Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thoughts on a Canadian republic

Even though it’s a reality I’ve lived with for years, sometimes, I admit, it seems hard for me to believe that, technically, I live in a kingdom. That seems like a storybook idea, or something from centuries ago. I suppose it’s because kings and queens seem so remote from real life and politics, where once they held centre stage. But it’s a fact. Canada is a constitutional monarchy.

My history of monarchist sentiment

Coming by this reality was kind of a shock for me. When I was very young, just starting school, my Saturdays were spent watching cartoons coming up out of the States. As this was the early 70s, Schoolhouse Rock was like mother’s milk for me, and part of that was the lead-up to the bicentennial. All those songs about the formation of the US and the revolution were knit into my bones like calcium and strontium. I thought those songs were about me. I guess I knew I lived in Canada, but I didn’t have an idea of what a country was, as separate from another. So I didn’t see a contradiction. I remember I had a friend named John, a kid from England, and I teased him (bordered on picking on him) about what his country did to “mine”. At some point, my mother straightened me out. No, the USA was not our country. And, in fact, the evil guys in red in those cartoons? They were our guys. Do you remember that scene in The Omen II when Damien realizes he’s the antichrist? Well, I can relate. But, like him, I got over it. I learned to go with it.

So I went kind of hard the other way. I was still trying to figure out what our place was relative to other countries. When I was in grade nine, I remember our history teacher having to disabuse several of us in the class (including me) of the notion that, at some time during World War II, Winston Churchill had come over to be the prime minister of Canada... I don’t know where I got that idea, but I was surprised to find out it wasn’t true. That, and that we were no longer members of the British Empire, because it had effectively ceased to exist as such when our parents were still in school. Such were the vagaries of my understanding of Canada’s place in the world well into my teens.

But I did learn that Canada had, at least in part, forged itself in opposition to the US, and in loyalty to the UK. That we’d fought two wars against the States to maintain our independence, and narrowly avoided a third; the threat of which led to the creation of the modern federal state that is Canada. I became intensely interested in politics. For a while I was a member of a federal political party. I dug the monarchy, the ties it gave us to countries like ours, and I went for anything with a Union Jack on it. And that’s where I was for a long time. It cooled, slowly, but it lingered. Still does, I guess. Probably always will.

Lately, though, I’ve been considering the status of the monarchy in Canada. I’ve had to admit that it’s a justifiable sore spot with French Canadians, for whom having a British monarch as their head of state is a constant reminder of an extremely unhappy moment in their history. To be honest, when I think of it now, I have to credit them with a lot of patience. Likewise, I’ve had to recognize that most new Canadians, from different lands, could not possibly be expected to hold the monarchy in the same reverence as Canadians of British heritage like me. They might like it, they might even support it, but I can’t honestly demand they should feel it in their bones. It must make them feel like imperial step children... yes, fully and officially Canadian, but somehow, second class. I know I’m not speaking for everyone, but I suspect that must be a common sentiment where the monarchy is concerned.

And I’ve had to face a kind of embarrassing political oddity about Canada. Now, I wasn’t born in Ireland; my grandmother was. But that entitled me to become an Irish citizen by foreign birth registration, and I finally got off my ass and did it not quite ten years ago now. As such, I’m technically eligible to hold the office of President of Ireland, should I meet the other constitutional requirements. What I mean to say is, there’s nothing to stop me. But here, in the country where I was born and raised, and whose citizenship I have always held, I can never be the head of state. Nor can any other Canadian. Our head of state lives in another country, chosen from among a small number of people in one family, according to the laws of another land that we never had a hand in drafting. I mean, it’s kind of neat to have a queen and all in the Space Age, but the realities of Canada’s constitutional situation are, frankly, faintly humiliating for a country that’s existed for nearly 150 years, and has ostensibly been a peer to the UK on the international stage for just about 80.

And I finally decided yesterday, while laying it all out over a few beers with my friend P-Doug, that it’s time for that to change. Sitting there in a faux British pub in a faux British kingdom, I came to the realization that I’d gone over to “the dark side”. I went into the pub a jaded monarchist, and walked out a hopeful republican.

