Frank H. Underhill – Some Observations Upon Nationalism And Provincialism In Canada (1938)


We are all distressed today when we observe how little effective national spirit there seems to be in Canada, and we are all worried about the problem of national unity when we consider the disruptive tendencies that seem to be dominant now in the Dominion, seventy-one years after Confederation. One of the things we never seem to learn from our troubles in Canada is the value of studying our own history. If we were in the habit of studying our past we wouldn’t be quite so drearily pessimistic when we are in difficulties or quite so vulgarly optimistic when things are going well with us.

Let me quote from a private letter written by one very eminent Canadian public man to another. ‘We have come to a period in the history of this young country where premature dissolution seems to be at hand. What will be the outcome? How long can the present fabric last? Can it last at all?’ Those words were written by Wilfrid Laurier to Edward Blake late in 1891. They express the spirit of despondency and disillusionment which had settled upon most serious Canadians when they contemplated the state of their country in the late 1880’s or early 1890’s. And if you think that you or your contemporaries are really feeling blue about the prospects of Canada today in 1938, I should recommend you to read a once famous book about Canada by a famous student of public affairs, which was published in 1891. It is Goldwin Smith’s Canada and the Canadian Question. Read it and you will get a new conception of what blueness can really amount to. Goldwin Smith had been watching the development of this experiment of making a new Canadian nation at close range for twenty years when he wrote his book, and by 1891 he had reached the conclusion that the experiment had been a complete failure.

Now the interesting feature about Goldwin Smith’s 1891 analysis is that the things which depressed him then are the very same things which we point to today when we worry about the state of the nation. Canada had been going through a long economic depression. Economic depression had produced spiritual depression. French and English were more bitterly at variance with one another than they had been for years. In Quebec the provincial prime minister, Leon Mercier, had put himself at the head of an extreme nationalist movement which, except that it lacked the m dern jargon about corporatism, was very similar to the movement of M. Duplessis today. Mercier was exploiting the feelings of racial particularism and was trying to establish his political power upon the support of an ultramontane clericalism in exactly the same way as M. Duplessis is doing now. The Jesuit Estates Act amused the same kind of excitment in English Protestant Canada that the Padlock Act arouses today. English and French, it seemed, just couldn’t live amicably together. And, apart from all the strain and stress put upon the Confederation structure by these racial differences, geographical and economic sectionalism was as rampant as if there never had been a union in 1867 . A bitter general election had just been fought in which farmers and industrialists had been lined up against one another on fiscal policy. A few years before this, down in Nova Scotia, a rising politician there, W. S. Fielding, had won a provincial election on the platform of seccesion from the Dominion. Out in Manitoba violent feeling, express expressing itself even in riotous action, had been aroused by the federal government’s policy of railway monopoly. ( Ontario, then as now, was of course not sectional in feeling. It merely looked upon itself as the Dominion of Canada.) And when Goldwin Smith examined the policy of John A. Macdonald, the statesman who was responsible for holding the country together, he declared, with considerable justification, that it was only a policy of paying, bribes or blackmail first to one section of the country and then to another.1

However, we came through that slough of despond. Ten years after Laurier wrote those despairing words to Blake he was informing his fellow-countrymen and the world at large that the twentieth century belonged to Canada. And the years from the turn of the century to the outbreak of the Great War are full of an optimism and self-satisfaction as exaggerated as the pessimism of the late 80s and early 90’s. With prosperity came also a revival of nationalism in the thinking of Canadians. Today once more we are suffering from, the most extreme forms of provincialism, which have again cropped up in the years of depression, but I suspect that we are on the eve of another period of nationalism in our history.

One can see many signs that the current of popular feeling is beginning to run in the national direction again. Observe how many expressions from all sorts of groups have been given to this feeling in the briefs presented before the Rowell Commission. If these briefs are really representative of the opinions of the groups in whose name they were presented, then we must conclude that the provincialist cries of certain politicians which have so noisily drowned out any expressions of national unity during recent years were not nearly so representative of what ordinary Canadians were thinking as they claimed to be — or perhaps more truly, that they are ceasing to be representative. And even if some of the briefs were not sincere and some of the delegations had not thought out their case, it seems significant that so many of them found it expedient to talk the language of nationalism. Even Mr. Hepburn, when he alights from his plane at any western airport, finds it expedient to assure the reporters that he is a good nationalist, though apparently his list of the things which make against national unity is confined solely to such actions by other people as prevent the Ontario government from doing exactly as it pleases.

