Revisiting the Debate: Canadian and Comparative Politics

Last summer, I wrote a blog post lamenting the decline of Canadian politics.  I worried about whether the “big” departments would continue to prioritize and hire scholars to teach and write about Canadian politics.  I complained about the push for a “comparative turn” in Canadian politics, directing some worry towards a volume that many of my friends, mentors, and colleagues put together at UofT on this very issue.

Although UBC and McGill have not advertised any Canadian politics jobs recently, UofT has this year, as has Queen’s, which are welcome signs.  But the debate continues! Recently, UBC Press announced the publication of a new volume entitled, Comparing Canada: Methods and Perspectives on Canadian Politics, edited by some of the best, young, Canadian political scientists on the scene today (of course, I may be biased since all were at UofT when I was there and all are friends or at least acquaintances but still!).

The following below is a message from one of the editors, Luc Turgeon (assistant professor of political science at University of Ottawa), commenting on my original blog post and his new co-edited book.
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Dear Chris –

 

I promised you last year I would eventually write a rejoinder to your blog entry “Political Scholars fiddle while Rome Burns”. I apologize for taking so long!

 

In that blog, you lamented the assault on the study of Canadian politics. You pointed to the gradual replacement of Canadian scholars by comparative ones in political science departments throughout the country and to the growing promotion of the “comparative turn in Canadian political science”, rather than a focus solely on Canada. In this year’s presidential address at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Alain Noël was similarly very critical of the “comparative turn”.

I share many of your worries about the future of our discipline. And I could not agree more with you “that political science departments in this country need to do more to protect, prioritize, and publicize the study of Canadian politics”.

 

It might seem strange that I share some of your critiques of the “comparative turn in Canadian politics” considering that I recently published a co-edited volume entitled Comparing Canada: Methods and Perspectives on Canadians Politics. Whereas the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science explored the ways in which Canadian scholars contribute (or not) to comparative politics theories, our book explores the ways in which the comparative method allows us to better understand Canada.

 

In our book, while promoting the potential benefits of the comparative method to the study of Canadian politics, we also acknowledge three potential limits or problems with what your present as “embracing the comparative turn”.

The first one is simply that our discipline cannot and should not be reduced to a subfield of comparative politics. Normative and critical perspectives on Canadian politics have been and are still central to our discipline. Moreover, some of the main contributions of Canadians to international political science and comparative politics have been the result of our interest (some might say obsession) with normative issues raised by the country’s struggle over national unity and debates about Canadian multiculturalism.

 

The second potential problem is that a focus on comparison can lead us to dismiss case studies or Canada-centred studies. As discussed in the introduction of our book, such case studies are crucial to explore under-studied aspects of Canadian politics and also to inductively develop new theoretical perspectives. Moreover, as Alain Noël stressed in his presidential address, comparative politics privileges a positivist epistemology. The object of social science inquiry is not always to explain, but also to interpret or to criticize. In such case, a comparative strategy might not be useful in light of the researcher’s intentions.

 

The third problem is that it can give a relatively distorted view of the history of our discipline. The main strength of the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science is that it documents, I believe, a real shift in the 1990s and 2000s as the number of cross-national studies of Canada increased significantly. The different contributors also artfully explore the way Canadian political scientists have been “givers” or “takers” when it comes to theories of comparative politics. These are important contributions that should not be dismissed.

 

I find problematic though the idea that, somehow, Canadian political science was before the 1990s “introspective, insular, and largely atheoretical”, to quote from the The Comparative Turn‘s blurb. While Canadian political scientists were certainly preoccupied by national unity concerns, they engaged with theoretical debates in international political science and used some of those approaches to illuminate the Canadian case. Just to give an example from our book, political economy in Canada was influenced by and engaged with theoretical perspectives such as British neo-marxism and the French regulation school.

 

Many of the critiques of the “Comparative Turn”, whether fair or not, came down to the fact that it gave the impression that our first objective as students of Canadian politics should be to contribute to the international comparative scholarship. The first objective, critiques responded, should be in fact to better understand Canada.

I believe that the comparative approach to the study of Canadian politics can contribute to the revitalization, not the cannibalization, of the study of Canadian politics. In order to do so, we must first recognize that the comparative approach is one of many other approaches that can help us better understand Canadian politics. We must also acknowledge that in order to contribute to the study of Canadian politics, our students need to know better the history of our discipline, and not only the most recent comparative theoretical approaches.

 

Comparison can play an important role in the study of Canadian politics. It allows us to overcome a number of potential pitfalls: making erroneous normative claims about aspects Canadian politics, exaggerating Canada’s specificity or uniqueness, neglecting the country’s internal diversity (which brings the important of comparative provincial or local studies), and over-emphasizing the centrality of certain factors in explaining different political phenomena.

 

More importantly for the study of Canadian politics though, the comparative method and continuing engagement with the comparative literature can leads us to ask new questions about our country and explore aspects of Canadian politics previously neglected or overlooked. As Stretton argued in the late 1960s, the function of comparison is perhaps less to simulate an experiment than to stimulate imagination.

 

Ultimately, one of the main merits of the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science is to have contributed to a debate about methodological approaches to the study of Canadian politics. We need to pursue that reflection. There are a number of methodological approaches in fact that have not been sufficiently explored in the study of Canadian politics (life history, political ethnography, different experimental methods, etc).

