THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PETER WAITE
(first published in Canada's History 2013)
When I was a new historian, people told me, "You are not old enough to be a historian." Funny, I don’t get that anymore. But there is that notion of an age requirement. A little gray at the temples does seem to provide credentials.
Still, a historian who publishes a big new history fifty years after the publication of his first big history – which is still in print – is setting a benchmark few others will match.
Peter Waite didn’t exactly rush that first book into print, either. He was already forty back in 1962 when The Life and Times of Confederation appeared. In 2012, as In Search of R.B. Bennett is attracting the kind of reviews Waite’s books have often garnered – “elegant style,” “light touch,” "lovely," "sensitive," "superbly written and a pleasure to read," the author is marking his ninetieth birthday.
I talked recently with Peter Waite about that landmark, and about his own history. Waite wrote and taught steadily as a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, but he may not be a household name. Even among scholars, he has been a historian of Canadian politics during an era when political history has been rather out of fashion. Nevertheless, connoisseurs know Waite as a master historian, steadily productive, scrupulous in his research, and putting his urbane and stylish voice into everything he writes. Peter Waite is due for a tribute.
Why turn now from the days of John A. Macdonald to the depression-era prime minister R. B. Bennett, I wondered?
"For balance," he said at once. "I felt he was underestimated. I’m not for him completely, but I did want to redress the balance." Prime Minister Bennett was often his own worst enemy. But, Waite notes, he came to power just as the depression struck. Even his ambitious rival Mackenzie King felt lucky to be out of power in those years. Harold Innis the economic historian thought no prime minister could have handled the crisis better. "
After his defeat, Bennett retreated to Britain, and Canada dismissed him. Waite recalls hearing of his death in 1947. "I was doing a summer job on Lake of Bays in Ontario, and I thought, 'I don’t know about him and I don’t care.’ I just was not aware of him." But R.B. Bennett may be making a comeback in today’s tough times. Waite’s biography is one of a flurry of sympathetic studies that have appeared in recent years.
By 1947, when Bennett died, Lieutenant Waite was 25, done with a youthful stint as a bank clerk in Saint John, N.B. and with wartime service in the Canadian navy. He turned to university. Dissatisfied at the University of Toronto, he switched to UBC ("Well, I knew a girl out west") and in time he began to focus on Canadian history.
In 1951 he was back at Toronto, working on a doctorate with Donald Creighton, when Dalhousie came calling. "A friend recommended me for the job. I liked the city, and people there seemed to enjoy themselves," he says. Halifax has been home ever since.
In the 1950s Professor Waite felt less pressure to publish a book based on his doctoral thesis than today’s aspiring professors do. "George Wilson [his department head] said to me, ‘I don’t want you rushing to write that thesis of yours into a book. I want you to travel in Europe.’ I was teaching ‘Plato to NATO,’ of course. So I spent my summers walking in Europe."
But gradually the thesis – it was a study of confederation built from newspaper reports -- began to demand his attention. In 1962, it became The Life and Times of Confederation, the first big book about confederation in forty years, and the first of a flurry of pre-Centennial histories of confederation. Waite has been publishing ever since.
In a brief memoir of that project, Waite vividly evoked what keeps a historian with a big topic going. "What was overwhelming was the exhilaration of it. One was driven to the newspapers, to the Parliamentary Library, to the St John’s library, to the hot little sheds on Pinnacle Street, Belleville, Ontario, not by the exigencies of a Ph.D., but by adrenalin."
"That was great fun, chasing the newspapers around," he told me recently. But he appreciates that new forms of historical research can be equally satisfying, and his newest book salutes online archives: "To be able to read King’s diary from my study in Halifax has been a tremendous advantage," says his preface to Bennett.
Waite has written many histories and biographies, even the story of Dalhousie University. But for dedicated readers of history, a Waite favourite may be The Man From Halifax, his biography of another ill-fated prime minister, John Thompson, one of John A. Macdonald’s successors. Thompson died suddenly in 1894, age forty-nine, after barely two years in office.
The Man From Halifax is a long book for a brief career, but it has the Waite style that suffuses all his works – well-informed, casual, intimate, full of glimpses of human beings and detail of how their lives were lived. For many readers, the book is admired as much for the historian’s craft it displays as for the history in it.