Peculiarities of the Canadian Constitution with regard to the Monarchy

Canada was established as a constitutional monarchy in 1867, in the British North America Act, which served as our constitution (in part) and still does. Because it was an act of the British Parliament, only Britain could amend it. Whenever we wanted to change our constitution, we had to ask another country to do it for us. And that was the way of things right up to 1982. That year, we patriated the BNA Act from Britain and renamed it the Constitution Act, 1867. It was immediately amended by the Constitution Act, 1982, which includes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Not much changed about the BNA Act in all this; the new sections simply clarified how we would go about amending our own constitution from then on, and read in the other various statutes and documents that also form part of the Canadian Constitution.

One of those statutes is the Act of Settlement, 1701. This is also an act of the British Parliament, and designates the person of the monarch, and the conditions for acceding to the throne. This is a part of Canada’s constitution, but we can’t amend it. It’s someone else’s law to change. Technically, the Statute of Westminster, 1931, pledges the British not to change the Act without the unanimous consent of the other countries that share the Queen as head of state (the sixteen countries that are today called the Commonwealth Realms, of which Canada is one). The Act of Settlement is what decrees that Prince Charles will be the next King of Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, etc. All but one of those countries are not able to change the nature of that law. As stated, Britain has promised not to change the Act without the agreement of the other countries, but the fact remains that they could.

One of the stipulations of the Act is that no Catholic, and no one married to a Catholic, can accede to the throne. No Catholic can ever be the head of state of Canada, where that denomination is the largest in the country. A few years ago, a man named Tony O’Donohue challenged the constitutionality of that in the Ontario Superior Court. The court ruled that the Constitution cannot contradict itself. Its provisions, where seemingly contradictory, serve to qualify one another. So Canada is nation of freedom of religion, albeit one where there is a religious qualification for the nation’s highest executive office. That’s the law of the land. And because of the Statute of Westminster, even if fifteen of these countries agreed to change that, it would just take one to veto it. Effectively, we’re locked into this and cannot ourselves change it.

Another odious aspect of the Constitution is the amending formula where the Monarchy is concerned. Nearly every other change to the Constitution can be ratified by being passed in both houses of Parliament, and by seven of the ten provincial legislatures representing at least 50% of the population of Canada. But not where the Monarchy is concerned. Changes to Monarchy in Canada require the unanimous consent of Parliament and all ten legislatures. And changes to the section that stipulates that also require unanimity. It’s a padlock on a padlock. All future generations of Canadians were saddled with this provision in 1982 by a group of WASP males born between the wars when the Union Jack was still flying over Parliament Hill. To me, that’s increasingly outrageous, and vastly undemocratic. No matter how many Canadians might like to change it, it would prove nearly impossible to muster that level of agreement. A mere handful of traditionalists could hold back the will of the vast majority of the people if they merely chose to.

That’s what republicans in Canada are up against: a rigged system and foreign law. I’m hardly joking when I say that by far the easiest way for Canada to disestablish the Monarchy would be for Britain to get rid of it.

My preferences for a Canadian head of state

Nevertheless, it’s worth discussing the project and giving some shape to the idea. So here I’d like to propose my own model for a truly Canadian head of state.

The easiest and most natural thing to do would be to simply take the office of the Governor-General, who represents and acts on behalf of the Queen in Canada, and convert it to a Canadian Presidency. In this, it would not resemble the US Presidency. The job is largely ceremonial, and has few real executive powers except to rein in the government. This is a balance that works extremely well, for the most part, for numerous Commonwealth countries; monarchies and republics. Few of them vest much real power in the head of state, be that the Queen or a president.

One of the things valued in the Queen is her experience due to her length of service. When I was discussing this with P-Doug, the matter came up, and to my delight and surprise, we both independently concluded the identical same time frame for a presidential term: 10-12 years. Whether or not the officeholder would be eligible for more than one term is something the country could work out. But such a long term would enable a Canadian president to preside over and work with several Parliaments. At least three, and possibly more, would fall within the span of a 12-year term. Canadians would get used to a certain person representing the country for roughly half a generation, and then it might be someone else’s turn. Aside from the duration of the term, this is very much like the character of the Irish Presidency (7 years, renewable once; so actually, at potentially 14 years, not altogether different from what I’m proposing).

