What Makes Liberal Democracy Flourish in Canada?


The objective of this essay is to explore what makes liberal democracy flourish by exploring the political institutions of the commonwealth democracy of Canada.


The most successful liberal democracies are animated by independent and robust political institutions that rest on a delicate balance of three distinct features — a robust state, the rule of law and political accountability.


My hypothesis asks a quintessential research question: What are the factors in a country that create the best possible atmosphere for liberal democracy to flourish?


This research will help nourish the literature on liberal democracy across the world. This research will emphasize the evident flaws of liberal democracy and provide a framework that will bring it back to its original meanings and promises.


Liberalism is a political philosophy that was conceived some 500 years ago. It imagined humans as responsible rights bearing individuals who have the ability to pursue for themselves their own vision of the good life [1].


Opportunities for liberty are guaranteed on a shared belief in a social contract, which everyone supposedly has equal access to. This social contract is supposed to be continuously ratified by free and fair elections that yield responsive representatives.


Liberalism is animated by a spirit of limited but effective government, rule of law, an independent judiciary, responsive public officials, and free and fair elections.


The most fruitful modern liberal democracies combine three sets of institutions in a stable balance. The three categories of institutions in questions are: a robust state, the rule of law and accountable government [2].


The fact that there are countries capable of achieving this meticulous and delicate balance constitutes a miracle in modern politics.

It is not entirely obvious that these three unique and robust features can be easily combined. For instance, the state concentrates and uses power to bring about compliance with its laws on the part of its citizens and to defend itself against other states and threats — while the rule of law and accountable government limit the state’s power, first by forcing it to use its power according to certain public laws, and then by ensuring that it is accountable to the people.


It takes years of nation building to bring about a final egalitarian form of liberal democracy that demonstrates a mastery of each of these three distinct features. Countries like Canada and Denmark perfectly encapsulate this modern miracle of liberal democracy.

Canada is a large and regionally diverse country that has all the characteristics of being a strong and effective state. Canada’s strong state ethos is reflected in the constitution of 1876.


This constitution emphasized the importance of the central government to predominate, but the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (which was the ultimate judicial authority until 1949, when the position was inherited by the Supreme Court of Canada), interpreted provincial powers generously and federal powers with some restrain, thus giving provinces a much greater share in the balance of power than had been contemplated [3].

The balance of power and fair distribution of legislative powers between the two levels of government in Canada yields a robust state that balances powers between the federal and provincial level.


Canadian federalism allows for the central government to gain partial control over trade and commerce, which ensures economic flourishing apropos strong state institutions.


Canadian federalism emphasizes the power of the central government “to make laws for peace, order and good Government of Canada”. This power yields strong state interventions when necessary, thus creating safety nets that ensure the public good.


Canada’s parliamentary sovereignty yields representative, functionally effective, and balanced institutions – and this produces a strong state that ensures safety and stability. Canada’s strong state allows for individual rights and can even be more effective than the state in the U.S [4].


The desire to build free institutions within a strong monarchial state made Canada distinctive, different from its mother country and its sibling across the border.


Strong state formations in Canada emerge due to the presence of mass social cohesion in the country. Canada remains more respectful of authority, more willing to use the state, and more supportive of a group basis of rights than its neighbor down south.


These factors create a robust state that yields a generous and extensive welfare state. Canada also features considerable government ownership and robust trade unions that yield more participation than those in the U.S. These conditions could not have been created without a strong state.


Just as important as strong state institutions is the rule of law – which is quintessential for a flourishing and fruitful liberal democracy. The rule of law yields a society with an effective legal system that respects individual liberty [5].


The rule of law presupposes that laws will be obeyed, and that breaches of universal laws will be meet with enforcement. Government is also limited in its powers, since the courts and the legal apparatus should be separate entities from government.


