Friday, March 17, 2023

Book Notes: Glenn on Bowell

I have been slow in getting to Ted Glenn's A Very Canadian Coup: The Rise and Demise of Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell 1894-96. I was already grumbling about the use of the word 'coup' in his title when the book appeared in September 2022. Even before that I was intrigued by the way Bowell was becoming one of our most written-about prime ministers -- let along having his own lively twitter account. Now, thanks to publicist Heather Wood and Dundurn Press, I've caught up on the book itself.

Glenn's book is the best of the recent crop of Bowelliana, if attention to detail is what matters. He draws extensively on previous historical work on the political history of the period. He has gone through not only the House and Senate Hansards but also on the archived papers of the participants. Most important, he seems to have scoured every possible newspaper from the time and the very extensive parliamentary coverage they provided. His level of detail on the last years of the Macdonald-era Conservative governments in general and on Bowell's term as prime minister seems to me unmatched.

I would not mind if the term "coup" were adopted here just for the sake of a lively title. But Glenn seems to accept it as a valid description.  But how can a prime minister's agreement to resign upon losing his majority in the House of Commons can ever be defined as a coup d'etat? (Oxford Canadian Dictionary: coup d'etat: noun, a violent or illegal seizure of power). Given how widely Canadian political scientists, commentators, and even historians accept that there was once was a prime ministerial coup somewhere in the unplumbed bowels (haha) of the Canadian political past, an account that clarified this question could have been useful in knocking that delusion firmly on the head.

That omission shines a spotlight on many intriguing aspects of Canadian politics in the 1890s that cry out for more reflection.  

  • The end of Bowell's tenure in office came when he discovered that most of his caucus and many of his cabinet ministers would not support his plan to deal with the Manitoba Schools Question.  One might think that a historian who accepts that removing a prime minister from office is an illegal seizure of power might have wondered why the 1890s prime minister could not simply give his ministers and caucus their marching orders -- the way a 2023 prime minister would. The power (and the willingness) of the 1890s caucus and cabinet to take such action might have provoked reflections on why parliamentary government then worked so differently from the system we live with today.  
  • The Manitoba Schools Crisis that doomed Bowell has been called (in a source cited by Professor Glenn) "one of the most divisive issues ... ever to challenge the Canadian nation." The Manitoba government, with strong support from a Protestant and Anglophone electorate, blatantly violated the constitutional rights of the French and Catholic populations of the province. The minority did not get much support from the courts, partly because the Manitoba Act permitted the aggrieved parties to appeal for redress to the federal government as well as the judiciary. Bowell, who felt Canada was compelled to provide such redress, fell victim to the same Protestant-Anglophone political consensus that supported the Manitoba government. Canadian courts did not restore the constitutional rights of Franco-Manitobans until the late twentieth century. One might wish Professor Glenn's book, instead of encouraging notions about coups, might have undertaken   some reflection on the intersection between law and politics in our constitution then and now, or at least on what this particular crisis meant to francophone Canadians across the country, then and after. 
  • Even minor details might have been addressed more thoughtfully. Why did Governor General Lord Aberdeen (and his wife) feel so entitled to presume it was their role to decide so much on behalf of the self-governing Canadians? Even their British masters told them to leave the decision-making up to the politicians. Is it significant that the Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie in the 1870s fought back against the governor general's (and the Colonial Office's) interference, while the Conservative cabinet of the 1890s, larded with the knighthoods they gave each other, hesitated to defend Canadian autonomy against "the British connection"? 

And so on. Surely much of the interest of any 19th century Canadian parliamentary wrangle is how the politics of those days was governed by precisely the same rules and laws and even customs as today, and yet operated completely differently. It is in taking the differences seriously that we can learn a lot, not only about the nineteenth century, but about the twenty-first.  

There is a lot of material for reflection in A Very Canadian Coup. I'm grateful for detailed studies like Ted Glenn's on such topics. But maybe the author of this one might have reflected more in the issues he raises.    

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