Bumped: A Tale of Pan-Institutional Deniability and a Pissed Off, Tired Law Student with Nothing Better to Do

Tuesday April 25th, 12:06 PM. Halifax Stanfield International Airport. Three and a half coffees and four Timbits deep.

Plausible deniability refers to a set of circumstances where someone, usually by virtue of her or his place in the chain of command, can deny involvement in wrongdoing by feigning ignorance. Mutual deniability refers to a set of circumstances where two people can deny wrongdoing by pointing to each other and saying “he did it!”

A few minutes ago, I overheard a ticketing agent at a nearby gate venting to her co-worker. In six words, she captured the essence of a concept that I call “Pan-Institutional Deniability”. While trying to fix a broken printer that looked like it was from the late 1970s, the agent exclaimed: “is everybody on crazy pills here?!” I didn’t yell “AMEN, SISTER!” But I wanted to.

My story isn’t novel. It doesn’t deserve any pity (although I won’t refuse it). We have all been there. If you haven’t, you probably will be eventually.

I checked in for my flight yesterday afternoon. After receiving my electronic boarding pass from an Air Canada server located in the 6th Circle of Hell, I noticed that I wasn’t assigned a seat number. Crap, here we go.

Fast forward to 5:14 this morning. My alarm goes off and I check my phone to see if Air Canada updated my ticket. I’m an optimist. After learning that my seat was still… well, not my seat I started to get a little peeved. While sitting at the gate – awaiting my ultimate fate – I ran scenarios through my head. I am only home for five days in an eight month span. Am I going to give the ticketing agent a hard time if she turns me away? Am I going to remind her that I haven’t seen my family in months? Am I going to pretend that I am part of that group of Chinese exchange students and slip onto the flight? I quickly rule out the latter.

I glance up at the ticket agents. Two ladies who look closer to retirement than I do. They are probably mothers, maybe even grandmothers. Surely, they understand how disappointing it would be to learn that their son or grandson would not be home for as long as expected.

I decide to play it cool and let the universe unfold.

Fifteen minutes later, I watch my flight take off from the departure lounge. The ticket agents give me a generous travel voucher and some money for food (which I plan to spend on beer… let’s be real). Their expression told me everything. I could see that they didn’t want to bump me and they could see that I didn’t want to be bumped.

Before leaving the desk, I thanked them and said that I was upset with Air Canada’s bureaucracy. We both knew that there were empty business-class seats on the flight that could have and should have been filled. The agents both shared a look, smiled, and then told me they worked for three airlines over the years and it was the same story across the board: the system if filled with good people, but structural forces prevent them from acting in customers’ best interests.

A similar story played out when I tried to spend the remainder of the day in the Maple Leaf Lounge – an area reserved for business class travellers. Yes, I understand that I am one of the great unwashed and thus don’t have the right to a pleasant 7+ hours while I wait in the airport because of Air Canada’s profit-maximizing, Darwinian raffle that they call air travel. Still, the least they could do was let me buy a day pass to the lounge – especially seeing as it was completely empty.

Empty business-class seats and an empty business-class lounge. I am starting to see a pattern here. Dare I say that my inconvenient brush-up with the airline industry is indicative of a broader paradox that transcends Air Canada’s convoluted bureaucratic web of policies.

Pan-institutional deniability lies at the core of this paradox.

Here’s the rub. Institutions create rules (or ‘red tape’) to ensure fairness. I can stomach that. It would be unfair for me to benefit from business-class services that I didn’t pay for. If they let me in, they would have to let everyone in. However, in pursuit of fairness, institutions have forgotten about another important value: empathy. An unintended consequence of prioritizing one set of values at the expense of others is that it only allows for one incentive structure to inform how an institution operates. In the airline industry, employees are structurally incentivized to prioritize procedures over a more substantive view of fairness. In the university industry, senior administrators are incentivized to prioritize a balanced budget over alleviating student debt. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

The agent’s sentiment that everyone must be on crazy pills sums up the collective resentment that many of us have towards airlines these days. Passengers are tired of being treated as price units. Tired of forcing down snacks that people wouldn’t feed to their pets. Air travel is the only service that I can think of where, after paying large sums of money upfront, customers can still be denied the service. A hair dresser wouldn’t double book a slot, make you pay in advance, and then tell you that they will take you in six hours. A concert venue doesn’t overbook seats in case there are no-shows.

So, why the airline industry?

When trying to untangle why the airline industry sucks, I think that we could all benefit from looking at things through the lens of pan-institutional deniability. Of course nobody is on crazy pills. Granted, I wouldn’t mind a few to take the edge off at this point. Everyone wants to take the path of least resistance in situations like these. Passengers want to get on the flight they paid for. Ticketing agents don’t want to turn weary travellers away. Grouchy gatekeepers at the Maple Leaf Lounge would probably love to do a good deed from time to time. And a small part of me (a VERY small part of me) even believes that airline executives aren’t heartless lizard people who are hell bent on maintaining an economic bottom line no matter how many people they burn along the way.

I am, once again, sitting at the gate waiting to board my flight. The gate agent just asked for some volunteers. Another day, another overbooked flight. Here we go again. Bump.

Primus Inter Pares

“I’m asking for your resignation. I am the Prime Minister. I name my ministers. I’m demanding your resignation. I have the right to do so.”- Lester Pearson, prime minister and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Dupuis, cabinet minister

Canadian prime ministers have always had the unilateral authority to select a cabinet ‘team’; to hire and fire ministers; to shuffle cabinet at will; to appoint senators, Supreme Court judges, deputy ministers and exempt staff. However, despite the seemingly divine authority that prime ministers possess, the history books tell us that they did not become full-blown autocrats until the late 1960s. It is, therefore, not the rules of the game that have changed in the past half century. Those have remained the same since Confederation. Instead, after spending the better part of six months researching prime ministerial power in Canada, I have come to the melancholy realization that it is not the rules that are the problem; rather, it is how the game is being played that must change. I use the word melancholy instead of gloomy, bleak, hopeless, or painful because in the game of politics it is much easier to change the way the players interact with the rules than the fundamental underpinnings of the game itself.

Canada has witnessed grotesque perversions of prime ministerial power throughout history: the Pacific Scandal, the King-Byng Affair, the Sponsorship Scandal, and the Harper prorogation, to name a few. However, it is my contention that cabinet ministers have been the lesser-known, but equally damaged victims of prime ministerial despotism, especially since the 1960s – which is a problem for Canadian democracy. A BIG PROBLEM. Sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it? After all, cabinet is an appointed body; all of its deliberations take place in secret; and most of its documents are sealed for decades before the public can access them. So why is it such a big deal if cabinet ministers’ power has been usurped by the prime minister?

Well, the short answer is that the cabinet represents the last check on prime ministerial authority that Canadians have. That is, because all laws and policies originate from cabinet, it is imperative that cabinet ministers are in a position to meaningfully challenge the prime minister on governmental objectives. If ministers simply rubber-stamp every initiative that the prime minister and his lackeys (or as Donald Savoie calls them, “courtiers”) in the PMO bring to the cabinet table then a government of many quickly turns into a government of one. Unfortunately, just that has happened. If you want to know more about how the prime minister has consolidated power over cabinet ministers, feel free to read my thesis in a month or two. For now, however, you will have to take my word that the prime minister is no longer primus inter pares (or ‘first among equals’) in cabinet. Instead, he is simply primus: a king, “le boss”, god.

As such, it seems like now is a great time to rethink how we ought to go about playing politics in Canada. Luckily, the following piece sets out to do just that. Below you will find one modest proposal for reforming prime ministerial despotism over cabinet ministers in Canada. It is a little half-baked, but that is the point. I want to know what you think. Enjoy!

On Dec. 3, 2013 Conservative MP, Michael Chong introduced bill C-559 to the House of Commons. The Private Member’s Bill entitled: “An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act (reforms)” (otherwise known as “the Reform Act”) sought to empower both cabinet ministers and MPs vis-à-vis the prime minister. In Chong’s own words:

“[The Reform Act] is a bill that would strengthen the principle on which our democratic institutions in Canada were founded, that being the principle of responsible government… It would restore and strengthen the concept of confidence in House of Commons parliamentary party caucuses and would reinforce the caucus as a decision-making body.”

Section 6 of the Reform Act is important to note. It provides that:

“(i) a leadership review may be initiated by the submission of a written notice to the caucus chair signed by at least 15% of the members of the party’s caucus, (ii) a leadership review is to be conducted by secret ballot, with the result to be determined by a majority vote of the caucus members present at a meeting of the caucus, and, (iii) if a majority of caucus members present at the meeting referred to in subparagraph (ii) vote to replace the leader of the party, a second vote of the caucus shall be conducted immediately by secret ballot to appoint a person to serve as the interim leader of the party until a new leader has been duly elected by the party.

In plain language, s.6 of the Act gives the parliamentary caucus the power to remove a party leader, even if that leader is a sitting prime minister. This provision represents a palpable departure from the belief that “what the parliamentary group did not create, it may not destroy, at least without ratification by the party ‘grass roots’.”, as Mackenzie King put it. Indeed, if the Reform Act were ratified by all parties it would be, as Chong says, a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to reclaim… influence in caucus and, by extension, Parliament.” Unfortunately, the Conservatives have been the only party to ratify s.6 of the Act thus far.

The reason why the Reform Act is important to note is because it represents a shift in the way that Canadians are thinking about executive power. However, despite the progressive nature of the Reform Act, I argue that a truly “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to empower parliamentarians will also take the political executive into account.  Therefore, I seek to take s.6 of the Reform Act several steps further.

Despite the fact that there are countless other reforms that could empower cabinet ministers vis-à-vis the prime minister, it is evident that palpable changes to the status quo are most likely to come about if they are done at the institutional level. Extraneous factors such as the media and the rise of executive federalism, for example, have taken on a path-dependent logic that makes them very difficult to reform without paradigmatic shifts. In the case of the media, it is unlikely that news outlets are capable of shifting away from the 24-Hour news cycle or “de-celebratizing” prime ministers unless societal attitudes towards media consumption shift enormously. Similarly, because executive federalism is an outcome of highly complex governing in the 20th and 21st centuries, it is difficult to reimagine a change in intergovernmental decision-making that would still allow for inter-jurisdictional programs to be negotiated and administered in a more efficient manner. This is not to say that the latter is impossible, but rather that it is unlikely given the inherent interdependence between the federal and provincial governments today.  Consequently, I am putting forward one recommendation that will directly empower cabinet ministers vis-à-vis the prime minister at the institutional level.

