One of the main arguments in my book, Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights, co-authored with Tom Flanagan and Andre Le Dressay, is that property rights can be a powerful tool for fostering economic development on Canadian Indian Reserves (but in no way is it a panacea nor will it be appropriate for all First Nations). Here’s a very good primer on why and how property rights can generate wealth. (read the op ed and check out the marginal revolution university video).
This year, my wife and I attended the annual Donner Prize Dinner for best book by a Canadian on a public policy topic (notice, by the way, how the competition has changed this year. It used to be a competition for the best book on a topic of Canadian public policy. The change seems subtle, but it actually is quite significant). It’s a great little party and lots of really interesting people attend.
This year’s winner was Jeffrey Simpson’s, Chronic Condition: Why Canada’s Health-Care System Needs to be Dragged into the 21st Century, published by Penguin Canada. According to the jury report:
“The Canadian health care system, which costs about $200 billion a year in public and private money, cannot continue as it is—increasingly ill-adapted to an aging population, with public costs growing faster than government revenues. Chronic Condition makes a vital contribution to the public’s understanding of the cost of health care and delivery issues, examining the tenets of the Medicare system that Canadians cling to so passionately. Breaking the silence about the changes and choices that Canadians face, Simpson has written a book that deserves to be read and discussed.”
I haven’t yet hit the part where he clearly spells out the problems of the system and how he thinks we should fix it. But what really struck me about the book so far is how potentially unreliable the information he provides is. The book contains zero in-text citations, zero footnotes, and zero references. There is no bibliography, either at the end of the book or at the end of the various chapters. Since I am no expert on Canada’s health care system, I have no reliable way of assessing the information and arguments he provides. Where does he get his figures, for instance, for the costs involved in various treatments and procedures? How about the costs of the system as a whole? From where does he draw his information for his historical chapters?
To me, this is a serious problem. The book provides no sources whatsoever and so the reader can’t assess the evidence or descriptions provided. They simply have to take Simpson’s word for it. There is no indication that the book went through peer review and there are no endorsements on the back cover from specialists or researchers in the field so readers can’t even rely on those aspects to have some confidence in the descriptions and arguments in the book.
It could very well be that this book was extremely well-researched but for the majority of us who aren’t experts on this topic, we simply have no idea. In that sense, I’m surprised the Donner jury awarded the prize to this book. I really hope this year’s winner doesn’t signal a new trend for future Donner prize competitions. I’m all for readable and engaging books but they need to be based on solid research. Maybe Simpson’s book is, but without footnotes or a bibliography, we have no idea.
In the meantime, I plan to finish reading the book (maybe because of this!).
UPDATE: There is a section in the book called “Appreciation/Acknowledgements”, which is about 4 pages long, where he thanks some people who helped him with the book and lists a couple of books and reports that were helpful. Is that sufficient? For a prize as prestigious as the Donner book prize, I don’t think so.
So reads the title of Lawrence Martin’s recent op ed in the Globe and Mail.
In essence, Martin laments the passing from public life of some of the giants of Canadian political science, such as John Meisel, George Perlin, Hugh Thorburn, and Richard Simeon (I would add Peter Russell!) and the lack of new scholars taking their place. What should we make of his argument? Is he right?
Maybe. As Tyler Cowan observes, it is only natural for any field, whether it be academia or music or literature, to see a decline in the production of superstars over time as the field produces its fundamental tenants and findings.
On the other hand, maybe Martin simply isn’t paying close enough attention to the discipline and to the media in general, as a number of commentators have observed (e.g. see Steve Saideman’s thoughts on these points). Certainly people like Emmett MacFarlane, Royce Koop, Peter Loewen, Antonia Maioni, Tom Flanagan, all of whom are active in public life, come quickly to mind.
I think the fact that relatively few replacements are being produced, if that argument is indeed correct, is due to a slow but steady assault on the study of Canadian politics at Canadian universities (and especially at the larger universities).
Where is this assault coming from? One source is in hiring decisions. I don’t have any concrete data, but it seems that as the older generation of Canadian political scientists retire, their departments aren’t interested in replacing them with Canadian politics scholars.
At the University of Toronto (downtown campus), for instance, Richard Simeon, Canada’s pre-eminant scholar of Canadian federalism, was replaced by an American-trained scholar who studies comparative political parties and voting behaviour in federal countries (I’m not sure if Canada is one of the countries she studies). Peter Russell, Canada’s top constitutional thinker, was replaced many years ago by a scholar who studies comparative constitutional law. In both cases, the replacements are without a doubt amazing and excellent scholars. Peter’s replacement, for instance, is a Canada Research Chair, a Killam Research Fellowship Winner, and simply one of the smartest, hard-working, and most productive scholars in the world. Period. But the point here is that the big departments, like UofT, are replacing Peter Russell and Richard Simeon-like scholars with American-trained comparative politics scholars.
These trends aren’t limited to UofT. McGill University, last year, had a position in Canadian politics. Rumour had it that they had shortlisted three or four excellent candidates but declined to offer any of them the job. Instead, a year later, the position was supposedly converted and filled with a comparative politics professor.
At UBC, a Canadian politics position several years ago was filled by a scholar who does comparative voting behaviour. Again, the new professor is a top-notch scholar in his field, but is not really a Canadianist (at least in terms of his recent research, but perhaps this will change over time).
These trends aren’t limited to hiring practices. They are being felt in the classrooms and in the journals. New books argue that our discipline needs to embrace the “comparative turn“, rather than focusing solely on Canada. The number of graduate courses that focus solely on Canada seems to be on a steady decline (although at UofT, the satellite campuses in Mississauga and Scarborough have recently started to fill the void at the downtown campus with two excellent hires: Erin Tolley and Robert Schertzer).
In short, there are Canadian politics scholars actively engaged in public discourse, but perhaps not as many in the past. Political science departments in this country need to do more to protect, prioritize, and publicize the study of Canadian politics.
There’s been a lot of commentary on the consequences of the Rogoff-Reinhart error, which is seriously undermining the empirical basis for the austerity program that has swept the US, Canada and Europe. I think this episode highlights the limits of evidence-based policy-making.
One clue that there is deep limits to the concept is that I’ve never actually heard a policy-maker claim that they are making policy without evidence. It seems that everyone justifies their policy preferences with some sort of evidence; it’s just that there is always a debate about what constitutes evidence. I also think that many liberal (and here I mean, small-l liberals with a strong commitment to equating justice with procedure, rather than outcome) scholars and citizens adhere to an ideal of evidence-based policymaking. I think it’s because they feel that somehow the nastiness of politics can be minimized in public policy making if we can all just agree on the facts and procedures for adjudicating facts.
Here I’ll make two claims: evidence can only inform, it can never resolve, political debate. And evidence-based policy-making will always be influenced, if not, determined by pre-existing values, rather than the other way around.
