Universe Part Three: How Canada Works

Well, as long as we’re talking about confusions, whether they’re of one variety or another, we might as well talk about Canada…about a post-colonial country that never had a revolution, located in the most northily north part of old North America, pieces of a couple dozen cultures stitched together by a railroad and a handful of boats and planes, and not mixing all that much: a mosaic instead of a melting pot, as they used to teach us to say in school. Or maybe, not quite so much a mosaic as a big and complicated laminate: the neighbours, the village?

It isn’t quite as neat and tidy as that. It’s a pretty good national mythology to have on board, if we must have one, but it’s no more true than anyone else’s, and the knowledge of its falsity permeates even the classes where they teach its undeniable virtue. Canada is a land in which everyone has oppressed someone, and not only that but successfully; a land of ranges and wars and lost or shifting identities, riches up for grabs not only along with names, but because of them too. They say it in school this way: “Canada is a place full of people who’ve traded their history for geography”, and it isn’t just guys like me, the white and well-off guys who represent the current top lamina on this table — no, it applies to everyone here, all the way back past glaciation itself. Anyway, not like the European-derived among us are special enough to be able to expect to hold onto their “specialness”, no matter what we say, so hate us today but don’t bother about tomorrow: we’ll sink into the layers as well, and we’re already doing so. We could never stick around as the “top” for too long — not here. And we don’t deserve to, moreover have nothing about us with which we could make it so even if we did deserve it…so we can try to change our names, and that’s about as much of a move as we can make. Meanwhile over in the UK some numbskull is talking about the “failure of state multiculturalism”…

But in this country, we know: we’ll all fail, before it does. If we aren’t multicultural, we aren’t anything at all; the word is just the fact’s reflection. “The Neighbours“? “The Village“? It isn’t really true; but it could be true. The raw materials are certainly there, to make it true…

…Should we be lucky enough, to wish and work hard enough, to make it so. Like any other country, Canada runs on a few different mechanisms: a body of law backed by a constitution, a praxis backed by precedent, a representative democracy backed by a civil service. But, Canada also runs on something else, too:

A convenient fiction.

Or rather, a bunch of convenient fictions. Start with the Monarch, from whose authority all our law descends — except not really, though we’ve got Elizabeth’s face on our money. Hey, you could be forgiven for being fooled! We’re fooled ourselves, half the time. But since Canada has been its own country for a much, much longer period than is written down anywhere, to reform ourselves as a Republic would be to immerse ourselves in a massive constitutional crisis only capable of being overcome by the minting of an invaluable but unnecessary lie: because we are post-colonial, but not post-revolutionary. We’re independent, but we don’t want the trouble of having to whip up a burning bush or a pillar of fire, to prove it when it’s already true anyway. Not long ago we talked about the possibilities of a revamped constitution, only to realize that if we were to get one it would probably just be a series of bullet-points on a PowerPoint presentation: no stirring document, no high-minded philosophical language. After all, what kind of UDI would let us secede from ourselves? It’s farcical, really. All it would mean was jettisoning one false face, one false origin, for another. The law would be unsupported, but we would still have to use it; heck, it’s unsupported now, and we use it. Because beneath the constitution and the legislation and the precedent and the parliament and the promotions to permanent secretary, is something harder to change because it was never real to begin with.

A game.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms winds its way through the body of Canadian law, changing what it touches…but only what it touches, in the same manner that the U.S. Constitution gradually took over the legal bailiwick of its adherent States through one Amendment’s case-by-case testing…and solving. Oh, you mean like Centipede? Yes, I mean like Centipede. But also like something else, “negative Centipede” we could perhaps call it, as each old privilege of the government’s descended power can be used just once more, before becoming non-viable in the new context. Loopholes in independence, you see: they can be useful in the game, if you’re trying to win. As the head of government of a colonial state, the Prime Minister was given the right of political appeal to powers that were more than merely constitutional — powers based in an identity that came from outwith the body of the national entity. And several expressions of that right are still on the books, you see…have not explicitly been rescinded, and so on paper are still available to be used. In theory they are in force until removed. But in practice they are only vestigial provisions, as all loopholes are — one-time power-ups that, once accessed, become excluded. “Okay, we missed that one, fair enough…but no more of that, please.” Well, to say otherwise would shatter the fiction. But on the other hand to use such a provision again would threaten to make the fiction too real, and then we really would have to have a constitutional crisis, so don’t try this kind of shit on too much. In fact don’t go to the power-up well too often in general, or pretty soon you might wind up with de Seze as your lawyer, you know…?

Christ, I really should not be telling you folks this, actually…

So, let’s change the subject! It’s Centipede and Anti-Centipede, that’s all you need to know, all right? Fiction lies at the heart of Canadian politics, because we are post-colonial but not post-revolutionary, and we have a secret project on the go here, our work is at a delicate stage and cannot be disturbed. You see, this is how it all went down:

So you have this great big country, with all these resources: Rhodesia without the diamonds. What you do, then, as a new and tiny little government, is that you give gigantic monopolistic grants to some resource-extraction companies, and you say “get out there and build us some roads and towns, populate the place, in return here’s a couple trillion hectares to do pretty much what you like with, as long as you also send money back to us.” Add a slightly-understaffed and slightly-underequipped government-run police force to the mixture, and there you have it: the classic colonial infrastructure. Let it run for a couple hundred years until your government grows big enough to stand on its own two feet: in other words, ’til the population swells and the general incomes go up. Then you take back the land, and pay out the bonuses to the top men. Start over as something else.