It is argued here that the following reform address the roots of ministerial disempowerment in Canada’s parliamentary system. That is, this reform will meaningfully change the status quo without changing the nature of extra-parliamentary institutions such as the media or executive federalism and without undermining the fundamental logic of responsible government. In fact, if this recommendation is adopted it is likely that Canadian democracy as a whole will function better because cabinet ministers will be empowered to play a more constructive role in all political institutions.

Recommendation:  All cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, are to be selected by the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings of their respective party before a general election has taken place. Moreover, all cabinet ministers, including the sitting prime minister, are to be subject to ‘leadership’ reviews by members of the parliamentary caucus.

Canadian prime ministers (and all party leaders, for that matter) have been selected by delegates from both the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings of their respective parties since 1919. The aforementioned method of leadership selection has ostensibly democratized the process by which a sitting prime minister comes into power. However, an unintended consequence of the democratization of party leadership selection is that it has put sitting prime ministers in what Savoie calls “unassailable” positions of power. As a consequence of their increased popular legitimacy –  which should not be conflated with democratic legitimacy –, Canadian prime ministers have dominated cabinet to an unprecedented degree compared to other Anglo-Celtic Westminster parliamentary democracies . Therefore, one is left to draw the conclusion that if Canadian prime ministers are to be primus inter pares in cabinet, that all other ministers of the Crown should enjoy the same amount of popular legitimacy as the first minister. In other words, if the prime minister has the ability to dominate cabinet decision making because she enjoys the popular support of the extra-parliamentary party, then perhaps the best way to restore a balance of power is to elevate all other ministers to the prime minister’s level.

Furthermore, as it stands, the Reform Act empowers sitting MPs to initiate leadership reviews and select an interim leader until the entire party can select a new leader. It is recommended here that – in order to completely remove the appointment of cabinet ministers from the prime minister’s powers – the leadership review mechanism outlined in the reform Act be extended to all cabinet ministers. These reviews would ensure that it is the caucus that decides whether or not a cabinet minister should remain in her or his portfolio, as opposed to the prime minister.

It is worth outlining the specifics of the proposed reform in brief. Once again, it is recommended here that cabinet is selected by party membership before a general election has been held. It would ultimately be up to the party to develop specific voting procedures and policies pursuant to the selection of cabinet. For instance, as discussed below, some pan-Canadian parties might decide to build regional representation into cabinet selection by placing regional quotas and caps on the amount of members who can run for a given position in cabinet. However, there are two requirements that all parties would have to adhere to in order for this reform to bring about meaningful change. The first is that only sitting MPs are eligible to run for positions in cabinet. The merits of having experienced MPs in cabinet are discussed in full below. The other requirement is that sitting MPs initiate leadership reviews – not members of the extra-parliamentary wing. The latter requirement will ensure that elected officials hold the balance of power in determining the performance of cabinet while still empowering all party members to take part in the selection of new ministers.

The timing of when cabinet is selected obviously carries virtues and vices. If cabinets are selected by parties before a general election, it is not unreasonable to maintain that cabinet minister elects will capitalize on the electoral security of winning their respective ridings. In the event that a cabinet minister ‘wins’ a portfolio, but goes on to lose her or his riding, however, an all-party election would be called to replace said minister after a general election – which could be a logistical drawback. On the positive side, if cabinet is selected by parties prior to elections, it is likely that campaigns would be less leader-driven and more focused on which cabinet – as opposed to simply which prime minister – is best suited to govern. However, the latter option is more feasible for opposition parties than for parties in government. This is because incumbent parties would already have a cabinet in place heading into an election and would thus be incentivized to re-elect their existing cabinet. Conversely, if a cabinet-wide review is undertaken prior to the dissolution of government it is entirely feasible for incumbent parties to put forward a new cabinet ‘team’ at the outset of the campaign period. What is important, in any case, is that the Canadian public knows not only who their prime minister could be when they go to the polls, but also who their entire government might be.

It should be noted that a less extreme solution to the problem of prime ministerial dominance in cabinet is for the political executive to be selected by all sitting MPs in the House of Commons, as is the case with the Consensus Government model used in Nunavut and the North-West Territories. Under Consensus Government, the first minister and cabinet are chosen by all MLA’s by way of a secret ballot after a general election has been held. Consequently, according to Graham White, “ministers are beholden to MLAs rather than premieres for their cabinet posts.” Despite the fact that this reform is progressive and well-suited to parliamentary governance, I argue that political culture inhibits it from being realistically implemented at the federal level. That is, because leadership conventions have become the norm in federal politics, it is much more feasible to work within the bounds of the existing framework than eliminate it all together.

The positive consequences of adopting this reform are four fold. Firstly, the prime minister (and a handful of his unelected senior advisers) would no longer have the power to unilaterally appoint cabinet ministers behind closed doors. Instead, all cabinet ministers would be appointed by the governor general on advice from the governing party as a whole. Because the governor general is still responsible for appointing cabinet – which is, after all, no more than a committee of Her Majesty’s Privy Council –, this recommendation fits well within Canada’s existing constitutional order.

It also logically follows that cabinet ministers would no longer serve at the pleasure of the prime minister under this proposed reform. Rather, because all ministers serve at the pleasure of their party, it is reasonable to assert that they would be in a better position to challenge the prime minister without fear of being removed from cabinet. By the same token, this recommendation also delegitimizes the prime minister’s ability to shuffle cabinet at will. According to White, frequent cabinet shuffles are a “defining feature of the modern-day Canadian cabinet.” In fact, White notes that Canadian prime ministers (and provincial premiers) shuffle their cabinets more than in any other Westminster system. The reasons for doing so: “to reward solid performers and remove political deadwood; to give the appearance of freshness and progress… and to alter the political composition or outlook of cabinet.” It is my position, however, that in a democracy one minister should not have the power to determine the composition or direction of government; to decide who is performing well and who is falling behind. That is the job of a king, not a prime minister. Instead, the caucus should be able to decide.

Not only do frequent cabinet shuffles undermine ministerial authority within their respective departments (an ‘involved’ minister will only know 20% her departmental on goings), but they also diminish a ministers’ ability to meaningfully advocate for departmental needs within cabinet. Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull highlight the amount of power that comes with having the ability to shuffle cabinet at will: “[one cannot overemphasize the degree to which  Canadian prime ministers have been able to use “Cabinet shuffles,” entailing some mix of promotions, demotions, lateral transfers, and dismissals, to keep ministers in line with the prime minister’s agenda.” On the latter, cabinet ministers are serving on their portfolios less time than ever before, which indicates that ministers are becoming increasingly disposable. Frequent cabinet shuffles also have negative implications for the overall collegiality of cabinet, as well as the functioning of line-departments. Therefore, if the prime minister no longer enjoys the power – or at least perceived legitimacy – to shuffle cabinets, it can be said that ministers will enjoy a higher degree of authority both within their departments and cabinet.

Secondly, it is likely that the proposed reform would limit the size of cabinet to a reasonable number of ministers – which would in turn improve the overall collegiality of cabinet. This is because it would be logistically difficult to select more than a couple dozen ministers in a single convention. What is more likely is that parties will opt to standardize the size of cabinets or periodically decide how many ministers would be required to carry out their platform. It should be noted that Canadian federal cabinets have grown enormously since Confederation. In fact, while cabinet was originally comprised of 13 ministers under Macdonald, by 1907 the average federal cabinet contained 15 ministers. The size of cabinet steadily grew throughout the 20th century and hit its apex under Mulroney, whose cabinet contained 40 ministers in the late 1980s. The size of cabinet fell back into the 30s under Chretien and Martin, but then rebounded to 40 ministers in 2015 under Harper. Currently, the Liberal cabinet sits at 31 ministers – all of whom, despite their age, gender, or ethnicity, are nonetheless beholden to Mr. Trudeau for their portfolios. While the literature suggests that the size of cabinet does not directly correlate to the level of decentralization within it, one thing is certain: the ability to appoint ministers gives the prime minister some of the most valuable ‘carrots’ that any politician could dream of possessing. Consequently, by removing these ‘carrots’ (i.e., the power to reward loyal partisans with cabinet portfolios), the prime minister is significantly weaker.

Furthermore, positive partisanship still remains intact under the proposed recommendation. That is, by opening the convention process up to all cabinet ministers, it is likely that political parties will experience more participation simply by virtue of the fact that the extra-parliamentary wing has the power to select more than just the party leader. Moreover, such a shift has the potential to, once again, restore the regional minister model within cabinet. Under the proposed recommendation, regional footholds within parties could secure support from delegates in their regions and subsequently ‘win’ a spot in cabinet on the promise of advocating for local interests. Parties can even go so far as to set quotas for the amount of ministers they want in cabinet from each region, if they so choose. Quotas and caps can also be made for sociological factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, etc.

Finally, the recommendation that all ministers be selected in the same way as the prime minster has the potential to prevent the harm of experienced prime ministers taking advantage of inexperienced ministers’ naivety.  One of the most formidable powers that a prime minister has over cabinet stems from the fact that ministers are relatively inexperienced legislators, and therefore are less able to take advantage of cabinet procedures. Interestingly enough, according to Matthew Kerby,

“14 per cent of all cabinet appointments made between 1949 and 1990 went to parliamentarians who possessed fewer than two years’ total experience in the House of Commons. Compare this figure with the United Kingdom where ministers who served between 1945 and 1984 ‘had an average of 12.2 years of parliamentary experience before becoming ministers, and fewer than 10 per cent of ministers were appointed with less than five years’ experience’”

The fact that the current Liberal cabinet contains 18 (out of 31) rookie MPs reaffirms the trend that Kerby highlights.

As White argues, “it is unhealthy for Canadian democracy for so many ministers to attain office without experiencing life as a private member.” That is, in order for a minister to effectively head a department and meaningfully partake in cabinet debates, it is imperative that said minister has either sufficient experience as a legislator or formidable clout within the governing party. Both of these conditions safeguard ministers from becoming docile carriers of rubber stamps for the prime minister. As such, one of the best ways to ensure that cabinet ministers have experienced “life as a private member” is to make their appointment contingent on being re-elected to the House of Commons. The selection of cabinet by party membership incentivizes those MPs who have proven their worth in their ridings, in caucus, and in their party, for that matter, to rise to the top, should their party win a government mandate. In the case of the latter, it is reasonable to attest that those ministers who ‘win’ cabinet positions are sufficiently well-versed in governing or, at the very least, have the confidence of their party. Therefore, it is my belief that if ministers are selected in the same way as the prime minister, the harms associated with inexperienced ministers in cabinet will be mitigated.