If it is true that we are on the eve of another period of nationalism in Canadian history we should now be asking ourselves — What kind of nationalism? The political party to which I belong, the C.C.F., was launched with a programme calling for vigorous and sustained action by the national government just at the moment when the tide against such ideas was running most strongly. Under the pressure of economic crisis our Canadian people seemed to abandon such national loyalties as had been slowly built up in the past and to revert to earlier and more primitive parochial faiths, just as the people of Europe, suffering from the pressure of a still more severe crisis, ceased whatever efforts they had made to be good Europeans and flung themselves into wild orgies of national tribalism. As one looks back now on the years since 1932 when the C.C.F. started its campaign one can see that the chief reason for its seeming lack of success was not its socialism but its nationalism. It was nationalist in outlook when most Canadians were provincialist. But now all the political parties in Canada are blossoming out with nationalist programmes. It seems fairly clear that the next general election is going to turn on the efforts of rival political strategists to capture the reviving national feeling which they can sense all around them and to exploit it for the benefit of their own party.

What kind of nationalism? Canada in the past has gone through two main periods when nationalist feeling and policy were dominant. The first was the ten or fifteen years after 1867 when the nation was being consolidated from sea to sea, when the Pacific railway was projected and started, and the policy of nationalism as expressed in the N.P. was established. The nationalism of these years was a business-mens nationalism; its policy was that of material expansion and consolidation under the leadership and control of (and primarily for the profit of) groups of business leaders in Montreal and Toronto. Confederation itself was not a democratic movement; it represented the ambitions of business leaders to build up a great economic empire in the northern half of North America, whose natural resources they would exploit to the exclusion of American rivals. (Hence the haste to build a Pacific railway before any American railway should tap the great North-West.) The second period came in the first decade of the twentieth century, again under the leadership of ambitious business expansionists, their main programme again being the building of transcontinental railways. Neither of these two periods should be thought of as necessarily anti-democratic in its tendencies, but their result was the establishment of our particular Canadian form of demo-plutocracy in which the control of our economic institutions is highly centralized in Montreal and Toronto. Both were periods of genuine nationalism because the masses of ordinary Canadians accepted the programme of their business leaders and hoped to share in the resulting prosperity. And at those two periods the national government was doing the things which seemed most important for the welfare of most Canadians, so that their attention and loyalty was centred upon it.

I doubt if our business leaders can give us again another such period of material expansion. What is to be the programme of our next period of nationalism in Canada? What will be the things that the national government will set itself to do and that will seem most important for their individual and collective welfare to the great mass of ordinary Canadians? The programme may be one of war and concentration upon a war effort. This is certainly making some people prosperous already. But the national unity which war produces is always somewhat artificial, and in Canada it is certain that an other war crusade in Europe will deepen the cleavages that separate sections of our people rather than produce any real unity . Nevertheless the programme of war is that by which Hitler and Mussolini are unifying Germany and Italy, and it would be foolish to pretend that a fascist nationalism is not possible in Canada.

If we want a democratic nationalism the only programme that I can see behind which a national government might rally a genuine mass support is one of social security. What most Canadians are chiefly longing for just now is relief from the constant spectre of unemployment and poverty, an opportunity to make something of themselves. That equality of opportunity which was the basis of nineteenth-century North American democracy sprang from the natural conditions of an empty undeveloped continent; if there is to be anything like equality of opportunity in the twentieth century it can only be produced by deliberate communal action under government leadership, and the minimum first stage is a national welfare code which guarantees to everyone a decent standard of living. A programme of this kind can only be carried out by the national government. It means of course taxation of the rich, and more and more governmental control of the development of our economy. It will be denounced as the destruction of freedom, but the freedom its attackers are chiefly interested in is the freedom of rich men to drive hard bargains with poor men. The continuing popular enthusiasm for President Roosevelt is due to the well justified belief that his government is started on such a programme with a determination to bring about a decent life for the farmers and workers and little men of the United States. The chief reason why there has been so little national spirit in Canada since the depression started is that we have not in these years had a national government which showed any ambition to do more than mark time; and sometimes the marking of time was done with an iron heel.


