Monday, January 11, 2016

Defending the Fathers from Ged Martin

Ged Martin, the prolific and well-informed British student of Canadian political history, has recently posted an essay on his website proposing that we retire the term “Fathers of Confederation.”

On the renaming, I largely agree. In two books about confederation politics, I used the term only a single time, in the subtitle “How the Fathers Made a Deal.” In that one case, I intended that juxtaposing the patriarchial, above-the-fray “Fathers” against the workaday political reality of “a Deal” would effectively interrogate and undermine the image of “Fathers.” But maybe such wordplay is too subtle for historical writing.

I have always written about “confederation-makers,” or “delegates,” or some other such phrase rather than "Fathers". I confess I had hoped that fifteen years of replacing “the Fathers” with these other usages might start to change the discourse. Well, Ged Martin had not noticed.

But nearly all of Martin’s criticisms of the term seem to me misleading and wrongheaded. I prefer some less loaded term over “Fathers” because of the way it turns a group of representative politicians into patriarchial authorities to whom we owe some kind of filial deference, and regarding whom we probably have complicated Freudian issues that must inevitably prevent us from assessing them clearly.

Martin, however, seems mostly to deny that the grouping itself is useful, whatever the label applied to it. He argues against grouping the 36 confederation-conference delegates together because he does not believe that anyone who disagreed with John A. Macdonald could ever be grouped together with him as a founder or father. Oliver Mowat, he alleges, “rolled back Macdonald’s centralized Dominion” and “had little enthusiasm of the political revolution” of the Grand Coalition of 1864, and therefore can hardly be a "Father." He dismisses and misstates George Brown’s contributions to confederation, and in marginalizing George-Etienne Cartier, seems almost to suggest that no francophone Quebecker could truly be a genuine maker of Canadian confederation. (“Cartier and Langevin are deeply embedded in the parliamentary world of Victorian Canada, in a manner that today resonates only to a handful of students of political history.”)

Martin comes close, indeed, to suggesting that the only genuine candidates for “Fatherhood” are John A. Macdonald and those who loyally submitted to his authority and his confederation. Martin's objection to having thirty-six "Fathers” is ultimately rooted in his belief that really there only was one. This seems to me profoundly wrong and a misunderstanding of the dynamics of confederation.

Martin makes every difference and disagreement between the confederation-makers into an argument that they do not exist as a group worth collective attention. I suggest precisely the opposite. The interest and value of the “fathers” or “confederation-makers,” or whatever we label them, is that they were politically diverse and held distinctively different positions, frequently at odds, and still reached a workable compromise that succeeded precisely because its elements made sense and held broad appeal, even in the provinces that were opposed, temporarily or in the long term.

Toward the end of his essay, Martin makes another clanger, reviving the old chestnut that the Fathers cannot be significant because they were all men, because none came from western Canada, and because they were “not democrats.”

“All men” is a striking anachronism. Victorian societies were patriarchal in the extreme, and I would not want to us to go back there. But there is a crazy presentism in invalidating any historical event that predates the more egalitarian society of today.

Martin is correct that none of the thirty-six came from western Canada but quite wrong in suggesting they therefore excluded the half of Canada west of Ontario. A key part of the confederation settlement was the agreement on the inclusion, as soon as possible, of the west into Confederation as new provinces. They eagerly welcomed any west that wanted in.

And finally, not democrats? Martin goes so far as to suggest we must not acknowledge the “Fathers” as founders because, he claims, they “collectively rejected the political philosophy that has come to underlie its existence” – that is, democracy. But this is lazy nonsense that does not bear examination. The confederation makers of the 1860s were deeply committed parliamentary democrats, not tyrants or autocrats or even elitists, in the end. It is true that we have greatly expanded the voters’ lists since 1867, and that’s a good thing. But parliamentary democracy continues to operate in Canada largely as it did 150 years ago, with a government accountable to the elected representatives of the people – and that’s a good thing too.

In the end, Martin backs away from his extreme propositions and settles for the suggestion that we call the Fathers of Confederation the “architects of confederation” – hardly different from my own choice of “makers.” But he spoils things again by proposing that almost anyone of interest to Canadian political history can be added to the ranks of the “architects” -- once again misunderstanding and dismissing the vital and significant contribution of the thirty-six delegates from different regions and rival parties, who in three substantial parliamentary conferences, debated, drafted, and saw ratified the terms that after 150 years remain the basis of the Constitution Act, 1982 (as it is now called).

I’m still not very fond of the appellation “Fathers of Confederation” – but whatever we call them, their specific achievement in 1864-67 was important and notable. Misunderstanding that is where Ged Martin is most spectacularly mistaken.

Update, January 12:  I shared this with Ged Martin, whose work I indeed admire and have greatly profited from, despite the ah, vehemence above. As part of his thoughtful reply, he said:
I don't intend to argue at all that Mowat and Brown were not "Fathers" because they disagreed with Sir John A. My point was rather that it is understandable that few people in their lifetimes would have been inclined to group them together as a collective fount of wisdom simply because it was obvious that they disagreed so deeply among themselves. [And] I did indeed point out that you (like Colquhoun) were sparing in your use of the paternal designation.
Both seem seem like valuable correctives.

Image: Ged Martin's essay drew my attention to a new sculpture by Nathan Scott on Great George Street in Charlottetown, depicting the two confederation makers  who shared the name of John Hamilton Gray (one from PEI, one from New Brunswick) wrangling about confederation.  They are a bit casual in form, maybe -- Gray of PEI was a retired colonel of the British army (though Island-born), and I imagine him rather more regimental in his body language -- but I like the mood of the thing.
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