Regardless of the positive consequences associated with reforming cabinet selection processes, it is important to analyze the negative implications of such a reform. Such analysis will serve to reinforce the notion that, on a balance, the positive attributes of reforming cabinet selection processes outweigh the negatives.

Firstly, many students of Canadian government and politics have noted that powerful prime ministers are an inherent feature of Westminster parliamentary systems. In fact, W.A. Matheson writes, “[b]ecause of [the prime minister’s] key role as builder and master of the cabinet and as leader of the majority party, the Prime Minister’s position is preeminent… he brings together the political leaders of the various subcultures and keeps them together, he is the one person who becomes a truly national [] figure.” Moreover, in the words of the current federal government: “The Prime Minister decides on the organization, procedures and composition of the Cabinet. This includes establishing Cabinet committees, selecting their membership and convening the Cabinet itself. In practical terms, the Prime Minister forms a team, decides on the process for collective decision making, and builds and adapts the machinery of government in which the team will operate.”

Thus, given the prime minister’s preeminent role in determining the overall direction of cabinet, one can certainly hold that an attempt to weaken the role of a prime minister would inhibit him from being, in the words of White, “sufficiently autocratic”.

Under the proposed reform, the prime minister’s ability to be autocratic would be significantly weakened. However, this is not to say that just because cabinet ministers are selected in the same way as the prime minister that all ministers would enjoy the same powers over cabinet organization. Indeed, the recommendation that all cabinet ministers are selected by party membership seeks to empower these ministers within their existing departmental and deliberative roles; not suggest that cabinet move forward without a leader. It is the notion that the leader of cabinet, conversely, ought to be primus inter pares and opposed to simply primus that my recommendation seeks to address.

In practical terms, a first among equals would possess the responsibility to ensure that cabinet (and all of its committees, for that matter) is a coherent, deliberative and collective decision-making body. Granted, such a responsibility might entail keeping cabinet in line with agreed-upon legal and policy initiatives – but it certainly ought not to permit the prime minister to form her or his cabinet ‘team’, decide when a consensus has been reached, fire ministers for non-compliance, shuffle cabinet at will, or circumvent cabinet on major policy decisions. In the latter set of actions, the prime minister is no longer “sufficiently autocratic”; instead, he is – as Savoie puts it – a king.

Opponents of the recommendation that all cabinet ministers are to be selected by their party might also argue that such a reform would have disastrous consequences for the representational imperative. Once again, the representational imperative is, as William Cross puts it, the “political principle that insists that, so far as possible, cabinet include “representatives” of all regions as well as all important ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups and various other politically salient groups (such as women and those who hold certain occupations).” The representational imperative is ostensibly intended to ensure that all provinces and “politically salient groups” have the ability to bring their concerns to cabinet deliberations. After all in a highly diverse country such as Canada, one would reasonably expect that its most important decision-making body represents the country’s distinct geographic, social, cultural, and linguistic characteristics. Others, like Matheson, have argued that the representational imperative has meant that “every cabinet must contain at least a few dullards or nonentities to represent some important interest”.

Criticisms aside, the consequence of removing cabinet selection from the hands of the prime minister is that new selection processes no longer guarantee equitable representation within cabinet. For instance, if a party is able to secure a majority government without electing many seats in Quebec (as was the case in 2011 with the Conservatives), it is entirely likely that no ministers from that region will ‘win’ a position in cabinet. Such a scenario would certainly have disastrous consequences for national unity. It is, thus, for the reason that the representational imperative is important to Canadians that I recommend parties build regional and sociological representation into their cabinet selection processes. For example, parties that are dedicated to making Canadian cabinets ‘look like Canada’ (as is the case with the current Liberal government) can devise a system of quotas and caps that dictate who can run for a given cabinet position. Such a system would ensure that the representational imperative is respected and that cabinet selection is placed in the hands of the many instead of the prime minister alone.

Negative consequences aside, it is fairly evident that, on a balance, it would be healthier for Canadian democracy if the entire cabinet – as opposed to simply the first minister – were to be selected by the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings of their respective party. Despite the fact that the proposed reform does not address prime ministerial power in the media or in the intergovernmental arena directly, it has been argued here that the above reforms will shift the political atmosphere in a way that incentivizes extra-parliamentary political institutions to refocus their efforts on entire governments instead of the prime minister alone. Moreover, the above recommendation will drastically diminish the power of the prime minister in cabinet vis-à-vis other ministers. That is, if cabinet ministers are no longer appointed by the prime minister, but rather by their party, it is reasonable to attest that they will no longer feel beholden to the prime minister for their cabinet position. By the same token, this reform will delegitimize the prime ministers who shuffle cabinet at will or fire ministers without reasonable cause. After all, under the proposed reform, it is the caucus who decides whether or not a cabinet minister is fit to continue in her portfolio – not the primus.

One thing is obvious: there has never been a golden age of Canadian democracy. Prime ministers have always been autocratic – even the ones who are able to woo the public with snappy one-liners and flashy public relations schemes. However, after nearly 150 years of despotic prime ministerial behaviour, I believe that it is time for Canadians to reimagine how power ought to be disbursed in the country’s most important decision-making body. After all, if it is, in fact, 2016, then maybe a gender-balanced and ethnically diverse cabinet is not enough. If it is 2016, then maybe we should not allow cabinet to be appointed in the same way that it was in 1867. If it is 2016, then maybe we should look past political rhetoric that seeks to appease the lowest common denominator and pressure those in power to make ‘Real Change’ in Ottawa. In that regard, perhaps it is not that Canada has lost its way; instead, could it be that it has simply yet to find it?







Real Change: Rhetoric vs. Reality

“Politics is about wanting power, getting it, exercising it and keeping it.” – Jean Chretien

Minutes after securing a majority government in Canada’s most recent federal election, Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau proudly said, “Canadians from all across this great country sent a clear message tonight. It’s time for a change in this country, my friends, a real change.”[i] Prime Minister Trudeau’s speech on election night was seen by many as the beginning of a new era in Canadian political life – an era that would see the reversal of measures that his father, Pierre Trudeau, implemented to strengthen his hand vis-à-vis backbench Members of Parliament (MPs) and Cabinet ministers in the 1970s[ii]. One of the primary mechanisms for empowering individual Liberal MPs that Justin Trudeau has promised is the allowance of more free votes in the House of Commons.

Mr. Trudeau’s platform plank appears to be a departure from the status quo because it would not force Liberal MPs to vote with the party on all motions in the House. However, despite the idealistic rhetoric that our new Prime Minister spins, a close analysis of the Liberal  electoral platform promise to allow MPs  more free votes makes one dubious of the degree to which Mr. Trudeau’s promise will, in fact, meaningfully empower MPs to deviate from the party line. In that regard, the question arises: if the goal of Mr. Trudeau’s government is to “restore Parliament as a place where accountable people, with real mandates, do serious work on behalf of Canadians”, then what will a real change to the way that MPs vote in the House look like? This essay will argue that a real change to the status quo would be one that allows MPs to vote freely on all motions that are not traditional matters of confidence. The Liberal Party defines traditional matters of confidence as “the Speech from the Throne and significant budgetary measures”. This essay will adopt the same definition.

To support the aforementioned argument, this essay will be divided into three parts. The first part will weigh the prospect of relaxing party discipline to allow MPs more free votes against the convention of responsible government. In doing so, this section will find that – in theory – disciplined parties are a necessary condition for responsible government to serve its constitutional purpose[iii]. Conversely, the second part of this essay will assess the vices associated with party discipline in Canada. On a balance, it will argue that a relaxed confidence convention whereby MPs are allowed free votes on all motions that are not traditional matters of confidence is the best way to secure real change. By building on the conclusion that a relaxed confidence convention is a necessary tradeoff to mitigate the harms of excessive party discipline, this section will go on to advocate for a three-line vote policy as an example of a measure that, if adopted in Canada, could foster real change.

The final part of this essay will weigh the specifics of the Liberal Party’s platform promise against a three-line vote policy. It will do so by asking the following two questions: (1) On a balance, will the Liberal Party’s plan to allow MPs more free votes meaningfully empower MPs vis-à-vis the Prime Minister? (2) Is this plan likely to bring about palpable changes to the status quo? The final section of this essay will conclude that the plan proposed by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals ultimately lacks teeth compared to the three-line vote, and is therefore unlikely to bring about real change. As such, the purpose of this essay is to prove that – by promising that more free votes will meaningfully empower MPs vis-à-vis the Prime Minister – the most prominent deficit our new government is running is rhetorical in nature.

Part 1: Free Votes vs. Responsible Government

The convention of responsible government is of first order importance in Canada’s parliamentary democracy. In its most basic form, responsible government dictates that the political executive can only legitimately govern if it enjoys the support of the majority of elected representatives in Parliament[iv]. It is important to note that in Canada (and other Westminster parliamentary democracies like Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand), the political executive is not directly elected by the people; thus, the democratic legitimacy of a government hinges on its ability to command the confidence of elected representatives in Parliament[v]. Peter Aucion, Mark Jarvis, and Lori Turnbull outline the fundamental principles of responsible government:

“the prime minister and government must have the confidence of a majority [of elected representatives] in the House of Commons to govern; and when the prime minister and government lose the confidence of the House, they either reign so that a new government that has the confidence of the House can be formed, or the House is dissolved and an election is held.”[vi]

It should be noted that responsible government has a number of conventions attached to it – ministerial responsibility, for instance[vii]. However, for the purposes of this essay, responsible government will only be discussed in relation to the confidence convention outlined above. This is because the provision of more free votes in the House of Commons has a direct impact on how the confidence convention plays out in parliament.

A natural consequence of allowing MPs more free votes in the House of Commons is that it has the potential to undermine party discipline and, by extension, diminish the inherently adversarial nature of Canadian parliamentary democracyvi. Canadian political parties are highly disciplined – more so, in fact, than any other Westminster parliamentary democracy in the world[viii]. And although party discipline has been used as a justification by Canadian first ministers to usurp a great deal of power away from MPs and Cabinet ministers alike, many students of Canadian parliamentary government rightly contend that party discipline is an essential feature of responsible government, and our democracy as a whole.