There is one danger connected with the widespread interest which has been taken in the proceedings of the Rowell Commission. The Commission is dealing primarily with the constitutional and political difficulties which have developed in the working of our federal system of government. And its report, which will undoubtedly be able, is apt to make us think that these are our real underlying difficulties. We need to remind ourselves that the real crisis which faces Canada is an economic crisis, not a political one. It is a crisis which is the same the world over, whether different countries have unitary or federal constitutions. It arises from the failure of our economic system to use our productive resources so as to provide employment and a decent living for everyone. It is a crisis of capitalism, not a crisis of federalism . The Nova Scotia fisherman is suffering not because he is a Nova Scotian but because he is a fisherman. The Saskatchewan wheat farmer is suffering not because he is the citizen of a province that does not get a fair deal under the B.N.A. Act but because he is a wheat farmer, because he is engaged in an occupation which is exposed to violent fluctuations of income. And we shall never solve this crisis merely by tinkering with our governmental division of powers or distribution of taxation resources. The real divisions in our community are not the vertical ones which divide province from province, but the horizontal ones which divide us into different economic classes. Exalting the powers of the provincial Ontario government does not help the unemployed industrial worker in Ontario; his struggle is not with the cropless farmer of Saskatchewan but with the employing class right at home here in Ontario. And provincialist politicians who try to exploit his local Ontario patriotism and to stir up enmity against the far-off prairies or maritime provinces are really only distracting his attention from his real interests.

Our economic problems have to be handled for us by representative governments. And there is nothing sacrosanct about either Dominion or provinces. They are just two different ways of arranging eleven million people. For some purposes it may be better to arrange us under one central government, for other purposes to divide us into nine provincial groups. The question which arrangement is better in any specific case should be settled on a purely pragmatic basis. The politicians who are trying to instil into our minds the belief that provinces have some mystic priority over the Dominion, that the province is in some mystic sense a natural entity while the Dominion is purely artificial should be dismissed as medicine-men. All of us who were born in this country were born Canadians just as much as Ontarioites, and if we are immigrants we became Canadians on settling here just as much as we became Ontarioites. On the pragmatic test it seems to me fairly easy to demonstrate that our really big problems today are nation-wide in scope, if not world-wide, and can only be tackled by a government which is national in its powers. On the pragmatic test then, if we want effective government action, we should equip ourselves with a national government which has sufficient powers. Mysticism in politics is nearly always poisonous.

Moreover, when we examine the line-up of rival schools of thought at present, a significant fact soon forces itself on our attention. There are interests in this country who do not want effective governmental action at all. They do not want to have their opportunities for making profit as they see fit regulated by any government. They know that the provincial governments are not big enough to regulate or control them. And so they are strong advocates of ‘provincial rights’ . It is not an accidental coincidence that the politicians and newspapers who are most vehement in shouting about provincial rights are those of Ontario and Quebec where our big business interests are concentrated .

Nor is it an accidental coincidence that our financial press and the financial pages of our daily papers have mostly been trying to make out that the real function of the Rowell Commission is to devise ways of cutting down taxation. Cutting down taxation is a euphemism for cutting down social service. If ever we got a national government in Canada which was really determined to go ahead with nation-wide social services, we should soon have it brought home to us that the effective division in this country is not between central and local governments but between those who want the powers of government used to help the less fortunate and those who want government to leave the field free for their own rugged individualism.


