Monday, July 31, 2017

Summer Book list 4: Peter Russell's constitutional history

Another big impressive book to grapple with this summer: Peter H. Russell's provocatively titled Canada's Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests.

A disclosure, to start with. I have some history with Professor Russell's constitutional histories. Twenty years ago, in 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal, I took issue quite directly with his previous book Constitutional Odyssey which had its own provocative subtitle: "Can Canadians become a Sovereign People?"

Much like the makers of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional proposals, Russell was then dismissive of Canadian constitutional history, and hopeful that the men of the 1980s and 1990s could start with a clean slate and pretty much create a new constitutional foundation out of nothing. Writing a book based on the perception that the confederation-makers of the 1860s had done a better job of constitutional-making than the Meech Lake gang in every respect, I kinda had to disagree.

I don't think or claim it was me who changed Peter Russell's mind. In his new book, published this spring, he cites an impressive array of scholars who helped set his thinking on a new direction. But his new direction is deeply historical. "In that sense it is a corrective to Constitutional Odyssey," he writes.

He then says the new book "is not a history of Canada, nor am I a historian." But it sure reads like a history of Canada to me, and Peter Russell, while he may be a political scientist by title and by loyalty, makes a damn good historian when he puts his mind to it. This must be the first big successful constitutional history of Canada in about fifty years, while simultaneously being fully up-to-date in perceptions and concerns.

Russell's "incomplete conquests" are two. Britain, he argues, did not destroy or assimilate the French society that existed in North America at the time of Britain's military and diplomatic victories over France.  Similarly the Crown never conquered or assimilated the indigenous nations of North America, but entered into treaties of alliance and sharing with them. It sounds obvious, but Russell's reflections on the constitutional consequences in the 21st century are subtle and profound. The root of his constitutional preoccupations is the understanding that Canada is not a single unified national people, and cannot proceed constitutionally as if it were.

As Russell's early chapters tease out the constitutional consequences that attended Britain's failure or refusal to annihilate existing national communities in North America, most of his citations are to historians of the early twentieth century long thought passé by today's historians: Adam Shortt, A.L Burt, Hilda Neatby, G.P. Browne. He has to go to them. They are the only scholars who have ever paid close attention to the constitutional, legal, political, diplomatic choices that were made in the late eighteenth century that have structured the country's social, political, constitutional inheritance: the Royal Proclamation of 1863 [sorry, 1763!], the Quebec Act of 1774, and so on.

From having suggested in Constitutional Odyssey that Canadian constitutional history hardly mattered to modern issues of governance and reconciliation, Russell is now far more committed to constitutional history than the vast majority of today's historians, too many of whom seem to think that if you mention that all previous Canadians were sexist, racist, patriarchal and anti-democratic (or else the victims of those who were), you have pretty much covered the topic. Yet when Russell moves into the contemporary implications of Canadian constitutional history (ultimately his real interest and topic), he is just as conversant with recent scholarship on treaty relations, colonization, federalism, and reconciliation: John Milloy, J.R. Miller, Sarah Carter, John Borrows, Blair Stonechild. (He even has a generous word for me, for which I am grateful.)

I have not finished this book (and as they say, notice here does not preclude a fuller review later). But Canada's Odyssey is another big important book this summer, and a serious pleasure to read. A tour de force, even.

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