As to the means of selecting the person, I personally favour a process in which a committee draws up a list of suitable candidates, which would then be voted on by the Senate. The nod might go to the candidate with the plurality, or perhaps there might be run-offs until one candidate had a clear majority of the votes. I’m reluctant to suggest direct election, because that would tend to imply a democratic mandate that could have the tendency to expand the powers of the presidency over time (particularly with the example of the US Presidency right next door) and put it at odds with the House of Commons, something I’d strenuously work to avoid.

The candidate for the presidency might be something like the following: a Canadian citizen (of course), having reached a certain age (35? 42? etc.), who, while preferably versed in or experienced in the workings of the Canadian government, should not have been a member of any political party for an appreciable length of time immediately prior to his or her appointment (say, 5 years). The office should be politically neutral, as the office of the Governor-General (not to mention the Queen herself) is currently. When I think of someone who would make an ideal candidate, the late Pierre Burton, popularist historian and raconteur, the author of numerous standards on Canadian history, springs to mind. Others like Desmond Morton, or authors on Canadian themes like Margaret Atwood and Roch Carrier, also strike me as admirable choices. This is something I feel we could do.

I’d like to sum up by saying that I still admire and respect the Queen, our heritage and traditions, our membership in the Commonwealth (which we should, of course, maintain), and that I’m not foaming at the mouth to see this project achieved. But I do believe that the days of Canada as a constitutional monarchy are justifiably numbered, and that we should put some thought into giving the institution a respectful retirement. I do feel that the head of state of this country should be of and from this country. Someone, if not born here, then at least raised here, with a love of Canada and the instinctive understanding of its cultures, politics, and aspirations that come from longtime residency; living and working every day in the land of one’s nationality, one’s home. Dear as she is, that’s something Queen Elizabeth can only ever furnish to Britain, but never to Canada.

I think it’s time for us to take that last, final step to becoming our own country, and no one else’s. Yes; finally, I do agree.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Today I became a republican

...I think.

It started out mostly just arguing some fine points of the Constitution (where it touches on the Monarchy) with guys on YouTube. When discussing those points this afternoon with P-Doug at The Haggis and Fossil, I came to the realization that the idea didn't distress me anymore... that there were a lot of reasons I agreed with for going ahead.

Pretty much all my life I've been a monarchist, and quite an avid supporter of the institution for much of my youth. My ideas have slowly changed in recent years, to the point where, at some point today, the scales began to tip the other way. And I think I'm ready to stand up and advocate a Canadian republic. It doesn't sound so strange to me anymore.

Anyway, I'll sleep on it, and tomorrow morning I'll collect my thoughts and impressions and try to give them some form here on City in the Trees.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Just 'cause she's called "Twinkle" doesn't mean she's bright

Last April I got a third cat; another rescued pet, as they're called these days. She's finally settled in and has stopped being a problem (knock on wood). She's a lean, blade-eyed little tortie who came with the name "Twinkle" (I don't believe in renaming pets... nicknaming them, yes...).

Twinkle's idea of quality time is to hang around with me in the bathroom... usually during reading time (am I being too euphemistic, or just right?). Generally I leave the door open when I shower because the steam causes mold, but otherwise I usually close it. Twinkle usually doesn't want to be in the room when the shower's running. But I've noticed that, unlike Bonnie and Max, she hasn't mastered doors yet. She can push one open from the outside, but she hasn't figured out how to pull one open yet. (Max, on the other hand, can be heard at two in the morning opening the ten pound sliding doors in the hallway.)

Usually Twinkle leaves when I open the door. This morning, I decided I'd give her an impetus to grow a little. I left the door closed while I started the shower. She didn't panic or get upset, but it was clear she was thinking about how to leave. From behind the curtain I watched her. She nosed the crack of the door. She wandered to the hinges and considered them. Back to the open crack. Sat down by the vanity. Checked out the door again. I started feeling embarrassed for her. But then I reminded myself it's all relative... I'd be doing the same thing confronted by a blackboard full of Feynman diagrams.