If evidence really could influence policy to the degree that the adherents of evidence-based policy-making claim it can, then we would be seeing a much quicker reversal of economic policy given that one of the essential pieces of evidence for austerity has been shown to be, well, wrong. Aside from this in Italy, austerity remains the dominant economic policy.
I write this post only partially motivated by the fall-out from R+R. But this episode reinforces some of the conclusions that I’ve drawn out of my ongoing research into the politics of the regulation of BPA in Canada and the US. Clearly, evidence mattered in that case. Both sides – those in favour of and those opposed to stricter regulations – marshalled as much scientific evidence as possible to support their claims. And both sides are guilty of calling the other “anti-scientific”. The problem is that there is no agreement on what constitutes evidence. Those who assert there is a great threat posed by exposure to BPA often rely on studies which often do show adverse effects from exposure to BPA, but base this conclusion on studies that only administered one or two different doses of BPA. When these small studies show a positive relationship between exposure and effect, environmental activists seize on them because they have already made value commitments that we are constantly being poisoned by toxins and that modern society is killing us.
It has to be emphasized: there are powerful structural forces that govern the scientific endeavour that leads to the publication of these kinds of exciting findings based on small sample sizes and dose ranges. Put yourself in the shoes of a new, untenured, natural scientist. You need to get grant money and you need to get publications. In tough economic times and the competitive scientific job market these pressures can be excruciating. But null findings just won’t cut it. Journals that are owned by a small oligopoly of media companies want citations to papers that they publish and tend not to attract a lot of notice. Findings that show that a substance does have an effect is likely to get cited.
The vast majority of positive findings are published when they show effects that are “statistically significant at the .05 level”. This means that there is only a 5 per cent chance that that published finding will have occurred by chance alone. But what that means is that even if scientists are entirely objective, then 1 in 20 scientific studies will be a false positive. However, scientists are not entirely objective. Too often, null results from studies are shelved and only the statistically significant studies are published. But, if we are never told how many null findings the scientist received before getting a statistically significant finding, then we have no way of determining whether or not the finding could be random noise or a real finding. Ben Goldacre has pointed out that this badly plagues pharmaceutical research, but Ioannides has found similar problems in medical research.
There are two wonderful images from a presentation to an expert working group on BPA from June 2012 that prove this point better than I ever could. This is around 50 random values ranging from 80 to about 145 plotted on the y-axis.
Would you say that there is any pattern evident? Of course not.
Now, would you say the same about the following four values?
That looks to me like BPA/coffee/smoking/cosmetics causes cancer/obesity/heart attacks!
Except the values are drawn from the same randomly selected 20 values in the first figure. Look closely, I can see at least two sequences of 4 randomly generated values that increase monotonically creating the impression of a linear, cause-and-effect relationship.
This is what gets published, even if it’s the product of random noise.
There are ways to guard against this, but they essentially involve doing large-scale, multi-generation rodent studies with a wide range of doses. But this costs a lot of money and sadly,the only people who have this kind of money to do research (which often results in null findings) are corporations who obviously have a strong interest in the publication of such findings when substances they produce are under scrutiny.
Just because it is funded by corporations does not mean the “evidence” is invalid according to strict scientific standards, but we’re not dealing in science: we’re dealing in politics. And this fact certainly excites activist groups, politicians, journalists, rival scientists and voters who see these kinds of studies not as “evidence” of no findings, but of “evidence” of collusion and corruption.
Into this vortex of institutional, economic and value-based judgements, politicians and regulators are called on to make a decision. They have developed some tools to improve the role of “evidence” in policy making, primarily through the use of systematic literature reviews and tools to evaluate the merits of different type of evidence.
But as I stated before, this always interacts with pre-existing values. An excellent example of this in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. There, the Ministers of Health and the Environment are required to apply both the precautionary principle and the weight-of-evidence approach when publishing risk assessments of potentially toxic substances. The former, in one form, requires (some might say allows) regulatory action even based on inconclusive “evidence”. The latter requires regulators to rationally weight the merits of “evidence”, discounting weak “evidence” such as studies with small dose ranges, and according greater weight to large-scale, more credible, more reliable studies.
With the requirement to apply both principles entrenched in Canadian legislation, you can see how “evidence” can never answer the regulator’s question of what type of policy she should adopt. There is always a debate about what constitutes “evidence”. Those who are convinced that inconclusive “evidence” is actually sufficient “evidence” for action, will simply demand that the state act, those who disagree that the “evidence” is conclusive will simply state so. There actually is no “evidence” that can reconcile these two positions, because this is actually never about “evidence”; politics is about values and interests.
That’s why the R+R findings made such a splash in the first place, why their refutation won’t matter much, why BPA was deemed “toxic” even though the scrreening assessment explicitly states that it is safe at current levels of exposure and, frankly, why evidence-based policy-making is not so much impossible, just illusory. It can’t exist as the kind of decisive resolution to political challenges people want it to be.
My favourite line from the review:
“When Idle No More protestors shut down the country’s main rail line and besieged the Prime Minister’s Office, Canadians were heard to mutter: why can’t we solve aboriginal issues? Author Christopher Alcantara finds one answer in Negotiating The Deal, a step-by-step recounting of the maddening process that passes for aboriginal land claim settlements. It is not really a process at all; it is a game to drive mice crazy.”
I wish I had written those sentences!
Dr. Donald Savoie is the “Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton. His research achievements are prodigious and his influence on Canadian public policy, Canadian public administration and Canadian society has been evident for years.” Talk about an understatement! Dr. Savoie is really one of the giants of our discipline. He has written numerous books and journal articles on Canadian politics and public administration and has been very active in public life, advising a variety of governmental and non-governmental organizations in Canada and abroad. His work has had a powerful influence on government policy and on the work of countless political scientists and commentators across this country. I was very glad to hear him say yes to my interview request!
I’ve never met Dr. Savoie but I’ve always admired his scholarship. His research always tackles big and important questions, which as Peter Russell noted in an earlier interview on this blog, is something younger scholars like me tend to shy away from for whatever reason. As well, I’ve always been impressed with how Savoie uses the literature, elite interviews, and his own expertise to answer his research questions. His book, Governing from the Centre, was an early model for me as I tried to figure out how to use elite interviews in a theoretically and empirically useful way.
If I could achieve half of what Dr. Savoie achieved over his career, I think I’d be very happy (and lucky!). The following is an email interview I conducted with Dr. Savoie in February 2013.
Balance in all things is key. Striking a proper balance between family, friends, work and pleasure matters.
The individual I admire the most academically
Professor Ted Hodgetts, he had it all – a sharp mind, a sharp pen and great civility. He made a substantial contribution to the literature and was an excellent mentor to many young academics.
My best research project during my career
My first book: Federal-Provincial Collaboration. It grew out of my doctorate dissemination and it showed me that I could do it. It gave me great satisfaction to see the process go from an idea to a finished product.