In countries with these characteristics like Canada, more often than not, individual liberty is protected, and economic flourishing likely assumes form. From this perspective, property rights, contractual rights, banking, insurance, and the rest of the complex infrastructure of commerce can develop only under the protection of law, which must include independent courts and an independent legal profession.


In societies with a robust rule of law, taxes can be collected, thus ensuring the public good. Without a system of laws and accountability, no society can flourish. No country can become prosperous without a nourished, independent and accountable legal system.


An effective legal system often depends on a variety of distinct factors, most importantly, a so called cultural of obedience. A culture of obedience to law yields effective enforcement mechanisms, such as independent courts. This culture of obedience to law may be described as a constitutional value, and this is what is meant by rule of law.


The rule of law in the preambles of the Canadian constitution solidifies the countries commitment to the rule of law. The preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that ‘Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.’


This explicit reference to the rule of law came into the constitution as recently as 1982, when the Charter was adapted as Part I of the constitutional act that same year. There is also a preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867, which states that Canada is to have a constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.


It is important to note that the in aftermath of the Second World War, democratic nations have embraced judicial protection of individual autonomy, equality and respect for human dignity – which cannot be achieved without robust state institutions that nourish the rule of law [6].


The role of the Supreme Court in Canada is substantial in transforming Canada into a postwar, rights-protection polity both before and after the adaptation of the Charter in 1982.


Just after the war, the Supreme Court took the initiative to protect rights just as Canada reached political independence and the Court became Canada’s highest appellate court.


Facing challenges to the most basic assumptions of liberal democracy, some of the judges inferred protection for fundamental freedoms from the structure of Canada’s parliamentary democracy, the federal-provincial divisions of powers and the heritage of the flexible, unwritten British constitutions.


Although the court ultimately abandoned this approach, it recently returned to this legacy in important reference cases that deliberated upon the place of direct democracy and the independence of the courts in Canada’s constitutional order.


Canada’s adaptation of the postwar model to the Canadian context resolves that tension without prompting such departures, thus promoting the flourishing of the rule of law.


The Supreme Court of Canada has made reference to the rule of law many times over the years and has occasionally even coined a definition of the rule of law. For instance, in the Manitoba Language Reference (1985), the Supreme Court of Canada was asked to determine the validity of all laws of the province of Manitoba enacted since 1890.


The vacuum of laws in Manitoba implicated an even more basic principle of the rule of law, namely, that ‘the rule of law requires the creation and maintenance of an actual order of positive laws which preserves and embodies the more general principle of normative order’[7]. This definition begs the question: How was this principle to be accommodated where, as here, it contradicts the requirement of constitutionalism?


The court devised a suitable and clever solution to this dilemma — in effect, it held that all of Manitoba’s English-only laws were invalid, but it suspended the deceleration of invalidity for the minimum amount of time required for the province to translate and reenact the laws in both languages.


As a result of this, the requirement of a legal order was satisfied by giving temporary forces to Manitoba’s body of law; the requirement of constitutionalism was satisfied by ordering the province to comply with the law of the constitution on pain of invalidity at the expiration of the time allowed for compliance. The court took a similar approach of upholding the rule of law against constitutional issues related to bilingualism in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Quebec.


In the Manitoba case, the importance of the rule of law in Canadian society is beautifully captured in the following passage by the Supreme Court:


“The rule of law has always been understood as the very basis of the English Constitution characterizing the political institutions of England from the time of the Norman Conquest [8].


It becomes a postulate of our own constitutional order by way of the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1982, and its implicit inclusion in the preamble to the Constitutional Act, 1867 by virtue of the words “with a Constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom”.


“Additional to the inclusion of the rule of law in the preambles of the Constitution Acts of 1867 and 1982, the principle is clearly implicit in the very nature of a constitution.


The Constitution, as the Supreme Law, must be understood as a purposive ordering of the social relations providing a basis upon which an actual order of positive laws can be brought into existence.

