Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In the rain with Trudeau and the Queen 25 years ago

It was raining that day on Parliament Hill when I and countless other proud Canadians stood in the rain to witness Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Queen Elizabeth II sign the Constitution. Canada had at long last broken free of its colonial status.

Thrown into the bargain was a controversial Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Although one of Trudeau's few real achievements, the charter has, nonetheless, been a disappointment. Intended to enshrine individual rights in the constitution, the charter has in many ways come up short.

First, the existence of that pesky notwithstanding clause means that governments can always override the charter if they see fit. While the argument for parliament supremacy is compelling, it is little consolation for non-francophones living in Quebec where the provincial government has repeatedly used the notwithstanding clause to circumscribe minority linguistic rights. We should not be surprised that majorities sometimes act like majorities. That's why we have a charter. Too bad that when it really counts, the rights of minorities can still be sacrificed.

Second, the charter has proven to be quite a malleable instrument in the hands of activist lawyers and judges, and has been used in ways that parliament never imagined, let alone intended. A constitution is a living document, the interpretation of which will evolve over time to reflect changes in broader society. Yet it is a fine balance between reflecting societal change and inducing it. I would argue that rather than being pulled by those changes, the charter has often been doing the pushing.

Finally, many people mistakenly believe the charter is about individual rights. It is not. We are not all equal before the law. In many cases, group rights trump individual rights. Consequently, if you are an aboriginal, a catholic or a francophone, to take three examples, you may have "rights" that the rest of us don't. In effect, individual freedom still sits at the back of the bus.

All the same, I think Canada is better off with an imperfect charter of rights and freedoms than without. For that, Pierre Trudeau and the Liberal Party deserve our appreciation. But please, spare me the mock indignation of Paul Martin and others that our rights are somehow threatened by a Conservative government. The charter is there to protect the rights of all Canadians, not just the favoured causes of the left. Until it does, do not be surprised that some of us do not hold it up on a pedestal.

Friday, April 13, 2007

So he goes

Kurt Vonnegut has left the planet. I hope the Tralfamadorians treat him well.

I grew up with Kurt. While my friends were reading Lord of the Rings, I was devouring Cat's Cradle, Sirens of Titan, Player Piano and Slaughterhouse-Five. Kurt's fantasy world just seemed so much more real.

Given my conservative political leanings, it may surprise you that Vonnegut is my favourite novelist. In my view, however, it is a mistake to consider Vonnegut a leftist as many, including himself, do.

Vonnegut regards himself as a man of the left, but I've met many libertarians, conservatives, and objectivists who admire Vonnegut's work. Libertarians admire him because he's antiwar and distrusts government. Objectivists mostly enjoy his atheism and Bokononist satire of religion. And conservatives discern a patriotic nostalgia for small town America in some of his work. While I think that's especially true of his short stories, I've met one conservative who was taken with Vonnegut's midwestern family history in Palm Sunday. Ralph Nader has praised such "true conservatism," distinguishing it from corporatism or empire building.

Player Piano illustrates in devastating fashion the ultimate inhumanity of the welfare state, while his classic short story Harrison Bergeron unmasks liberal pretensions to equalize the human condition. Vonnegut undoubtedly cared about his fellow man, but he was not naive.

To Mr. Vonnegut, the only possible redemption for the madness and apparent meaninglessness of existence was human kindness. The title character in his 1965 novel, “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine,” summed up his philosophy:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ ”

There is nothing inconsistent with conservatism in that. It is a philosophy to live by. I'll miss you Kurt.