 

More than a decline of Canadian politics, I see a renewal. The national unity crisis of the post-1970s had a defining impact on our discipline, contributed to the intervention of many political scientists in the public sphere and influenced their research. What I see today are a number of political scientists exploring previously under-studied aspects of Canadian politics and using different platforms to disseminate their findings. In most cases, those who adopt a comparative perspective do so not because of some sort of misguided belief in the superiority of comparative approaches, but because they think that such approaches allow us to gain important insights about our country.

 

Luc Turgeon

 

I’m a big fan of Luc Turgeon, both as a person and as a scholar.  The first time I met him, we clashed in the Sidney Smith lunch room over the value of Canadian political science. I was a very junior PhD student and Luc was one of the rising stars in the department.  I don’t remember who argued what but I do remember we had a vigorous debate and that I must have been losing because some of my colleagues began to inch away from me as the debate continued!

Luc’s letter sounds promising.  I like the nuance he provides in terms of the contributions and relationship between Canadian and comparative politics.  How many political scientists in Canada, however, agree? Maybe this book will spur a much needed debate in Canada political science departments.  Will the anti-Canadianists listen?

 

Missing Aboriginal Women and the Canadian State

This is a topic I don’t know very much about except what the statistics indicate: that this is a major problem in Canada and that it’s clear that action is needed.  But what kind of action?

The popular answer seems to be that the federal government should hold a national inquiry.  Critics counter by saying that there is already a large body of research out there and so there’s no need for another study.

Harper’s original response was that this issue was a criminal one, rather than one based in sociological issues.

So what should the federal government do? I think the government needs to act, at least symbolically, but ideally with real action.

If critics are right that there are already many studies available, then a national inquiry is not an answer.

In terms of real action, I think meeting with the provinces, the territories and Aboriginal governments and stakeholders at a series of roundtables is certainly one viable course of action and should be pursued.  Here, the participants could develop a national strategy based on existing research.

In terms of symbolic action, Harper needs to go old school.  He needs to deliver a rousing speech in Parliament, like some of the great parliamentarians, and address the Canadian people on this important issue.  Take a page from the residential school apology and use Parliament to address the nation about the importance of this problem and his desire to address it.

 

 

Canadian First Ministers’ Conferences and Heresthetic Strategies: Explaining Alberta’s Position on Multiculturalism at the 1971 Victoria Conference

Authors: Christopher Alcantara, Renan Levine, James C. Walz

Published Spring 2014 in Journal of Canadian Studies.

Abstract: The Province of Alberta seems an unlikely early advocate of multiculturalism; yet, several months before the federal government unveiled its official policy on this issue, it was an Alberta premier, Harry Strom, who demanded that multiculturalism be a condition for constitutional reform during the 1971 Victoria Constitutional Conference. What explains this puzzle? Using William Riker’s concept of heresthetics and the literature on Alberta politics, Western alienation, and Canadian federalism, the authors argue that Strom introduced multiculturalism at the conference as a strategic manoeuvre to bolster and defend Alberta’s compact perspective on federalism and to block any constitutional change that would prevent Alberta from recognizing itself as an equal and autonomous partner in the Canadian federation. The authors’ findings suggest that Riker’s concept of heresthetics may be useful for analyzing other instances of intergovernmental relations in Canada.

Taking politics out of the Senate

Published Aug. 5, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Politics, as they say, is the art of the possible. What, one wonders, would happen if the Harper government applied that adage to the seemingly intractable issue of Senate reform?

We already know, courtesy of the Supreme Court of Canada, what is not possible. It is not possible to abolish the Senate without the unanimous consent of the provinces. The same unanimity requirement would surely pertain to any effort to redistribute Senate seats to reflect demographic reality — by taking from the East and giving to the West. Other reforms, involving the powers of the Senate, the direct election of senators or term limits for its members, would also require significant involvement of the provinces — if not unanimous agreement, at least the consent of seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population (the 7/50 rule).
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The failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords in the Mulroney era illustrate the futility of trying to negotiate provincial agreement on constitutional proposals. It would be no easier today, in an era when the provinces simply do not trust the federal Conservative government to say what it means and to do what it says.

Given this sad reality, the trick for Stephen Harper, if he is serious about Senate change, is to work around the constitutional straitjacket by implementing measures to make the upper house more democratic, more relevant, more useful and more productive — without wasting years arguing with the provincial governments. The measures are all within the realm of possibility, and within the power of the federal government, acting on its own.

First, eliminate party blocs within the Senate by abolishing the Conservative caucus as Justin Trudeau has already abolished the Liberal caucus. Freed of partisan shackles, senators would be able to debate legislation without party rhetoric and to make laws better before sending them back to the House of Commons. Isn’t that what the chamber of sober second thought is supposed to do?

Second, flush the patronage out of the Senate system by changing the method of appointment. Direct election (as for members of the Commons), would require a constitutional amendment, but Harper doesn’t have to go that far.

He could do two things without sacrificing his constitutional prerogative to name senators. First, he could encourage provinces to hold “consultative” elections of senators, as Alberta already does. But Harper would have to pledge to appoint whomever the electorate chose, even if the person were not a Tory. Alternatively, the prime minister could invite the premiers to choose the senators for their provinces.

For example, Ontario has 24 of the 105 Senate seats. Four Ontario seats are currently vacant. Harper could invite Kathleen Wynne to present four names and he would appoint them, no questions asked. She might choose four Liberals, or she might not. That wouldn’t matter. Once partisanship is eliminated from upper house, the party stripe of newcomers will be less important than their experience and other qualifications.