Aucoin et al succinctly characterize the importance of party discipline in parliamentary democracy: “[t]he entire parliamentary process is predicated on partisan politics, which sees institutionalized adversarialism as the best means of securing democracy.”vi In other words, the logic of responsible government sees that parties in government vote together in order to stay in government and parties in opposition vote together in order to meaningfully (or at least coherently) oppose. Party discipline, then, creates a conducive environment for responsible government to exist because it allows for the lines between government and opposition to remain cleariii. Such clarity, in turn, reinforces the distinct roles of government and opposition in a Westminster parliamentary system.

With that, the logic of responsible government unravels when the government and opposition sides of the House do not consistently vote against each otheriii&vi. Or, as Jennifer Smith argues: “[t]he meaning of opposition members voting with the government or backbench members of the governing party voting with the opposition is not clear in the absence of a robust, unfettered confidence Convention.”iii Quite simply, according to parliamentary purists such as Smith, when the lines between government and opposition are blurred – that is, when opposition votes for government motions or vice versa – the very essence of responsible government is undermined. After all, if MPs are left entirely to their own devices, then the House of Commons runs the risk of resembling a Hobbesian-like state of nature instead of a stable and coherent legislative House.

Smith argues that another virtue of party discipline in Westminster parliamentary democracy is that it prevents MPs from making “selfish pleas” that go against the national interestiii. Smith goes on to argue that partisanship is the “engine” that helps to diffuse the “tension between collective policy-making based upon disciplined political parties and the representation of territorial interests through individual MPs and senators.”iii Smith’s analysis of party discipline is highly reminiscent of Edmund Burke’s take on partisanship: “[A] party is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavors, the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they all agreed.”[ix] With that, not only does party discipline engender coherence in the House of Commons, but it also forces MPs to balance the national interest and the needs of their respective constituencies when making decisions. Therefore, with more free votes in the House, one can argue that Canadian politics will lose a measure of its stability in parliamentary votes and cohesion within its parties.

Given the theoretical analysis of the role that party discipline plays in securing responsible government, one might be led to believe that the Liberal party ought to entrench rather than mitigate the expectation that MPs must vote with their party on nearly all motions in the House[x]. However, as seen in the next section, excessive party discipline paradoxically undermines – rather than enhances – an MP’s ability to meaningfully support or oppose the government of the day[xi].

Part 2: The Status Quo vs. Real Change

Canadian political parties are the most disciplined out of any Westminster parliamentary democracy in the world. And it would be a gross mischaracterization of Canadian politics to hold that party discipline does not have its vices. In fact, a cursory glance at the current conventions surrounding party discipline illustrate that Canadian politics are in desperate need of real change. With that, it is argued here that a relaxed confidence convention is an increasingly necessary tradeoff to mitigate the harms that party discipline has on Canadian political life.

At best, excessive party discipline alienates backbench MPs from the powerful “center” of their party[xii]. At worst, it fosters “mindless squabbling, nasty name calling, mean-spirited personal attacks […] and blatant misrepresentation of […] Parliament at work in Canada”. What is clear is that, under the status quo, party discipline has turned MPs into “voting robots controlled by party leaders.”vi Today, more than ever, MPs are forced – under the threat of severe discipline and, in some cases, caucus expulsion – to vote with their party on nearly all motions in Parliament[xiii]. MPs are seldom given the opportunity to deviate from the party line, and are consequently robbed of a great deal of agency. In fact, with few exceptions, Canadian parliamentarians “are generally expected to vote with their party or face serious consequences” from the party leadershipxi. Ultimately, when MPs are not given meaningful opportunities to express their views notwithstanding partisan allegiances, they cannot serve their fundamental purpose, which is to “represent their communities in Parliament and hold the government to account.”[xiv]

At its core, excessive party discipline is a byproduct of prime ministerial power. Since Pierre Trudeau, Canadian Prime Ministers have enjoyed a marked increase in power vis-à-vis MPs and Cabinet ministers[xv]. The forces that have led to these increases are outside the scope of this paper. What is important is that Canadian Prime Ministers now wield a great deal of influence over the way that their caucus votes on all motions in the House – confidence or not. In 1997 Tom Flanagan and Stephen Harper accurately – and, in hindsight, somewhat ironically – illustrate the power that the Prime Minister has over her or his caucus: “We [Canadians] persist in structuring the governing team like a military regiment under a single commander with almost total power to appoint, discipline and expel subordinates.”[xvi] Similarly, Jeffery Simpson goes so far as to describe Prime Minister Chretien as a “friendly dictator”[xvii]. Consequently, thanks to the rise of prime ministerial power since the Trudeau era, it comes as no surprise that party discipline has become more of a vice than a virtue in Canadian politics.

With that, one might expect that a real change to the conventions surrounding party discipline would be one that empowers MPs vis-à-vis the prime minister; one that protects MPs from excessive vote whipping by party leadership; one that allows for MPs to vote with their conscience on matters that would not bring down the government. Andrew Coyne puts it best:

“If a small number of its MPs were to vote a different way, so what? It would not detract from the party’s general support for the policy. If, on the other hand, the party were genuinely divided on an issue, what would be the point of pretending otherwise? Why take a stand as a party if the party, as such, does not have a view?”[xviii]

As it happens, parliamentarians in the British House of Commons have already subscribed to Coyne’s logic. Compared to Canadian political leaders, prime ministers in Great Britain have been substantially constrained in their ability to whip caucus votes since they adopted a three-line vote policy (otherwise known as a ‘three-line whip’). This policy reduces the power of the prime minister over MPs by distinguishing between: “declared” votes of confidence (i.e., the Speech from the Throne and significant budgetary measures), votes where ministers are required to vote together, but backbench MPs can vote as they please, and “free votes” where all members can vote freelyvi. According to the British House of Commons Enquiry Service:

“Every week, [party] whips send out a circular (called ‘The Whip’) to their MPs or Lords detailing upcoming parliamentary business. Special attention is paid to divisions (where members vote on debates), which are ranked in order of importance by the number of times they are underlined… Important divisions are underlined three times – a ‘three-line whip’ – and normally apply to major events like the second readings of significant Bills.”[xix]

As seen above, under the three-line vote, MPs are only required to vote with their party on “significant Bills” – budgetary measures and main estimates for instance. The Liberals would classify significant budgetary measures and main estimates as “traditional confidence matters” because a majority vote against the government on these items would topple the government. To be clear, it is unlikely that a British MP would be expelled from caucus for deviating from the party line on matters that would not topple the government (i.e., one or two-line whips). Aucoin et al note that this has, in turn, forced prime ministers “to tolerate a degree of MP independence as long as it does not bring down the government”vi.

Some Canadian prime ministers have tried to implement reforms that reflect the three-line vote policy found in Great Britain. As it happens, Prime Ministers Jean Chretien, Paul Martian and Stephen Harper all sought to give MPs more free votes in the House. In 1993, Mr. Chretien included the promise of “more independence for Liberal MPs on votes in the House” in his platform[xx]. Similarly, Mr. Martian campaigned on a promise to reduce the “democratic deficit” by implementing the three-line vote policy discussed abovevi. Finally, in the run-up to the 2006 federal election, Mr. Harper promised to make all votes that were not related to the budget (or its main estimates) free votes for backbench MPsxx. Unfortunately, all three Prime Ministers failed to deliver on their promises after forming government. Such failures ultimately beg the question, ‘will the new boss be any better than the old one?’

A brief analysis of the three-line voting system practiced in Great Britain illustrates its potential to meaningfully empower MPs vis-à-vis the prime minister. Moreover, because the three-line vote, in theory, gives backbench MPs free votes on all motions in the House that are not traditional matters of confidence, it falls in line with the definition of real change that this paper advocates for. Thus, on the surface it appears that if Justin Trudeau’s Liberals want to make campaign rhetoric a reality all they need to do is peer ‘across the pond’. However, before moving forward, it should be noted that the adoption of a three-line vote is not the ‘silver bullet’ to mitigating all of the harms associated with excessive party discipline; instead, it should be seen as one component of a broad package of reforms. For example, caucuses in Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand all possess the power to remove their leader – even if the leader is the sitting prime minister. Moreover, New Zealand’s adoption of a proportional representation electoral system has significantly undermined its prime minister’s ability to unilaterally whip caucus votes. Finally, one of the reasons why the three-line vote is so successful in Great Britain is because the British House of Commons is comprised of 650 MPs. Consequently, in instances where prime ministers secure large parliamentary majorities, the government “[can] suffer the defection of dozens of […] MPs on any one piece of legislation and still get a majority vote in the house”vi. With that, Smith is quite right to conclude that no single reform in isolation can bring about meaningful change in a multifaceted and “interlocking” parliamentary systemiii.

However, it should also be noted that this paper does not attempt to take on the burden of proving that a three-line vote will bring about real change to all aspects of Canadian political life. Rather, its purpose is to examine the potential that the three-line vote holds for bringing about a net benefit to the status quo. In that regard, it is pertinent to weigh the three-line vote against the Liberal’s platform promise to bring about “Real Change” to the way that MPs vote in the House.

Part 3: “Real Change” vs. Empty Rhetoric

On a balance, it is likely that more free votes will empower MPs vis-à-vis the Prime Minister. However, MPs will only be empowered to a limited extent under the model that the Liberals propose because, unlike British MPs who operate within the three-line vote policy, Liberal MPs will still be forced to vote with the party on matters that could not topple government. In other words, the Liberal platform plank on more free votes creates an illusion of empowerment, where MPs are still forced to vote along the party line in instances where a relaxed interpretation of responsible government does not require them to do so. The following excerpt from the 2015 Liberal Party platform outlines the Liberal’s specific plan to give MPs more free votes:

“Liberal Caucus members in a government led by Justin Trudeau will only be required to vote with the Cabinet on three different measures: those that implement the Liberal electoral platform; traditional confidence matters such as the Speech from the Throne and significant budgetary measures; and those that address the shared values embodied in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Evidently, unlike the Martin Liberals, the Justin Trudeau Liberals have not promised to adopt the three-line vote policy used in Great Britain; instead, they have opted for a strategy that prima facie empowers MPs, but, as seen below, ultimately lacks teeth.

Granted, proponents of a “robust, and unfettered confidence convention”iii would likely support the Liberal’s deviation from a three-line vote. After all, whipping votes on matters that are tied to platform points and the Charter certainly make it easy for the electorate to hold their respective MPs to account. If anything, the Liberal’s plan certainly prevents its MPs from deviating from the party line in many instances, which means that constituents can reasonably expect their MPs to consistently vote in a certain way. Moreover, the harm of MPs selfishly advocating for their constituency notwithstanding the national interest outlined by Smith is mitigated by forcing MPs to vote with the party on motions that arise out of the national party platform. However, despite the prima facie attractiveness of the Liberal Party’s plan, this essay contends that a policy which does not allow MPs to vote freely on all motions that are not “traditional confidence matters” will fall short in bringing about real change.