When I emerged, I pulled the door open maybe another quarter inch for her. Then another. I was hoping she'd finally stick a paw through, notice she was easily strong enough to swing the door open, and have learned something new. I was hoping, in other words, to empower my cat. Well, eventually, she did stick her nose into the door and wedge it open, which I suppose is a start, but not the application of experimentation and basic logic I'd been hoping for. Not much of a breakthrough (pardon the pun). But it might be something she builds on. I'd like her to be able to enter and leave the room as she pleases... it just seems more democratic that way. :) But I don't think she's quite as smart as Bonnie and Max. Maybe it just hasn't emerged yet. It is fascinating to watch the wheels in motion, though, even if they don't go anywhere.

Friday, November 05, 2010


Since changing jobs and starting to take public transit instead of driving, I've had a lot more opportunity to read. I honestly don't think I've done as much reading in the past six or seven months as I have since university. Maybe even then. This is free, willing, elective reading, and I feel pretty good about it. Here's a list of what I've read since the change. There may be one or two books I've overlooked, but this is it in the main...

Ordinary Lives, Josef Skvorecky
The semi-autobiographical sketches of a writer moving back and forth between his home in Canada and his native Czechoslovakia (actually, the Czech Republic) after the fall of Communism and the Velvet Divorce.

The Engineer of Human Souls, Josef Skvorecky
Another semi-autobiographical novel about a Czech writer living in self-exile in Toronto, this one set mainly in the mid-1970s, with parts set at various times in the Second World War, the Czechoslovak Communist Revolution, and the Prague Spring.

Headed for the Blues, Josef Skvorecky

Music for Chameleons, Truman Capote
A collection of Truman Capote's short stories. I came to it by two routes: an interest in the man himself, and fact that the book inspired an eponymous Gary Numan song that I knew long before becoming interested in Capote himself.

Conversations with Capote, Lawrence Grobel
I wanted to know more about Capote, the man, and this book was an excellent and amusing set of insights into who he was, how he worked, and his inspirations.

The Complete Stories of Turman Capote, Truman Capote
Several of the stories mentioned in Grobel's Conversations with Capote are in this book. That sent me off to read it.

The Miracle Game, Josef Skvorecky
The story of a seemingly simple, but ultimately complicated, event in Communist Czechoslovakia. In the fine points, it's about the dangers of religion and faith in such a state; in general, it speaks of realities of life and freedom in any totalitarian society.

What This Cruel War Was Over, Chandra Manning
A disagreement with a correspondent on the basis of the US Civil War sent me looking to this book. An examination of the letters, diaries, and camp newspapers of several thousand private soldiers, North and South, the book lays the groundwork for making the point that slavery was very much on the minds of these men, who understood it to be the impetus for the war, and its sustaining force.

The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart
The Hollow Hills, Mary Stewart
The Last Enchantment, Mary Stewart
The Wicked Day, Mary Stewart
These four books tell the story of Merlin, his role in the conception and rearing of King Arthur, and finally the life's course of Mordred. The first three books are told by Merlin in the first person; the last is a third-person account of Mordred's life.

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins's look at religion, its roots, its effects on society, its implications for science, and the reality of its claims.

Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger
The story of a feckless teenager and perennially poor student over several dislocated days in New York City.

Public Triumph, Personal Tragedy, Steve Paikin
This is a biography of John Robarts, Premier of Ontario from 1961 to 1971, arguably the best years Ontario ever had.

The Public Metropolis, Frances Friskin
A scholarly work by a trained civil engineer who worked for much of the 60s in Ohio before returning to Canada, examining reasons for the relative success Canadian cities (in particular, Toronto) have had in avoiding the urban decay more typical elsewhere in other North American cities; the policies and philosophies of government, particularly at the provincial level, which have played a major role in making the difference.

Mockingbird, Charles J. Shields
The book I'm currently reading. Tangential to my interest in Truman Capote is one in Nelle Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. After giving the world one of the most important novels in the English language in the 20th century, Lee has never written, or at least published, another novel, and that alone makes her story compelling. The fact that she was lifelong friends with Capote makes her story irresistible.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Building up, tearing down

Saturday I decided to do something I haven't done in a long time. I just gave myself a photo assignment and I went out and did it for something to do. Actually I kind of enjoy it, especially at this time of year. Things are winding down, people tend to stay home and out of the way, and the leaves off the trees, while ugly, furnish opportunities to get better shots of things they usually obscure. The weather's still good enough that the driving's not treacherous, and I can put on the music and play it loud. Just me; no conversations, no distractions, no hazy focus. It's nice, every so often. Given that I've been out of the car and taking the subway to work for the better part of a year now, it's an even greater indulgence.