Informal groups of senators, feeling the pressure of public opinion, have been meeting secretly in recent weeks to discuss ways of fixing the upper house. (Why the secrecy, I have no idea.) One of their ideas, long overdue, is that their speaker be elected by the members (as the Commons speaker is), instead of being appointed by the prime minister. Another sensible idea is to abolish the daily question period. Now that the government leader in the Senate is no longer a member of the cabinet (a move Harper made to distance himself from the Senate expenses scandal), the question period is even more useless than it has historically been, because now there is no one to answer for the government.

A better idea, I submit, would be for senators to arrange for the prime minister to attend the Senate once a week to take questions for a half-hour or so.

None of these changes would revolutionize Parliament. But they would make the Senate more relevant without reopening the Constitution.

Gendered News: An Interview with author Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant

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Dr. Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant (Ph.D. McGill) is an associate professor of political studies at Queen’s University. Concentrating on gender and politics, her current research is comprised of several ongoing projects that deal with gendered aspects of political behaviour, representation, and news media and elections, respectively. Goodyear-Grant has also published work on attitudes toward democracy and political representation, attitudes toward the use of referenda, and so on, all part of a larger research agenda that concentrates on representation and political behaviour.

Recently, she published a book entitled Gendered News: Media Coverage and Electoral Politics in Canada. (Vancouver: UBC Press), which was shortlisted for this year’s Donald Smiley Prize. According to the jury report:

“Goodyear-Grant’s book offers a rare but important look at the relationship between media coverage and women’s representation in Canada.  In particular it “…asks whether the new media contribute to the supply- and demand-size barriers to women’s political representation.”  The answer is: yes, it does. Drawing on a considerable body of content-analytic data, alongside opinion data from the Canadian Election Studies, Goodyear-Grant offers an impressively detailed analysis of the nature and magnitude of gendered media coverage in Canada.  Goodyear-Grant makes a strong case for the importance of mass media in citizens’ ideas about politics and politicians.  She then outlines important differences in the visibility and treatment of female politicians. The book exposes the heavily biased climate in which female politicians much operate; and offers one possible explanation for ongoing gender gaps in political interest and participation.”

Below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Goodyear-Grant about her new book via email during the early summer months of 2014.
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Alcantara: Why did you decide to write a book on this topic?

Goodyear-Grant: Two reasons are particularly important. First, while becoming more common, analyses of media’s effects on the electoral success and political representation of the full diversity of Canadians is under-analyzed. I wrote this book, in part, to fill a gap. Unlike parties, the campaign finance regime, and other important institutions structuring candidacy and office-holding, I didn’t think we had an adequate understanding of how media affects electoral outcomes, as well as the supply of female candidates. Second, this book is also very much an evaluation of news media’s performance. News media serve multiple roles in a political system, and one of these is to act as the information provider. When news coverage is unbalanced or biased, that creates ripples in the system. Some of these may be positive, and some may be negative. I present evidence in the book that certain patterns of coverage can harm female candidates’ electoral prospects, contributing then to under-representation. In this sense, the book is an accounting of how well media live up to their primary task in a democracy. Generally, news media are doing a good job, but there is also systematic evidence of gender imbalance in coverage.

Alcantara: So what kinds of patterns of coverage did you find? And how pervasive were these patterns across media types (e.g. radio, tv, internet, etc.) and media outlets (e.g. “left-wing” vs. “right-wing” outlets)?

Goodyear-Grant: In terms of the patterns of coverage, I’ll give you the broad strokes. We tend to think about news coverage in terms of two broad categories: visibility and quality. Visibility refers to how much a person is shown or discussed, as well as how prominent in a newspaper or news broadcast their coverage is placed. On this measure, there is little systematic evidence that women are perennially disadvantaged. On certain indicators of visibility, women lag behind men, but on others, women and men are equal, or women actually outpace men. This last point is important. Some women are very prominent in news, such as former MP and cabinet minister, Belinda Stronach, as well as former NDP MP (and now mayoral candidate for the city of Toronto) Olivia Chow. Yet, this focus on women, or fixation in some cases, is often gendered. Women candidates sometimes receive a lot of news attention because of their novelty value, because they do not fit the bill of the traditional politician, or because of their connection to some powerful man, as in the case of Chow, whose marriage to the former NDP leader Jack Layton is mentioned in every one of her print news stories in my analyses of coverage of the 2006 Canadian federal election. While such coverage sets women apart as “different” because of their gender, likely contributing to enduring stereotypes that view men as the norm in political office, it is not clear that it would be an immediate electoral disadvantage for women. In fact, greater coverage can be beneficial for candidates, depending on the quality of the coverage.

On the more important issue of how men and women are covered in political news, the story is different. Systematic evidence is provided in Gendered News that women tend to be covered differently than their male counterparts because of their gender. Coverage of female candidates often fits into one of roles or stereotypes, sex object, mother, pet, and iron maiden, each of which poses dangers for women’s equal representation in politics, as well as societal gender equality more generally. Indeed, to the extent that news coverage perpetuates well-entrenched, but tired stereotypes about men’s and women’s roles, abilities, and aspirations, media contribute to broader dysfunctions in how the genders see themselves and each other.