My worst research project during my career
I published extensively in the economic development field with one of the world’s leading economists – Ben Higgins. We set out some twenty-five years ago to compare U.S.–Canada regional economic development efforts. We wanted to explain why the Americans were better at it than Canadians. We never got it done and I still have drafts laying around waiting for more work. I doubt that I will ever be able to complete the work, though it would make an important contribution to the literature.
The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research
Hearing how New Brunswick’s former Premier Louis J. Robichaud set out to implement his program of Equal Opportunity and establish l’Université de Moncton during a one-on-one interview. Robichaud explained in detail how he established the strategy, how he sold it to a reluctant province and how he worked with senior public servants to design an implementation plan. Quebec had a quiet revolution. New Brunswick had a not so quiet revolution under Robichaud though it was not well reported in the national media.
A research project I wish I had done
A biography of Louis J. Robichaud.
If I wasn’t doing this, I would be
I would be sad, very sad. I simply cannot imagine a better life. If a career in academe would not have been possible, I would have likely followed in my father’s footsteps and become an entrepreneur.
The biggest challenge in Canadian politics in the next 10 years will be
Finally coming to terms that national political institutions designed for a unitary state can never be made to work in the interest of all Canadian regions.
The biggest challenge in Canadian political science in the next 10 years will be
Helping Canadians appreciate that Canada will never be fully at peace with itself unless we overhaul how our national political and administrative institutions work.
My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is
Simple minded purpose works, stay focussed.
The following is the second interview in LISPOP’s “Author Interview” series. Here, I interview my colleague, Chris Anderson, on his new book from UBC press. Enjoy!
Dr. Christopher Anderson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University, has written a new book called Canadian Liberalism and the Politics of Border Control, 1867-1967, which is available for purchase from UBC Press here (hardcopy) and online here. This book “sheds light on the complex history of Canada’s response to immigrants and refugees during its first century” and offers “valuable lessons for understanding the nature of contemporary liberal-democratic control policies.”
Below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Anderson about his book via email in January and February 2013.
Alcantara: Chris, why did you decide to write this book on this topic?
Anderson: The book has its origins in a term paper that I wrote while a PhD student at McGill. I was taking a course taught by Jerome Black on “Immigrants, Refugees and Minorities,” and I was writing on “Neo-Liberalism and its Effects on [Canadian] Immigration and Refugees Policy.” In the process, I found that a perhaps more interesting question revolved around the relationship between the rights of non-citizens (immigrants and refugees) and how liberal-democratic states sought to control their borders. This subsequently became the focus of my dissertation work.
In the comparative politics literature at that time (e.g., in the work of Gary Freeman, Christian Joppke, James Hollifield) there was a fairly strong emphasis on how the recognition of such rights – often framed as rights-based politics – limited or diminished the ability of liberal-democratic states to undertake restrictive control measures. As the study of Canadian immigration and refugee policy was (and continues to be) on the margins of Canadian political science, there was a more limited Canadian literature to canvass, but it often drew on criticisms along the same lines in the Charter Politics literature (e.g., see the work of Ted Morton and Rainer Knopff, Christopher Manfredi). This negative view of the effect of the rights of non-citizens on control also appeared regularly in testimony put forward by immigration ministers and officials in various parliamentary committee hearings and in the press that I reviewed when I wrote that paper. It struck me that this argument contained conceptual and empirical gaps that could usefully be addressed. In particular, there was the possibility that not rights-based politics but the restriction of rights itself might help to explain certain control difficulties. To get at this, however, it would be necessary to move past a definition of control that was equated with restriction and that focused near exclusively on rights-based politics.
Anderson: I think that it would be more accurate to say that I approached the topic conceptually, as an overdue exercise in conceptual clarification. A core claim in the book is that the Canadian and comparative literatures have conceptualized the intersection of control and rights in liberal democracies in an overly constrained manner, and that the end result has been to overlook or undervalue important dynamics that could help in explaining control policy outcomes. The focus has rested on how rights-based politics (often reduced to the courts) decrease liberal-democratic control. This calls attention to some important dynamics but excludes much that is possible within what I call the control-rights nexus. The question addressed in the book is therefore broader: “how does the liberalness of a liberal-democratic state affect the intersection of control and rights?” One benefit of this latter question is that it encompasses the former (and allows for it to be assessed critically) but does not preclude other logical/empirical possibilities. By addressing this broader question, then, a better understanding of the complex relationships that can arise between control and rights in liberal-democratic states can be achieved. This, in turn, could have concrete policy implications.
If rights-based politics producing a decrease in control is but one potential outcome, then it is important to explore other possible causal chains, and this involves moving both backwards and forwards from the literature’s focus on rights-based politics. Moving backwards, I consider what leads to rights-based politics, which I take to be rights-restrictive policies. Generally speaking, in the absence of restrictions, people do not mobilize to defend or promote their rights: you do not get rights-based politics until you have an explicit or perceived rights restriction. From this starting point, other possible reactions aside from rights-based politics emerge and I call attention to two of them: people attempting to avoid such restrictions by acting outside their scope, and the state implementing administrative procedures – sometimes to ameliorate the negative effects of the original rights restrictions – that produce significant caseload backlogs. Each of these paths can lead to a decrease in control. Moving forwards from rights-based politics, another possibility is that it can produce an increase (rather than a decrease) in control, as when – for example – the courts confirm the legality of a rights-restrictive approach. I also propose a feedback loop, which could see control loss prompting further rights-restrictive measures (based on the assumption that rights-based politics is the problem), setting the whole chain in motion again. In these ways, then, the book situates rights-based politics within a broader political and policy context.
To get at this, I pursue a form of historical discourse analysis that traces the prevalence of two approaches to the control-rights nexus, which I call Liberal Nationalism and Liberal Internationalism. In brief, the former generally privileges the state’s ability to institute restrictive control policies over the rights of non-citizens, while the latter does the reverse. Drawing on both primary (in particular, public government documents) and secondary literatures, I trace the evolution of the respective prominence of Liberal Nationalist and Internationalist views in terms of control policy debates and outcomes over the course of Canada’s first century. In doing so, I explore the merits of the conceptual clarification proposed and uncover aspects of Canadian border control history that have either been overlooked or ignored.
Alcantara: So what did you find? What were the results of the 100 years of debate between Liberal Nationalists and Internationalists in Canada?
Anderson: At a general level, the book confirms that a narrow focus on rights-based politics and diminishing (restrictive) control is insufficient. While there are bound to be other possible causal chains, the reframing of the control-rights nexus proposed in the book provides a more complete and nuanced understanding of control politics and policy outcomes. As a result, it generates a number of new perspectives on both Canadian control history and contemporary control politics.
