Parliament vs. People: An Essay on Democracy and Canadian Political Culture
J.R. (Jim) Miller is Canada Research Chair of History at the University
of Saskatchewan and the author of Reflections on Native-Newcomer
Relations: Selected Essays and Lethal Legacy: Current Native
Controversies in Canada.
Philip Resnick, a political scientist from Simon Fraser University, thinks that Canada needs political and economic reform. Canadians are excessively deferential, and their legislative system, based as it is on a theory of parliamentary sovereignty, is inherently undemocratic. Canadian history, more especially the recent refashioning of the constitution, shows that what is needed is a healthy admixture of popular participation in a new system based on popular sovereignty. At the same time, Canadian capitalism must be refashioned to make the economy more egalitarian and less foreign-dominated.
Resnick proposes to cure these political and economic ills by the adoption of “base-level democracy” (p.70) and “market socialism” (p.72). The first is a system of direct democracy that would parallel our elected, representative legislatures and “influence” (p.70) them by means of an elaborate system of referenda. “Market socialism” is an economy composed of worker-owned co-operatives. These two remedies would reinvigorate the political system by making it more democratic and would produce a more equitable and more Canadian economy.
The problems with this admittedly utopian vision are at least three: its historical justification is flawed; it would not cure the ills for which it is prescribed; and it cannot be implemented. What Resnick does to Canadian history in order to justify his demolition of representative, parliamentary government should not happen to a dog. At times he is unhistorical or anachronistic, as when he declaims “Canada should never have permitted Britain to retain powers over it in the first place” (p.48). At times he is simply wrong, as when he states that the 1942 plebiscite on conscription was our “first” (p.32) use of the referendum. A federal plebiscite on prohibition was held in 1898, and several western provinces experimented, unhappily, with referenda and plebiscites in this century. Finally, Resnick misrepresents the significance of the 1982 constitution: the new charter seriously infringes the traditional sovereignty parliament has enjoyed by making legislation reviewable by the courts.
Nor would a system of direct democracy and owner cooperatives solve the problem. Resnick admits that participation by citizens in local assemblies would probably only run about ten percent, but excuses this by saying — on what basis it is not clear — that this tenth would undoubtedly be representative of the citizenry at large. We are back where we began. The problem with “market socialism,” the system of worker-owned cooperatives, is that there is no prescription as to how to initiate it and no guarantee that it would work.
Philip Resnick’s sketch of a Canada remodelled around direct democracy and cooperatives reminds one of nothing so much as Stephen Leacock’s description of socialism. It would probably work only “in Heaven where they don’t need it and in Hell where they already have it” (Colombo’s Canadian Quotations, p.342).