The 41st Parliament of Canada formally resumed on October 16 with a speech from the throne read by Governor General David Johnston. One week later, it would seem that a reasonable question to ask is: Did it matter?
The point of all throne speeches is to lay out the government’s agenda for the new session—in this case, for the remaining two years of the Conservative government’s majority mandate.
In the weeks leading up to the pomp and circumstance of this event, anticipation built as cabinet ministers signaled new and renewed priorities such as “Defending Canadian Consumers” or “Supporting Victims and Punishing Criminals.” But then, even before the commentators had finished commentating—and before the opposition parties had the chance to ask a single question in the House of Commons—the Prime Minister flew to Brussels to announce a new trade agreement with the European Union (another long-anticipated event).
Besides the throne speech, this announcement also overshadowed a Parliamentary tussle over a motion that would allow the government to resurrect any legislation that had died on the order paper when Parliament was prorogued. And then, of course, the media firestorm over the Senate expense scandal picked up where it left off last June.
So much for “hitting the re-set button,” “making a fresh start,” or “changing the channel.”
Granted, in the months ahead there will be opportunities to debate the merits of specific proposals announced in the throne speech. After all, it would seem that what really matters is the particular legislation or program initiatives that are brought forward, not the speech that laid them out in very general terms last week.
However, even though it may not have legal standing, in my view the throne speech matters because of its ceremonial function. It is a ceremony that is public and powerful. It is a ritual that is part of—and provides insight into—the larger project of building Canada’s national identity. Although Canadian throne speeches may lack the profile of the U.S. President’s inaugural or annual State of the Union address, I would argue that they do similar work.
Clues to this larger purpose are not only found in the government’s celebration of past accomplishments and announcement of new deliverables, but in the overall style and tone of the speech.
As in other recent throne speeches, it is clear that the government sees its primary role as defending and protecting Canadians by restraining evildoers and enhancing economic competitiveness. We are reminded again and again that threats of all sorts abound in the world around us, and that we require a strong and stable government to steer the ship and mind the till.
Yet my point here is not simply to take issue with the current government’s vision.
Indeed, even when a vision of Canada was described in the throne speech in terms that I could imagine a New Democratic or Liberal government using, I found myself feeling uncomfortable.
Take the preamble, for example.
As one might expect, the beginning of the speech is full of evocative phrases. Parliamentarians are reminded that “our nation has embraced a unique set of indelible qualities that must guide [their] deliberations.” These qualities include our inclusiveness, our honourableness, our selflessness, our smartness, and our caring.
All of these are good things. Illustrations are provided for each quality that may in fact describe Canadians—and our nation—when we are at our best.
My problem is the way this entire discussion points to and elevates a version of Canadian exceptionalism. Canadians are not only inclusive, honourable, selfless, smart, and caring, we are uniquely so.
This presumptive tone pops up in other places throughout the speech: “Canada stands for what is right and good in the world”; “This is the true character of Canadians—honourable in our dealings, faithful to our commitments, loyal to our friends”; or “Canadian men and women built this country. In so doing, they founded a constitutional democracy, among the most enduring history has known.”
I recognize that most would agree this is the job of governments—to build us up, not to bring us down. I also recognize that Canada does have a particular kind of character, and that all citizens bear some responsibility to shape that national character in positive ways.
It is partly out of this sense of responsibility that MCC pursues advocacy. Not as an end in and of itself, and not because we are concerned about the reputation or standing of Canada in the world per se. But because we know that Canada’s character will give shape to policies and actions that impact the lives of vulnerable people close to home and far away. And so, like the government, we are also in the business of articulating a larger story.
Indeed, beyond the important engagement that happens with particular government legislation, policies, or actions, we also need to step back and devote energy to giving shape to an alternative or counter-narrative. Beyond problem solving or tweaking the agenda set for us by the government, we strive to set a different kind of agenda for future policy debates.
This is not an easy task, given the efforts of so many larger, better connected, and savvy actors such as the government. MCC doesn’t get to read speeches from thrones!
But we can remind people which throne really matters.
By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director