One finding is that debates over control and rights are not especially new. There is a tendency to see rights-based politics as a particularly modern phenomenon that has complicated liberal governance/border control in the post Second World War – and in the Canadian case certainly the Charter – period. The book instead shows that there has been a rich and persistent debate surrounding the rights of non-citizens in Canada ever since the first significant rights restriction was implemented with the 1885 Chinese Immigration Act (bringing in the “Chinese Head Tax,” for which the Canadian government issued an official policy and compensation a few years back). Indeed, at that time the Canadian Senate attempted to turn back this legislation and likely would have succeeded had it not been for some deft procedural maneuvering on the government’s part. A major argument against the legislation was that it was illiberal, that – as Senator Alexander Vidal put it – it was “So utterly inconsistent with the well understood rights which every human being has when he steps on British soil.” This significant debate has essentially been ignored in the Canadian literature and is just one such case during Canada’s first century that is recovered in the book. So rights-based politics certainly has evolved over time, and the arrival of the Charter is obviously important in this respect, but the debate has been with Canada since the time of Confederation and reflects a much deeper tension stemming from the liberalness of the political system itself.
This relates to a second finding, that Canada began with an expansionist Liberal Internationalist approach to the border. Often, it is assumed that a restrictive Liberal Nationalist approach is a natural default position as it stems from efforts to maintain or bolster state sovereignty. In fact, Liberal Nationalism had to be constructed, both politically and as a practice, and this never – no matter how dominant Liberal Nationalism became – remained uncontested by Liberal Internationalists.
A third finding is that Canada has been the most successful at controlling its border (at least in terms of restriction) when it has acted in the most illiberal manner. Thus, as successive Canadian governments constructed a restrictive Liberal Nationalist approach between 1885 and the early post-Second World War period, control was predicated on instituting an almost completely unfettered authority to limit or deny the rights of non-citizens (and even citizens) in terms of such classically liberal ideas as equality and fairness. The illiberalism of successful control policies is a really important yet underappreciated (at least at a broad political level) aspect of contemporary control debates.
Finally, one last finding concerns the courts. The Canadian and comparative literatures often claim that the courts play a dominant role in a purported decline in control, and in the Canadian context the Charter has been of central concern in this respect. By examining the pre-Charter era, however, it is clear that the marginalisation of a rights-restrictive, Liberal-Nationalist approach that took place during the post-Second World War period up to 1967 was not courts-driven – indeed, the courts were all but barred by law from reviewing border control policies between 1910 and 1967. Instead, this was a political debate that took place within Parliament concerning the meaning of being a liberal political community. The shift towards greater equality and fairness for immigrants and refugees in Canada reflected, therefore, a century of debate over what it meant to be Canadian in the context of first British liberalism and later human rights. As with the focus on rights-based politics, then, too singular a focus on the courts obscures the richness and import of the politics of control in Canada and, I would suggest, other liberal democracies.
Each of these findings is significant in terms of understanding that first century of Canadian border control, but they also speak to subsequent debates over the rights of non-citizens and state control through to the present.
Alcantara: Wow! There’s quite a bit to chew on here! Let me begin by asking you about your first point, which is that a rights-based discourse has been around since Confederation. How different is the discourse in 1885 compared to the discourse about non-citizens and immigration today?
Anderson: At one level, the discourse has remained relatively unchanged – you can look, for example, at the debates surrounding the 1885 Chinese Immigration Act and then look at debates over asylum seekers in the mid-1980s and find that the central question in each period revolves around the relationship between the rights of non-citizens and state control in a liberal political system. The same basic question underpins more recent restrictive legislation (such as the 2012 Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act) and policies (such as the government’s decision to restrict the access of asylum seekers to basic health care services in Canada).
At the same time, the discourse today is much less obviously racist than it was in the past. Indeed, one of the great successes of the Liberal Nationalist perspective has been to shed its explicitly racist framework and shift to a potent discourse of abuse. In the past, Galicians, Doukhobors, Jews, Black Americans, East Indians, the Japanese, and almost any other non-British, non-northern European peoples were simply understood by Liberal Nationalists to be inferior to those of British/northern European “stock”. Hence, a major justification for restricting their rights was that they lowered the “quality” of the British/Canadian nation. This view was often shared by Liberal Internationalists but their commitment to liberal rights such as equality and fairness anchored their support for much less restrictive policy options, and therefore explicit racism was much less prevalent in their discourse. By the end of the Second World War, however, as the reality of the Holocaust was being recognised and the concept of human rights was taking hold through the new United Nations system, it became harder to make such bold, racist generalisations unchallenged, and – almost overnight – they disappeared from parliamentary debate.
During the immediate postwar period, therefore, Liberal Nationalism was on the defensive because although Canada was still quite restrictionist, there was no obvious, non-discriminatory justification for such an approach. Meanwhile, the idea of anchoring Canadian border control to liberal rights was much more prominent in public discourse and came to play a much larger role in defining policy. From the late 1960s onwards, however, Liberal Nationalists began to focus on a new concern – that of immigrants and refugees “abusing our generosity” – and this became a new framework for a more restrictive approach. You can see this widely reflected in the media, in the work of prominent immigration critics such as Daniel Stoffman, Diane Francis, Martin Collacott, and Joe Bissett, and it has been used to justify most every restrictive measure introduced by Liberal and Conservative governments since the 1980s. For their part, Liberal Internationalists have not really shifted much in terms of their justifications for a more less restrictionist approach, except insofar as they draw on a richer language of human rights as opposed to the older discourse of British liberalism.
Alcantara: Do these groups, Liberal Nationalist and Liberal Internationalist, continue to exist today? If so, what kinds of individuals and groups form them today?
Anderson: The short answer is yes, but it must be stressed that these two categories are neither simple nor mutually exclusive. It is perhaps less useful to think of them as groups in the concrete than as orientations that have concrete manifestations. You can, for example, have a Liberal Nationalist stance and yet promote certain expansionist policies, and you can work within a Liberal Internationalist perspective and advocate for restriction in certain contexts. Indeed, since both international migration and the border are complex and varied phenomena, you can be more expansionist or restrictionist towards some aspects and less so towards others. At the bedrock of each position, however, is a set of normative claims about the state and the (non-citizen) human being, and the more you privilege the rights of the former over the latter, the more likely you are to reflect a Liberal Nationalist view, and the more you privilege the rights of the latter over the former, the more likely you are to fall within the Liberal Internationalist camp.
When it comes right down to it, there is quite a bit of an “us and them” aspect to where people and groups fall. The more you frame your interpretation as one of needing to protect us (Canadians) from them (non-Canadians), the more Liberal Nationalist your orientation tends to be. For a clear example of this, you can look at the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform (http://www.immigrationreform.ca/). On the other side, look at the work of the Canadian Council for Refugees (http://ccrweb.ca/), and you see a strong commitment to traditional liberal human rights commitments of equality and fairness for asylum seekers, very much a Liberal Internationalist orientation.
Alcantara: So what are the implications of your research for the debate about immigration and non-citizens today?