A critical interpretation of this platform plank leads one to believe that MPs will not be meaningfully empowered vis-à-vis the Prime Minister. By way of illustration, the Liberals also promise to “[s]ave home mail delivery” in their platform. In theory, a motion to reinstate home mail delivery would not be a matter of confidence because it is not a “significant budgetary measure”. In other words, the government would not topple if it was defeated in the House on the matter of home delivery. Under a three-line vote, a Liberal MP from a sparsely populated, rural riding which generally opposes home delivery and has been using rural mailboxes for decades could vote against this motion without facing discipline from party leadership. Similarly, a Liberal MP from an urban riding that strongly supports home delivery – Halifax, for instance – would be free to vote with the party[xxi]. Under Justin Trudeau’s proposed model, however, all MPs would be forced to support a party policy that they did not necessarily develop and their respective constituents may not support. The result is that Liberal MPs who do not wholeheartedly endorse every ‘nook and cranny’ of their party’s national platform become alienated from both their constituents and fellow parliamentarians. After all, given that countless votes are wasted in Canada’s Single Member Plurality electoral system, it is entirely likely that the majority of constituents in a given riding oppose at least one platform point that their MP’s party advocates for.

For example, in the 2015 federal election, Liberal MP Jean-Yves Duclos won the seat in his Quebec riding, despite the fact that only 28.9% of constituents in that riding voted for him[xxii]. This is not to say that Mr. Ducols – or any other MP who did not secure the majority of votes in her or his riding – does not possess the democratic legitimacy to represent his constituents. To suggest otherwise would undermine the fundamental tenant of our electoral system: the person (or party, for that matter) who secures the most votes wins. However, it would also be undemocratic to contend that those who did not vote for Mr. Ducols do not deserve to be represented – especially on motions that are not “traditional” matters of confidence. After all, the Liberals claim to “want stronger communities that aren’t just for show but that have teeth and serve an important democratic purpose.” It would seem that strong communities cannot flourish if an MP is bound to a position that the majority of her or his constituents do not support. In that regard, if the intention of the Liberal party is to “restore Parliament as a place where accountable people, with real mandates, do serious work on behalf of Canadians.” by allowing for more free votes, then one would idealistically hope that party leadership would not bind their MPs to all platform planks. By doing so, the party does not empower MPs vis-à-vis the Prime Minster, but rather alienates them from their constituents, their fellow parliamentarians, and themselves.

A similar argument can be made against the provision that MPs must vote on the party line for motions that “address the shared values embodied in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” In a parliamentary debate on the Charter, Pierre Trudeau famously says, “[l]est the forces of self-interest tear us apart, we must now define the common thread that binds us together.”[xxiii] Since its entrenchment in 1982, it has become increasingly evident that the Charter has become the unifying symbol that Pierre Trudeau envisioned. In fact, Beverly McLachlin is notes that the Charter has brought about a “culture of rights” among Canadians[xxiv].

Conversely, despite its unifying effect, the rights in the Charter are broadly worded and not universally interpreted or agreed upon. In fact, Knopff and Morton note that less than 50 percent of Supreme Court rulings on issues tied to the Charter were unanimous between 1991-1998[xxv]. Moreover, all one has to do is look to Quebec’s frequent use of the “notwithstanding clause” in the years following 1982 to see that the unifying effects of the Charter are not equally appreciated or recognized across the Canadian federation[xxvi]. This is not to say that the Charter is an illegitimate basis for the Liberal Party to premise their values on. Instead, this essay suggests that the broad and ambiguous wording used in the Liberal platform puts the Prime Minister in a very powerful position vis-à-vis his caucus. By doing so, the Liberal party does not meaningfully uphold the spirit of allowing MPs more free votes; the spirit of “Real Change”.

The Prime Minister holds a great deal of power in situations where the Charter is a question because he is able to determine what constitutes “shared values embodied in the Charter”. Because the wording of this platform plank is so broad, there is nothing that stops the Prime Minister from interpreting his “shared values” clause as he sees fit, when it is politically convenient to do so, and while still keeping to his platform promise. Essentially, the caveat that Liberal MPs must vote with the party on matters pertaining to the Charter does not meaningfully empower our elected representatives; instead, it gives the Prime Minister a ‘trump card’ over a wide range of possible votes, so long as he can justify his use of party discipline within a broad and ambiguous sentence in his election platform. In that regard, because the Prime Minister holds the power to determine how this caveat is interpreted and applied, the “shared values” clause considerably increases his ability to whip caucus votes.

So, is the Liberal Party’s plan to allow MPs more free votes in the House of Commons likely to bring about palpable changes to the status quo? Given the above analysis, the answer to this question is a resounding no. On the surface, it appears that the platform promise to give MPs more free votes will engender real change in Ottawa; however, a closer analysis of the specific caveats within the Liberal’s platform promise elicit a different conclusion. At best, the Liberal Party’s promise to give MPs more free votes will incrementally empower caucus members in a narrow set of instances. To be clear, these instances will only occur when motions are not a “traditional” matter of confidence, not bound to the Liberal platform, and not tied to the “shared values” in the Charter. At worst, the measures evaluated above will entrench the excessive party discipline that the Liberal Party claims to be combatting and consequently alienate MPs from their constituents, their party, and themselves. Thus, by incrementally increasing the amount of free votes Liberal MPs are allowed to make, the Liberal Party’s free vote policy does not align with the spirit of their platform, which is to empower MPs vis-à-vis the Prime Minister; which is to bring about “Real Change”. If the Liberal Party is truly committed to bringing about real change, they should undertake measures that meaningfully empower MPs, such as the adoption of a three-line vote discussed earlier in this paper. Unfortunately, as it stands, Justin Trudeau has carefully disguised the status quo in rhetoric that does not reflect reality.


This essay has argued that, while in theory more free votes in the House of Commons could bring about real change, the Liberal Party’s plan to do so ultimately lacks teeth. The first part of this essay assess the implications that allowing for more free votes would have on the convention of responsible government. Based on a theoretical analysis of the relationship between responsible government and party discipline, one might be led to believe that a positive change to the status quo would be one that entrenches strict party discipline.  However, after outlining the harms of excessive party discipline, the second part of this essay concludes that – despite the virtues that party discipline plays in fostering a healthy, adversarial environment for responsible government to flourish in – a less strict confidence convention can mitigate the harms of party discipline without undermining the fundamental logic of responsible government. The final part of this essay suggests that the Liberal Party’s plan to allow for more free votes is low impact and will paradoxically strengthen the hand of the Prime Minister vis-à-vis MPs in some instances. Instead, the adoption of the three-line vote policy used in Great Britain would represent a meaningful commitment to real change. Therefore, one cannot help but cynically conclude that under the status quo, Liberal MPs are, indeed, still on a very short leash and that “Real Change” is nothing more than empty rhetoric.


[i] Macleans. 2015. Justin trudeau, for the record: ‘We beat fear with hope’. Macleans Magazine2015.

[ii] For example, see Lum, Zi-Ann. 2015. Justin trudeau’s victory ushers new era of ‘sunny ways’. The Huffington Post Canada2015.

Liberal Party of Canada. Real change – liberal party of canada. 2015Available from https://www.liberal.ca/realchange/.

[iii] Smith, Jennifer. 1999. Democracy and the canadian house of commons at the millennium. Canadian Public Administration 42 (4): 398-421.

[iv] Brooks, Stephen, and Marc Menard. 2013. Canadian democracy: A concise introductionOxford University Press.; Coffin, Michelle. 2015. Canadian public administration.

[v] Bonga, Melissa. 2010. The coalition crisis and competing visions of canadian democracy. Canadian Parliamentary Review 33 (2): 8-12.; Forsey, Eugene, and Helen Forsey. 2010. Prorogation revisited: Eugene forsey on parliament and the governor general. In Essential readings in canadian government and politics., eds. Peter H. Russell, Francois Rocher, Debra Thompson and Linda A. White, 87-90. Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications.; Malloy, Jonathan. 2002. The ‘Responsible government approach’ and its effect on canadian legislative studies. Parliamentary Perspectives(5).

[vi] Aucoin, Peter, Mark Jarvis, and Lori Turnbull. 2011. Democratizing the constitution: Reforming responsible governmentEmond Montgomery

[vii] CSPG. 1989. The meaning of responsible government. Paper presented at Responsible Government, Ottawa.

[viii] Cross, William. 2004. Political partiesUBC Press.; Gibbins, Roger. 2014. Constitutional politics. In Canadian  Politics., eds. James Bickerton, Alain G. Gagnon. 6th ed., 47-65. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.; Smith, David E. 2007. The people’s house of commons: Theories of democracy in contention. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

[ix] Ritchie, Daniel E., ed. 1990. Edmund burke: appraisals and applications, ed. Alain G. GagnonTransaction Publishers.

[x] For example, see Coffin, Mark, and Jamie Newman. 2014. Nova scotia Youth Civic literacy survey: Report 2 of the nova scotia youth poll. Halifax: Springtide Collective, .

[xi] Docherty, David C. 2014. Parliament: Making the case for relevance. In , eds. James Bickerton, Alain G. Gagnon. 6th ed. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

[xii] Savoie, Donald J. 2014. Power at the apex: Executive dominance. In Canadian politics., eds. James Bickerton, Alain G. Gagnon. 6th ed., 135-153. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

———. 1999. The rise of court government in canada. Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue Canadienne De Science Politique 32 (4): 635-664.

[xiii] Lemco, Jonathan. 1988. The fusion of powers, party discipline, and the canadian parliament: A critical assessment. Presidential Studies Quarterly 18 (2): 283-302.

[xiv] Liberal Party of Canada. Real change – liberal party of canada. 2015Available from https://www.liberal.ca/realchange/.

[xv] Aucoin, Peter, Mark Jarvis, and Lori Turnbull. 2011. Democratizing the constitution: Reforming responsible governmentEmond Montgomery.; Bakvis, Herman. 1991. Regional ministers: Power and influence in the canadian cabinetUniversity of Toronto Press.

[xvi] Flanagan, Tom, and Stephen Harper. 1997. Stephen harper and tom flanagan: Our benign dictatorship. Next City: 1-13.