The sex object was how Belinda Stronach was consistently portrayed, with news coverage that emphasized her appearance, personal life, and glamour over all else, but also her relationship to her powerful father, the automotive parts magnate, Frank Stronach, suggesting she was not to be taken seriously as a political figure. The iron maiden is another popular frame, and it fits with my discovery in the book that women candidates’ aggressive behaviour is exaggerated in news, while at the same time female “toughness” is implicitly criticized as “unfeminine”. This may be part of the reason for the book’s finding that news depictions of female politicians’ aggressive behaviour are actually detrimental to voters’ evaluations. When a woman goes on the offensive, voters rate her news stories more negatively, a result that was not produced for the male comparators in this portion of the study. This direct link between news coverage and public attitudes puts news media directly in the cross-hairs in assessing why women are politically under-represented.

Alcantara: And what did you find in terms of differences across media types and outlets?

Goodyear-Grant: In terms of patterns across media types and outlets, there are clear differences. The contrasts in print and broadcast coverage are due largely to the format differences. Broadcast news has very lean content. A 60-minute television newscast, leaving out time for commercials, has much less actual news than a newspaper. As such, lengthy descriptions are often absent from television news. This seems to benefit female candidates sometimes, because it is in all the descriptive material where commentary on appearances, personal lives, and the like creeps in. My analyses demonstrate that mentions of candidates’ appearances, clothes, and personal lives are much rarer in television news than in print news. Another major difference is the huge emphasis on party leaders in televised news compared to print news. Non-leader candidates are largely absent from national televised news programs. This means that without female party leaders, women are marginal in depictions of campaigns in national televised news. National papers have much more coverage of non-leader candidates, because they have more space. There are other differences, but these are some of the big ones.

In terms of outlets and whether those thought to be “left” or “right” in ideological orientation provide different coverage, not really. There aren’t actually systematic differences along these lines in hard news content (as opposed to editorial content, which I have not analyzed extensively in the book). One might expect more gender-balanced or gender-neutral coverage from outlets thought to lean “left”, but this is not borne out in the data in any systematic way. This finding is consistent with the literature on stereotypes, which says that their activation and use is largely implicit, not the result of explicit bias or prejudice.

Alcantara: Does the party to which a women politician belongs matter for your findings? Or any other individual characteristics, like ethnicity, age, or the like?

Goodyear-Grant: These are complicated questions. Separating the effects of gender on news coverage, on the one hand, from those of party, ethnicity, age, and other characteristics is tough. Starting with the question of party – the most critical consideration guiding the vote, and a powerful influence on news coverage as well – my book proposes that party does matter a great deal. One of the important points here is that gender and party stereotypes interact in important ways. To give an example, women in left-wing parties may be portrayed as more “soft”, compassionate, and liberal than they really are, in part because stereotypes about women and left-leaning parties encourage this. In contrast, where stereotypes collide, such as women in right-leaning parties, the outcome may be different. News stories may depict right-wing women as tougher, more aggressive – as possessing more masculine traits, essentially – because of party. Simply put, party moderates the impact of gender on news coverage.

Other individual characteristics can matter too for how gender influences media coverage. Ethnicity and age are obvious factors. Part of the difficulty in sorting out how they matter is that there have been comparatively few visible minority women and young women office holders to study. I cannot offer systematic evidence, but the analyses in the book suggest that minority and young women may get more coverage on account of their relative novelty, but their coverage may be problematic in what it says or implies about them. For example, my analyses suggest that visible minority women are often presented as exotic.

Alcantara: What kinds of advice might you offer female politicians as they navigate the news media? How about journalists?

Goodyear-Grant: These questions find me on shakier ground! I cannot claim to have much advice for female politicians about how to avoid gendered news, and I say this for several reasons. First, much of the gendering is beyond candidates’ control. There isn’t a whole lot many of them can do about their coverage. Even if they could, it would require hiding or de-emphasizing aspects of their personal lives or who they are – such as de-emphasizing the fact that they have children – and I’m not sure this is a good thing. I interviewed former Prime Minister Kim Campbell for this research, and one of the things she said about going into politics is that you cannot any longer be your authentic self, a fact she found unfortunate. I suppose this is true for both men and women, but to then take it one step further for women and strip them of all the things that make them different from men or that remind the electorate that they’re mothers or wives or daughters is ridiculous. The sacrifice is too great. It also does nothing to push newsmakers, and all of us, away from the idea that politics is a male preserve. Finally, the idea that gendered news is best avoided is not universally true, and especially not in the eyes of candidates on the campaign trail. While I make the case in the book that gendered news, broadly, ultimately harms women’s political representation, at the individual level it is not difficult to identify instances where gendered news has created opportunities for female candidates, either as a result of the practices that produce it or the way it’s received by audiences. Some of the female MPs I interviewed for the book felt, for example, that their gender garnered attention, and they welcomed the “leg up”, so to speak. Gendered news can present both opportunities and obstacles, is what I’m saying.

Journalists generally do a decent job of providing gender-balanced coverage, an important finding in the book. My advice to newsmakers would be to exercise caution and vigilance. Simple. Much of the gendered news coverage that is produced is the result of gender-based stereotypes, which get cued implicitly, without motive or conscious action. In other words, we are susceptible to gendered thinking about candidates because that is the schema with which we look at men and women in the world, all of us, and in many situations. Newsmakers need to be more cautious in the words they choose to describe female candidates and the topics in their stories about female candidates.

Alcantara: Now that this book is done, what’s your next major project?