Happily, the same craft is also evident in Peter Waite’s newest book.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2013
What were they thinking? How, we wonder, did the confederation-makers ever come up with the Senate?
Before the ink was dry on the British North America Act, the plan for the Senate of Canada was being denounced as "a very near approach to the worst system that could be devised…. It can never tend to good, and it can never last."
Well, the Senate has lasted. But Canadians continue to wonder why it seemed like a good idea to build an upper house so undemocratic, so unrepresentative, and so ineffectual.
It has not been easy to explain. Indeed, from the public statements they made, one has to suspect the politicians of the 1860s were concealing their motives for designing the Senate.
George-Etienne Cartier said that the upper house of the new parliament would be a "power of resistance to oppose the democratic element." He has often been taken seriously, as if he wanted a chamber full of aristocratic gents dictating to the peasantry. But Cartier’s political power came from that same democratic element he professed to fear. Cartier rose to power as soon as votes of Quebeckers really began to matter, after responsible government in 1848. Ordinary francophone voters, not royal favour, gave him his place in public life. The appointed Senate could never offer Cartier the kind of power he really valued. Cartier was merely speechifying. Instead of revealing his real plans, he was offering words that might please hide-bound British statesmen or anglophones eager to curb Quebec’s ballot box power.
For his part, John A. Macdonald said the Senate was designed "to protect local interests and prevent sectional jealousies." (He also joked that it would protect minorities – “and the rich are always fewer than the poor.”) But one of Macdonald’s political gifts was for saying reassuring things he did not believe at all. Macdonald had no serious inclination to "protect local interests." Before confederation, he opposed giving the provinces constitutional powers, and as prime minister he fought to limit them at every turn. A convinced centralist, Macdonald wanted power where he was, in Ottawa. He wanted no local interests resisting him from the Senate.
The confederation-makers talked airily of a Senate controlling the too-democratic Commons and bringing regional power to the heart of Ottawa. But look what they actually built.
Their Senate has never stood up against the Commons. It has never stood up for the regions and provinces, either. The Commons has to stand up for itself, and the provinces are protected by federalism, by a constitution that gives them powers Ottawa cannot take from them.
So: the confederation-makers built a Senate that does not restrain the lower house of parliament and does not speak for the provinces either. Hmmm. Could it be they meant it that way?
Yes, it could.
The confederation-makers of the 1860s were parliamentary democrats. They believed in keeping government accountable to the people’s true elected representatives, the ones in the House of Commons. They did not want the Commons hamstrung by a powerful House of Lords, as in Britain, or a powerful unrepresentative Senate, as in the United States.
There were limits to how far the constitution-makers could go in the 1860s. All the British North American provinces before 1867 had upper houses, and confederation was being built on "the well understood principles of the British constitution." To propose doing without an upper house might have looked radical and unsettling – and confederation had enough challenges without that.
The trick the confederation-makers had to bring off in the 1860s was to design an upper house that looked dignified and reassuring and traditional – and yet did not stand in the way of the genuinely representative House of Commons. What better way to do that than to remove the Senate’s moral authority -- by making it appointive?
They succeeded brilliantly. The Senate may cost us a bit of money, and Senators’ antics may annoy us, but at least we can be sure the Senate will not impede the will of the people when it is firmly expressed by our elected representatives in the House of Commons. In less partisan times, it has sometimes even offered "sober second thought," but in today’s party-dominated Senate, that role has gone.
This is why Senate "reform" poses such dangers. A reformed Senate would be a more powerful Senate – but it would still be less representative and less accountable than the Commons. We have problems with our House of Commons today, but they need to be fixed in the Commons, not by creating fresh problems elsewhere.
In the 1860s, doing away with the upper house would have seemed radical and reckless. But since then every upper house in the Canadian provinces has been abolished, and the provinces have not suffered without them. The idea of a "unicameral" (one-legislature) parliament is no longer alarming.
If we cannot stomach the Senate as it is, the choice is between creating a reformed and powerful Senate, and abolishing it altogether. It is easy to predict where the confederation-makers of 1867 would stand. Better no Senate than a powerful one.