One of the myths which needs examination and challenge in our current discussion of Canadian affairs is the doctrine which provincial-righters always enunciate as a self-evident truth, that the provincial government in some mystic way is in more direct touch with the individual citizen and represents him more truly than the federal government. This is the major premise which underlies the whole of Mr. Hepburn’s remarkable brief to the Rowell Commission. Because there is this mystic communion between the citizen and his provincial government which does not exist between him and his Dominion government, therefore the provincial government is more ‘democratic’ than the Dominion one, and to give more powers to the provincial government is to further the cause of ‘democracy’, while to think of giving more powers to the Dominion government causes Mr. Hepburn to utter stern warnings about the danger of fascism and dictatorship. In the horse and buggy days of the nineteenth century there was a good deal of foundation for this belief of most democrats and liberals that local governments were more truly representative and much safer than central governments. But the conditions which gave validity to such beliefs have mostly passed away in our day.

As a matter of fact those citizens who live in big urban communities know from sad experience that their particular local government is the least democratic of all the governments with which they have to deal. They are in the hands of gangs of local job-holders, who may be gangs in a much more sinister sense, and one makes no change at all by changing a few individuals in the city council. In Toronto, being neither an Orangeman nor a Mason nor a Knight of Columbus, I have no means of controlling or changing my local government at all.

And if we examine our provincial and Dominion governments on the basis of our own actual experience, clearing our heads of nineteenth-century preconceptions, the whole claim of provincial governments to be the more democratic becomes at once farcical. As far as my personal experience goes, governments are the officials with whom I have to deal. I am not likely, except by accident, to know personally either my M.P. or my M.L.A.; and they are my formal links with the governments concerned. I deal in the Dominion sphere with post office officials, customs officials and income-tax officials in the course of a normal year; in the provincial sphere I deal with motor licence officials, provincial police and liquor store officials. I find them all infernally slow when it comes to filling out documents, and beyond that the only difference I have ever noticed is that I can take it for granted that the Dominion officials will be polite, but it usually takes me by surprise if I find politeness in a provincial official. To claim that these provincial officials represent me in some special direct sense, that there is some mystic communion between me and them which makes our relationship democratic whereas the relationship between me and the Dominion officials have something essentially undemocratic about it — well, all that can be said about such a claim is that it is pure bunkum. And the corollary that by increasing the number and power of officials in Queen’s Park I will advance the cause of democracy, whereas by adding to the population of Ottawa I will be defeating democracy, this is also largely bunkum.

Added to which is the consideration that the Dominion officials are more and more appointed on civil service tests which give some guarantee of their efficiency, while all our provincial administrations are enmeshed in the patronage system. There may, it is true, be something essentially democratic in viewing all officials with a good deal of suspicion. But even if officials are nothing more than a necessary evil, the amount of evil per square yard of office space is likely to be considerably less at Ottawa.

There is no doubt, however, that there is a real danger in the accumulation of power at the centre. Power always corrupts, as Lord Acton has told us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The fathers of the American constitution had a profound insight when they declared that the secret of a free community is to have a system of checks and balances in the working of one’s government. But there is no need to assume today that the effective check upon central federal power must necessarily be a provincial government. England and France are in most respects as democratically governed as we are; and they have a highly centralized unitary form of government. In our complex modern communities we should be looking for another kind of check and balance. It is true, as many have warned us, that the dictatorial regimes in Germany and Italy destroyed the independence of local and state governments; but it is also true and much more significant that they destroyed or are trying to destroy the independence of such checks as trade unions and churches.

One of the main functions of government in any modern industrial community is the regulation of labour conditions; whether this is done by central or by provincial governments is not nearly so important to the workers as whether it is done in the presence of well-organized independent trade unions. Governments, local or central, will make experiments in the regulation of marketing; the important point for those who are interested in a free society is not whether the regulation is done by local or central authorities, but whether all three parties — producer, middleman and consumer — are equally well-organized to look after their own interests. The trouble with marketing in Canada today is not that the Privy Council has made a mess of the B.N.A. Act but that only the middlemen are organized. And so one could go on through a good many more examples.

If it is freedom and democracy that we are seeking in Canada let us pay a little less attention to balancing provincial against federal governments and let us strive to have all functional and economic groups as well-organized as are the manufacturers and the bankers.

1For Goldwin Smith’s analysis of what national party politics amounted to in those days see my article, The Development of National Political Parties in Canada, in the Canadian Historical Review, Dec., 1935.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s