Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Use of Non-Traditional Evidence: A Case Study Using Heraldry to Examine Competing Theories for Canada's Confederation

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Use of Non-Traditional Evidence: A Case Study Using Heraldry to Examine Competing Theories for Canada's Confederation

Article excerpt

Heraldry emerged out of a need to identify public authority and, thus, lends itself to the examination of nationhood. This article uses the symbols granted to Canada and its provinces surrounding Confederation to shed new light on an old debate: whether a compact of provinces, a partnership between peoples or nationbuilding was the intent of the Fathers of Confederation. It finds evidence that a compact of provinces was the dominant notion among the Fathers and the British, but finds no evidence of a partnership between the French and English. A dispute over provincial Great Seals that emerged following union suggests that while there was no belief that a united kingdom was being created through union, this latent notion had begun to emerge in Ottawa immediately following Confederation. These findings suggest that social scientists should expand their arsenal beyond the written word whenever possible.

A CENTRAL POINT OF CONTENTION in the ongoing Canadian political debate since the union was formalised in 1867 is the nature of the social contract. Was the creation of the original 'dominion' of Canada intended to be a nation-building exercise, so a single country would emerge to one day dominate North America above the 49th parallel and rival the recently created and growing United States of America? Was it merely the result of a 'compact' between colonies which entered into a common union for mutual defence and shared economic interest? Or did Confederation entail a more complicated entente between the French and English peoples based on obligation, if not mutual respect and partnership? This debate was central to early political discourse and its echoes can still be heard in federal-provincial politics when issues related to the British North America Act, French and English language rights, constitutional amendments and provincial powers are discussed, with its strongest relevance being to Quebec.

The importance of this debate to the political arrangements of Canada lies in its implicit support of increased provincial powers or, alternately, federal powers; and in its implications for the country's constitutional framework. In a variation of social contract theory, the argument advanced by provincial governments was that if a constitution is a contract entered into by the original parties, then any alteration to that agreement or any changes in the way the arrangements operate would require the agreement of those original parties.

In staking out their respective claims, each side in this debate has relied heavily on the spoken and written record, particularly the writings and pronouncements of the various 'Fathers of Confederation'. This, in itself, is problematic. Ambiguity has long been a useful device of the politician and, even if it were not, it is rare that participants to a negotiation will come away with the same understanding of what has transpired. Perspective is filtered by ambition, goals, objectives, hopes and personal experiences, including one's language, culture and legal system, something that naturally divides a country like Canada. Furthermore, in the instance of the act of union, there were no transcripts of the negotiations, leaving the positions of the various parties to be inferred from subsequent comments made during the legislative debates, which in turn were not themselves recorded verbatim and were designed to 'sell the deal' to their respective home audiences rather than to honestly report on earlier negotiations and compromises.

Collective memory can advance and validate identities, give coherence to societies and even cause and sustain grievances (Irwin-Zarecka 1994). It is therefore important that scholars strive for a better understanding of these historical events. Since the written word has not been able to provide definitive answers to these questions, this article suggests that social scientists need to expand the tools in their repertoire and examine alternate sources of information. …

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