Anderson: I will focus on two here. One is to open up possibilities for seeing patterns of continuity and change over time, and thereby shed additional light on today’s politics of control. The shift towards a more Liberal Internationalist approach that occurred in the 1960s-1970s happened because there was significant support for the idea that a liberal political system ought to incorporate non-citizens within its understanding of how the state recognises and protects basic liberal/human rights in Canada. This was a vital part, it was argued, of what it meant to be Canadian. By framing policy choices in a narrower set of concerns over abuse (one that incorporates criminality and security issues), the contemporary Liberal Nationalist approach not only skirts this important debate over what it means to support liberal/human rights but it also diverts attention from that existential dimension of being Canadian. A broader historical context allows for a better understanding of how this reflects a very particular form of special interest politics that has perhaps not been so prominent in Canadian control politics and policy since before the Second World War.
A second implication is that if the core causal chain has merit – that rights restriction can produce reactions that produce a loss of control, and that this creates a feedback loop that encourages greater restriction, and so on – then many of the restrictive measures that have been implemented in the past 15 years or so are not only problematic on a rights-based level (that is, they have a real and profound impact on the rights of – and therefore the lives of – non-citizens), but as well may contain the seeds of their own failure, so to speak. Thus, from a good governance perspective (both in its rights-based and more pragmatic policy coherence dimensions), this is an important debate. It also raises questions about Canada’s engagement with these issues at a transnational or global level, but that has been left more implied than addressed in the book as it was a much less central feature of how borders were controlled during Canada’s first century.
Alcantara: Sounds like a great book and I look forward to reading it! Now that this book is done, what are you going to be working on next?
Anderson: The book took me up to 1967, a pivotal moment in terms of control politics and policy, as the courts were once again allowed oversight over immigration and refugee matters and a formal policy of non-discrimination was instituted. This reflected long-held Liberal Internationalist commitments to fairness and equality. The next book will move forward from 1967 to the present, looking specifically at how Canada has responded to asylum seekers. While immigration is seen more as a question of privilege (albeit with rights-based aspects) for non-citizens, policies towards asylum seekers operate within a framework of the state’s obligations towards those who have a well-founded fear of persecution. This has produced some very sharp yet complex tensions between control and rights that are worth examining in detail.
Although I will still explore the operation of the control-rights nexus – especially in terms of the effects of Canadian policy decisions on refugees and asylum seekers – in this context, there are other dimensions that I want to centre on in the analysis. In particular, I want to develop a more sophisticated understanding of where the courts fit into the politics of control, how non-government actors import ideas from national and international sources into control debates, and the relative effects of bureaucrats and politicians in domestic, continental and global control politics arenas.
There is news today that a coroner in New Zealand formally ruled that the excessive consumption of Coca Cola led to the untimely death of Natasha Harris three years ago. Harris, it seems, developed a nasty habit of drinking up to 10 litres a day. “I find that when all the available evidence is considered, were it not for the consumption of very large quantities of Coke by Natasha Harris, it is unlikely that she would have died when she died and how she died” is what the coroner determined.
So what does this have to do with a blog about Canadian, politics and public opinion? Because this tragic incident illustrates a bedrock principle of toxicology that citizens, journalists and politicians often forget when our attention turns to issues of concern with possibly toxic substances. That principle is “the dose makes the poison.” It was formulated in the 16th century by the Swiss-German chemist Paracelsus and it holds that all substances (Coca-Cola included) are toxic in some quantity. Even something as seemingly innocuous as water can be toxic when enough has been consumed. This poor soul died from the excessive consumption of water during a brutal hazing ritual in New York. From this observation, the traditional role of toxicology has developed which is to ascertain at what level of exposure any given substance causes adverse effects.
With the rise of concerns about toxic substances in the post-World War II era, scientists have discovered some substances that deviate from this principle (see tamoxifen, an important drug in chemotherapy). But these effects are rare, difficult to demonstrate and the scientific debates that surround them are heated and complex. But when issues shift into the public and media spheres, the complex science behind these assertions, sadly, usually gets lost in the shuffle.
Chemicals are one of those things that people fear a great deal. Ask people if they think the colourless, odourless chemical dihydrogen monoxide (the ingestion of which is the cause of thousands of deaths each year) should be banned and you’d be surprised (and a little concerned) at the number of people who would agree.
So when the public and the mass media turn their attention to issues of possible harm from exposure to chemicals, fears can be stoked, perspective can be lost and can lead, ultimately, to over- and unnecessary regulation of products and activity. For example, I was able to show in this paper that within-state newspaper coverage of Bisphenol A was positively linked to the chance that a US state legislature would introduce or adopt legislation banning products made with BPA the following year. It showed (again) the important role that increased media salience can have on policy changes. This, even though, scientific information suggests that exposure to BPA is hundres, if not thousands of times lower than the level at which there is a consensus that it causes adverse effects in rats (see here).
This research area is rife for investigation and it’s become a long-term project I’m working on, so I’m going to have a lot more to say about this in the future. I thought the news about Ms. Harris’ tragic death due to the excessive consumption of Coca-Cola was a useful way to set the stage for more thoughts and research to come.
This is the first a series of interviews I hope to do with authors of recent scholarly books on Canadian politics. My colleague across the road, Dr. Emmett Macfarlane, has graciously agreed to be the first interviewee. Enjoy!
Dr. Emmett Macfarlane, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at University of Waterloo, has written a new book called Governing from the Bench: The Supreme Court of Canada and the Judicial Role, which is available for purchase from UBC Press here (hardcopy) and here (e-book). This book “explores the complex role of the Supreme Court as an institution; exposes the rules, conventions, and norms that shape and constrain its justices’ behaviour; and situates the court in its broader governmental and societal context, as it relates to the elected branches of government, the media, and the public.” His book is a “comprehensive exploration of an institution that touches the lives of all Canadians.”
Below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Macfarlane about his book via email in January 2013.
Alcantara: Emmett, why did you decide to write a book on this topic?
Macfarlane: When I started research on the project way back in 2006/7, there had yet to be a book-length study of the internal environment of the Supreme Court of Canada. The political science and legal scholarship had focused a lot of energy on debates about the proper role of the Court and of judges since the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enshrined in 1982. Basically, we were having big debates over “judicial activism” without much knowledge about how justices on the Canadian Court actually approach their work. So in large part the book is an attempt to help provide greater empirical context of how the Court works, not only to help inform normative debates about its role, but also because understanding the significance of the Court for Canadian governance is important for its own sake.
Alcantara: That’s interesting. I remember during my grad studies at Calgary that all of the readings and discussions centred around judicial activism and the proper intersection of law and democracy in Canada. There was very little on the internal dynamics of the Supreme Court. So how did you approach this topic? What kinds of theories and methods informed your work?
Macfarlane: The primary research consisted of interviews with several current and retired Supreme Court justices, as well as over twenty former law clerks and other staff members at the Court. I wanted to tap into how the different justices operate at various stages of the Court’s decision-making process and in other aspects of the institution’s work, such as the different ways they involve their law clerks. I was also particularly interested in exploring “collegiality” on the Court — how do the justices interact with each other to render decisions, or compromise, negotiate or lobby each other? I ended up developing a role-based framework for analyzing their behaviour. The justices’ views about their role and the role of the Court ended up being a central fulcrum to analyze the various factors that play a role in judicial decision-making, such as legal rules, the ideology or values of the judges, and strategic behaviour. I also wanted to get a sense of how they understood the Court’s relationship with the elected branches of government, with broader society, and with the media.
