What are the prospects for keeping democracy alive in Canada? Another great topic – Aug. 29, 2023 MCHS picnic in Toronto

Our most recent MCHS lunch took place in Toronto on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023. Before that we met in Stratford in July:

Our most recent MCHS picnic took place on July 26, 2023 in Stratford, Ontario


MCHS get together at Mandarin restaurant on The Queensway, Toronto, Jan. 25, 2019. From left: Bob Carswell, Rita Witrylak, Jaan Pill, Dan McPhail, Scott Munro. Photo courtesy of Mandarin restaurant

Years ago, we were meeting for MCHS lunches at all kinds of restaurants across Toronto and beyond. Eventually, however, we settled on the Mandarin chain of restaurants. We liked having access to the Mandarin buffet – which made for a ‘walking lunch.’ We were getting up and moving around constantly, not just sitting around the whole time.

When the Covid pandemic began, we stopped meeting for some time. Then, when our lunches resumed we no longer met indoors; we began to organize outdoor picnics. Our discussion, at our most recent picnic in Toronto, has prompted me to spend a few weeks reading about the challenges facing democracy – in particular, in Canada and the United States.

Detail from MCHS sixties luncheon on Jan. 25, 2019 at Mandarin restaurant in Toronto. Jaan Pill photo

Detail from MCHS sixties luncheon on Jan. 25, 2019 at Mandarin restaurant in Toronto. Jaan Pill photo

The Coach House, Mimico

On Aug. 27, 2023, three long-time luncheon attendees – Bob Carswell, Scott Munro, and Jaan Pill – met at Bob’s backyard. Bob is renting a converted garage, which he’s named “The Coach House,” in the Mimico neighbourhood of Toronto.  The interior has been renovated by the property owners – longtime friends of Bob – from top to bottom to enable a person with disabilities to get around easily and have all of the conveniences of life readily at hand.

Mandarin on The Queensway, Toronto, May 24, 2019. Jaan Pill photo

Adam Kinzinger interview

Among other topics we discussed on Aug. 29, 2023, Scott Munro spoke of an Adam Kinzinger interview about the Public Hearings of the United States House Select Committee on the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol attack which took place in Washington, D.C.

Scott sent me a YouTube link for the video; I found the interview was indeed of interest:

I also followed the Public Hearings of the United States House Select Committee as they were taking place. I found it significant that the hearings were organized in such a way that online viewers could readily comprehend the scope of the violent events of Jan. 6, 2021.

Not Here (2023)

We met outside The Coach House, a converted garage in Toronto. Jaan Pill photo

A central feature of American history – in my reading of it, at any rate – is that the enthusiastic celebration of of ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ prevalent in narratives about the American Revolution has consistently and adamantly ignored the concomitant historical oppression of the country’s enslaved Blacks.

The ‘founding fathers’ of the United States were avid practitioners of what can be characterized as a set of staunchly defended cultural practices – which included the practice of ‘owning’ slaves. We can add that, as the two books I refer to at this post attest, conflicts related to race – and to religion – remain defining issues facing the United States today.

The Coach House (on right). Jaan Pill photo

Among the books we talked about at the picnic was Not Here: Why American Democracy is Eroding and How Canada Can Protect Itself (2023), by Rob Goodman, an associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University. The book’s overview of the history of American governance is of interest. From reading the book, I have learned new details about American history. Rob Goodman’s comments regarding the American scene warrant close attention.

I have picked up useful information from reading the sections of the book, in particular, that deals with the challenges facing democracy in the United States. The chapters dealing with Canada are of interest also. Among the Canadian writers that Goodman discusses at length is George Grant. The Canadian academic community has made attempts at establishing an official cultural canon in which writers such as Grant are often cited as authoritative sources regarding Canada’s cultural history.

Left to right: Bob Carswell and Scott Munro in Toronto, Sept. 2, 2023. Jaan Pill photo

However, not everyone follows such a canon. Some of Grant’s claims, regarding the Indigenous history of North America before the emergence of settler colonialism, for example, decidedly lack merit in my view. Roger Epp (2008) has outlined a point of view which calls into question George Grant’s assertions of what Canadian history is all about, as I have noted at a previous post:

Here’s an excerpt: We Are All Treaty People: Prairie Essays (2008) by Roger Epp

As Rob Goodman notes, in Canada a person tends to have considerable leeway to accept or reject an official canon, regarding Canadian culture or anything else. In the United States, as has been widely noted, certain features of a widely extolled American cultural canon have tended to be viewed, by vast numbers of people, as sacrosanct.

The Coach House. Jaan Pill photo

How Democracies Die (2018)

Another recent book about democracy, entitled How Democracies Die (2018), by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, also mentioned at our Toronto picnic, is written in a formal, structured style. The style stands in contrast to the easygoing, informal, occasionally meandering style of Not Here (2023). Either style can work well; what matters above all is the content – and the conceptual framework inside of which it is situated. I have found it of much interest to read both of these books about democracy. Had I just read one or the other, I would have learned plenty. Reading them together, I have learned more.

The third attendee at the Aug. 29, 2023 picnic was Jaan Pill; the photo is from July 22, 2023 in Stratford. Jaan Pill photo

How Democracies Die refers (p. 89) to a particularly striking example of how authoritarian regimes go about rewriting the rules of governance, in order to lock in an authoritarian advantage. The example concerns the strategy, according to which Black voters were systematically disenfranchised in the United States, after the end of the period of Reconstruction which followed the Civil War.