What I wanted to get shots of was the road work at the corner of Steeles Avenue and Winston Churchill Blvd. It's an area I know fairly well from when I first got my license. It looks like it's on the cusp of development. Frankly, I'm amazed it's taken this long. The 401 intersects Winston Churchill Blvd. not quite a kilometer south of Steeles; I can remember when it didn’t even have an interchange (though it did by the time I could drive). In the meantime, the 407 has been put through in between them, Meadowpine Blvd has been put through to connect to the industrial park, the level crossing south of the 401 has been put on an overpass, a large shopping centre's gone in on the west side south of the 401, etc., etc. But above the 407, nothing. It's still a tiny little hamlet called Whaley's Corners.

One of the reasons for the difference in the build-up is that all this is on meeting of several borders. The east side of Winston Churchill Blvd. is in Peel Region, and the west in Halton Region, which were Peel County and Halton County respectively till 1974 (which means both regions have to agree to expand the road). In Peel, Steeles Avenue itself was once a municipal boundary, again till 1974; north and south, both sides are now in the City of Brampton. Brampton hasn't expanded as quickly as Mississauga to the south (where the mall, industrial park, etc., are), so there's a very abrupt end to urbanity and a sudden return to ruralness at Whaley's Corners. Driving by there a couple of weeks ago, I noticed the road work, and decided I should come back out and record it before it's simply a fait accompli.

Saturday I drove west to Winston Churchill Blvd. The traffic was great, never slowed down once; a rare joy that would be mine on that highway all weekend, as it turned out. As soon as I turned north, the road was packed. It took me about ten minutes to get to Steeles because the road work was going on even on Saturday; the lanes were merging early, and there were cops on point duty. Once I got to Steeles I headed north about half a kilometer and parked at a store that sells chicken and chicken accessories (to paraphrase Hank Hill), and wandered back.

I was hauling three cameras, each to a different end. I had the Sony HX5V to get wide angle shots, panoramas, and to ensure I got geotagged references in case the PhotoTrackr failed. I had the Fuji W1 to take 3D shots of the intersection. And I had the Canon Rebel XT to make myself look all spiffy and pro, since it's a DSLR and it makes you look like less of a wanker when you're shooting stuff with a "real" camera. People tend to think you're serious about what you're doing. Well, I do, anyway.

On my way down I passed a pioneer cemetery, which turns out to be Mt. Zion Cemetery (was everything back then named Zion?). Some of the people buried there had been born in the 1770s and 1780s. Around here, that's virtually a sure sign they were Loyalists, born in the United States, and fled here after the Revolution. Not the rich "Tories" of Yankee lore, but simple yeoman farmers who took a stand on principle and weren't welcome anymore when things went against those principles, lost everything and had to start over. That was the foundation of Ontario, essentially. It was sad, too, how many of those interred there died in childhood. It's not unusual, of course, that it happened a lot in infancy, but one that had me wondering was a boy who was eight, at which point you'd think the risk had passed. I pondered... farm accident? Appendicitis? Cholera, typhoid? Maybe they didn't even know. Meanwhile, some of these people lived remarkably long for the period, into their 70s and 80s. I lingered there for a bit (both on my way to the work site and coming back), but eventually I drifted from the past to the future.

There was already a slab of pavement for the new lanes on the Halton side. It was a good perch to take shots. I would have liked, and had expected to be able, to take shots from all angles, but that day it was just far, far too busy. I felt like an intruder as it was. I took what shots I could over ten or fifteen minutes, and then headed back to the car.