The theoretical and methodological underpinnings of this role-centric framework are at the core of the book and the focus of the first chapter is a critique of the leading political science explanations of judicial behaviour: the behaviouralist “attitudinal model” and the rational choice model. These two approaches tend to focus on judicial votes and give us single-variable explanations of those votes, effectively boiling judging down to the “policy perspectives” (or ideologies) of the individual justices. I argue these approaches pay insufficient attention to a myriad of institutional norms and other variables, including the justices’ differing motivations, not to mention the institution’s collegial environment and the substantive content of the Court’s written decisions.
Macfarlane: Exactly. I describe it as an historical institutionalist approach, albeit focused on the work of a single institution. It allows for an analysis that considers the full complexity of the Court and the justices’ behaviour, and to track how changes over time and in personnel can lead to changes in outcomes.
Alcantara: One of the common criticisms of the historical institutionalist approach is that it struggles to account for institutional change and the Supreme Court has gone through some significant instances of change: gaining control over its docket, having access to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the like. How does your book deal with these issues?
Macfarlane: I actually think the approach is better at accounting for these changes and their effects. The book traces a host of changes – control of the docket, the establishment of the Charter, the decision to allow liberal access for third-party interveners, the change in the extent to which the Court relies on social science evidence – by considering how the justices’ views of their appropriateness influenced the changes themselves and the justices’ behaviour following them. For example, the book explores how the manner in which the Court now treats “social facts” (social science evidence) was not preordained. There was intense debate between the judges on this point, and there remain differences in the degree to which each judge gives weight to social context.
Approaches that treat structural changes as exogenous and focus solely on those changes’ effects on individual behaviour end up missing half the picture. New institutionalism allows us to consider the reciprocal effects actors have on institutions and vice versa. The risk here, of course, is getting stuck in a structure versus agency quagmire, but I think careful, qualitative analysis mitigates against that risk. Hopefully my book provides a compelling account in this regard.
Alcantara: So what were some of your main findings? What kind of effects have these changes had on the court’s role in Canadian society?
Macfarlane: One of the main findings is how judicial role perceptions structure the way ideological or strategic decision-making enters into the equation. The book identifies “sites of activity” for judicial attitudes to become a dominant factor in decisions at various stages of the decision-making process. For example, when the justices’ agree on the broader institutional or legal norms we are more likely to see clear rules dominate (such as in the leave to appeal process). Yet when the justices can’t agree on these institutional norms – or when they fail to take them into consideration (such as in the Court’s jurisprudence of section 7 of the Charter) – attitudinal or strategic behaviour comes to dominate. This is intuitive, but it suggests more attention to these institutional norms might lead to more principled and more consensual (and arguably more authoritative) decision-making.
Another interesting finding was the variety of ways the individual justices approach their work. For example, the way they choose and utilize their law clerks appears to speak volumes about their approach to the law. Some justices appear to pick clerks who think like they do (one judge stated a desire to find clerks who have “a social conscience”) while others look for clerks who will challenge them. Some give their clerks enormous power – such as writing entire drafts of judgments – while others basically treat their clerks as research assistants and have very little contact with them. These approaches have some impact on collegiality on the Court – and the book explores other ways the tension between “the judge as an individual actor” versus “the Court as a collegium” plays a role in identifying strategic behaviour and in producing certain types of outcomes (such an unanimity).
In terms of the Court’s role in society, one of the chapters of the book explores how changes in the leave to appeal process, the admittance of third party interveners and the use of evidence evolved. A more liberal approach to third party interveners was the result of a fairly intense lobbying effort from various interest groups. It is just one example of how the Court’s increased prominence in the “Charter era” has made the judges sensitive to external scrutiny. In the same vein, another chapter of the book considers the Court’s relationship with the elected branches of government, the media, and public opinion. Although the book does not identify direct influence on particular decisions, I found a lot of qualitative evidence of diffuse effects on the Court’s overall approach, also through the lens of the justices’ role perceptions. They’re very cognizant of the attention certain decisions will bring, and of their policy influence vis-a-vis Parliament and the provincial legislatures.
Alcantara: The “sites of activity” argument is really fascinating. Do the sites vary according to the type of case that is before the case (e.g. a Charter case vs. a federalism case? Or even an environment vs. a criminal law case) or are these sites established for each set of justices, changing as a new justice is inserted into the mix?
Macfarlane: It’s more at the level of which stages of the decision-making process and which set of case facts present themselves. So one chapter of the book undertakes an examination of health policy cases under the Charter to examine a variety of factors, such as how judges incorporate scientific or social scientific evidence into their reasoning, how they approach issues of imposing significant costs on government, and how (or if) they set boundaries around the scope of judicial review when dealing with difficult moral or policy questions.
While I think the book paints a picture of how the different approaches individual judges take can affect where and how these sites open up, it doesn’t engage in a comprehensive jurisprudential analysis to assess if different areas of law (or even different areas of the Charter) are more susceptible to certain factors. I’m hopeful the “sites of activity” argument lends itself to future case study research, or even to incorporation into the attitudinal or strategic models, so that it can be refined along those lines. But given the book’s qualitative approach and a lack of certain types of data (even the interviews can only tell us so much) the “sites of activity” argument isn’t presented as a mechanistic explanation of outcomes so much as a description of how judicial discretion can, in certain contexts, come to be reflected along ideological lines.
Alcantara: It sounds like a very interesting book that will stir debate and future research for some time. What are you working on next?
Macfarlane: I’m almost ready to start writing my next book, in collaboration with a couple of colleagues, on the interaction between legislatures and the Supreme Court over Charter of Rights issues. It will hopefully reframe our understanding of the institutional relationships away from the messy, nebulous idea of “dialogue” and towards one more rooted in examining policy change. Can we measure or identify how much policy influence the Supreme Court actually has? Can we measure “policy change” under the Charter? A lot of the data for this project is actually from the legislative side of things. We think we have a good research base but the planning of the actual book and analysis of the data is in its infancy.
Another project I’m just getting into is assessing the question of positive obligations under the Charter. The Charter is usually considered in a “negative rights” sense of preventing government from taking certain actions or intruding on rights (aside from certain sections like minority education rights, at least). By contrast, positive obligations require the government to take some action or provide specific programs. Courts are generally less willing to impose positive obligations (and especially budgetary expenditures) on government. But some cases and their policy outcomes pose problems for this negative versus positive distinction, both for the logic of the Court’s jurisprudence and for the specific policy landscapes. I’m hoping to explore those issues.
Alcantara: Dr. Macfarlane is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Waterloo. His research examines the relationships between rights, governance and public policy, with a particular focus on the Supreme Court of Canada’s impact on public policy and political discourse under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He earned his Ph.D (2009) and MA (2005) in political science at Queen’s University, and a BA (2003) at the University of Western Ontario.
