Some reflections on the founding of Canada

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Guy Laforest, Professor, Departement of Political Science, Université Laval

This blog was published on Guy Laforest's website on May 15th, 2016

« The 1864 Conference of Québec 150 years later : understanding the emergence of the Canadian federation ». Such is the title of a collection of essays, edited by Eugénie Brouillet, Alain-G. Gagnon and myself, that just got published in French by Presses de l’Université Laval ( This book is part of a larger programme of research aiming to interpret the federal founding of Canada around 1867, which flows directly from the work done by the 33 « Fathers of Confederation » three years earlier in Quebec City (

This provides us with a first answer to the question about the timing of the founding of Canada : the edification of Canada started at the Charlottetown Conference in September 1864, was pursued in Quebec City one month later, before the work was completed in London in 1866 and 1867. Since 1867, our political lives have been led in the continuity of this federal founding. Obviously, other founding moments and key dates deserve consideration. I shall underline here those that are of paramount importance at least to me. Some preliminary questions and issues –equally fundamental-, must be set aside beforehand.

Let’s accept, as a starting point for the discussion, that Canada was indeed founded in 1867. The idea that this is not totally false was reinforced by the fact that such an affirmation was made, albeit in different ways, both by the former Canadian Conservative government led by Stephen Harper and by the current Liberal one under the stewardship of Justin Trudeau, in the context of the planning of activities to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 1867 constitution. Moreover, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) just launched a new initiative to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017 (

Beyond the moment, or the date, of the founding, it is also relevant to reflect about the identity of the polity which was thus created : a country, a people, a nation, a Dominion, an empire, a federation or a confederation? In 1998, in the Reference on the Secession of Québec, the Supreme Court of Canada gave an official answer to such a question. It herein affirmed that the new country which had appeared on the world stage around 1867 was anchored upon four principles : federalism, democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law, respect for the rights of minorities. ($FILE/SecessionReference.pdf).

The whole matter can be made even more complex through asking the following question : by whom was this country founded? Was it mostly imagined by colonial leaders of British origin, whose intention it was to create a vast new country north of the United States, while respecting the constitutional traditions of Great Britain? Many historians have affirmed it. In French Canada and Québec it has long been believed that the country had been founded by two peoples, the first of British origin and the second of French descent. While never formally entrenched, this idea is sustained by many dimensions of the past and present realities of Canada : the country is officially bilingual (English and French), it operates with two comprehensive legal systems (the common law and the civil law traditions), it takes the shape of two institutionally complete distinct societies operating in the English and French languages. Thus, there were many dualistic elements in the constitutional regime of 1867 and the Supreme Court, in its famous opinion from the year 1998, wrote many paragraphs on the principle of the two majorities.

Although it has never been legally approved, this British-French dualistic basis seems to be the starting point of a conference given by Professor Kathleen Mahoney, from the University of Calgary, in front of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons in Ottawa on May 10, 2016, in the context of the « Big Thinking » lectures put together by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and the Social Sciences (, in partnership with the Royal Society of Canada. In her conference, Professor Mahoney argued that Canada’s origin story is false, mostly because it fails to recognize, in any way whatsoever, the substantial contributions made by the Aboriginal Peoples to the founding and development of Canada. In the context of this neglect, she suggested that the federal government and the Canadian Parliament should use the opportunity of the 150th anniversary of the constitution of 1867 to launch a process/conversation leading to a formal acknowledgment of the founding roles of Aboriginal Peoples, thus enabling Canadians to set the record straight about the true origins of the country (

Some twenty years ago, in a book entitled « Beyond the Impasse : Toward Reconciliation », co-edited with Roger Gibbins, also  from the University of Calgary, I had the opportunity to address some of the issues discussed by Kathleen Mahoney on May 10, 2016, in Ottawa. I shall come back to these matters in the last part of this text. The time has now come to examine, however briefly, those dates that are omnipresent in most of the historiographical narratives about the founding and refounding of Canada.

I still remember the days I attended elementary school. We were taught that Canada had been founded and discovered by Jacques Cartier in 1534, and that he had placed the country under the protection of the French king, Francis I.  About one kilometer away from the neighborhood where I live in Québec City, there is a beautiful park known as the woods of Tequenonday (formerly, Irving woods), where some magnificent pines can be admired although they are all dying, which is a different matter (

Archeological searches have revealed that about 5,000 years ago these grounds were regularly occupied by aboriginal peoples. It would be hard in this context to sustain that Jacques Cartier was indeed the discoverer-founder of Canada. I use this as an example to make a point that applies to all of the dates I am about to mention. Many narratives concerning the founding or refounding of Canada are false, in totality or at least in part. For the sake of justice and responsibility, we should revise such narratives. Permanent dialogue about these matters remains essential.

It can also be considered that Canada was founded when Champlain installed a permanent settlement in Québec City in the year 1608. This is precisely what former Prime Minister Stephen Harper affirmed in 2008, upon the official inauguration of the Champlain boardwalk, when he said that Canada had been founded in French by Champlain in 1608. For the aboriginal peoples of Canada, the year 1763 is of paramount importance. In the Royal Proclamation of 1763 there exists a legal basis for the nation-to-nation relationship between the British Crown and later on Canada on one side, the aboriginal peoples on the other side. For the conservative branch of English-Canadian historiography, 1763 is also a year of fundamental importance, because of the signature of the Treatise of Paris, which transferred the authority over Canada from France to Great Britain. Since 1763, without a single day of interruption, Canada has lived with the continuity of this founding and of this transfer to the British monarchy. French Canadian and Québec historiographies have given other names to these events: the Conquest, the Transfer, the Surrender, the Abandonment.

