Thursday, February 11, 2016

Book Notes: Heaman thinking about the state

E.A. Heaman, A Short History of the State in Canada. University of Toronto Press, 2015. ISBN 9781442628687  Paper, Cloth, ebook.

Is the state a thing? More to the point, is it a good thing for thinking with? “There is no such thing as the state in Canada, and this is a book about it,” writes Elsbeth Heaman to open A Short History of the State in Canada. Maybe the state is at once not a thing and good for thinking with.

Heaman’s short history is a sleek little paperback, but actually not that short – almost 300 pages -- and Heaman does have a lot to cover. She reviews the aboriginal state, the Ancien Regime state (both French and British), the nineteenth-century liberal state, and the “people’s state” of the twentieth century, which comprises both the modern regulatory state and the pushbacks against it. So: the whole history of Canada in four chapters, more or less -- which means a theory-to-evidence ratio that may appeal to historical lumpers more than splitters.

Heaman has a happy gift for the bold aphorism (“Patriarchal rule of the household and patrician rule of the country stood and fell together” (88) – the essence of the nineteenth century in one sentence), and while the splitter in me was often responding “Huh? What?” to her big-sweep explanations, they often had me thinking, too – and thinking these things are, indeed, good to think with.

“The people who inhabited North America for thousands of years before the Europeans came were stateless.” (5)  Huh? What? I find myself thinking of, say, the Huron/Wendat, with governing councils practically federal in their complexity, with a defined territory, coherent military and diplomatic strategies, economic policies and trade alliances, powerful community rituals, concepts of justice, and strong social expectations. Not a state? In fact, Heaman proceeds with a llengthy and detailed consideration of how indigenous societies have governed themselves, virtually conceding that they were stateless only in not conforming to apriori theory of how a state ought to be. And imagining them stateless, she observes, fuelled generations of creative European critiques of the European state.

“Ancien-regime Canada was a frontier: that is, by definition a place of limited state authority.” (27) Wait! Not a frontier and hardly stateless, either, if you were a third- or fourth-generation farm family in the tightly settled St. Lawrence valley, descended from King’s Daughters, tithing to the state church, paying rent to the state-sanctioned seigneur, registering your marriage contract with the royal notary, labouring on the king’s highway, conscripted into the king’s militia. But Heaman has interesting apercus on how the French and British regimes were “fiscal-military,” taxing and spending almost exclusively for military purposes, and on how proximity to American and indigenous challenges changed royal ideas of what the state ought to be in New France/Quebec.

“Confederation was never submitted to the Canadian public for approval but was pushed through by John A. Macdonald.” (95) Heaman’s treatment of the nineteenth-century liberal state, which repressed and trampled as much as liberated, will be familiar to readers of Ian McKay’s liberal order framework, which she cites. But reading the theory here made me suspect again that Canadian historical work today sometimes develops fresh theory more vigorously than fresh evidence. Heaman’s top-down, Macdonald-centred account of responsible government, railroads, and federalism sounds identical to Creighton’s (though her citation is to Gwyn), except that Creighton/Gwyn approve and Heaman does not. This is theory that might not survive fresh contact with the sources. And provincial control of property and civil rights, settled at the Quebec conference, was hardly a last-minute imposition of the Colonial Office (112).

“Trudeau responded much as Lord Durham had: reinvigorated liberalism would rein [nationalism] in.” (189) Perhaps the greatest value of this short history of the state is how strongly it comes down to the present, juxtaposing the state today against its forms inherited from the distant and near past. There may be much in the Short History to provoke questioning, but it admirably invigorates and contextualises civics/sociology/political science discussions of the regulatory state, libertarian resistance, corporate penetration and corporate resistance, and how these may all play out in the context of state-binding trade agreements, rights charters, and treaty obligations. The state may not exist, but Heaman makes it good for thinking with. And about.

One more Heamanism: "Canadian history Bach, not Beethoven; the dissonance cannot resolve into a glorious harmony of joy.” (224)

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