.
From the Trudeau/Pitfield perspective the great stumbling blocks to modernizing Canada were the old fashioned, decentralized, mechanisms of the 19th century. The whole idea of a federal cabinet minister being power in his own right or a provincial premier defying Ottawa was contrary to the centralizing tendancies of the modern managerial/bureaucratic state. The Elections Act centralized political power in the hands of the party leader, the Charter was more subtle. Here power was, apparently, given to individual Canadian citizens but that power could be used to assert rights against both the federal and provincial levels of government.
This past 18 months we have had the opportunity to see how well the new system works under stress. Frankly, I am deeply unimpressed.
One thing you could count on with the pre-Trudeau establishment was a level of individual competence. Influential Cabinet Ministers and senior civil servants were not the products of political accident or random encounters at college. You did not get close to power without a resume of accomplishment. This is, rather obviously, no longer the case.
More importantly, the old guard regarded character as important as educational accomplishment or experience. People who lied, pretended to know more than they did, or were otherwise less than honest – the word “sharp” was not one you wanted said about you – made very little progress politically or within the public service. It was informal but it was effective. (It was also, by intention, exclusionary.)
The performance of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Ministers directly responsible for Canada’s COVID reponse at the federal level has been pathetic. At no point has the PM effectively taken charge. At no point has the public health advice been anything but lame and confused. We may have achieved diversity and inclusion in our federal Cabinet but it has come at the cost of competence.
The provinces have been little better. The patchwork quilt of lockdowns, school closings, travel restrictions, mask mandates, strangely prioritized vaccination regimes and the abandonment of the elderly in long term care facilities all suggest that the provincial public health officials and the politicians they advise have no clue what to do.
The use of Emergency Orders to impose restrictions which are constitutionally impugnable is the exercise of power without any real responsibility. (The fact that when these restrictions are constitutionally challenged the cases are, for the most part, quietly dropped by the Crown says a great deal. The fact that at no point has any level of government presented evidence going to the question of “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” is even more telling.)
The crusty old Victorians and their successors, swept away by Trudeau pere‘s re-invention of Canada, would, I suspect, have done at least as well as our woke technocrats. Likely better as they would have looked past “the models” and noticed that the elderly were dying in droves. Addressing that problem early and effectively could have kept the COVID death numbers down. So would closing the borders.
I can’t imagine that a Mackenzie King or a C.D. Howe would have pinned all hope on an undiscovered vaccine without also assigning “top men” to investigating treatment protocols. Nor would there have been any shilly shallying about lockdowns: either there would have been a strict lockdown or none at all.
May 24th has become the weekend to open up the cottage, perhaps display a Canadian flag and have several Canadian beers. It is no longer a celebration of Queen Victoria or Canada’s British heritage. It would be lovely to think we are abandoning the old traditions because the modern world is a great deal better. But it isn’t.