Does Canada Need a Software Upgrade?

Eight Constitutional plug-ins for Canada 2.0.

By Crawford Kilian 18 Jul 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Every time Thomas Mulcair calls for eliminating the Senate, someone raises the issue we have all been taught to dread: opening the Constitution. After repatriating the Constitution in 1982, and enduring the upheavals of Meech Lake and Charlottetown, we are all assumed to be so traumatized that no further changes can ever be considered. Ever.

So we're stuck with the Senate until at least the next geological epoch. Or are we?

Canada has always had a somewhat improvised quality, and Confederation itself was put together with plenty of wheeling and dealing (and stealing from the First Nations). Northrop Frye, our greatest literary scholar, defined us as "Americans who reject the Revolution," which is painfully true. The Fathers of Confederation had all grown up as witnesses to the spread of the Americans from the Mississippi to the Pacific, and they could well imagine British North America absorbed as two-thirds of Mexico had been just 20 years before.

They had also witnessed the Americans' terrifying capacity for self-harm in a civil war that presaged the world wars of the next century. Such a war between English and French was all too thinkable, and the Fathers were careful to grant French Canada reasonable autonomy.

They were also living in a world where the telegraph and the railway foreshadowed the internet and air travel; but the new Canada was full of places you couldn't get to from here. You could walk across most towns and cities in well under an hour, and beyond them was half a continent of forests and prairies and bogs.

So governments could control relatively small regions, which is why our eastern provinces are so small and even Quebec and Ontario are really just huge woodlots with a southern fringe of farms, towns, and cities. The Prairies and B.C. were much the same.

That's what the Fathers of Confederation had to deal with; they dealt with it remarkably well, and here we are with an 1867-model country flourishing (more or less) in 2015.

But why should we suppose that only they had the ability to frame a country?

Canada 2.0

Suppose we decided to upgrade ourselves to Canada 2.0. We're already a couple of technological and economic revolutions past Pierre Trudeau's 1982 Canada.

And suppose the next Canadian government declared a Constitutional Convention to explore how to re-frame the country. And it wouldn't be just to turn the Senate chamber into an MPs' lounge. It would be an attempt to envision a wholly new country.

We'll need at least five years just to let everyone vent. Ask any Canadian to think seriously about what bugs them about the country, and you'll get a long tirade. But just to get the discussion going, here are some of the issues I'd take to the Constitutional Convention:

1. Reconsider the Senate.

Apart from aping the House of Lords and the U.S. Senate, our Senate does have one pragmatic function: to calm down the hysteria of elected politicians who want to get re-elected by temporarily-deranged voters after some shock like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 or the Parliament attack last October. This is a useful role, because we do get hysterical now and then.

So outsource the selection of Senators to someone outside the Prime Minister's Office: members of the Order of Canada, perhaps, or recently retired scientists, judges, and scholars nominated by their professional associations.

2. Redefine the provinces and cities as regions.

B.C. is bigger than the whole U.S. west coast plus Idaho; Prince Edward Island would be a minor suburb of any city in the country. But P.E.I. got provincial status through sheer timing, and times have changed.

So the Convention could call for wrapping Newfoundland, P.E.I, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia into the Maritimes Region. Labrador and the northern reaches of Quebec, Ontario, and the Prairies could become the Boreal Region, perhaps including much of northern B.C. The more heavily populated south could become the Ontario Region, Manitoba Region, and so on.

Meanwhile, the cities where most of us live could become urban regions, from St. John's to Vancouver. Urban regions would tax their own residents and dicker with Ottawa and the rural regions over shared issues. Parliament would include MPs from both kinds of regions.

3. Redefine responsibilities of each level of government.

Should education, for example, be a provincial/regional responsibility, or a federal one? If it's federal, should regions be free to develop local approaches to education?

4. Reopen the Charter of Rights.

By and large, the Charter has done very well, but perhaps we can find a few more rights. The right to online access springs to mind. In 1976 we signed a UN treaty guaranteeing the right to a free education, including post-secondary; we've malingered on delivering that right for 40 years. The right to die under conditions of one's own choice also deserves discussion.

5. Consider a Charter of Citizens' Duties.

If you're the citizen-proprietor of a functioning democracy, you have to take care of business. You've got not just rights but obligations. Maybe you owe it to your country to complete high school, including demonstrable fluency in the other national language.

Maybe you then ought to spend two years after high school doing public chores (military or civilian) before you can vote.

Want to drop out? Don't want to do the chores?

No vote, and you pay for your own healthcare.

6. Consider a Charter of Governments' Duties.

Off the top of my head, those duties could include: To ensure the physical and mental health of all citizens, of all ages; to provide work for all who seek it; to educate all children, not as a service to their parents but as preparation for citizenship, to the highest level they can attain; to protect those children from abuse; to provide all information derived from tax-funded study to all citizens, on demand, within one month; to maintain a healthy environment for all citizens, including clean water, unpolluted air, adequate housing, and nutritious food; to provide equal access to information for all citizens. And to base legislation on factual evidence, not on imaginary threats or benefits.

You're a politician who hasn't performed those duties? Expect to be sued, and to do major jail time if you lose.

7. Rebuild the electoral system.

This could include defining political parties as a formal part of the system and setting controls on them, as well as offering alternatives to our present system. We might permit various forms of proportional representation in different parts of the country. We could also define issues requiring referendums, and how online voting could work. We could even steal an idea from the corporate world, and permit proxy voting: an MP could cast as many votes for an issue as he or she was given by the population.

8. Make the Constitution itself more amendable.

While we have an amendment formula, it's clearly too clumsy to be easily useful.

Of course this is all a pure thought experiment; a real Constitutional Convention is less likely than an over-the-counter cure for cancer. But we have seen some dramatically unlikely social developments in the past 30 or 40 years, including the Charter itself, gay marriage, and concern over climate change. They show how well we can work within the present Constitution; if only we stop thinking of it as immutable, perhaps Canada 2.0 is possible within it.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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