Sometime soon, I will be launching a new blog series here in which I interview authors of recent scholarly books published on Canadian politics.
This was the headline of a news article on the front page of today’s Globe and Mail.
According to John Ibbitson, “The Harper government is on the brink of making the Northwest Territories a province in all but name by ceding federal control over land, resources and water. The people and government of the territory stand to benefit from hundreds of millions of dollars in new resource revenues under the agreement, which will see the territorial and not the federal government primarily responsible for approving resource developments.”
There’s been quite a bit of scholarly and punditry ink spilled on the topic of devolution in the Canadian territorial north. Much of the scholarly literature has focused on assessing devolution normatively, arguing over which model of devolution would be most effective and just for the varied peoples that live in Canada’s three territories.
My research, on the other hand, has tried to examine the issue of devolution from a social science perspective. Rather than figuring out what would be a fair deal for all the parties involved, I published a paper earlier this year that tried to explain why the territories have achieved different outcomes in the negotiation process: Yukon (signing a final devolution transfer agreement in the early 2000s); NWT (No final deal yet, but an AIP last year), and Nunavut (no deal; no negotiations yet). (I also published another article, co-authored with Kirk Cameron and Steven Kennedy, that empirically assesses the effect that devolution has had on Yukon. You can download the ungated version of the article here).
Using a rational choice framework, I found three factors mattered.“This paper has argued that variation in devolution negotiation outcomes relating to lands and resources can be explained by examining three sets of factors. First, in light of the federal government’s dominant position in negotiations, territorial negotiators must negotiate an agreement that is compatible with federal preferences relating to resource revenues, equalisation, and the reduction of costs. Both the YTG and the Handley/Roland GNWT governments were willing to satisfy federal preferences in this manner. However, only the YTG has been able to complete a final agreement. The reason that YTG has been successful whereas the GNWT has not is because devolution negotiation outcomes also depend on the extent to which government officials perceive that sufficient aboriginal consent has been obtained. In Yukon, the fact that all of the Yukon first nations signed the UFA in 1993 and that a majority of aboriginal groups completed lands claims agreements at a fairly brisk rate were sufficient for federal and territorial negotiators to sign a DTA. In the NWT, in contrast, an AIP was negotiated only after the consent of four aboriginal groups was obtained in a 2007 resource revenue sharing agreement. However, the fact that two of the four groups have withdrawn their support means that the GNWT AIP is likely to be shelved or scrappedThe final factor that determines variation in devolution negotiation outcomes is federal perceptions of territorial capacity and maturity. The evidence suggests that the different timing of devolution in the NWT and Yukon was partly the result of the YTG being seen as more mature and politically developed than the GNWT. A more stark example is the status of Nunavut devolution negotiations, which have not proceeded beyond the negotiation of a protocol agreement. The evidence suggests that the lack of progress on the Nunavut file is mainly the result of federal reluctance to negotiate with a government that it believes does not have the capacity to undertake its current responsibilities and obligations, let alone those that would flow from a final devolution agreement.”
So what changed for the NWT? Originally, the Government of the NWT (GNWT) had achieved the support of 4 NWT Aboriginal groups, which was sufficient to move forward in the eyes of federal and territorial officials. Two groups, however, backed out due to a change in leadership. As a result, devolution negotiations stalled.
Recently, one of the group’s experienced yet another change in leadership and this leadership group was more willing to sign on. A second group signed on, raising the total number of Aboriginal groups supporting the deal to four. If the GNWT can keep this four groups on board, then it is highly likely that it will be able to complete a final devolution transfer agreement with Ottawa.
As I wrote in my Polar Record article:
“Anonymous territorial and aboriginal interviewees suggest that it is highly likely that future devolution negotiations in the NWT will only proceed if the GNWT can somehow convince at least two additional aboriginal groups to endorse the AIP.”
Prediction is a trickly business in the social sciences. It’s gratifying, though, when one’s predictions turn out to be right once in a while!
LISPOP associate and professor at University of Toronto, Dr. Christopher Cochrane, is pursuing an important research agenda examining the nature of left and right in Canadian Politics. His latest work, found here, challenges the fundamental assumptions that scholars, journalists, politicians, and citizens have about left/right ideologies in Canada, both from theoretical and empirical perspectives. Here are some of his latest research and you can download his papers here:
2012. “Left and Right: Empty Vessels, Essential Core, or Family Resemblance?” Working Paper.
The language of left and right is a metaphor that links the concept of political disagreement to the relative positions of points along a single straight line through space. Most scholars trace the political origins of the words left/right to the seating arrangement of the Estates General in the years leading up the French Revolution. Radical democrats and their sympathizers sat to the left of the king; supporters of the clergy and the aristocracy sat to his right. This provided a shorthand way of writing and talking about the main line of political disagreement in French society. It was purely an accident of history that the revolutionaries sat to the left and the supporters of the establishment sat to the right. If the groups sat on different sides, or the king sat at the other end, then what was left would be right, and what was right would be left. In this respect, the left/right seating arrangement was arbitrary. What was not arbitrary, however, was that the people on each side chose to sit with certain people, and against certain other people. Indeed, the seating arrangement reflected a line of political disagreement that pre-dated by many years, and perhaps by many thousands of years, the seating arrangement itself. This paper examines the nature of that line of political disagreement.
2012. “The Asymmetrical Structure of Left/Right Disagreement: Left-Wing Coherence and Right-Wing Fragmentation in Comparative Party Policy.” Forthcoming. Party Politics.
The left/right semantic is used widely to describe the patterns of party competition in democratic countries. This paper examines the patterns of party policy in Anglo-American and Western European countries on three dimensions of left-right disagreement: wealth redistribution, social morality, and immigration. The central questions are whether, and why, parties with left-wing or right-wing positions on the economy systematically adopt left-wing or right-wing positions on immigration and social morality. The central argument is that left/right disagreement is asymmetrical: leftists and rightists derive from different sources, and thus structure in different ways, their opinions about policy. Drawing on evidence from Benoit & Laver’s (2006) survey of experts about the policy positions of political parties, the results of the empirical analysis indicate that party policy on the economic, social and immigration dimensions are bound together by parties on the left, but not by parties on the right. The paper concludes by outlining implications of left/right asymmetry for unified theories of party competition.
Christopher Cochrane (2010). Left/Right Ideology and Canadian Politics. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 43, pp 583-605. doi:10.1017/S0008423910000624.
Abstract. This article examines the influence of ideology in Canadian politics. The core theory is that political opinions are bound together into ideological clusters by underlying influences that affect simultaneously the opinions of individuals about more than one issue. The central hypothesis is that ideological disagreement between the left and the right is asymmetrical, that is, that leftists and rightists bundle in different ways their opinions about issues. The analysis draws on evidence from Benoit and Laver’s survey of experts (2006) about the policy positions of political parties, the Comparative Manifesto Research Project (Budge et al., 2001; Klingemann et al., 2006), and Cross and Young’s survey of Canadian political party members (2002). The results of the analysis indicate, first, that Canada’s left/right ideological divide is wide by cross-national standards, and, second, that leftists and rightists organize their opinions about the world in different ways.
