National Sovereignty Phony Issue; It's People Sovereignty That Matters. (Security and Sovereignty)

By Gibson, Gordon | Canadian Speeches, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview

National Sovereignty Phony Issue; It's People Sovereignty That Matters. (Security and Sovereignty)


Gibson, Gordon, Canadian Speeches


National sovereignty must take second place to individual sovereignty. In any event, the perceived threat to Canadian unity from a common North American defence perimeter is said to be entirely phony. From evidence presented in Vancouver, May 7.

A central issue in the maintenance of Canadian identity that bothers so many is thought to be the need for maintaining sovereignty, so that will be the focus of this brief analysis, this idea of sovereignty...

Simply put, sovereignty is a measure of the extent to which an entity is in charge of its own affairs. But I want to distinguish two kinds of sovereignty. One is national sovereignty, which is what most people think of most of the time. But it can be a very different thing, sometimes even opposed to the idea of individual sovereignty. Is "opposed" too strong a word - two sovereignties opposing each other? Well, national sovereignty is an old idea, stemming from the times when countries were literally owned by monarchs. The Canadian Constitution is derived directly from this view, as are some of our more primitive political practices.

Individual sovereignty is a much more modern concept, its institutional form dating about 235 years in the United States, and of course imported into our country formally twenty years ago under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

National sovereignty, to capsulize, sees the people as subjects; individual sovereignty sees the state as a servant.

Some policies -- the Charter is obviously one example, and NAFTA is another at the international level -- may simultaneously reduce national sovereignty while increasing individual sovereignty. Clearly, for example, under NAFTA, once the state no longer has the ability to impose tariffs and quotas, its power declines, yet the purchasing freedom of individuals is increased.

Therefore, my first argument to you as you go about your deliberations is that in any given context, when people worry about sovereignty, you must decide which sovereignty you are trying to protect.

I would argue that individual sovereignty is the more fundamental, whereas that of the state is not fundamental, merely instrumental in the service of the individual. However, it is almost second nature among legislators and public servants, as agents of the state, to be more solicitous of national sovereignty, since it is the source of their own power.

I might say in passing that the treatment of grey-market satellite dishes, which is much in the newspaper today, gives an excellent case example of the difference between national and individual sovereignty. When the Supreme Court of Canada comes down on the inevitable Charter challenge, we shall see which prevails. My own suspicion is that the individual sovereignty of the Charter will prevail, but of course that's up to the court.

With that perspective on the two kinds of sovereignty, I turn to the common perimeter discussion. Borders mark off areas of national sovereignty and govern flows of information, capital, goods and services, and people. Examining the impact of each, if the Canada-U.S. border were to be buttressed by a new common perimeter -- I say buttressed rather than replaced, for reasons I shall come to -- I think there is no current prospect whatsoever for border elimination.

As to information and ideas, or those things that flow across the border, the border is almost completely porous. The few barriers that exist are rapidly being dissolved by technology, whether we're talking about Shakespeare or hate speech, or Rembrandt or pornography. The only important exceptions are the hardware-based distribution networks of some of the cultural industries. By that I obviously mean book publishing, cable television, newspapers, and soon. A common perimeter then would change absolutely nothing in terms of the flow of information and ideas.

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National Sovereignty Phony Issue; It's People Sovereignty That Matters. (Security and Sovereignty)
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