The candles on the national birthday-cake have been snuffed – Confederation’s sesquicentennial is done and 2017 is history. But there’s still unfinished constitutional business to attend to, now 35-plus years post-patriation.
Though Plato wrote about banishing poets from his ideal Republic (see Book X), I prefer Percy Bysshe Shelley’s idea that poets are “unacknowledged legislators.”
Being a poet, I imagine there’s stuff we can do to improve the Constitution. And I’m not alone.
While acting as the seventh Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2016-17) and serving as a visiting artist-in-residence last November at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC), I was privileged to convene a “Constitutional Assembly” attended by 20 UBC professors and students from anthropology, creative writing, English, environmental sciences and law.
The assembly recommended myriad improvements to the Constitution. I start with my own, which is admittedly, whimsical: the creation of a Ministry of Dreams to fund innovation, creativity and education in arts and sciences, and encourage musing in every public policy area.
While some folks want to abolish the monarchy, maybe we can please die-hard royalists and nationalists alike by introducing, instead, a Lottery Monarchy – a pure democratization of the hierarchical system that would allow any Canadian citizen 18-plus to participate in the lottery, whereby the winner and her/his immediate family members would become “royalty” for 10 years.
It could work wonders for national unity and formalize what we are in practice: a republic in monarchical dress.
My next proposal is dead serious: recognize Indigeneity as the fundamental characteristic of Canada and interpret the Constitution in this light.
We have two official European languages, which, together, along with the Briton-derived Crown, uphold our European ancestry.
But if we enshrine Indigeneity as the official heritage of Canada, everything in the country will evolve, over time, to reflect First Nations, Métis, and Inuit cultures (faith systems, legal concepts, environmental practices, etc.), not as “add-ons,” but as integral to the lived experience of being Canadian.
We should allocate one per cent of all taxes collected to Indigenous peoples/First Nations as perpetual rent for taking their land. While we’re at it, let’s make Indigenous languages official languages, empower Indigenous self-government as a fourth level of government and transfer Crown land title to Indigenous trusteehood and stewardship.
To achieve better governments, the UBC delegates called for enshrining proportional representation as our electoral system empowering municipalities of plus-500,000 population to collect revenues and exercise autonomy over their own resources and, to encourage participatory democracy, mandate greater use of referenda on key issues and make voting mandatory.
I would go further and ban omnibus bills (for they thwart parliamentary oversight) and fixed election dates (because they promote ad campaigns over public policy).
Many UBC proposals centred on the environment, beginning with creating a Canadian Charter of Environmental Rights and Responsibilities, which would include the “right of nature” to preserve, protect and restore its beauty, biodiversity and integrity, and accord nature the same rights as corporations.
The idea would be to also set up an Office of the Public Advocate, charged with preservation of the environment, ecosystem and natural resources, to report annually to parliament, and derive its funding from a 20 per cent tax on all resource extraction activities in Canada.
Also, we’d protect from development at least half of Canada’s terrestrial and marine area – not to mention abolish capitalism, given that it’s prodigiously wasteful.
The Constitutional Assembly also envisioned a new list of citizens’ rights to clean water, public broadcasting and public transit.
To make Canada less a “vertical mosaic” and more egalitarian, the assembly would legislate more employment equity programs and instruct political parties to run candidates mirroring our diversity.
Thinking globally, we’d like our Constitution to identify Canada as a pacifist, demilitarized nation.
Personally, I’d like to amend Section 146 to allow for the admission of new provinces, including territories beyond our present limits.
Maybe then we could admit like-minded, willing U.S. states – California, say, or New York – as brand-new Canadian provinces.
Plus – if they’ll have us – the Turks and Caicos Islands.
George Elliott Clarke is the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. His latest books are a revision of The Merchant Of Venice (Retried) and Locating Home: The First African-Canadian Novel And Verse Collections.
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