Finding Identity from Foundations

Updated: May 28

Because Google Adsense deemed this website to have too little content for ads, I'll be posting my top 25 undergraduate papers. This was a paper from Canadian political thought. Trying to establish a Canadian political identity is quite the challenge.

Dalhousie University

POLI 3405

September 30th, 2019

At every point since the colonization, there was an adequate amount of distinction between the peoples of Canada so as to make the concept of a political Canadian identity potentially subjective. Therefore, finding a unique political identity to assign to the country of Canada as a whole, from the foundations to the present day, is more than a challenge. If those in political academia are asked the question of Canadian identity, generally answers given describe liberal democracy. However, the question is not one of a description of governance. The question is one of a unique political identity instilled from the countries foundations. A fair criteria for identity is that it must hold from the foundations to the present day, it must be agreed upon by virtually everyone, and it must be unique in the global context. To find descriptions of Canadian political identity, one must read scholars through the ages, such as Lord Durham, Gad Horowitz and Janet Ajzenstat.

Lord Durham's writings are the oldest amongst the oldest in this group. Unfortunately, the negative aspects of that become evident. As soon as he describes his justification for separating the head of government and the head of state, dividing us from our American friends, some trouble appears. He writes: "An elective executive council would not only be utterly inconsistent with monarchical government, but would really, under the nominal authority of the Crown, deprive the community of one of the great advantages of a hereditary monarchy."(1) For a present day political writer, this is where Durham reveals an antiquated blind spot. It is a blindspot that exists in Canada’s foundations. The mere inclusion of the word "hereditary" confirms suspicions that while Durham and the founders may have had plenty of fabulous and useful ideas, they are also a product of their time. To suggest that there is any benefit to insuring a position in decision making based solely on genetics is easily dismissible with examples of past monarchs being mentally ill. Durham and the founders was not privy mental disorders and other such rebuttals at the time, however a blind spot it remains.

Today, the country of Canada is relatively well-off. Does the heredity of our head of state have anything to do with our success as a nation? Perhaps a more relevant question to the theme of foundations and identity - how many Canadians think of the heredity of our head of state as an important part of our political foundations? How many Canadians are even aware that our head of state, where all executive power rests, is a position granted on heredity? It may have been an important part of Canadian political identity among scholars and politicians at the inception of our system of governance. Nonetheless, in the humble opinion of an aspiring 21st-century political writer, for something to truly be an identity, it must not change, and it must be something that you are aware of. That is why the role of the monarchy in our system of governance, along with the separation of the head of state and the head of government is ineligible to be the defining aspect of Canadian political identity. And an unfortunate negative aspect of our foundations.

Gad Horowitz, on the other hand, is a political scholar who writes more of specific ideological identity in Canada’s foundations. In "Conservatism, Liberalism, and Socialism in Canada: An Interpretation" he describes not only a "Canadian socialism" but also an American version, European version, etc. Is there a unique Canadian political identity to be found in his description of Canadian socialism? A particular unfortunate critique of the style of Horowitz could be how fond he is of using ideological labels and groupings. Consider the following quote: "Socialism is an ideology which combines the corporate-organic-collectivist ideas of Toryism with the rationalist-egalitarian ideas of liberalism."(2) The odds that the reader has the same definitions for each of those labels in their mind as Horowitz does is most likely slim to none. Surely links can be made between "collectivist" and "Toryism." However, as John Osborne describes, "Tories have always accepted social reform that does not seek to uproot worthwhile existing institutions."(3) That seems like the antithesis of socialism. Horowitz might also want to ask a self-identified socialist what they think about the idea of a social order.

Horowitz also appears to assume ideas are born from the bathwater. Some public scholars routinely tell Atheists that they are not atheists because they were brought up in a society founded on Judeo-Christian ideals. Horowitz seems to follow this line of thinking concerning political ideologies. This shouldn’t be surprising considering Horowitz wrote with fellow scholar Louis Hartz who claimed predictive behaviour can be observed by nations depending on who originally colonized them. What was called “fragment theory.”(4)

This kind of thinking Horowitz brings to Canadian identity has shaky foundations. Did he manage to forget that Franklin Roosevelt was the only American president elected three times? He was arguably the most "socialist" president there ever was. Also, besides universal health care, what exactly makes Canada more socialistic or welcoming to socialism than the United-States? It seems as though this may have been a foundational assumption for Horowitz presented without polling data or explicit tangible examples. Therefore, in my view, Horowitz does a poor job pleading his case for a unique ideological Canadian political identity granted by the foundations of Toryism.