[xvii] Simpson, Jeffery. 2011. The friendly dictatorshipMcClelland & Stewart.

[xviii] Coyne, Andrew. 2014. Coyne: Why shouldn’t we have free votes in the house of Commons?. Postmedia News, May 27, 2014.

[xix] HOC enquiries. Whips. 2015Available from http://www.parliament.uk/about/mps-and-lords/principal/whips/.

[xx] Smith, Jennifer. 2009. Canada’s minority parliament. In Canadian politics., eds. James Bickerton, Alain G. Gagnon. 5th ed., 133-154. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

[xxi] For example, see Taylor, Stephanie. 2015. ‘Workers demoralized’: Nearly 13,000 homes in halifax latest to lose door-to-door mail delivery. Halifax Metro2015.

[xxii] Elections Canada. Election results. 2015 [cited 11/11 2015]. Available from http://enr.elections.ca/National.aspx?lang=e.

[xxiii] Russell, Peter H. 2010. The political purposes of the canadian charter of rights and freedoms. In Essential readings in canadian government and politics., eds. Peter H. Russell, Francois Rocher, Debra Thompson and Linda A. White, 315- 327. Toronto: Edmond Montgomery Publications.

[xxiv] McLachlin, Beverly. 2010. Courts, legislatures and executives in the post-charter era. In Essential readings in canadian government and politics   ., eds. Peter H. Russell, Francois Rocher, Debra Thompson and Linda A. White, 338-345. Toronto: Edmond Montgomery Publications.

[xxv] Knopff, Rainer, and F. L. Morton. 2010. Judges and the charter revolution. In Essential readings in canadian politics., eds. Peter H. Russell, Francois Rocher, Debra Thompson and Linda A. White, 356-368. Toronto: Emond Montgomery.

[xxvi] Leeson, Howard. 2010. The notwithstanding clause: A paper tiger? In Essential readings in canadian government and politics   ., eds. Peter H. Russell, Francois Rocher, Debra Thompson and Linda A. White, 346-355Edmond Montgomery Publications.

School Yard Politics

“Abstaining from politics is like turning your back on a beast when it is angry and intent on ripping your guts out” – Taiaiake Alfred

Yesterday morning, hundreds of Canadians congregated in front of Rideau Hall to watch Prime Minister-designate, Justin Trudeau and 30 of his courtiers be appointed to Her Majesty’s Privy Council – or as many of us call it, “Cabinet”. Thousands more kept tabs on the swearing in ceremony by way of social media, television, and good old fashioned word of mouth. Much like the presidential inaugurations we see in the United States, Justin Trudeau marched through the streets of the capital, with his wife at his side while nearby supporters cheered loudly – a pristine, president-like image, indeed. Before entering Rideau Hall, Mr. Trudeau’s children conveniently ran into his arms and he proceeded to carry them up the steps of the Governor General’s residence. Our former Prime Minister would never demonstrate such affection towards his family on live television. In fact, Mr. Harper’s first PR scandal took place when he opted to shake his children’s hands before sending them off to school. But, alas, Canada has found a new patriarch. A better patriarch. Justin Trudeau. He is our father now: white, straight, tall, handsome, liberal, Liberal, and tolerant of others. He will take care of us; he will carry us over terrain that we cannot tackle, much like he did for his own children yesterday morning.

However, before us Canadians get too lost in Mr. Trudeau’s thick head of hair or puppy dog eyes, it is important take a step back and critically examine the power that our new patriarch wields in our Westminster-style parliamentary democracy.

For starters, to hold that yesterday’s ceremony at Rideau Hall possessed any meaningful resemblance to a presidential inauguration would be a gross mischaracterization of how the Canadian political system operates. Notwithstanding the differences in the role that the Canadian Prime Minister serves compared to the American President (the former is the head of government while the latter is both the head of government and the head of state), the fundamental difference between the events of yesterday compared to a presidential inauguration is this: in Canada, the Head of Government (i.e., the first minister or “Prime Minister” or “Justin Trudeau”) is appointed. That’s right, folks. You heard me correctly. In Canada, we do not directly elect our Prime Minister. As such, yesterday’s swearing in ceremony was not an expression of the ‘will of the people’, but rather an illustration of where power truly lies in Canada’s parliamentary democracy. I will save you all the suspense: in Canada, power does not rest with the people; rather, it lies with the British Crown.

So, what are the implications of power resting with the Crown? Well, first off, it means that Canada’s head of state is the Queen of England. And as the head of state, the Queen has almost unlimited legal authority to exercise her power in any way she sees fit. For instance, the Queen has the legal authority to unilaterally summon or prorogue parliament and strike down any law that has been given due approval by Canada’s elected representatives in the House of Commons. To be clear, the powers of the British Crown are real and can be exercised at any time.

One of the greatest powers that the ruling monarch of the day possess, however, is her or his authority to appoint a Cabinet. Today, the Cabinet consists of several ministers who head several departments. The Department of Finance, for instance, is headed by the Minister of Finance; the Department of Justice is headed by the Minister of Justice… you get the idea. The role of the first minister (or “Prime Minister”): hold it all together and maybe provide a little bit of direction to the rest of Cabinet when needed. That’s right, from a purely theoretical perspective, in a Westminster parliamentary democracy the Prime Minister is nothing more than a “first among equals”. In practice… well, let’s just say that our first ministers have taken advantage of their position in a very perverse way. Anyhow, in our parliamentary system, the Cabinet is, by all intents and purposes, the government. And the role of Cabinet in modern times is quite simple: create laws and policies on behalf of Her Majesty. She is, after all, quite busy.

Luckily, over the years, the British Crown has been benevolent enough to delegate a considerable amount of authority to its loyal subjects –i.e., us, the people. Thanks to a constitutional convention (or unwritten constitutional traditions) known as “responsible government”, in order for a Cabinet to legitimately propose and enact laws on behalf of Her Majesty, they must maintain the confidence of the majority of elected representatives in the House of Commons. If Cabinet loses the confidence of the House, then Her Majesty appoints a new Cabinet that can command such confidence. Sound unstable? Not to worry: thanks to the rise of highly disciplined political parties, Cabinets have not experienced too much difficulty in maintaining the confidence of the people’s elected representatives. These representatives are known as MPs. To clear up any ambiguities, the role of the MP is to simply yay or nay the laws and policies that are proposed by Cabinet.

Other important constitutional conventions have developed over the years. For instance, by convention, the Governor General (on behalf of Her Majesty, of course), appoints a Cabinet that is comprised of elected MPs from the party that has secured the most seats in the House of Commons. By convention, the Governor General will appoint the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons to serve as the first minister in Cabinet (the “Prime Minister”). By convention, this leader is also a sitting member of parliament who was elected by the good people of her or his riding.

However, it is important to remember that these conventions are designed to remain somewhat flexible and evolve overtime based on the values of society. For example, Canadian society no longer believes that Her Majesty has the legitimate political authority to appoint Cabinet. Therefore, by convention, Cabinet is now handpicked by the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons (who is usually an elected representative) and subsequently appointed by the Governor General. So even though the ruling monarch still possesses the legal authority to appoint Cabinet as she or he sees fit, in practice this appointment process is entirely in the hands of the party leader who has secured the most seats in the House – i.e., the Prime Minister.

In my view, the Prime Minister’s unilateral authority to appoint her or his cabinet is the most undemocratic convention that has developed in Canada. Essentially, Canadians have allowed for a monarch to be replaced by an autocrat. Let me break this down for you. Justin Trudeau is the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons. Granted, his party received 39.5 percent of the popular vote in Canada; however, due to the fact that only 68% of eligible voters exercised their democratic right, that 39.5 percent translates to roughly 6.9 million votes. Now, I know what you are thinking. Jeremy, I would much rather have 6.9 million voters decide who gets to appoint Cabinet than a monarch who does not even live in Canada. And you are probably right, but the reality is that 6.9 million Canadians did not directly elect Justin Trudeau.

The reality is that 26 294 people in the Papineau riding directly elected Justin Trudeau as their MP (it should be noted that 48 percent of people in Papineau did not vote for Mr. Trudeau). Additionally, only a couple thousand Canadians voted for Justin Trudeau to lead the Liberal Party in the Liberal leadership convention a few years back. I am hardly a mathematician, but according to my calculations, that is far less than one 1 percent of the population that directly decides who gets the unilateral authority to appoint Cabinet, the only body in the land that has the legal and political legitimacy to propose laws and policies. And sure, a few thousand people deciding who gets to be our autocrat (umm, I mean “Prime Minister”) is incrementally better than a monarch from some far off land – but as Canadians, we need to ask ourselves if incrementally better is good enough. I, for one, have my doubts.

Now, do not get me wrong. I am not suggesting that Canadians should adopt the republican (the ideology, not the party) model that our friends south of the 49th adhere to. I am not even suggesting that Canadians directly elect our Cabinet and accompanying first minister. I am not a populist and I understand full well that responsible government works far better when our elected representatives are not simply delegates. What I am suggesting is that there is a more democratic way to go about selecting Cabinets and first ministers – a way that does not radically undermine our Westminster-style parliamentary democracy.

For instance, in Nunavut and the North West territories, Cabinets and first ministers are selected by all of the elected representatives after an election has been held. Moreover, in Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, the first ministers are selected by the elected representatives in their respective parties. In my view, it would not be a radical jump if entire cabinets were selected in a similar manner.

As it stands, the most important decision-making body in the land is selected in the same way that children in a school yard pick teams for a game of kickball. The most popular and charismatic kid stands on top of the play structure and handpicks her most loyal friends – sometimes based on their athletic ability, but usually based on how much she likes them. The gym teacher does not possess the legitimacy to undermine the leader’s pick (if he tried to then he would certainly have a revolt of his hands) and the rest of the kids in the school yard are far too fearful to suggest a more equitable selection process. The result is that the status quo – no matter how bleak or undemocratic it may be – remains entrenched. That is, the popular kid who enjoys the support of a few other elites in the school yard gets to pick his team while everybody else watches on with reluctant, yet disempowered acceptance.

However, the reality is that our democracy is not a game of schoolyard kickball and therefore its most powerful officials should not be selected as if it were. Plain and simple. And please do not be fooled by the representational imperative that Mr. Trudeau has so strategically integrated into his team selection process. A Cabinet that is socially, economically, and culturally diverse might appear progressive on the surface – but when it is selected in an autocratic manner, it is nothing but a sham.