Goodyear-Grant: I have a few projects active at the moment. I’m working on several papers assessing gender and race affinities in candidate preferences with Erin Tolley, my colleague at University of Toronto, using data collected from web-based survey experiments conducted over the past year. I’m also embarking on a new 5-year SSHRC-funded project with Amanda Bittner, my colleague at Memorial University, whereby we intend to identify better gender measures for use in survey research, with a focus on election and public opinion surveys. The challenge with this work is that we need to identify the politically-relevant aspects of gender identity, test various operationalizations of these, and then further test how these can be combined in an economical way for widespread use in standard public opinion and election surveys. This is an exciting project, to be sure, and one that is both methodologically and substantively innovative in its outcomes.

My Thoughts on the Aboriginal Title SCC Decision: Part 2

The National Post today (Wednesday July 2) printed my op ed on the impact of the recent SCC decision on Aboriginal title.  They haven’t posted a copy on the website yet and I’m not sure they will (the Canada Day holiday has played some havoc with the publishing schedule!).

So, just in case they don’t publish it online at some point, below is the raw, un-copyedited version of the op ed.  I hope my much more legally-informed and inclined colleagues (I’m looking at you guys, Macfarlane and Baker!) will tell me whether I’m right or wrong?
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Headline: A recipe for Indigenous Paralysis?

Of all of the dispute resolution mechanisms available to Indigenous peoples and the Crown in Canada, the judicial system is probably the worst of the lot.  Rarely do judicial decisions create harmony and compromise between two parties.  Instead, they frequently produce winners and losers and all of the negative feelings that come with being labeled as such.

Canadian judges have long been aware of this fact, which partly explains why it took them so long to clarify the exact nature of Aboriginal title in this country.  Previous to this decision, Canadian courts had urged Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal leaders to negotiate their disputes rather than litigate them.  This recent decision, however, dramatically changes this long-standing message from the bench, with potentially dire and unintended consequences.

One of the key mechanisms for addressing the Aboriginal land question in Canada has been the treaty process.  Although far from perfect, Aboriginal groups have been working with the Crown to negotiate comprehensive land claims agreements to facilitate economic development and empower their communities to exercise their autonomy within the broad legal framework of Canada.  Remember that the Supreme Court had previously refused to clearly spell out the nature of Aboriginal title, and so it made sense for Aboriginal groups to negotiate with the Crown.

This new decision, however, radically changes the incentives facing Indigenous people.  Now, we are likely to see Indigenous groups across Canada abandon negotiations in favour of simply asserting their title and sovereignty to all their lands.  Why bother negotiating a modern treaty, which involves giving up Aboriginal title in exchange for a mixed bag of ownership rights to a much smaller portion of Aboriginal lands, when you can exercise something akin to fee simple ownership over all of your traditional lands right away and without the time and expense of negotiating a treaty?

If Aboriginal groups choose this path, then the Crown will have to decide how to react.  Will it radically reform the treaty process to bring Aboriginal groups back to the table? Or will it seek confrontation by pushing the “compelling and substantial public purpose” angle to push development forward despite Aboriginal opposition?  Given the track record of this federal government, I think the latter strategy is more likely and Canadians should brace themselves for years of protests and confrontations.

A second unintended consequence of this decision, and one that I think is just as important as the others, is that it potentially empowers individual Indigenous citizens to hold not only the government of Canada accountable for its actions, but their Aboriginal leaders as well.  Aboriginal title now means something akin to fee simple rights, and which is collectively held by the Aboriginal community.  This also means, among other things, that Aboriginal groups may also face potentially powerful restrictions on how they can use their lands now and in the future.  According to the Supreme Court, lands held under Aboriginal title cannot be used in such a way as to threaten their future use by future generations.

What this means in practice is that even if an Aboriginal government grants its consent to a major economic development project, an individual band member could successfully sue to prevent that development from occurring on the basis that the project threatened the future use of the community’s lands.

It is also possible that band members might use this new definition of Aboriginal title to thwart other land use projects besides resource extraction, such as building casinos and even housing subdivisions. A band member might successfully argue that building a multimillion dollar casino will prevent future band members from using that particular plot of land for traditional cultural practices, like hunting and fishing.

There’s no question that this decision is a “game changer.” What’s unclear is exactly how the game has been changed and for whom.

Christopher Alcantara is an associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University. His latest book, Negotiating the Deal: Comprehensive Land Claims Agreements in Canada, was published last year by University of Toronto Press and was a finalist for this year’s Donald Smiley Prize.

 

The Supreme Court of Canada’s Recent Decision on Aboriginal Title: A Victory for Aboriginal Citizens?

The Supreme Court of Canada released a new ruling on Aboriginal title today.  I am not a legal scholar and so I will leave it to my more learned colleagues to talk about the legal implications and to correct my legal interpretations, but here are some thoughts!

Overall, the decision is important and significant because it advances a number of important legal principles relating to Aboriginal title (the SCC ruling gives a nice summary of the jurisprudence beginning with the Calder decision).

One contribution of this legal decision is that it clarifies and greatly expands how Aboriginal title is to be established and recognized in Canadian law.  Rather than “small, individual settlements” or “fishing rocks”, the SCC’s decision actually allows for the recognition of broad swaths of connected lands as belonging to Aboriginal people! This is a major victory for groups without treaties and gives them significantly more leverage in comprehensive land claims negotiations.  That in of itself, will be interesting to see especially in terms of how that will play out in B.C. (sounds like a topic for a future academic paper! Who’s game?!)
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It also clarifies the nature of ownership that Aboriginal title entails. Briefly, according to this new SCC ruling, Aboriginal title confers upon its owner something akin to fee simple ownership. The main difference, however, is that Aboriginal title is a collective right, not an individual one. As well, due to its collective nature, Aboriginal title means that those lands cannot be used in a manner that renders such lands as unusable by future generations.