The founders of this nation must have intended, as one of the basic principles of nation building, that Canada be a society of legal order and normative structure: one governed by rule of law.
While this is not set out in a specific provision, the principle of the rule of law is clearly a principle of the constitution.

The concern expressed in this passage for the essential need for normative order and the rule of law has animated Canadian political law and discourse since [9]. For instance, another example of Canadian rule of law in full form is the Supreme Court case that set rules for the succession of Quebec.


The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1998 that neither the Canadian constitution nor international law allows Quebec to secede from Canada unilaterally [10]. Succession would require amending the constitution — however, if a clear majority of Quebecers unambiguously opt for succession, the federal and the other provinces would have a constitutional duty to negotiate.


This is an obligation that the court declared to be implicit in four principles that inform and sustain the constitutional text federalism, democracy, constitutionalism and most importantly, the rule of law.


The Quebec succession episode reiterates that Canada is a strong state with a rule of law that values the importance of social cohesion and national unity. All Canadian’s must follow laws — which are supposedly fair to all and are open to some changes.


Another quintessential feature that ensures that the original intentions of liberalism are honored is political accountability. Political accountability ensures democratic governance that is based on the will of the people — which nourishes liberalism and allows it to flourish.


The commonwealth democracy of Canada is an example of a strong nation state that boasts robust institutional mechanisms that ensure political accountability.


Accountability in the Government of Canada is enhanced by systems of responsible government — which are based on the Westminster model, the cornerstone of which is the doctrine of ministerial responsibility [11].


The Canadian has a responsibility to hold the government accountable. Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the exercise of authority assigned to the Crown under the constitution and under statutory law.


The Westminster system features distinctive accountability features such as: the twin tenets of parliamentary sovereignty and responsible government. Under the Canadian constitutional system, Parliament can make any law it wishes within the limits of the constitutions — for instance, the division of jurisdictional authority under the Constitutional Act, 1867, and the rights set out in the Charter of Freedoms.


The executive is responsible to the legislature — that is, the government of the day remains in power only so long as it commands the confidence of the elected House of Commons.


The executive is accountable to the legislature, meaning that the government remains in power as it commands the confidence of the elected House of Commons. As a result of this, the executive is accountable to the legislature for the exercise of its authority, and together they are accountable to the electorate.


The political responsibility of ministers, or accountability to parliament, is essential element of liberal democracy. In a healthy liberal democracy, the government must be accountable for both the policies it sets and the means by which it implements them.


To nourish its already fruitful liberal democracy, the accountability regime in the country should promote a culture and practice of continuous improvement of governance and administration in the public service.


Liberal democracy in Canada has its flaws, especially in regard to accountable government. Evidence suggests that Canadians believe that their politicians are not meeting expectations as defined in ethical terms [12].


Public opinion surveys have shown us that the general citizenry in Canada believe that there is a clear gap between what Canadians expect and what they believe they are receiving in terms of ethical conduct.


The Corruption Perceptions Index ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption, according to experts and businesspeople [13].


Since its inception in 1995, the Corruption Perceptions Index offers an annual snapshot of the relative degree of corruption by ranking countries and territories from all over the globe. In 2019, Canada was ranked the 12th least corrupt country in the world on this index, and it received a score of 77/100. Canada has fallen from its position from the top 10.


An example of rampant corruption in Canada can be found in the Greater Vancouver area — which is known as a global city with one of the highest qualities of life in the world but is also a city that is desirable to corruption like money laundering and capital flight [14].


This corruption is a threat to a liberal democracy that supposedly adheres to the Rule of Law. While the scale of money laundering was acknowledged by Prime Minister Trudeau’s Liberals and other political parties in election platforms, it was largely treated as a local B.C problem. But experts have warned that money laundering does not necessarily stay west of the Rocky Mountains and is in fact a national issue.


The limited corruption omnipresent demonstrates the limitations of liberal democracy in Canada. When Canada is compared to the U.S, especially after the election of Donald Trump, Canada is often portrayed as a model liberal democracy, one of the few that has maintained its social democratic roots [15].