In that regard, perhaps it is time that we Canadians looked beyond our new patriarch’s flashy rhetoric (and even flashier hairstyle) and take a moment to critically reflect on the true meaning of yesterday’s ceremony. Were yesterday’s events a reflection of the democratic will of Canadians, or the autocratic power that we have allowed our first ministers to take hold of? Did it signal the beginning of “Real Change” in Canadian political life, or a bleak reminder of a seemingly unchangeable status quo? In a modern age where the Canadian population is less deferential to authority, should a first minister have the power to unilaterally select her or his Cabinet, or is there another way? The answers to these questions will surly inform the way our constitutional conventions develop in the 21st century. It is, therefore, now up to Canadians to make some noise.

Entry #38 – Friday August 14th, 2015 — “Apology”

Many of you have probably realized by now that I am a man of many words. Not a trait that most people aspire to embody. There is a reason why I use so many words to outline my experiences in Uganda or in life more generally. The reason is this: I do not want to oversimplify something that is inherently complex. Unfortunately, my words have a tendency of getting me in trouble from time to time. Sometimes I get so caught up in an idea that I forget to consider the feelings of those who are on the other end of those thoughts. Many of the people who are reading this very post, for instance, can probably recall a time that I have said something hurtful or inconsiderate to them. Obviously I do not intend to hurt people with my words, but good intentions do not amount to an excuse.

The fact of the matter is that I am a very calculated person. That is, all of my actions are premeditated. If somebody pegs me for murder, you can bet that it will not be in the second or third degree. However, there is a difference between one having awareness of his intent and one being cognisant of his surroundings. When I hurt people it is due to a failure of the latter, not the former. I may very well know what I say and why; conversely, I often forget to take into account the ears that hear my voice or the eyes that read my thoughts. Call it narcissism, call it a big ego, or call it being a dick. I am not proud of the fact that I hurt people with my careless words, and over the years I have gotten better at paying closer attention to my surroundings before I open my big mouth.

Despite the fact that I am 21 years old, I am still learning the ins and outs of this whole ‘human’ thing. And learning is impossible without making a few mistakes along the way. Unfortunately, my most recent mistake came at the expense of a group of people about whom I care deeply.

Yesterday I wrote a blog entry about my life as an intern at a Uganda-based NGO. In this post, I misrepresented my host organization and its partners. I shared details about my organization that were objectively inaccurate, mischaracterized the work ethic of my colleagues, and undermined the overall image of NGOs in Uganda. It has always been my intention to represent my host organization and its partners in a positive light and it saddens me that I have failed to do so. Even worse, I have personally offended the co-workers and friends who have been my lifeline since my arrival in May. I did not realize that my words would bring about the reaction that they did when I drafted the entry; however, that is no excuse. The fact of the matter is that I have wronged those who have taken me in as their own, and that is something I will always regret.

The purpose of my blog is to shed light on all aspects of Ugandan life, whether it is: culture, language, politics, or everyday interactions. However, sometimes the subjective nature of my words gets mistaken for objective statements of fact. Through blogging, I hope to show my friends and family all of the fantastic attributes of Uganda. In light of my recent entry, it is evident that I have failed to meet the purpose I originally set out to achieve. What I have neglected to realize is that my readership has grown to include several people who live here in Uganda. Therefore, I must also take special care to uphold the confidentiality of my friends and colleagues.

I have been working at my host NGO for quite some time and have grown very fond of my colleagues. I have never been accepted by a group of people with such open arms in my life. These people have made my time here nothing short of exceptional. Even as I write this entry, I have pinched myself at least twice to be sure that Uganda is not some fantasy dream. There are not enough words in the English (or Luganda) language that I can use to describe the steadfast appreciation that I have for my host organization and its staff. It is my hope that all of my readers (Ugandan and Canadian alike) will not base their impressions of my host organization or my fellow colleagues purely on the objectively inaccurate depictions found in my previous entry.

I am usually a man of many words, but for the purposes of today, three will suffice:

I am sorry.

I am sorry to my friends and family in Canada for putting forward an objectively harmful version of my life in Uganda. I am sorry to my colleagues for misrepresenting their good nature. And I am sorry to my host organization for giving them a reason to doubt my good judgement; for calling into question my commitment to represent them in a positive light.

I am reminded of a quote from a fellow swimmer as I sit here and regret how I failed those who I care about: “it is only failure if you do not learn from it; every moment is a learning opportunity, positive or negative.” In light of this quote, I hope to move forward and use my past actions as an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve myself.

I will leave Uganda with a new understanding of what it means to be part of a loving family – and sometimes in a family, the idiot 21 year old brother runs his mouth off without considering the feelings of his siblings. Hopefully, such actions will be restricted to by biological family in the future… they get tired of me pretty quickly, you see.

Apologetically Yours,


Entry #33 – Saturday August 1st, 2015 — “Rut”

My coach holds a team meeting at the beginning of each season. In this meeting, he hands out a document aptly titled: “Swimming 101”. A smile usually shoots across veterans’ faces as the document is handed out. The first years remain intrigued, but ultimately confused. I remember thinking in my first year with the Dal Tigers, “I’ve been swimming for a decade, why the hell would I need a ‘Swimming 101’ document?” Little did I know that “Swimming 101” would serve as one of the most influential guides throughout my athletic and academic career at Dal. In fact, as time passed, I realized that my success at Dal depended on striving towards the ideals set out in “Swimming 101” – once again, both in and out of the pool.

“Swimming 101” contains a list of rules, expectations, and general guiding principles that outline everything a varsity swimmer should strive to be. Some expectations are technical in nature: “Tiger Walls: 8m streamline underwater off each wall”. Others are nitpicky: “Don’t drag your equipment bag on the pool deck”. And some are downright impossible: “Butterfly: breathe every second stroke”.

For me, the most important rule in “Swimming 101” is: “Always finish a set with the best technique”. Like other rules, the latter has served me quite well as an athlete. When you are in the last 15 metres of a 200m Breaststroke race, the last thing that you want is for your technique to fall apart anymore that it already has. However, this rule has also been quite influential out of the water. Come exam time when everybody is tired of school and feels burnt out (myself included), I always remind myself to finish the semester with the “best technique” I possibly can. In the context of academics, good technique might constitute making a detailed study plan instead of cramming the night before or spending Saturday night editing an essay instead of making one last push to the Ale House for wings and beer.

As I write this entry, the end of my adventure in Uganda – my metaphorical swimming set – quickly approaches. In three weeks’ time I will be back on Canadian soil, restarting the long process of adjusting to unfamiliar surroundings – cognitive negotiation and renegotiation. And like any tough practice, I need to finish my time here with the best technique I can. The only problem is that good technique is hard to maintain when you are tired. Really hard.

I was in a pretty good ‘groove’ before going to Rwanda: wake up at 7:31am, go to work, eat a traditional Ugandan meal for lunch (rice, peas/beans, Irish potatoes, cabbage, and chapatti), go to swim practice, come home, study, and go to bed. Before Rwanda I saw this routine as a ‘groove’ – something that kept me content and gave me a sense of purpose. Heck, for the first month or so my routine was the only thing that kept me from completely cracking. Conversely, after taking some time away from day-to-day life in Kampala (namely, my 6 day excursion to Rwanda) I began to realize that my daily routine was more of a rut. Sure, my work here has been endlessly interesting. But the days in the office are long and even swimming has started to become a bit of a chore.

I think that my adventures in Rwanda helped me realize just how mundane things in Kampala had become over the past month or two. In fact, on the plane ride back to Kampala, I found myself not looking forward to my return to work the next day. I had just spent the past 6 days on a mini-summer vacation and was certainly not ready to re-enter the crazy world of the NGO. That is not to say that I did not miss my co-workers, fellow swimmers, and friends in Kampala terribly. Rather, the idea of sitting in an office from 8:30-5:00 had lost a great deal of appeal since my arrival in early May.

The moral of the story is that a routine can easily turn into a rut no matter where one lives… I don’t think I fully realized that before coming here. A lot of people think that “Africa” is an exciting place – a place where even the least-adventurous person could never get bored. After spending a couple of months here I have realized that reality does not align very closely with people’s expectations of “Africa”. Sure, Uganda is an exciting place. It is, bar none, the most beautiful country in the world. Most people are welcoming, friendly, and vibrant and you would probably need two or three lifetimes to fully explore all that Uganda has to offer.

That said, people here are not immune from the mundane routines that peeve North Americans. That is: Ugandans get stressed with day-to-day life too. They get bored, frustrated, depressed, and annoyed just the same as any Canadian would after spending all day at the office. I know that such an idea might seem obvious to most of you, but you would be surprised just how novel it is for some. From my limited observations, I have noticed that Canadians and Ugandans actually share a number or stressors. For instance, from what I have seen, many (not all) middle-class Ugandans spend far more time in the office than they should. Like a typical overworked middle-class Canadian, overworked Ugandans take work home with them, do not take lunch breaks, and spend countless weekends in the office.

The work culture in Uganda initially surprised me. After all, many Westerners view Africans as lazy or incapable of completing an honest day’s work without a white voluntourist at their side. Irresponsible allocations of foreign aid and inaccurate representations of the African continent in the media only compound the image of the “lazy African”. Interestingly enough, the Africans I have come in contact with over the past couple of months have been anything but lazy. In fact, my co-workers and friends are some of the hardest working people I know. In a similar vein, it should come as no surprise that some co-workers and friends also find themselves in a rut from time to time. Fortunately, the steadfast dedication that my colleagues have for their work usually outweighs most of the stressors that accompany a life in front of a computer screen.

Overworked Canadians and Ugandans alike are far more resilient than I will ever be. Heck, they should all be given the Victoria Cross. Okay, fine, maybe just the Order of Canada. Even still, if I have learned one tangible thing in Uganda, it is that I do not want to spend the rest of my life sitting in front of a computer screen. Funny how I had to leave North America for that epiphany to materialize, eh? Granted, structural forces might inhibit me from actualizing my epiphany – that said, I will try my best to seek out work that does not confine me to a cubicle.

In every long and difficult swim practice I usually hit a wall… both literally and physically. Literally: a bulkhead… several times. In physical terms, that wall represents a point in the practice where my body runs out of gas. A couple of hours have passed and my glycogen stores are low. I am hungry, tired, and want to return to the warmth and safety of my bed. The nice thing about hitting a wall is that it gives me options. Option 1: Give up. Ignore the prescribed heart rate or energy system, switch over to an easier stroke, miss the pace time, move to a slower lane, and let my technique go to shit. Option 2: “Swimming 101”. Push through, keep my heart rate higher than what it should be, stick with the stroke I chose at the beginning of the set, go on a faster pace time, swim with a purpose, and stay on my technique.