This is a significant legal clarification, I think, because it somewhat restricts the ability of Aboriginal governments to provide their consent to massive economic development projects that could do serious harm to community lands.  Basically, this legal decision empowers Aboriginal citizens to check their Aboriginal governments should those governments give their consent to projects that could potentially and significantly harm their lands for future generations.  A significant legal development indeed!

Other than that, the decision also provides stricter guidelines regarding the duty to consult and accommodate, specifying two paths for doing so: acquire Aboriginal consent (subject to the constraints I mention above) or ignore Aboriginal consent if the Crown can show that it has a compelling and substantial political purpose that does not violate its fiduciary duty to Indigenous people.

Anyway, a very interesting decision from the SCC.  For me, the most surprising and unexpected implication of this ruling is the potential empowerment of Indigenous individuals and citizens to hold Aboriginal AND Canadian governments accountable for their decisions involving lands held under Aboriginal title.

Teaching Canadian Politics: Sharing Ideas. A guest post by Drs. Crandall and Lewis

At this year’s CPSA Conference, Drs. Erin Crandall and J.P. Lewis organized a roundtable on: “Practices, Objectives, and Innovations in Teaching Canadian Politics.”  I really wanted to attend this session but unfortunately, I was presenting a paper at the same time!  By all accounts, however, it was an interesting session and I was sorry to miss it.

Fortunately, Dr. Crandall and Dr. Lewis agreed to write the following guest post summarizing some of the ideas and discussions that happened at that session.  Enjoy!

Teaching Canadian Politics: Sharing Ideas
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By: Erin Crandall and J.P. Lewis

Academics have many ways and opportunities to share their research: conferences, articles, books, etc. While teaching conferences do exist in Canada – the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education is holding its 34th annual conference this spring at Queen’s – and political science in the United States has a tradition of dedicating journal and conference space to teaching issues, the Canadian political science community has never engaged in ongoing outreach, networking or collaboration in teaching Canadian politics.

At a time when technology makes it so easy to connect, it seems an opportunity lost that university professors teaching similar courses often don’t have an accessible network for sharing resources. We know, for example, that every year there are more than a hundred people teaching an introductory Canadian politics course at the university level. While many of the topics covered will be the same course to course, the materials used, and their method of deployment will vary by professor. Inevitably, some parts of these courses will work better than others, and it seems in everyone’s interest that we share both our successes and our failures. This seems especially true at a time when courses are increasingly taught by sessional instructors who may be teaching a course for the first time.

With these points in mind, last month we hosted a roundtable on teaching Canadian politics at the Canadian Political Science Association’s annual conference at Brock University. The objective of the roundtable was to provide a forum for Canadian politics professors to discuss practices, objectives, and innovations in teaching, and particularly to discuss the development of an online teaching resource to share materials.

Attendance for the roundtable exceeded our expectations. About twenty people – a mix of graduate students and senior and junior faculty – came together to talk about teaching Canadian politics. People described their courses (size, content, materials, and technologies used) and some of the challenges they face in teaching. It was, we think, a great chance to share and learn.

Moving forward, we’d like to continue this conversation. Those who attended the roundtable expressed interest in developing a network to share teaching ideas and resources. Over the next few months, our plan is to start making this idea a reality. We’ll be creating a listserv to facilitate discussion, as well as an online resource that will include Canadian politics syllabi, links to online resources, and PowerPoint presentations.

Based on the conversations we had at CPSA, we think there’s considerable interest in this type of collaboration and we’re excited to see how it will develop. If you weren’t able to attend the roundtable, but are interested in participating, please contact Erin Crandall and we’ll add you to our email list. This will be an ongoing project and all ideas and suggestions are welcome. J.P. Lewis will be co-chairing the Teaching and Research Skills Development session committee for next year’s CPSA conference so any teaching workshop suggestions are also encouraged.

Reforming Election Dates in Canada: Towards an Explanatory Framework

AuthorsChristopher Alcantara and Jason Roy

Published June 2014 in Canadian Public Administration.

Abstract: Since 2001, ten governments in Canada have passed fixed election date legislation. The typical assumption in the literature is that governments did so as a way to address public concerns about the undemocratic nature of calling and timing elections. This argument, however, does not explain the timing (that is, when the legislation was passed by each jurisdiction) of this policy change. We approach this puzzle deductively by applying the theoretical insights of multiple streams theory to the Canadian experiences. Our findings suggest that although all three streams were important, the political stream is crucial for explaining the timing of the legislation.

Here is also an op-ed that Dr. Alcantara wrote on the topic of fixed election dates.

CPSA and Graham White Conference

As many of you know, this last week was the annual CPSA conference. Attendance was low at just under 500 and panels were sparse. My audiences were 2, 7, and 2 respectively. Happily, the discussants were good this year and provided very useful comments (thanks Mario, Jim, and Jonathan!).

Heard a terrible presentation by Calgary’s mayor (more on this in a future post!) and some very “out of the box” ideas from Benjamin Barber. Luckily, Andy Sancton was on that panel as well and brought some much needed reason to the discussion! Continue reading

On Friday, I attended the Graham White Conference, or what Jon Malloy has been calling the “Whiteshrift”! Here’s the conference program, on Paul Thomas’s website:

http://pauledwinjames.wordpress.com/whiteconference/

It was a fun and interesting day. More on some of the presentations later, but here’s a photo of many of Graham’s current and former students, crammed into his prison cell, I mean office!