The next claim to a founding moment came with the passing of the Quebec Act in 1774. Facing a major threat from American colonies, Great Britain abandoned its policy of assimilation aimed at its new subjects of French descent and Catholic faith. The earlier promise concerning the establishment of a legislative assembly was taken away, but replaced by many concessions on the identity front: religious relaxations for Catholics and recognition of the French civil law). For the members and the admirers of the Canadian school of diversity in political philosophy and in the social sciences, praising our policies concerning multiculturalism and recognition of multinationality, 1774 is the founding moment par excellence. 17 years later the colony was partitioned in two sections (Upper Canada and Lower Canada) through the Constitution Act of 1791, each endowed with a legislative assembly. Dear readers, are you looking for the founding date of the Canadian parliamentary tradition? In Québec and Ontario, most people believe that 1791 is the right answer. This is just one more historical falsity. The first legislative assembly in Canada was established in Nova Scotia in 1758. Historical vigilance must never be surrendered…

Let us pursue our fast-pace journey through Canadian history. In his beautiful book, Reflections of a Siamese Twin, John Ralston Saul grants great importance to the advent of responsible government in 1848, under the leadership of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, with the help of Governor Elgin. Since this additional political founding, in Canada the executive power operates under the preponderant legitimacy of the legislative power, and under its surveillance. I shall go here rapidly around the events taking place in 1867. I mentioned them at the beginning of this text, and we shall come back to them frequently in 2017, and this particularly during the congress of ACFAS that will be held in May at McGill University, and during the one of the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada that will take place in June at Ryerson University in Toronto. The 1867 founding will also be studied at a conference entitled “Canadian federalism and its future: actors and institutions”, under the leadership of Johanne Poirier and Alain-G. Gagnon, with the help of Eugénie Brouillet and myself. The conference will take place at McGill University and Université Laval, March 23-24, 2017.

Historians have often insisted, and never more so than during the decade dominated by Stephen Harper’s Conservative governments, on the founding role of the battle held at Vimy Ridge in 1917 for the establishment of the Canadian nation. This is where thousands of soldiers, through their sacrifice, with courage and fear, in blood, iron and fire, gave a specific kind of soul to the country. One year later, in 1918, women acquired the right to vote. How not to see in this event a true refounding of democracy? 13 years later, in 1931, the Statute of Westminster confirmed the existence of Canada as an independent country, in firm control of its defence and foreign policies. This is yet one more political foundation. Many others would follow. An autonomous Canadian citizenship policy was established in 1947. Judiciary sovereignty emerged in 1949, with the abolition of the procedure of appeal to the Privy Council in London. Symbolic foundations occurred with the adoption of a new Canadian flag in 1965, and with the enshrinement of O Canada as a national hymn in 1980. In 1982, under the leadership of Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, Canada took control of the totality of the amending procedure of its constitution, enriching it with the enshrinement of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This law was adopted with the consent of the federal government and with the one of the two chambers of the Canadian Parliament, with the consent of the governments of all provinces with the exception of Québec, where to this day the government and National Assembly have remained adamantly opposed to the reform. In contemporary Canada, for a lot of people, 1982 has equalled or surpassed 1867 in the search for key moments in the founding or refounding of Canada.

Let us summarize the state of our reflections so far. Canada is a plural, complex country. Many dates compete with each other to prevail in the historiographical narratives: the aboriginal presence dating back thousands of years, 1534, 1608, 1763, 1774, 1791, 1848, 1867, 1917, 1918, 1931, 1947, 1949, 1965, 1980, 1982. This list is obviously not exhaustive. It excludes all those moments when some people attempted to found or re-found the country, as happened for instance with the Meech Lake Accord between 1987 and 1990, while I was teaching at the University of Calgary with colleagues such as Kathleen Mahoney and Roger Gibbins. In such a context, it is never easy to evoke founding dates. There are moments that will make some people proud, while others will be hurt, wounded in their pride.

Some twenty years ago, in my own contributions to the “Beyond the Impasse” project sponsored by the Institute of Research on Public Policy (IRPP), then led by Monique Jérôme-Forget, I had attempted to identify the conditions of dialogue and partnership in a plurinational country of the complex kind Canada is. Inspired by Aristotle and Gadamer, I had suggested that success in such an endeavor required a posture of generosity and openness to the viewpoints, to the perspectives of the Other. In such a country, dialogue and respect, the recognition and dignity of all, become possible when we learn to place ourselves in the shoes of the Other. I had also insisted on the need to see the country in a plurifocal way, recognizing the legitimacy of a plurality of perspectives, including the one of those who view the country primarily as a partnership between the aboriginal peoples and the other groups and citizens joined in a national community. It seems to me just and true to say that this perspective corresponds to the reality of Canada. There are other such perspectives. For some, Canada since 1867 is a federation of provinces and territories. Others insist on bilingualism, the British-French partnership, and on the originality of Québec as a distinct national community. Still others prefer the perspective affirming that Canada is a multicultural nation, open to immigration from all across the world. Each of these perspectives brings with its own narrative its share of justice and truth. None should ever become hegemonical. In the symbols, institutions and constitution of the country, there should be an honourable place for each one of them.

On the basis of preceding reflections, here is what I wish for Canada on the eve of 2017: deliberations characterized by intelligence, lucidity, serenity, generous with regards to the viewpoints of other partners, when comes the time to consider the plurality of the foundings of the country. On all these matters, I am fond of giving the last word to French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), one of the great humanists of the twentieth century. He thought that nations, countries, peoples, required for their own sake that their collective memory be just and happy. This requires efforts of the heart and of the mind. We shall see in 2017 whether or not Canada will be up to the task.


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