THE CANADIAN CHOICE David W. Watts 7/12/2008

Canada, the country whose name means “meeting place” is in crisis, and “crisis” in the language of those who gave us the word “democracy,” means “a choice.”

Yet the choice before us is not as clear as we may imagine it to be.

It is not a choice between political parties or party leaders.

It is not a choice between a government and a coalition of opposition parties.

It is a choice between talking at each other, and talking with and listening to each other.

It’s a choice between those who want “my way” and those who believe there is a better way, even if we don’t yet know what it is.

In a way it is about separatism, but not separatism in any one party or part of the country.

It is a choice between those who want to build walls, whether “firewalls” or “inter-provincial trade barriers” or “independence” and those who want to tear them down.

Our Governor-General’s motto is “Tear down solitudes” and she has just given us a time out from confrontation. It is important we use this as a truce, and not a time to re-arm.

Whatever our political or religious beliefs, we can use the holiday season to give thanks:

  • thanks for a country that is among the safest and most prosperous in the world

  • thanks for a country that has respect and connections around the world

Canada was the first modern state to emerge without revolution or civil war. The reason for our coming together in a federation was “peace, order and good governance.”

Twenty years before that coming together, the colonies that made up Canada were the first to place the executive part of their government under the control of an elected body: the legislative assembly that became the federal Parliament.

Because of this tradition, Canadians do not elect a government or a Prime Minister. They elect a Parliament, by choosing the members or MP’s who sit in the House of Commons.

The members of Parliament determine who the government will be. When a majority of MP’s come from a single party, the choice is straightforward. The leader of the party with a majority automatically becomes Prime Minister and chooses a cabinet from supporters.

But when no party in Parliament is in this position, Parliament as a whole decides who to support as a government. Usually this includes the party with the largest number of seats.

But if this does not work out, and this government cannot muster support from enough other MP’s to give it a majority, then Parliament can try again. It can remove its support through a loss of confidence motion. Then, under the oversight of the Governor General, it can support another government, even if this comes from a number of different parties.

This is called “responsible government,” a tradition that began in this form in Canada. It is part of the larger tradition of indirect democracy of Parliamentary systems.

Even in a Presidential system like that of the United States, Americans do not choose their President directly. Though they do vote for their head of government on the ballot—something we do not—a President wins not by popular but by electoral votes of a body called the Electoral College.

Parliament is Canada’s electoral college. Here we do not cast votes for a Prime Minister or government directly. We elect members of Parliament, and it is they, by their numbers, who decide who forms the government.

When a Prime Minister dies in office, retires, or loses a vote of confidence in the House, we do not elect a successor. The party or parties that make up the government can name a replacement, and if he or she wins the confidence of the House, no election is necessary.

Usually a new Prime Minister chosen this way will seek an election to obtain a mandate from the citizens. But he can wait to do so, as long as an election is held every five years.

When a government loses confidence of the House in a Parliament where no party has a majority, the Governor General can decide whether that government can call an election or whether Parliament should be given time to make things work with a new government.

Parliament is a British institution that comes from the French parler: “to speak.” The job of its members is to talk and to keep talking until they reach a conclusion. In modern French, their job would be to se parler, “to talk to each other.”

This is different from the French word “to tell,” dire from which we get “contradict” and “dictate.” Parler is a two-way stream, dire or dicter is top-down.

Even if a single political party can secure a majority of seats in the House, Canada itself remains a nation of minorities. No one group or region can force its will on the others.

Attempts to do that in the past have been disasters. The use of “majority rule” in war led to enforced military service and the internment of minorities such as the Japanese.

In peacetime, majorities in central Canada have been used to force economic policies such as the National Energy Policy on outlying regions, especially the West.

This is what comes from simple majority thinking. Using labels and slogans, we can find ourselves attacking fellow citizens in a country whose existence depends on tolerance. We must take the time to understand what others in our federation are saying. When we do that, we will be living up to the meaning of kanata as a “meeting place.”

Then our Parliament will not be a circus or arena of conflict, but a forum for consensus.

When we do that, those who have a primary affection for one part of the country will not be seen as disloyal. To be committed Newfoundlanders or Nova Scotians, Québécois or Albertans will to be recognized as part of the diversity that makes us strong and free.