Abolition would not be simple. And it should not be, for it is a serious constitutional change. But that is the option suited to the Canadian parliamentary tradition.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2013
"Its origins were prosaic," writes the historian J.R. Miller. But grand chief Stan Beardy of the Nishnawbe-Aski First Nation recently declared “Canada would not be Canada” without it. It is sometimes called the Magna Carta of the First Nations.
"It" is the Royal Proclamation of 1763, issued in George III’s name on 7 October 1763, just two hundred and fifty years ago.
In October 1763 the British government had work to do in North America. Eight months early, the Peace of Paris had ended the Seven Years War, and most of the proclamation was the instruction manual for the new empire Britain had gained by the conquest of New France. It laid out new colonies and new boundaries from Hudson Bay to the Caribbean. It joined Labrador to Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island to Nova Scotia. It set how French Canada would be governed under British rule.
Only then came the First Nations question. Britain and the aboriginal powers of North America were new and uneasy allies. Britain feared their disaffection, their enmity. Just when the American wars were supposed to be over and won, aboriginal nations remained a power in the land. So the Proclamation also had a section about the First Nations. This became its most enduring legacy.
When he signed the Royal Proclamation, King George loved the First Nations no more than King John had loved the barons for whom he proclaimed Magna Carta in 1215. Both monarchs acknowledged the other party out of fear, out of respect. In both cases, the bargain became constitutional. Magna Carta came to mean the monarch would always be accountable to law and the people’s representatives. If the Royal Proclamation is the First Nations’ Magna Carta, it is because it made treaties the heart of relations between Canada and the First Nations.
At a conference at Niagara in the summer of 1764, one that drew native people from much of eastern North America, First Nations ratified the Royal Proclamation. The two- row wampum was presented there -- to symbolize two independent powers sailing along in parallel, like two vessels in the same river.
To be sure, the Royal Proclamation does not say "aboriginal sovereignty" In fact, it specifically claims crown sovereignty across North America west of Quebec and the Thirteen Colonies. But the proclamation, which the First Nations ratified as independent powers, does acknowledge whose land North America really was.
Henceforth, declared the Proclamation, no settler, no explorer, no entrepreneur – indeed, no subject of the King -- could settle on First Nations territory and presume to make it British territory. Only the crown could acquire the territory of the First Nations – and only by a treaty made "in our Name, at some public Meeting or Assembly of the said Indians to be held for that purpose by the Governor or Commander in Chief of our Colony." A treaty was serious business: aboriginal leaders would negotiate directly with the government of the crown.
For many Canadians today, treaty-making seems like ancient history, a problem settled by "surrenders" in the 1800s. And with reason: the texts of the land treaties that cover vast expanses of northern Ontario, the prairies, and the far north do state bluntly that "the said Indians do hereby cede, release, surrender and yield up … all their rights titles and privileges whatsoever to the lands." For better or worse, many Canadians conclude, those treaties mean we got Canada and the First Nations got reserves and welfare.
When a crisis like 2012’s Attawapiskat arises, we may assume the only solution is housing, education, assimilation. When economic bonanzas loom – diamonds, rare metals, pipelines – even experts assume that aboriginal people might benefit from a few jobs, but not as co-owners of all that wealth.
In recent decades it has been one of the great quiet achievements of Canadian historians to begin throwing those assumptions into doubt.
Remember how the Proclamation requires "a public assembly" of native leaders and the crown? It is that negotiated agreement that matters, not necessarily the "surrender" text as written down by one side. When historians -- from both aboriginal culture and settler culture -- look closely at those negotiations, they find First Nations’ spokespeople who spoke of "sharing the land" and Canadian treaty commissioners who promised "the land will always be yours." When native leaders and Idle No More protesters insist that treaties matter, that is the kind of agreement they understand the treaties as being.
Do Canadians still find it hard to credit that the First Nations may share title to much of Canada and its resources? Like the historians, the judges have been coming around. Our highest courts declare that treaties must be interpreted, not simply from the Indian Commissioners’ official texts but as "they would naturally be understood by Indians." When First Nations leaders speak of the treaty relationship, they do not mean endless welfare handouts for impoverished, uneconomic reserve communities. They mean a shared ownership that will enable First Nations to be self-sufficient from the riches of the land.