Résumé. Cet article examine l’influence des idéologies dans l’environnement politique canadien. La théorie centrale stipule que les opinions politiques sur diverses questions sont structurées en groupes idéologiques consolidés par des influences sous-jacentes qui affectent simultanément les opinions des individus. L’hypothèse principale découlant de cette théorie est que la structure du désaccord idéologique entre la gauche et la droite est asymétrique; plus précisément, que les individus situés à la gauche et à la droite du spectre politique canadien organisent de manière différente leurs opinions politiques. L’analyse s’appuie tout d’abord sur les données d’un sondage auprès d’experts politiques réalisé par Benoit et Laver (2006) et portant sur les positions politiques des partis. Elle utilise également les données du Comparative Manifesto Research Project (Budge et al. 2001; Klingemann et al., 2006) et celles d’un sondage d’opinion de Cross et Young (2002) effectué auprès des membres de partis politiques canadiens. Les résultats de cette étude démontrent, en premier lieu, qu’il existe un clivage important entre la droite et la gauche au Canada même lorsqu’il est observé dans une perspective comparative, et en second lieu, que les individus se situant à la gauche et à la droite du spectre politique ont tendance à organiser de manière différente leurs opinions sur le monde.
Canada-First Nations relationships are obviously the topic of the day. Besides the very serious substantive issues that are under discussion, I noticed one interesting trend in the public debate, that is, the struggle over whether Chief Spence’s diet constituted a genuine “hunger strike” or something else. In a lot of media coverage, journalists have been characterizing her protest as a “liquid only diet” or “liquid diet” or “forgoing solid foods”, rather than a hunger strike.
What’s at stake in this debate over how her protest is framed is fairly clear. According to media reports, Chief Spence has been subsisting on fish broth and herbal tea (one news story says she is taking vitamins as well), providing some of her opponents the opportunity to denigrate her commitment to her political and policy goals. I think the argument goes that a “genuine” hunger striker would take, at most, water. Questioning whether she is, in fact, engaged in a hunger strike, is not just a debate about semantics, but about the level of Spence’s sincerity and commitment to her policy goals.
I personally am inclined to see this as a genuine hunger strike, but that’s not the point here. I was more interested in whether any kind of patterns were detectable in how journalists framed her protests. Specifically, I wondered whether there was a change over time in the newspaper framing.
Below are the number of newspaper stories in the database Canadian Newsstand from December 13th, 2012 to January 14th, 2013 that responded to the search string “Theresa Spence”. This database includes both the Globe and Mail, the National Post, most of the metro urban dailies, a lot of local community newspapers, but, importantly, none of the Sun chain of newspapers.
Not surprisingly, coverage has been building gradually since Chief Spence began her protest, culminating in the last week or so with the publication of the audit of her band’s finances, more protests from the Idle No More network and the meeting between First Nations leaders and the Prime Minister.
Then, I combed through the articles looking for terms like “hunger” and “hunger strike” as well as terms like “liquid”, “liquids only” and “liquid diet”. I calculated the daily average frequencies of both sets of terms and plotted them against each other below.
So this plots the “average” number of occurrences of terms referring, more or less to a “hunger strike” versus terms referring to “liquid diets”, taking “liquid food” and forgoing “solid food” in Canadian newspaper stories that mention “Theresa Spence” over this time period. Clearly, references to Spence’s protest as a hunger strike have declined substantially, with frequencies after the publication of the audit much lower than prior to the audit.
The lines are smoothing lines; although the solid line suggests the decline started before the publication of the audit, I think that’s illusory. To me, there’s a clear break in the points before and after the publication of the audit. In terms of phrases that refer to a “liquid diet”, the smoothing line suggests a slow, monotonic increase in that sentiment.
It’s also important to remember: both of these trends occur in the context of a lot more coverage, period, post-audit (see the first figure). But while there was more newspaper stories that referenced “Theresa Spence” at least once after the audit, references to her going on a “hunger strike’ dropped off dramatically, while references to her only taking “liquid foods” continued a slight increase.
So, how to square all of this? I think two things are really important. First, it seems like the publication of the audit weakened Spence’s credibility, hence, the declining references to her on a “hunger strike” while references to her being on a “liquid diet” increased. But, perhaps more importantly, the sheer volume of newspaper coverage that appeared post-audit suggests that Spence was sidelined somewhat as events overtook her. Between January 7th and January 14th, Canadians witnessed protests by Idle No More, a meeting between First Nations leaders and the Prime Minister and some conflicts within the Assembly of First Nations. It seems like newspaper coverage during that time referenced Theresa Spence, began framing her protest equally as a “hunger strike” or as a “liquid diet”, and probably sidelined her, period.
Finally, it seems like this is an important lesson in how source credibility (as defined by journalists) is so crucial in structuring Canadian journalism.
I searched Canadian Newsstand for all newspaper articles with full-text that referenced “Theresa Spence” at least once. Then, I used the tm package to analyze the texts within. I looked for terms that referenced hunger, hunger strike or hunger striking and, essentially, averaged them over the number of stories that appeared each day. Then I did the same with terms like “liquid”, “liquid foods”, and “liquid diet”.
Published Dec. 23, 2012, in the Toronto Star.
The federal government is pushing forward on a First Nations accountability bill that would require all band governments to publish the salaries and expenses of their elected chiefs and councillors, among other things.
In principle, most aboriginal leaders and communities are supportive of what this legislation is trying to achieve.
Indeed, it’s hard to come up with even one compelling argument for why any democratic government should not be as transparent as possible to its citizens about its financial dealings.
Yet, some indigenous leaders and communities have mobilized against the legislation, arguing that it shouldn’t be passed.
Previously, I wrote a little bit about a conference I attended in October on “Partnering for Successful Economic Development: Lessons Learned and Best Practices.”
The conference was interesting in a number of respects. Today, I received a summary of the small group discussions that occurred at the conference, which again is not the norm for most conferences. At the end of the small group discussions, all of the attendees met to summarize their discussions and then to vote, using “dots” for which points they thought they were most important. Here were the results.
Top vote getters were:
- Establishing partnerships requires looking at the strengths and needs of the community.
- Research partnerships should be driven by ideas from the community.
- When working with communities, document everything! (meeting notes, emails, etc).
- To build capacity, partners and communities need to recognize transferable skills and build on them.
- Good communication requires partners to take time to build trust and respect.
- Community engagement is best accomplished by encouraging entrepreneurial spirit.
As you can see, these best practices are probably more useful to practitioners than academics. As well, I’m not a big fan of dotmocracy, which seems to suffer from the same problems that some forms of direct democracy suffer from. Still, it was an interesting conference.