A related topic concerns the fact that the Democratic and Republican parties have, with the passage of time, dramatically switched positions regarding which segments of the American electorate they have sought to attract. Among sources which document this feature of American history is the acclaimed work of the American biographer, Robert A. Caro. See also: Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies about Our Past (2022).

With regard to trends in how the pursuit of democracy has been addressed in American history, Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) note (pp. 143-44):

We must conclude with a troubling caveat, however. The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion. The stability of the period between the end of Reconstruction and the 1980s was rooted in an original sin: the Compromise of 1877 and its aftermath, which permitted the de-democratization of the South and the consolidation of Jim Crow. Racial exclusion contributed directly to the partisan civility and cooperation that came to characterize twentieth-century American politics. The “solid South” emerged as a powerful conservative force within the Democratic Party, simultaneously vetoing civil rights and serving as a bridge to Republicans. Southern Democrats’ ideological proximity to conservative Republicans reduced polarization and facilitated bipartisanship. But it did so at the great cost of keeping civil rights – and America’s full democratization – off the political agenda.

America’s democratic norms, then, were born in a context of exclusion. As long as the political community was restricted largely to whites, Democrats and Republicans had much in common. Neither party was likely to view the other as an existential threat. The process of racial inclusion that began after World War II and culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act would, at long last, fully democratize the United States. But it would also polarize it, posing the greatest challenge to established forms of mutual toleration and forbearance since Reconstruction.

In summary

Both these books are well worth reading. They offer practical suggestions regarding what we as citizens can do in pursuit of the preservation of democracy.

Our next MCHS picnic is slated for Woodstock in Southwestern Ontario in October 2023. We welcome MCHS graduates (no matter when you may have attended the school) and teachers – and friends and family members – to attend our lunches. In the event you wish to be on our MCHS lunches email list, please contact me at jpill@preservedstories.com.

1 reply
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    I have used the following comment as the starting point for a subsequent blog post which is entitled:

    America is more open to an authoritarian form of government than Canada – because the American Constitution has never been as awesome as it has been made out to be

    The comment reads:

    A Sept. 11, 2023 New York Times opinion article, entitled “The authors of ‘How Democracies Die’ overestimated the Republicans,” is of interest.

    The article makes a point also made by Rob Goodman in Not Here (2023), namely that the American Constitution has some inherent flaws which makes an American-style form of constitutional government readily capable of veering toward autocratic rule. Goodman notes, as I recall from reading the book, that many Latin American newly independent countries copied the American constitutional model and quickly turned into dictatorships during their early years.

    Goodman argues that the Canadian parliamentary system is less amenable to a situation in which an authoritarian leader is able to use the democratic system to subvert democracy and establish authoritarian rule.

    When I was reading Not Here (2023), it occurred to me that the book was speaking rather glibly about revolutions. Glibly, in the sense that some far left academics and students were speaking about revolution at Simon Fraser University in the late 1960s. I’m aware of that era because I was editor of the student newspaper at SFU in the late 1960s. That is an era outlined in Radical Campus (2005).

    I was wondering if Goodman was speaking from a far left perspective (a perspective for which I have no use or reasons outlined elsewhere at this website). However, an Aug. 11, 2023 Globe and Mail article by Rob Goodman underlines that he is speaking from a centre-left perspective. The article is entitled “We aren’t as powerless over extremism as we may think.” This puts the discussion into a framework that places an observer such as myself more at ease.

    A basic argument in Not Here is that Canada is less amenable to dictatorship than the United States. The Sept. 11, 2023 New York Times opinion article, to which I refer, highlights a recent book by the authors of How Democracies Die. The article notes that Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt were surprised by Jan. 6. Good to know. The book is entitled Tyranny of the Minority.

    When we speak of the distinction between far left and left, a useful resource is Myth America (2022). In this context I refer to Chapter 8, by Michael Kazin, “American Socialism.” We can speak, as the chapter does, of democratic socialism which is distinct from the socialism associated with the Soviet Union and similar systems of governance including North Korea and Cuba in the current era.

    Another book that comes to mind is From Left to Right (2022) by Dale Eisler. In this case we have a centre-right perspective regarding the political, social, and economic history of Saskatchewan. As I have noted, I find this book of value and interest. It prompts a person to think about the configuration of forces that are at play at any time in history.

    I can add that it’s of interest to note that Eisler argues that the term ‘social democracy’ no longer has any particular meaning, as the only consideration, in his view, that matters is that which is ‘practical.’ That’s one way to look at things. Eisler also argues that the term ‘neoliberalism’ really has no pertinence or usefulness. Again, that is one way to look at things.

    Regarding the latter topic – I refer to the history of neoliberalism – I am highly impressed with the overview by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in Chapter 9 of Myth America. The chapter covers ground also very capably covered by John Vaillant in Fire Weather (2023). In this regard, I am impressed with an Aug. 29, 2023 article by Vaillant. The article is entitled “As our forests burn, oil companies are doubling down on their old business models.” Good article.

    I close with a comment about The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War (2023). Parts of this book makes for a good read – good journalism. That said, there is a far left aspect to the book’s conclusion that, for reasons I’ve outlined above, does not appeal to me. That’s because I have an awareness of the fact that both far left and far right point toward totalitarianism as I’ve outlined earlier.


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