Today the Royal Proclamation is specifically affirmed in the Canadian constitution. The Supreme Court of Canada has called it "a fundamental document upon which any just determination of aboriginal rights rests." Maybe it still offers an escape from the First Nations poverty, isolation, and dependence that is such a blight on Canada’s reputation.
Not bad for a two hundred and fifty year old!
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2013
Abolish the upper house? Can that really be done?
Actually, Canadians have done it before — six times, in fact.
Confederation provided most of the provinces of Canada with two houses in their provincial legislatures: a legislative assembly elected by the voters, and an upper house called the legislative council. Upper house members were chosen by the premier of the day, as today’s senators are by the prime minister. Like the Senate, the provincial upper houses had unlimited legal authority to kill any bill they did not like.
Watching the debate over the Senate of Canada and how to reform or abolish it, I found myself wondering about those provincial “senates” and what became of them? Why and how did six provinces get rid of their upper houses? Have any of them ever regretted it? Are there lessons for the Senate of Canada?
"In Nova Scotia the push for abolition of the legislative council really started in the 1870s," Charles Hoffman told me recently. He is a constitutional scholar and doctoral candidate at McGill University Faculty of Law who has studied the subject. "And it was sustained for half a century. The arguments were always the same: It does not do anything. It costs money. And it is anti-democratic."
On these still familiar grounds, Manitoba killed its upper house in 1876, just six years after it began, mostly to save money. British Columbia abolished its upper house even before it joined Confederation. The province of Ontario had done without one, right from 1867. In the 1890s, New Brunswick abolished its upper house, and Prince Edward Island merged its upper and lower houses into one. When Saskatchewan and Alberta became provinces in 1905, no one any longer believed a province needed two chambers. Only Newfoundland (then self-governing), Quebec, and Nova Scotia kept their upper houses into the twentieth century.
Charles Hoffman thinks Confederation itself made the provincial upper houses an endangered species. Confederation had taken much of the work and many key leaders of the provincial upper houses to the new parliament in Ottawa. There was a long economic depression in the 1870s, and all the provinces were desperate to cut costs. With Ottawa claiming to superintend the provinces, anyway, a provincial second chamber seemed both superfluous and expensive.
Nova Scotia missed out on the abolition trend in its early stages, though the cause was popular. With a single party, the Liberals, controlling the assembly for many decades and appointing all the members of the upper house, there was little risk that the upper house would block the will of the elected lower house. With one exception: Whenever the province did move toward abolition, the members of the upper house would dig in their heels and veto their own extinction. In Nova Scotia, this strange fight lasted fifty years, including appeals to Ottawa and court battles that went all the way to Britain. Finally, a new Conservative government, facing an overwhelmingly Liberal upper house, stood firm. The legislative council chamber in Halifax’s Province House was finally emptied of its members in 1928.
Newfoundland lost its upper and lower houses during the Great Depression Both houses were dissolved as a result of public rioting and unrest, and were replaced by a single governance commission appointed by the British government. After joining Confederation in 1949, Newfoundland’s lower house was restored, but not its upper house. Newfoundland lost both its upper and lower houses in 1934, when the dire economic crisis of the Great Depression caused the suspension of self-government there. For the next fifteen years a British-appointed team of administrators ran Newfoundland. When Newfoundland and Labrador regained its legislature on becoming Canada’s newest province in 1949, no one thought it needed an upper house.
Only Quebec was left. What had saved the upper house there was the belief that it had a role in protecting minorities — and minorities meant the powerful English. But with the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, the idea of a special chamber to protect those rich Anglos became spectacularly unfashionable. Quebec finally abolished its upper house in 1968. Ten provinces, zero upper houses.
Are there lessons for the Senate of Canada?
When it came to abolishing the upper houses, the provinces had it easier than Ottawa does. First, the provincial upper houses never had a "federal" role. They were never thought to be about regional representation, only about sober second thought. I would argue that the makers of Confederation carefully designed the Senate of Canada to ensure that in reality it, too, had no real or serious role in representing or defending the regions of Canada. But the Senate’s defenders continue to claim (against 150 years of contrary evidence) that it does or at least could.