One thing I will say is that the mark of a full and rich career is the number and quality of people that surround the individual. It was impressive to see the range of people who showed up during the day, including many of his UofT colleagues, and many others. Also impressive were the presentations, especially by his former and current students. I was really impressed with the research and presentation styles of Jack Lucas and Paul Thomas. They are going to be major forces in the discipline!

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Why Elections Canada? Scrap? Reform?

Suppose you think there is a public goods rationale for government doing more than simply telling citizens where and when to vote. Suppose you accept — in principle, at least — that government has an interest in ensuring a fair political playing field. To be sure, you might disagree about the specific ‘goods’ in question and how they are best provided (as Chris and I do), but still think there is an important regulatory role for government here.

If you think this, then Chris quite reasonably asks: why Elections Canada? I may muse darkly about needing a strong and independent federal agency to stop a slide toward U.S.-style electoral theatrics, but at the end of the day Canada simply isn’t the United States: there are a range of social forces and public actors here that mitigate against the kind of free-spending, vitriolic, evidence-free acrimony that I fear.

So, even if my characterization of the U.S. system is accurate, why turn to Elections Canada, of all things, to do the work that could be done better by other agencies and non-government actors? That’s the essence of Chris’s challenge to me here. Continue reading

To be clear, I am not against serious reform to Elections Canada. Indeed, I think a genuinely fair elections act would do just that: reform and empower the agency. I’m also not wed to the centralized solution I’ve been lobbying for (although I do think there’s a good case for going that route). I might even share some of what I take to be Chris’s more generic suspicion about rushing to centralization of regulatory power as the solution whenever we find something that might vaguely resemble a public good.

I do think there is a public goods rationale for (i) non-partisan voter mobilization; (ii) maintaining the ‘information commons’ around elections in ways that require more than simply telling voters where and when to vote; and (iii) ensuring a fair political playing field. Chris rejects (i), but accepts (ii) and (iii). I’ll readily grant his scepticism about a strong centralized solution for (ii) and (iii). Indeed, if it can be shown that there is an effective and efficient way to provide the goods in question without an agency like Elections Canada, then I’m fine with that. It’s a technical question.

I am tempted, however, to respond to that scepticism by asserting a subsidiarity principle, and if you accept subsidiarity, then it seems as though federal elections invite a federal regulator, with the necessary powers at the federal level. An obvious analogy is policing and intelligence: there’s a reason the OPP doesn’t do CSIS and RCMP work, and vice versa.

Having said that, a contrasting analogy is securities regulation, and it’s interesting that here Canada does go a very different route than most big industrial economies: we don’t have an equivalent to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, for example.

I suppose one could make the case that we do just fine in Canada without an SEC-styled federal agency. People make that case, certainly. Others have concerns. Still others note that, in the U.S., the SEC isn’t powerful, independent, and effective enough to actually do it’s job, and so the solution is not to go the Canadian route, but to make a better regulatory agency.

It probably won’t surprise any readers of this exchange to learn that I sympathise with the latter complaint, although here as in elections, I’m not wedded in principle to a centralized solution. Again, it’s a technical question.

So, I guess I’m agnostic on the question of whether or not there might be a (uniquely Canadian?) approach to providing the public goods required for fair elections—one that doesn’t need a federal agency like Elections Canada. Of course, if you already have such an agency in place then there may an efficiency rationale for simply going that route, by reforming and empowering that agency, rather than gutting it.

Again, however, that’s an empirical question, and I’ll happily concede that there might be a plausible case for trashing Elections Canada and instead trying a decentralized approach that manages elections through a bunch of different offices and agencies.

I’ll note, though, that the Poilievre and the PMO have not made anything like that case, and are instead pushing for less regulation on campaign spending and content, higher costs of entry to the political game, and more diffuse enforcement and investigatory powers. These are all initiatives that seem to mitigate against Chris’s optimism that we do things differently up here, and that we can rely on the status quo arrangement to maintain the informational commons around elections.

In short, then, I think I share some of Chris’s reservations in principle. I simply don’t trust this government not to screw things up.

Fair Elections Act Debate: One More Once!

Loren and I agree that the state should have a role in elections.

Where we fundamentally disagree, I think, is on this point:

“I don’t want Canada sliding further toward the U.S. in this respect, so I think we have a compelling interest in sustaining a credible non-partisan state agency [e.g. Elections Canada] to balance and correct the excesses of partisan politics.”

I agree with him that there must be some sort of mechanism in place to “balance and correct the excesses of partisan politics” but I don’t think it should be Elections Canada.
Continue reading

First, we need to consider “the excesses of partisan politics” argument in terms of degree (e.g. a continuum). In Canada, we don’t suffer from the excesses that exist in the U.S. and so an expanded role for Elections Canada doesn’t make sense, nor do I think there is any credible or even anecdotal evidence that Elections Canada in its current role has created this situation or would be able to correct it in the future.

Second, don’t we already have mechanisms in place that do a pretty good job of correcting partisan misinformation and hyperbole in Canada? We have national, regional, and local newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations that cover elections with summaries and analysis. We have academics in Canada who are constantly in the media, giving interviews, providing seat projections and analysis of polls, and writing op eds and commentaries on twitter. We also have many independent pollsters, pundits, and think tanks, all of whom regularly provide analysis of issues, policies, and elections. So why do we need Elections Canada?

