Clemson University Canada Center

Historical Debate

Discussion about the nature of Canada’s founding and the history which emerged out of it has been increasingly energetic since the 1960’s and has seen a variety of explanatory paradigms and frameworks developed as a means of interpreting Canadian political culture. The starting point was the “Whig” progressive view symbolized by the title of A.R.M Lower’s study entitled From Colony to Nation. Here was a tale of progress in liberty and equality as the young country matured and developed into the modern liberal democratic nation admired the world over.

The 1960s was the time to review the Whig-Progressive thesis and as a result Louis Hartz’s theory of “The Founding of New Societies” became influential. The argument here was that the new nations of the Americas, Australasia and South Africa were “fragments” spun off from the European motherland at a certain time in that motherland’s development. These “fragments” therefore represented the “zeitgeist” of the particular period of their spinning off. Thus America was a “Lockean” fragment having been spun off at the time of Locke’s intellectual ascendancy, while Australia was a “Utilitarian” fragment being spun off from Britain at the time of the dominance of Benthamite ideas and so on. Gad Horowitz of the University of Toronto applied this theory to English Canada finding that it was indeed a “fragment of a fragment” being spun off from the newly independent American Republic in the form of refugee Loyalists who movednorth to continue life under the British monarch. As such these refugees from republicanism represented the Tory “impurities” which the new and purely “Lockean” liberal America was expelling. Hence they brought a “Tory touch” to Canada which has influenced Canadian politics ever since. One long term result of the Loyalist migration unanticipated by the Loyalists themselves was the opening of a window of opportunity for a later emergence of socialism in Canadian politics (an emergence not comparably seen in the United States), socialism in the present being the mirror image of the Toryism in the past. “No Toryism at the start no socialism at the finish” is the Horowitzean theory for Canada.

Since Horowitz’s contribution, there has been an increased vigor in the debate over the philosophical foundations of Canadian political culture. The “Civic Republican” paradigm most usually associated with the work of J.G.A. Pocock and adapted to Canada by Peter J. Smith is one new paradigm in the mix. In this view, Canada shared in the revival of civic republicanism that accompanied the rise of modernity and which, in due course, has led to liberal institutions and free citizenship in the European world and its progeny across the globe. This interpretation of Canada’s founding has brought renewed attention to the deeper currents at work in Lord Durham’s famous Report and in the Confederation Debates of the 1860’s. This field of research has received great stimulus from the work of Professor Janet Ajzenstat of McMaster University and those who have responded in one way or another to her claims. Amongst these has been Ian McKay of Queen’s University whose “Liberal Order Framework” interpretation of the Canadian experience rejects Ajzenstat’s “Whig Idealism” in the name of a Neo-Gramscian historiography. This approach asserts that the foundational liberalism which was “baked in the (Canadian) cake” at the beginning was accompanied by other ideological and dissenting elements that have always paralleled the dominant liberalism’s progress. These minority “liberalisms” can be connected to the historical presence of the First Nations, immigrants, women and various minorities in the Canadian community.

The evolving historiographical paradigms and variety of interpretations of Canadian political culture indicate that the Canadian intellectual tradition has always included a broad diversity of approach rich in its range of perspectives.

Historians and Communications Theorists 
Modern and Postmodern Voices
Egerton Ryerson

Egerton Ryerson (1803-1882) was a pivotal figure in Upper Canadian history playing a key role at various moments in the fields of Church-State relations, constitutional reform and above all public education.