I suppose ordinarily I would have headed south to the 401 and that would have been it. But the way being so busy, I decided to take a leisurely detour. I headed north up Winston Churchill Blvd and made a virtue of necessity by videoing the drive: I put the HX5V on the windshield mount, plugged it into the outlet, and just let it roll. I headed north, then east along Wanless Drive, and then south along Mississauga Road. At that intersection, I noticed a house that was boarded up. As I headed south, I saw several of them; some of them quite striking. This was a little closer to central Brampton and development was arriving in the city's southwest. I had an urge to stop each time and shoot the place, but I fought it down. I decided to make that a project for another day. By the time I got back to the 401, I was considering the prospect of using the following day to that end.

And so Sunday, that's what it was. Back on the 401 westbound, this time only as far as Mississauga Road. I headed north and was very quickly back in Brampton. I passed the first house I wanted to shoot, but it was on the other side of the road so I decided I'd pick up the spare on my way back down.

The first house was on the corner of the newest extension of a street called Williams Parkway. Williams Parkway nearly entirely spans Brampton, but there's nothing on this new part yet. I parked on the roughed-in side of its intersection with a road called Royal West Drive. I had to walk past a neighbouring house on Mississauga Road where a German Shepherd took issue with my presence. It must have been fun building the road with him around. The corner (well, new corner, that is) that the old house now finds itself on, briefly, is slated for a little plaza. It must have been a fine old farmhouse once, because the yard was full of massive trees that were cut down only days before I got there. Sad, but it offered views of the house that couldn't have been had otherwise. Oddly enough, one huge pine was spared. I had to wonder if it will be the farmland legacy towering over the new suburban landscape, or if they just hadn't gotten around to killing it yet.

Sunday was bitterly cold, unlike Saturday. Officially it was 5 degrees, comfortably above freezing, but with the wind, it felt far colder. My hands ached by the time I got back to the car. Winter's definitely on the way. I pulled out to Mississauga Road and headed north.

At the corner of Wanless, where I'd seen the first abandoned house that caught my eye, I pulled onto the gravel shoulder. This was a far more modest dwelling, though it still seemed associated with a farm... if not part of the farm, then as least cut out of it at some point. Rows of corn stalks surrounded it on three sides. It was faintly ramshackle. The driveway was unpaved. There was a remnant clothesline, though I'd speculate it hadn't been used in a generation. The most curious thing I noticed was the satellite dish on the southwest corner. You'd think they'd have taken that down. More than any of the other places I recorded that day, this one made me sad. I wonder if I would have been less affected if it had been a bright summer day instead of a moody Hallowe'en afternoon.

I headed south. I noticed that someone had parked a Jeep a discreet distance behind me, and were still in it. They weren't there when I drove up. I wondered if my presence was the cause. I wasn't concerned, though. I was carrying and using cameras, I was always in plain sight, and I never entered or even touched the house. I was technically trespassing but I can't imagine it would really be worth anyone's while to make an issue out of it under the circumstances.

The last place... well, places, actually; there were two side-by-side... was opposite a golf course just south of Huttonville. It was an impressive place from the front but somehow, the additions in the back didn't seem worthy of the rest; not matching the original in either style or design. They were kind of shabby, actually. They spoke to me of a family that, over time, saw a downturn in its fortunes, and were lucky to have held onto the start they got. Something like that, anyway.

Almost in passing I noticed that the little bungalow to the north was also boarded up. It was a much more recent structure; at a guess, I'd say it went up in the comfortable days after the war. Exactly why these places were slated for demolition and not the others close to them isn't clear to me. I expect it has something to do with the roadwork going on on Mississauga Road, even up into Brampton now; possibly, a new business is going in... businesses have been creeping north up Mississauga Road from the 401 for years now; a number of them pharmaceutical concerns. In any case, I felt it was a good idea to record what they looked like while I could.

I also spent some time those two days recording the drives, but it occurs to me that the views people have on these roads in twenty years will decidedly not be the views I had this weekend, and I'd like them to be able to see what it looked like. We're fortunate to live in an age where it's so very easy to video such things, and in fairly high quality. We're used to B&W photos and grainy silent film as the mark of "what was". I think the approachability of the formats we have now is going to make our "what was" seem eerie to people in the future.

So, anyway, home again after that; stopped off a Wendy's for the reasonably healthy combo of grilled chicken, chili, and Fresca. :)