Beneath the shiny veneer is a nation that also struggles to maintain its liberal democracy and often is tempted by neoliberalism and unchecked corporate capitalism, which can often corrupt a healthy liberal democracy that emphasizes the participation and well-being of a large political community.

Canada does embrace its own brand of neoliberalism, where crimes of power abound and the state is either powerless to act or complicit. It is now abundantly clear that geopolitically, neoliberal ideas, policies and strategies are incrementally gaining ground, re-defining the political, social and economic model, governing the strategies and setting the pace in all walks of political life.


Canada is partially operating under the illusions of modern liberal democracy that perpetuate the myth of the rule of law, where states and corporations exist in increasingly symbiotic relationships.


This makes it difficult and contradictory for states to discipline powerful actors and institutions — and where hegemonic beliefs prevail about the inherent benefits of private enterprise, minimal state regulation of business (unless the state’s intervention facilitates the private accumulation of wealth), and hyper-individualism prioritizing personal wealth and accomplishment over collective solidarity. These conditions can create an erosion in liberal democracy.


In 2019, a Canadian ethics commissioner has said that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated federal conflict of interest rules in the handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair — where Mr. Trudeau supposedly pressured his former attorney general to cut a deal with a company facing corruption charges — and retaliated when she refused to play ball [16].


This episode reiterates to us that Canada has a substantial history of scandal and corruption despite various safeguards for preventing them [17]. Although Canadian values and political culture along with a variety of legal and institutional mechanisms all seemingly foster an ethical framework for democratic governance — there has been many exceptions, and the SNC-Lavalin affair is one of them.


More troubling is the fact that in recent years the country has been plagued with several serious ethical deficiencies at all levels of government, which have severely compromised the confidence and trust that Canadians have in their politicians and the broader system of government.


Previous Canadian governments have implemented various reforms — from codes of conduct for both politicians and public servants to whistleblower protection to ethics commissioners to anti-corruption legislation — yet corruption still persist in Canada from Toronto and Montreal, where municipal corruption is increasingly rampant [18].


Canadian liberal democracy has many fundamental flaws regarding the rule of law and accountable government that inhibit its potential as a beacon for modern liberal democracy. For instance, problems with policing in Canada threaten vital accountability mechanisms that are crucial for effective democratic governance.


The growing presence of private police in Canadian society, and especially the fact that they perform many policing functions traditionally regarded as the preserve of public police, raise fundamental questions of police governance and accountability for a democratic society that based on the rule of law and respect for human rights [19].


It is unacceptable for a society based on the tenets of liberal democracy that public police are held accountable by democratically elected governmental authority while private officers performing the same policing functions as their public police counterparts are not subject to the same from of democratic governance and accountability.


Given the existing federal and provincial human rights legislation in Canada, and the recent extension of federal policy and access legislation to the private sector, there would seem to be no insurmountable jurisdictional or constitutional obstacle to extending the notion of a code of conduct incorporating human rights to the private security sector, insofar as they are involved in the exercise of the police powers of investigation, detention, arrest, gathering and sharing of personal information.


Such a development would constitute significant progress towards achieving comprehensive and effective democratic governance and accountability for both public and private policing in Canada.


The fundamental assumption of liberal democracy that all men are created equal is not always practiced in Canada. In regard to aboriginal people in Canada, the government has defied the rule of law and mechanisms for accountability.


Aboriginal people have been and are being internally colonized in Canada, through a long and deliberate and ongoing process of cultural suppression, dispossession, breach of promise and trust, legislative and other oppression, as well as state and public discrimination and violence [20].


Aboriginal peoples have never freely consented to their collective dispossession through the barbaric taking of their traditional and ancestorial lands and recourses across Canada, which had debilitating effects on the liberal democratic ethos of Canada.


