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About the Citizens Centre Print E-mail
  • THE ORIGINS OF "RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT" IN CANADA


Two myths are very prevalent today -- that Canada was never very democratic, and that the federal government is supposed to run the country.

The truth is that early Canada was exceedingly democratic. Canada was among the first nations in the world (ahead of both the British and the Americans) to establish a universal right to vote, and among the first to introduce the secret ballot.

From the late 1700s Canadian settlers had been electing assemblies. Their elected representatives, however, were all too often ignored by the governors sent out from Britain, who appointed their own governing councils made up of local favorites.

Anger built. Demand arose for "responsible government." Rebellion erupted. Blood was spilled in 1837 in Ontario and Quebec. Rebellion flared for the same reason in Manitoba in 1869, and in 1885 open warfare broke out in Saskatchewan.

Neither is it true that Canada was supposed to be a centralized state. The colonial leaders who founded this country in 1867 -- men like Tilley, Cartier, Tupper, Brown and Mowat -- designed a far less centralized nation than the one we have today.

They were not (as we now imagine) national figures anxious for a strong new central government. They were elected colonial leaders determined to preserve the social independence and to promote their economic potential of their far-flung settlements. They understood that for freedom to remain connected with responsibility, Canada's regions could not be run from Ottawa.

To prevent any such attempt, they preserved for their colonies (henceforth provinces) full constitutional responsibility for social and economic development -- things like health care, pensions, tax collection, urban and industrial development, law enforcement, etc. To the new national Parliament in Ottawa they assigned mainly issues of sovereignty previously borne by Great Britain (defence, immigration, foreign policy, currency, etc.).

This division of powers made sense then and would still make sense today. Unfortunately, it has been marred by four decades of rampant, irresponsible centralism at odds with the original spirit and intent of Confederation.



 
 
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