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How Canadians Govern Themselves

by Eugene A. ForseyGet the PDF
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Living Government


We are apt to think of government as something static; as a machine that was built and finished long ago. Actually, since our democratic government is really only the sum of ourselves, it grows and changes as we do. Canada today is not the Canada of 1867, and neither is its Constitution unchanged. It has been changed by many amendments, all originated by us, the people of Canada. How we govern ourselves has also been changed by judicial interpretation of the written Constitution, by custom and usage, and by arrangements between the national and provincial legislatures and governments as to how they would use their respective powers. These other ways in which our system has changed, and is changing, give it great flexibility, and make possible a multitude of special arrangements for particular provinces or regions within the existing written Constitution, without the danger of “freezing” some special arrangement that might not have worked out well in practice.

There may still be many changes. Some are already in process, some have been slowly evolving since 1867, and some are only glimmerings along the horizon. They will come, as they always do in the parliamentary process, at the hands of many governments, with the clash of loud debate, and with the ultimate agreement of the majority who cast their votes.

We are concerned with the relations between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians, and with the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments. We always have been. But the search for areas of agreement and the making of new adjustments has been a continual process from the beginning. Recognition of the French fact, which was limited in 1867, now embraces, in greater or lesser degree, the whole of Canada. All federal services must be available where required in either language. Federal, Quebec and Manitoba courts have always had to be bilingual. New Brunswick has been officially bilingual since 1969. Criminal justice must now be bilingual wherever the facilities exist or can be made available.

The country’s resources grow; the provinces’ and territories’ needs change. Some are rich, others less well off. Federalism makes possible a pooling of financial resources and reduction of such disparities. Federal-provincial conferences, bringing together all the heads of government, have been held fairly frequently since the first one in 1906, and are a major force in evolving new solutions. Yet there are always areas of dispute, new adjustments required, and special problems to be met.

Canada was founded by British, French and indigenous peoples. Yet it is now a great amalgam of many peoples. They have common rights and needs, and their own particular requirements within the general frame of the law. All these must be recognized. We are far yet from realizing many of our ideals, but we have made progress.

As a country we have grown richer, but we have paid a price in terms of environmental pollution. We are leaving the farms and bushlands and crowding into the cities. Ours is becoming a computerized, industrialized, urbanized, and ever more multicultural society, and we face the difficulties of adapting ourselves and our institutions to new lifestyles.

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These changes have produced a new concern for an environment that our forebears took for granted. We believe in just and peaceful sharing, but how is that to be achieved? We have gained for ourselves a certain measure of security for the aged and sick and helpless, yet poverty is still with us. So are regional disparities.

These are all problems of government, and therefore your problems. They all concern millions of people and are difficult to solve. Parliaments and parties, like life, have no instant remedies, but they have one common aim. It is to get closer to you, to determine your real will, and to endeavour to give it form and thrust for action. That is the work you chose them for, and it can be done in the end only with your help. When you take an interest in your community, when you form an opinion in politics, and when you go to cast your vote, you are part of government.


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