Canada’s Founding and Political Philosophy

First things. After many, many, months (i.e. almost two years) I finally finished Tecumseh and Brock – what a wonderful book. One thinks the Canadian government’s valourization of these two eminent figures of Canadian history was the right intention, poorly executed. (Next will be The Civil War of 1812).

I am also looking for a treatment of the rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada in 1838/9 that is truly a work of political history. If you’ve stumbled across this space and have some suggestions, please share.

Like the rest of the world I inhabit, I’ve started reading Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Doubt I’ll have more to say than what has already been printed. I recommend Larry Arnhart’s thoughts, comparing Piketty’s account of the origins of inequality with the light and compass on that topic.

Oh, I’ve read Crazytown, the story of the incredible last year in my humble metropolis. The title is appropriate. I also read a fantastic book (on the recommendation of Elise) by John Vaillant: The Tiger. This gripping account of life in the Taiga is superb writing. This author is a notch above Krakauer who is far more famous in this genre. Next up is The Golden Spruce.

But the purpose of this post is the intellectual autobiography by McMaster Professor Emeritus Janet Ajzenstat: Discovering Confederation. This book is a treasure, and permanent possession. If only more academics would be so brave to recount their relationship to the great and permanent questions – but this first requires the bravery and courage to face these questions. And though it’s an autobiography one learns far more about Canada than about Ajzenstat. This book is a window into the essence of the Canadian founding, or at least one path there. It is for that reason necessary reading – not just for any Canadian, but especially for them – but for those of us who aspire to a truly liberal education. Here is an example of a scholar devoting a lifetime of study to the regime in which she was cultured and educated, in order to divine some insight into the permanent problems of political life – i.e. good and just governance, the exercise of freedom, the struggle for equality, and so on. Canada’s governing institutions come to life not as some counterrevolution as I was taught, or some afterthought, or some accident, but as a purposefully chosen. When Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said that the constitution was not worth the paper it’s written on, he could not be further from the truth nor a better example of the need for a thorough evaluation of Canadian civic education.

The highlights of this book for me are many. The kind words for one of my supervisors (whose heavily annotated copy of Ajzenstat’s Political Thought of Lord Durham I have been lucky to inherit). The shade throwing on my university library for its past greatness and current shame. The gloss on her Rabbi who remains unnamed but must have been Rabbi Stanley Weber, and whose dissertation on Strauss I’ve written about previously in this space. And the wonderful recollections of Allan Bloom during his Toronto days, and her fond memories of his Emile course. As a student of political philosophy whose culminating year at U of T was spent reading Emile with one of Bloom’s most famous students, before arriving at McMaster to study political theory and modernity, Ajzenstat’s book is a beautiful depiction of the two places my education has called home.

These personal attachments to her story are, of course, not so important to those with a different biography. But her book, as her career, does its best work advocating for the importance of the way Canada’s Fathers of Confederation answered the most pressing question that humanity has ever face: “How must we live?”. I should turn to the edited collection on Canada’s Founding Debates right away.

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2 comments
  1. Trit said:

    I experienced the great joy of discovering Ajzenstat in my graduate studies-she is indeed an excellent writer and a penetrating academic. And for me, anyone who plays a part in resuscitating the story of Canada’s beginnings has me in their cheering section! I have always found it incredibly frustrating how Canadians tend to downplay the brilliance of our constitution with as much fervor as Americans immortalize theirs. Another book that I would highly recommend to those wishing to receive a more positive and less pessimistic perspective on our constitution is “1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal” by Christopher Moore. Very well researched, and written with an enthusiasm for Canadian history-it helps Canadians to enjoy our own history as much as we should.

    • Mike D said:

      What a great comment. I arrived at McMaster about one year to late to take a class with Ajzenstat, something I wouldn’t understand that I missed out on until I read Tocqueville. I love the path I took/am still taking through grad school, but it would have been fantastic to sit in on a class with her. Thanks for the Moore recommendation – I’m always interested in such things.

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