Horowitz describes a particular Canadian brand of socialism which in his view is guided from Canada's initial relation to Toryism. Although, he's not the only scholar to write about this parallel. Janet Ajzenstat wrote; "… the crucial and distinctive social values, the ones that distinguish us from Americans, originated in conservatism", adding that "… Canadians were - and perhaps still are today - less individualistic than Americans." She also claims that "We are less wedded to the idea of egalitarianism."(5) The same overall critiques can be made to Ajzenstat that were made to Horowitz. Such as; which metrics are being assumed to argue these points? If these points are valid, why was Canada quicker to legalize marijuana than the United States? Why hasn't the United-States gotten rid of the death penalty if they are less influenced by Toryism and more about egalitarian liberty? There are legions of examples that can be made to show that general political thought amongst the populous at large is not grounded in prevalent ideas around its foundations, but instead grounded in influence from outside entities. Such as media and corporate advertising.

It is for these reasons primarily why I conclude that there is most likely no unique Canadian political identity given from the countries foundations. An identity that has existed from conception to present day, which virtually all Canadians agree with and one that is unique among nations on this planet. Indeed we are a liberal democracy, but that is far from uncommon on this planet. In fact, there are other nations whom one could argue are more "liberal" and more "democratic" than we are.

As has been detailed, plenty of scholars have attempted to write about the Canadian political identity. Durham writes about the head of state being monarchical as being integral to Canada's political foundations. While monarchy may have been apart of our identity at one point, it certainly cannot be today given the frequency of hands that are raised when a college political science professor asks the class if they've ever heard the Crown is "symbolic."

On the other hand, Horowitz describes Canadian political foundations as having a "touch of Toryism," which formulates a unique brand of "Canadian Socialism." He tries to explain why Canada is more welcoming of socialism with the parallels to Toryism in its foundations. However, his comparisons are flawed. It is difficult to imagine any socialists being in favour of a social order, that is, unequal distributions of power. It is also important to note that the United-States elected Franklin Roosevelt three times then elected Ronald Reagan twice only a generation later. Perhaps political identity changes frequently and a countries foundational ideologies fade rapidly.

Ajzenstat is another writer who adds to the thinking of Horowitz — describing Canadians as less individualistic and less wedded to egalitarianism than Americans. That does little to explain why Canada was first to legalize marijuana and gay marriage. And why Canada was the first to abolish slavery. Which is why I conclude that Canadians, like Americans, as well as all humans, adopt ideas which are best sold to them or fit their own personal interests. There appears to be no embedded political identity, from foundations to the present day. Especially if systems of governance can change in the blink of an eye. To further cement Canadas lack of political uniformity, here’s a final quote from Ajzenstat when describing what Canadians have in common; "Some think we have too many laws; others are deeply involved in projects to expand the regulatory state. We change our minds about policy and politics as we age; we change our minds by the season."(6) She goes on to write that our commonality is our precious heritage of equal liberty and consent. However, it is inarguable that equal liberty was not always granted to women and minorities throughout our entire heritage. And if we are to have a political identity from our foundations in Canada, everyone must be included.


Ajzenstat, Janet, “Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament”, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007, Page 6

Ajzenstat, Janet, “Canada’s Founding Ideas: Confederation and Individual Liberty”, Macdonald-Laurier Institute, 2010, Page 17

Horrowitz, Gad, “Conservatism, Liberalism, and Socialism in Canada: An Interpretation”, 1966

Lambton, John, 1st Earl of Durham, “Report on the affairs of British North America”, 1839

McRae, K.D., “Louis Hartz Concept of the Fragment Society and its Applications to Canada”, Carleton University, Page 19

Osborne, John, “Toryism”, 1984, Page 331

1 - Lambton, John, 1st Earl of Durham, “Report on the affairs of British North America”, 1839

2 - Horrowitz, Gad, “Conservatism, Liberalism, and Socialism in Canada: An Interpretation”, 1966

3 - Osborne, John, “Toryism”, 1984, Page 331

4 - McRae, K.D., “Louis Hartz Concept of the Fragment Society and its Applications to Canada”, Carleton University, Page 19

5 - Ajzenstat, Janet, “Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament”, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007, Page 6

6 - Ajzenstat, Janet, “Canada’s Founding Ideas: Confederation and Individual Liberty”, Macdonald-Laurier Institute, 2010, Page 17