Canadian Hijinks: Prorogue Madness

Having spent a good deal of my life exploring problems with the U.S. Constitution, I have a generally high tolerance level for governmental and constitutional confusions. The current mess in Canada, a nation that enjoys an enviable reputation for levelheadedness and civic virtue, underscores that even the best among us can contrive a constitutional structure with big problems.
A quick overview: Two months ago, Canadian voters elected a fragmented Parliament, as follows:
Conservatives: 35%
Liberals: 25%
New Democrats 20%
Greens 12%
Quebecois <10% The Governor General of Canada, Michaelle Jean (remember her!) asked the Conservative Party leader, Stephen Harper (him, too) to form a government. Harper took office as Prime Minister, but swiftly determined that the majority of Parliament was arrayed solidly against his economic policies -- a significant problem since the Canadian economy is no better than anyone else's right now. A no-confidence vote was adopted by Parliament. 1918015952_b412b7d22e.jpg
Governor General Michaelle Jean
Canadian Prime Minister (for now) Stephen Harper
Rather than resign as Prime Minister and allow the new majority to form a government, which is rather the accustomed form in such situations, Harper went back to Jean and asked her to “prorogue” Parliament. Jean did so. This means that for the next two months, Harper will continue to sit atop a very shaky government and Parliament will enjoy an extended holiday break.
How this all became possible requires a bit of background. In the eighteenth century, Canada was peopled mostly by earlier colonists from France and American loyalists who abandoned this country after the Revolution went badly for the British. The resulting political culture has been characterized by an intermittently fierce loyalty to Britain and bicultural tensions. Because they never threw the British out, but achieved their independence by gradualist, eminently reasonable, and nonviolent means, our brothers and sisters to the North have never sat down and written out a full-fledged Constitution for themselves. Rather, they make do with:
— The Constitution Act of 1867
— The Constitution Act, 1982
— The English Bill of Rights of 1689
— The Act of Settlement of 1701
— Such other provisions that the Supreme Court of Canada determines are authoritative.
Out of this welter of sources emerges the baffling position of Governor General, occupied since 2005 by the lissome Ms. Jean, whose family left Haiti when she was a girl and who was a prominent radio broadcaster before ascending to her current office. Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, who remains the Head of State for Canada, appoints the Governor General as her personal representative in Canada. In that role as crypto-Queen, Jean prorogued Parliament, an act of monarchical high-handedness that cost King Charles I his head in 1649.
(According to one of many angry Canadian commentators, other prominent “proroguers” in history include Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Pinochet. Not a list on which one would expect a Canadian name.)
I’ll admit it. The American way of getting rid of the British royal family was bloody, painful, and ill-tempered. But we did, after all, get rid of them. I’m guessing there’s quite a few Canadians who are appalled to confront the reality that the nominee of a foreign monarch has the power to banish its democratically-elected legislature for sixty days.
Time for a constitutional amendment? You bet.


  1. Nate Levin on December 8, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    What a fun post, David! Seems like the Canadians may be bound for Israel territory as far as fragmentation goes. Now if the Conservatives would only get split up…

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