That’s the tricky part, of course.

And it can go an awful lot of different ways, some familiar ways and some less-familiar ways, but in Canada it’s gotten us to a rather weird place even by those standards. A slippery place, where the narratives are all both nebulous, and basically unfinished. History is viral, here; little snippets of genetic code floating around the chemical space of abstract national identity, grabbing on to some things, being grabbed onto by others. So it isn’t precedent, it just looks like precedent: it appears to operate according to the rules of precedent, but it’s actually recombinative at best, and wholly imaginative at worst. “History”, that’s the name of a resource in Canada, if you’re inclined to abstractions of identity: in a sense, the whole thing is simply made-up. Based on geography, as culture here always has been. Here we have the largest footprint-per-person of any country on Earth, but all the “empty” land is still politically divvied-up in grants to large companies — you can, as I’ve said many times before, go north fifty miles from practically any location and hide behind a tree, leaving your John Locke behind you and enjoying all the freedom you could possibly wish for or hope to handle, but if you want an address then you must purchase a properly-serviced quarter-acre lot, and if you want it to be out in the woods somewhere you should be prepared to pay top dollar for it. OR! Incorporate as a mining company, and get it pretty much for the asking. You see? A resource economy is a colonial economy, even if the only thing one is a colony of, is oneself: still Rhodesia without the diamonds, unless one is Rhodes and then it’s Jerusalem without all the pesky Levantines. So English Canada and French Canada aren’t the only two solitudes around here, in fact Canada is shot through with weird geography-based dualisms wherever you look, at every scale…from whose clash every narrative of history emerges, as light emerges from the meeting of particle and anti-particle. And the law’s no different: a set of hierarchical rules duly inscribed and recorded in logical order, fine and straightforward enough, but also they’re floating within a rather more capricious-seeming set of unwritten and unconscious rules that beam down influence onto the legal logic in a manner close to the astrological — just as the planets moving through the zodiac, their glimmering fingers reaching down to push us around. And it actually isn’t at all an unusual arrangement if you think about it, except only that in Canada we generally don’t look up…at least, not while anybody’s watching.

So nothing you see, is what you think you see…

…But there’s an unacknowledged synthesis constantly going on, instead, from which a certain number of cues are always silently being taken. Take our Upper House for example, the mighty Senate of Canada, the Red Chamber of Sober-Second-Thought…in other countries, such a body wields both enormous and practically-necessary power: the business of government cannot get done without it. But in my country the Upper House’s necessity is mainly constitutional, and its efficacy not really “practical” in the ordinary sense. Not that things don’t happen, in the Senate of Canada — they most certainly do! — but they’re probably mostly either not the things you think, or not happening in the way one would assume they ought to. It’ll never be a body so legislation-oriented as the U.S. version, for example, or even the UK’s House of Lords: why, I was being informed just the other day that reform was coming to the House of Lords, and laughed a little to think that they could actually get it, where we can’t! I mean, we talk about it a lot. The famous “Triple-E” Senate, equal elected and effective…but when it comes down to it that’s a little bit like Americans talking about breaking out of the two-party system, it’s a wonderful idea but it belongs to someone else’s country, someone else’s structural requirements. If the United States ever had a viable third party, the relative power of the President would probably triple (I haven’t run the numbers, but that’s my best off-the-cuff guess), and all the checks would become terribly unbalanced; if Canada ever had a Triple-E Senate, every government would behave like a coalition, and non-confidence votes would fill the skies like the passenger pigeon. A Double-E Senate, that’s probably possible…hmm, might even be good

At least, fun to watch

…But it probably wouldn’t change the fact, alas, that Canadian Senators often have tasks they could be more fruitfully engaged in, than the standard duties of a conventional Upper House member. I say all this, by the way, knowing that I not only speak of what I probably shouldn’t, but speak at the very least a little bit beyond my knowledge…any fellow Canadians reading this will find much in my analysis to disagree with, and I’m certainly no Donald Savoie. So in my view a Senator’s role is primarily that of a Provincial Advocate, an informal applier of policy-lubricant on Parliament Hill, a sort of postmodern Tribune…but so what, if that’s how it seems to me? In Canada there is always plenty to disagree about, since nothing is ever really as it seems, so who knows who’s got the truth of any of it? When the fact is still that all light looks the same, even if it comes out of different collisions. To me, the Governor-General is uniquely interesting for being simultaneously more and less of a figurehead than the Monarch he or she “merely” represents…gathering power by refraining from exercising it, precisely because he or she is not the Queen, but instead stands between us and the Queen. But for other people there is no reason to think the Governor-General a figure of any potency at all, while for others still the Governor-General’s power is not only considerable (and considerably attractive) but actually crying out to be used. Well, we differ on this stuff. We differ on it a lot. History here is like Bertrand Russell’s idea of memory, not the recollection of the past but the construction of the present, and even the Queen herself can’t know what Canada might do if she were not the actual Monarch, but instead some other person was…because the BNA Act says what it says, but these are different times now, and we don’t really know what rules we’ve changed, because just as with Nomic the rules change according to what’s around them. The primary rule-set is made to be as immutable as the secondary set is made to be mutable, but somewhere in the interplay between them is the faint promise that anything can be destabilized and undermined, so long as it rests on definitions. Andrew is already planning to talk about Turing and Godel (and Wittgenstein, maybe, one hopes?), and for that matter Bayes, and he’ll do it all so much better than I would that I don’t feel like I need to bore you by ineptly stealing his thunder here…but, just to say that we can’t always trust our categories, that I will do. Because, you know…we can’t.