To be frank, I have hit a wall in Uganda. I am tired and quickly running out of gas. Thankfully, I have options. I always go with Option 2 at swim practice and there is no reason why I should not go with it here in Uganda. Option 1 would be pretty easy: check out, write off the next three weeks, complain about the long work days and repetitive food, and let my rut get the best of me. Option 2 is slightly more difficult. Heck, anything that requires one to employ perfect technique at the end of a long set often is trying – but exponentially more rewarding. Option 2 requires me to realize that I have been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, continue to make friends and forge relationships, learn new things, smile, and be the best intern that I can be at FRA.

Today is a good example of how I have employed good technique to get out of my rut. I tried something completely out of my comfort zone and went to a spinning class with Rachel and Shelby this morning. As I stood on a stationary bike, pedaling backwards with free weights in my hands, lights flashing, house music playing, and a guy named Moses yelling at me to pedal faster, I knew that my technique was looking solid… both on the bike and in metaphorical terms.

After spinning I decided to make plans with a co-worker who I usually do not spend much time with out of the office. I will refer to him as James for the purposes of this entry. James is a very talented musician and has been asking me to visit his music studio for some time. My weekends have been pretty busy lately, but today was wide open so I thought, “why not?” My afternoon at the recording studio was refreshing and fascinating. I have always loved music and play a bit of piano from time to time in Canada. I even have a keyboard in my room in Halifax that usually serves as a gathering spot for me and my roommates on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Needless to say, music is something that has been missing in my life since early May. Thus, an afternoon in a recording studio was quite therapeutic.

James and I were joined at the studio by a song writer, a music producer, a few technicians, and a colleague from another NGO. The afternoon was characterized by conversation and, of course, making music. In fact, the producer was even nice enough to let me play the piano track on a song he was working on. I assume he erased the sound file immediately after I left, but it was a nice gesture either way. As it happens, the resident song writer and producer at the studio have written and recorded hundreds of songs – most of which they do not get credit for. Many of the songs they write are for big name musicians in East Africa and as a result their talent often goes unappreciated.

After leaving the studio, I once again felt happy that I opted for good technique over Option 1.

The end of a hard swim practice is always painful. I often am convinced that I am about to die in the last 25 metres of some sets. At the end of one particularly hard set I saw my dead great-grandmother. I shit you not. It was on December 23rd, 2012 and I was about to cross over to the other side. The end of a long adventure abroad can also be difficult. Not “I can see the light” difficult, but you get the idea. Fortunately, I think I have enough practice under my belt to hold my technique together for the next couple of weeks.

Well, you made it through another entry.



Entry #32 – Wednesday July 29th, 2015 — “Rant”

Well, based on a scan of my go-to Canadian news sources, it looks like our country’s political leaders have once again started to use cocaine. Either that or Canada is in the midst of yet another pre-writ election campaigning frenzy. Either way, things are getting messy and I am getting frustrated with the lowest common denominator style of rhetoric that has been polluting Canadian political discourse for the past 9 years. Therefore, like hyper-partisanship, I think that pre-writ campaigning should be legislated out of existence; banished to the deepest depths of the Rideau Canal.

Harper is interrupting hard-working forest fires in BC and ignoring one of Canada’s most important political institutions (and yes, I am talking about the senate… when you have a child that misbehaves you don’t cut off his leg as punishment. You take responsibility for your parental screw ups that made him misbehave in the first place, work with him to reform his behavior, and help him see his full potential WITHOUT OPENING UP THE GODDAMN CONSTITUTION!). Mulcair hasn’t shaved his beard in weeks and also wants to cut off one of Canada’s institutional legs. And Trudeau has gained about 30 pounds as a result of getting “the munchies” after his pre-writ, post-hot box “Real Change” campaigns.

I briefly considered becoming a permanent expatriate to get away from the pre-writ crap that is being smeared all over Canada’s forests and lakes (oh wait, that’s just tailings from the tar sands), but then remembered that by doing so, I would be giving up my democratic rights in October… Solidarity, Donald Sutherland, solidarity.

If you haven’t already noticed, when I am mad I rant. Instead of blasting you with my opinions of our child-like partisans for the next few minutes, I thought that I would give you a break from the rapidly devolving political discourse in Canada. So here is a rant about the pressures students face while abroad. Enjoy:

For better or for worse, a lot of pressure is placed on students who participate in international experiential learning programs. And this pressure is felt on a number of fronts. Firstly, friends expect that your time away will mark a profound, transformative experience. Many of my friends, for instance, frequently preface an email with, “so has Africa changed your life yet?” The prevailing assumption among people in my age demographic is that Africa will change me forever. Tall order.

Next, parents and family members let utilitarian aspirations for their respective spawn take precedence over the less tangible outcomes of international experiential learning. A close family member’s first reaction to me going abroad was something along the lines of: “anybody will hire you after doing this”. To be honest, that was my first reaction too. As Rebecca Tiessen says, it is no surprise that so many students go abroad for “superficial” and pragmatic reasons; after all, their parents and family members would not have it any other way.

Finally, academia expects that students will undergo an empirically verifiable intellectual transformation. Academia – and especially international development scholars – tends to operate around the assumption that travel can quantitatively broaden the mind. In broad strokes, the notion that students will attain marked intellectual growth while abroad holds true. If it didn’t then two of Dalhousie’s most prominent IDS professors of would not have respectively written and contributed to an entire book about international experiential learning. Granted, many people do grow intellectually abroad; however in my experience, such growth is much less easy to define within a linear, serviceable, and empirically quantifiable model of education.

I find that the act of assuming tangible intellectual growth places too much emphasis on utility: students go abroad with empty minds (‘table raza’); they then learn and reflect; their minds fill up; they come back home and fill other empty minds. Intellectual growth is quantifiably measured in number of words written, authors cited, and profound thoughts spewed in pretentious blogs like this one. The more words, pictures, or cool stories one is able to pull from her butt, the abler she is to prove that she gained tangible utility from her experience. Some call this education; I call it a bygone remnant of British imperialism.

In my (often distorted) view, assumptions of tangible intellectual growth while abroad are harmful for two reasons:

Firstly, if utility is married with intellectual growth, then it fosters what John Cameron refers to as an “extractive model of development” when applied to international experiential learning. Such a model perpetuates a neocolonial, monolithic idea of development: stuff (i.e., natural resources, ideas, and people) is extracted from poor regions of the world, value is added in the wealthy regions, and the stuff is then sent back to the poor regions. Implicit in this model is the notion that stuff is measured, assessed, and ascribed value according to a certain set of beliefs – in this case, a Western view of modernization. By extension, this model is harmful because it readily enables people to oversimplify inherently complex situations.

In a sense, I feel like I was sent to Uganda to complete the latter two parts of the aforementioned sequence of events. The QES Program has sent me, a student of development, to a far off land. I am expected to extract as much knowledge from Uganda as possible, reflect, and build relationships. Finally, I must bring my knowledge of Uganda back to Canada and disseminate it to those who are not informed. In a sense, am a little bit like a miner: extract minerals (or information) from poor parts of the world, polish them, and send them to the rich to be assessed against a (self-ascribed) superior set of cultural standards. When the minerals are extra shiny, people in the West give me praise for my hard work; if they are rough and oddly-shaped, then I have not done a good job at extracting them.

To reiterate, I am well aware of the potential that international experiential learning holds for fostering positive relationships between rich and poor regions of the world. Heck, under the guidance of my professors, it is likely that I will continue to my positive and negative obligations as a cosmopolitan global citizen for the remainder of my time here. I do not take issue with critical reflection, intellectual growth, shared learning, and cross-cultural understanding. The problem that I have lies within the antiquated idea that these things must be empirically quantified in order for them to carry validity in an academic setting. More, my problem is that Western thought has imposed objective standards on things that are inherently subjective; things like intellectual growth.

Second, an assumption of utilitarian intellectual growth (that is, growth that can be tangibly measured and ascribed value) places too much emphasis on linear, British Empire-based notions of education; the same model of education that is championed by universities today. In my view, a utilitarian model of education alienates students from their experiences abroad because it sees subjective self-actualization measured by external and often arbitrary standards. These standards are reflected in the questions I have received from professors, family and friends over the past couple of months: “how is Africa? Do you like it? How much? How little? What are you learning? Why?”

What people do not realize is that the answers to these questions cannot (and should not) be used as yard sticks for one’s intellectual growth while abroad. After all, what if I do not know if like Africa? Does that mean that I have not grown intellectually or that I have not sufficiently reflected on my experiences? If I say that I did not learn anything tangible does that mean that I should fail my international experiential learning course? What if I do not come back to North America profoundly changed by my experiences abroad? Does that make my experience any less valid than a Me to We volunteer who was forever transformed when she “saved orphans” for a week in rural Kenya?!

The fact of the matter is that I have no idea how much I like “Africa”; sometimes I love it, and other times I absolutely hate it. To be honest, most of the time I cannot find the words to describe how I feel – and that is not because I have not grown from my experiences here. More, it is not because I lack the tools to critically reflect on my experiences.

For instance, when I saw a brutal mugging and assault the other week, I immediately thought of Thomas Pogge’s piece on human rights and the sources of poverty. I remembered that about $18 billion is annually set aside to eradicate global poverty, yet theft – the most desperate and overt illustration of dire living situations – still persists in Kampala. I then thought of Elizabeth Ashford’s argument that things like poverty are the result of “complex causal chains in which the actions of millions of agents are implicated”; where no individual actor can bear sole responsibility “for a specific serious harm to a specific victim”.

See, tons of critical reflection going on up in there.

Critical reflection aside, after witnessing the mugging and assault, I did not know what to feel.  To be honest, I still do not. But not knowing cannot be equated with not growing. The growth that one experiences from not knowing is something much less tangible – something much less linear and utilitarian. That is, although intellectual growth can be operationalized on a piece of paper (or a 61 000 word blog for that matter), it ought not to be objectively measured, weighed against its perceived utility, and be given a value judgement. When this does happen, it is my belief that students in international experiential learning programs paradoxically experience less intellectual growth because they are alienated from subjectively realizing themselves.

What I do know is that my time here cannot be chalked up to a simple, unadorned measure of education – the world is far too complex for that.

Sorry, had to get that one out of my system.