Replacing the Senate with a House of Identities.

Author:Chodos, Howard
 
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A Proposal for Constitutional Change from Left Field

Howard Chodos is a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Public Administration at Carleton University in Ottawa. Robert Chodos lives in New Hamburg, Ontario, and is editor of Compass magazine.

Our current constitutional impasse appears especially intractable because the issues are not only complex, but also often overlap, the resolution of each often a condition for the resolution of the others. Yet the simultaneous resolution of the issues looks all but impossible.

At a minimum, a lasting constitutional settlement would have to resolve:

* Quebec's relationship to the rest of the country.

* The political status of aboriginal people, and how best to redress the legacy of historical injustice.

* The status of the various ethnic communities that have settled in different regions of the country.

* The division of powers between the various levels of government.

* The question of whether all the provinces must be equal.

Years of fruitless efforts at resolution leave no mystery about how their interconnection makes resolving any one of these issues more difficult. To give but one example, those Canadians who see the country as a union of 10 equal provinces have little room for any notion of special recognition for Quebec.

Yet we cannot escape the need to deal with all of these problems simultaneously. Clearly, there is no neat formula for achieving this. Our best hope is to work towards instituting a framework within which new processes for possible resolution emerge. Otherwise, we are at an impasse whose most likely outcome is a rancorous break-up of the pan-Canadian state. It is in this hope that we offer the proposal outlined below.

Our framework focuses on Parliament, and putting it into practice entails nothing less than a radical redefinition of the way in which we elect our political representatives. We have few illusions. What follows is not a simple proposal and will require some effort to understand. Because of its complexity and the radical changes it proposes, its chances of ever being implemented are slim. But the sad reality is that there is currently nothing anywhere near the table that has a chance either; and our proposal contains some new elements that, if nothing else, may inspire others to think creatively about a way to move forward.

Multiple and shifting identities

Our starting point is a philosophical position that is gaining wide acceptance in Canada and elsewhere. What we have in mind is the recognition that we are all complex individuals whose identity cannot be reduced to any single feature of our lives. We each have many ways of relating to other people and the world around us--multiple interests, none of which is permanently and immutably inscribed at the core of our being.

"We are becoming fluid and manysided," writes psychologist Robert Jay Lifton. "Without quite realizing it, we have been evolving a sense-of-self appropriate to the restlessness and flux of our time. This mode of being differs radically from that of the past, and enables us to engage in continuous exploration and personal experiment." (1) At times, being Albertan may be the most important thing to us, at others it may be our sexual orientation. The degree of importance that we attach to one or another aspect of our identities can and does vary according to changes in our own lives and the circumstances around us.

At the moment, the only aspect of our identity that receives direct political expression is our geographical location. We are represented in the House of Commons as residents of Gander-Twillingate, or Vancouver Centre. The political system is officially blind to whether we are Baptists or Buddhists, farmers or factory owners, women or men, gay or straight. These and other aspects of our being are politically represented only if there is a sufficient geographical concentration of people with the same identity. Thus, the large Italian and Jewish populations in certain ridings in Montreal and Toronto make it possible for these communities to elect one or more MPs who reflect their concerns. But this possibility is not available to identities that lack geographical concentration.

One catalyst that has intensified debate on the nature of community and identity has been the growth of electronic means of communication, especially the Internet, allowing people to relate more closely to geographically diffuse communities of interest. Many commentators acknowledge the existence of these "virtual communities," while distinguishing them from "real communities" that are geographical in nature. University of Ottawa historian Robert E. Babe, who specializes in the history of telecommunications, argues that all real community is geographical:

"The Information Highway will...

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