We can’t trust our categories. Because names aren’t realities, they’re just reflections of the state of current knowledge: all provisional, all approximate, all transient. Beautiful in the headlights, ugly in the rear-view mirror. Do we have five senses? Is there a disease called alcoholism? How should we measure intelligence? Can computers think? Does a dog have Buddha-nature?

Does Canada work?

We’ll get back to that. But first…

Who wants to hear the Stop Smoking method I invented last week?

It’s a little bit long. And a bit counterintuitive. And LONG. But perhaps you were expecting that; as in this little sketch of my country’s weird unspoken dynamics I was expecting to either not be able to say all that I should for accuracy and realism’s sake, or to dramatically contradict myself through speaking more authoritatively. Canada: we’re a bit of a myth, if you want to know what I think about it. Reports of our existence may have been greatly exaggerated. A few years ago, I was interviewed for a short documentary on what other countries think of the United States, George W. Bush, and Iraq…and was surprised to be confronted with the filmmakers’ questions about my belief in God. Baffled at first, I then realized:

“Oh, right, I forgot! You guys are American!

And so delivered the only comment I could, to the effect that my belief in God is a lot like my belief in a Canadian Identity — either there is one, in which case I’ve got it; or there isn’t, in which case I don’t. And so either way there’s not much to talk about, there. Any proposition may be true or false, but we are not guaranteed the specification of this, and in any case there’s always the chance we’ve simply got hold of the wrong question, for the kind of answer we want. Or there may indeed not be a right question; there may not be any right question. We might easily take things to be other than they are; or then again there may not be any particular way like that in the first place, that they can be. So it’s really all a matter of finding out what you can and can’t get wrong, more than anything else…and the truth is it’s a two-edged sword: in that the number one thing that you can get wrong is the number one thing that you can also get right

Which is: names, of course.

But fortunately for us, names aren’t things.

And sometimes — improbably, perhaps, but it’s true! — that’s a relief.

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10 responses to “Universe Part Three: How Canada Works

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  2. I think Canada inherits some of its “this works well enough as long as no one tries to make it work!” government from Britain, though: today I was reading about the reform of the House of Lords, part of which is to figure out what to do with all the Anglican bishops there.

    Now, maybe it’s because I’m one of those crazy church-separated-from-state colonial yokels, but I thought the obvious way to do this is to not give seats in the Lords to bishops. But it’s not just me and my Congress-shall-establish-no-religion ideas; most people who want reform in the Lords are likely to be the sort of people who think that religion mattering to a person doesn’t mean it should impose on politics.

    Instead, the British (oh so British) solution seems to be to provide company for those bishops: there will be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, etc. representatives “That’s the way we do things in Britain, I’m afraid. Abuses and anomalies are rarely swept away…”.

    And I thought, gosh, that sounds familiar. Not that Canada is full of abuse — I don’t know nearly enough for an opinion like that — but anomalies, with which attempts to remedy would only make sillier, well…

  3. Now thinking of how it might be made to work…off the top of my head, and without having researched it, I think the answer is not to lengthen the bench but to introduce diversity into it…try for a “those guys sort of cancel one another out a lot of the time” kind of thing. This was sort of how it worked with the Lord Chancellor, if I recall right? His powers just atrophied over time, when the reform came it just formalized precedent? Gee, now I’m remembering some crazy show with Anthony Edwards in the 80s, something about an activist Chancellor? British TV’s full of these “vestigial political dramas”, I recall thinking a few years ago…what if an ancient prerogative still technically on the books was exercised, what the hell would happen? In Canada this is something that goes down about every ten years, and what happens is that everybody gets mighty pissed off and then it doesn’t happen again (though Harper will try it, just watch and see if he doesn’t)…but goes through, as I said, One Last Time.

    As far as I can tell it doesn’t actually ever happen in the UK, though. Or it does but is part of normal business, bullshit-as-usual, in which case I’m unlikely to have noticed it from this distance. Still, what about that execrable Mrs. Pritchard thing, whose actors I universally adore…that’s a fantasy about the powers of the Prime Minister, a rather unusually sick fantasy that could’ve turned into something frightening and wonderful, but of course didn’t…

    Oh for God’s sake, I’m supposed to be working now, aren’t I?

    Okay, more later.

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