Maybe more importantly, Confederation gave the provinces full freedom to amend their own constitutions. No complicated amending formula, no super-majority, no federal permission was required. In Ottawa, the Senate has constitutional protection. The Supreme Court of Canada has been asked just how much provincial consent is needed for major changes in the Senate. It’s not likely to be none, so the Senate has another layer of protection its provincial counterparts lacked.
One thing is sure. Despite all their experiences since abolition and their freedom to experiment, no province has ever seen a concern that democracy or good government have suffered for lack of an upper house to supervise what the representative lower house is doing. No Canadian province has ever considered bringing its upper house back.
It’s intriguing, though, in a crazy way. Maybe Alberta, the home of the Triple-E Senate proposal, could make itself a test zone. Imagine an upper house in the Alberta provincial legislature that was equal, effective, and elected — with half its members coming from the half of the province that is north of Edmonton.
Nah, maybe not.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2014
There I was in a faculty lounge at the University of Toronto, discussing the Byzantine empire with the mayor of Toronto.
Rob Ford has heard of the Byzantine empire?
Well, no. When Toronto city council stripped Mayor Ford of his powers in the midst of all that craziness about drugs, guns, lies, and Jimmy Kimmel, his responsibilities passed to a calm political veteran: deputy mayor Norm Kelly.
I’d read of Norm Kelly. Pierre Berton, in the acknowledgment pages of his two-volume history, The Great Railway, made a point of saluting his researcher, Norman Kelly, M.A. I’d wondered what became of that mysterious researcher.
Forty-five years on, Norm Kelly was hiding in plain sight. We had a historian leading the city of Toronto.
Recently, when the University of Toronto’s Monk Centre held a conference on the centenary of the First World War, Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly agreed to chair one of the sessions – a rare but pleasant return to historical turf. I caught up with him there, and we started by discussing his Berton years.
"For once in his life, Berton was too busy to get all his work done by himself," Kelly said. In a brief meeting, Berton introduced his railway history idea, and they agreed that Kelly would head to the archives for a couple of weeks of reconnaissance.
"I came back and told him, ‘You don’t have a book.’
"He was aghast. ‘What do you mean, I don’t have a book? I have to have a book."
"‘You don’t have a book. You have TWO books!'"
As Kelly recalls it, they quickly sorted out the "story arc" for each book, and their collaboration for the next couple of years was set.
It proved to be mostly a relationship by mail. With a stipend and expenses from Berton, Kelly travelled to archives around the country. He shipped research for each chapter to Berton, and Berton would mail chapters back to him. "They were his first drafts, but they would have been anyone else’s fourth or fifth. I would make comments and send them back. I might suggest issues. He was a good listener."
Kelly went on to head the history department at Upper Canada College. But when I asked if he had intended a career in history, he told me his political career began much earlier. High school elections led to student politics at Western University, eventually to municipal politics in Scarborough, Ont., and then to a stint as a Liberal MP and parliamentary secretary at the end of the Trudeau years.
Did his immersion in the Pacific Scandal and other great scenes of parliamentary history affect the new MP? "It helped make it familiar. I knew the game. I knew it was a team sport. There were times I could feel how John A. Macdonald would have operated in the House, or Mackenzie King."
An historical sense comes in hand, he says. "There is a French historian who writes about the long wave of history. Sometimes, in council, it helps to think about the long wave of history. You need to consider: can you change things in a meaningful way by taking part?"
Famously calm and unflustered, Kelly recalls being asked if he ever needed pills to stay that way. "No. You need to reflect that not a lot is new. It helps that I maintain an interest in Byzantine history."
I asked if his historical sense gave him a special interest in heritage matters. But Kelly, part of the suburban conservative bloc on Toronto council, was not about to give Rob Ford room to attack him as a big-spending gravy-train liberal.
"The architecture of Toronto appeals to me greatly. The brick, it has a warmth…." And the proposed Museum of Toronto "would be terrific! But you have to ask how much it will cost and who pays, and where it fits in the big picture." He alluded to a German thinker he recalls, who argued that a civilization that is moving forward reflects less on its past than one that is declining.
I don’t agree. But then I never expected a big-city mayor to quote Nietzsche either.
©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2014