Third, why all of this hullabaloo over the information/motivational role of Elections Canada in particular? I agree with Loren that there is “a public interest in leveling the playing field of campaign spending and media access” but that’s not the job, nor should it be the job of Elections Canada! It’s the job of Parliament to pass laws and regulations on these issues, and for the police and the judicial system to enforce them.

In any event, I don’t think Canada will turn into the U.S. because of the Fair Elections Act. I don’t think Elections Canada with its present powers can prevent the type of hyper-partisanship and partisan hyperbole that critics are worried about, nor do I think Elections Canada should have the necessarily large amount of power that would be needed to actively prevent those types of activities from occurring in the future. I do agree that the Canadian state, along with civil society, should work together, no question, to provide information and motivation. But I just don’t see why it should be Elections Canada in particular.

Still More on the Fair Elections Act: What Kind of Informational Role for Elections Canada?

In his latest post, Chris argues against the state treating voting as a positive right, and he asks whether, if my worries about alleged partisan pathologies are persuasive, we should “be asking Elections Canada to do much more than it actually does”?

I suspect Chris means the question to be rhetorical (‘no, of course we shouldn’t!’), but frankly I’d take the gambit here and answer yes: a genuinely Fair Elections Act would empower the agency and expand its mandate, not gut it and consign it to a very narrow (merely procedural) informational role. Continue reading

(Then again, I also like the idea of Statistics Canada taking a regular and reliable census, and now we don’t have that either, so I’m not holding my breath.)

Does the state have an interest in mobilizing voters in non-partisan ways? I think yes: there’s something morally desirable about the kind of democracy you get when citizens think of voting not only (or chiefly) in partisan terms, but also as part of a greater civic project.

That isn’t to deny the importance of partisanship in democratic politics: I agree with Chris that partisan difference is important, even desirable. Still, democracy should be more than partisan conflict. We need to recognize that, even when we disagree (sometimes passionately), we are still part of a shared public project that is worth maintaining. I worry that, in the U.S., a widespread sense of politics as a shared project is increasingly precarious. (I don’t agree with Michael Sandel on much, but I do on this.)

I don’t want Canada sliding further toward the U.S. in this respect, so I think we have a compelling interest in sustaining a credible non-partisan state agency to balance and correct the excesses of partisan politics.

My moral stance can be disputed, however, just as Chris suggests. If you follow the tradition of, say, Joseph Schumpeter and William Riker, then you’ll emphasize the “liberal” over “democracy” in “liberal democracy,” and you’ll worry about the state pushing people to exercise their rights. The state’s job is simply to affirm and protect those rights, not nudging people one way or another.

So let’s grant that point, for the sake of argument: the state may have an interest in socializing young citizens to take seriously their (negative) right to vote, and also in informing adult citizens about how, where, and when to exercise that right. There is no compelling interest, however, in trying to encourage citizens actually to vote. As Chris puts it, “the role of the state with respect to voting is to protect the ability of citizens to participate freely in elections,” not to nudge them toward participation.

Still, even granting that view, the vision of democracy behind the Fair Elections Act seems unjustifiably restrictive in how it understands the kinds of information that the state might have an interest in providing.

Remember Poilievre’s succinct rationale for his proposed reforms?

There are two things that drive people to vote: motivation and information. Motivation results from parties or candidates inspiring people to vote. Information (the “where, when and how”) is the responsibility of Elections Canada.

What I don’t understand is why we should limit the informational role of Elections Canada to little more than pointing to polling stations and announcing election dates. Even on Chris’s protective and procedural account of democracy, why isn’t there a state interest in correcting the informational pathologies that we know are likely to arise from partisan mobilization strategies during campaigns? Why isn’t there a public interest in leveling the playing field of campaign spending and media access?

So, is citizen participation (sometimes) a public good? I think so, but even if you reject my moral grounds for that position, there is still a compelling ‘public good’ rationale for the state doing more than simply providing the “where, when, and how” of voting, and doing so through an effective and credibly non-partisan agency like Elections Canada.

If we take the negative right of voting seriously, then we should also care about the substantive, rather than simply procedural, features of the informational environment in which voting takes place. Since we know that partisan actors have a clear incentive to distort that environment, why not empower a non-partisan agency to maintain the quality of the informational commons?

This line of reasoning also supports keeping investigative and enforcement powers within the same agency that maintains the informational commons within which citizens exercise their right to vote, and bolstering, not weakening those powers.

So, I think someone with Chris’s view of liberal democracy has reasons to reject my moral argument for a state interest in mobilizing voters, but not for rejecting a state interest in maintaining a certain kind of public sphere: not only an unbiased informational environment, but also a fair playing field for varied partisan and non-partisan players.

That demands more than simply telling voters where, when, and how to vote.

Of course, if you think that personal rights always trump these kinds of public concerns, then you get the current U.S. system, where any serious attempts to regulate campaign contributions, or to police the volume and content of political advertising, are now considered violations of free speech.

I’m not convinced Canada should strive for such a system. Indeed, I think it would be a disaster (even if we seem to have been stumbling in that direction for some time). By gutting Elections Canada so decisively, and bolstering the financial clout of established parties in funding campaigns, it’s pretty clear that Poilievre and the PMO want to move us in just that direction, however.

That should trouble all of us.