The Canadian governments reckless defiance of the rule of law is omnipresent in the long history of First People’s relationship with the Canadian Crown, which included the following: The continued application, to this day, of the colonial and oppressive Indian Act; the involuntary removal of successive generations of First Nations children into the so-called residential schools, aimed at eliminating the integrity and continuity of whole societies; and the dispossession of indigenous people though forced relocations and successive takings of almost all of the land and recourses of the First Nations people [21].


Canada has since corrected course by announcing a policy of multiculturalism in 1971, which in turn should ensure the rule of law is applied to all with fairness and justice [22].


The goal of the policy was to improve the quality of intercultural relations. The two main elements of the policy proposed for achieving this goal are: support for the maintenance and development of cultural communities (the cultural component); and promotion of intercultural contact along with the reduction of barriers to such participation (the intercultural component).


Current evidence is that there is widespread support for these goals in Canada. The success of multiculturalism in Canada is in fact an indicator that liberal democracy in the country has generally been victorious. The triumph of multiculturalism is directly correlated with the success of liberal democracy ­– as they both require strong institutions that ensure justice for all and mass social cohesion.


Strong institutions and the rule of law ensure that the law is applied to all citizens equally – which nourishes the prospect of multiculturalism. You can’t have multiculturalism without liberal democracy – since liberal democracy presupposes that the rule of law shall be applied to all, and that strong state institutions will enforce these laws. The ideals of liberal democracy go hand in hand with the end goals of multiculturalism.


The importance of social cohesion illustrates the predestined relationship between liberal democracy and multiculturalism. Social cohesion not only yields successful institutions and laws that preserve liberal democracy – it also leads to the attainment of the fundamental goal of positive intercultural relations that is central to the multicultural ethos.


Although liberal democracy in Canada may have originally only been designed for white men, it has since become more inclusive, and now women, LGBTQ, immigrants and indigenous people are participating in the political fabric of society thanks to the fundamental foundations of liberal democracy.


There is a widespread fear in many western countries that ethnic diversity is eroding support for the welfare state, but as a matter of fact – in depth analysis shows little tension between ethnic diversity and public support for social programs in Canada [23]. The prevalence of strong state mechanisms and the rule of law nourishes lavish social programs as well as ethnic diversity.


Canada is sort of a multicultural welfare state that features distinctive institutions that balance competing public interests vis-à-vis strong and effective state institutions. In other words, the Canadian state has forestalled tension between diversity and redistribution by diverting adjustment pressures from the welfare state, thus absorbing some of them in other parts of the policy regime, and nurturing a more inclusive form of identity.


In this paper, we have discussed what makes liberal democracy flourish. We have used Canada as a beacon for liberal democracy – and we have credited the countries flourishing to robust state institutions, the rule of law and a culture of political accountability. Although Canada has largely been successful at maintaining and nourishing these traditions, it has at time violated the core tenets of liberal democracy.


From the beginning of its inception, Canada has not always operated under the central assumption of liberalism that all men are created equal. Canada’s aboriginal people have largely been left behind from Canada’s liberal democratic experiment.


To correct course, Canada has adopted a policy of multiculturalism that promotes the central assumptions of liberal democracy. The practice of multiculturalism enhances the civic social cohesion that is crucial for liberal democracy to properly function.


The role of accountable government is also something that is crucial to the flourishing of liberal democracy. The role of accountable government is to prevent corruption in all forms of public life.


A culture of accountability in government also ensures that corporate interests do not interfere with the public good. Accountable government and the rule of law ensures that all citizen be treated equally under universal law’s, and that public and private police are held accountable for misconduct.


In all, Canada features a strong state which ensures the safety and economic flourishing of its citizens, a lengthy tradition of the rule of law, and strong mechanisms for accountable government.


If Canada further embraces multiculturalism, attempts to eliminate political corruption and fights racial as well as economic inequalities – then it will strengthen liberal democracy and bring liberalism back to its original assumption, which is that all people are created equally.


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