A Democratic Dilemma
DECEMBER 01, 1969 by MORRIS C. SHUMIATCHER
The following is from a recent television interview moderated by Mr. Gordon McGinnis on CKTV’s program, "Guest House," at Regina, Saskatchewan. Dr. Shumiatcher is a prominent Canadian lawyer and a staunch defender of the individual against the encroachments upon his rights by the State. What he says of political affairs in Canada would seem to describe pretty well the situation in most any democratic nation of our time.
Question: When we talk about democracy and rule by the majority of the people, what of the minority who are causing a lot of friction in our society?
Democracy postulates rule by the people and, generally, the principal rules are made by majorities. But, of course, democracy works only if both majorities and minorities are prepared to adhere to certain fundamental rules of law and practice. That is to say, a majority has the right to govern but it does not have the right to destroy or crush the minority. By that same token, the minority has the right to live and survive, but it does not have the right to disrupt and destroy the ability of the majority to carry out its obligations to govern.
The minority may, by disorder, by refusing to adhere to normal rules of democracy, destroy the whole democratic structure. But majority rule does not mean simply that if you have the power of a giant, you should use it as a giant. Power must be used with restraint and with all due regard for legitimate minority rights. I want to give you an illustration. I haven’t the slightest doubt if a poll had been taken in Nazi Germany in 1938—let us say, as to whether the majority of people in Germany at that time subscribed to the racial superiority theories of Hitler—that the majority would have voted in favor of the doctrine and a policy to give it effect. But simply because the majority might approve it does not mean that it is right.
Question: Is there a possibility that this sort of thing could happen today?
It is quite possible. I think that you may have a majority that will decide to take reprisals against a minority and in fact we have such cases today. But I think you are most concerned at the moment about the right of 300 people in Vancouver to disrupt or seek to disrupt a meeting of the Prime Minister of Canada when he attends there on legitimate political business, as was the case a few days ago. Of course, there is no right to stifle free speech with violence and threats of violence. As he said at the time, after these unfortunate events last week in Vancouver, democracy depends upon the use of reason, of logic, of the right to persuasion. As soon as force or violence is used by a minority or a majority, as soon as a person says, "I alone have the right to talk. You have no right to contradict or answer!" then the whole foundation of democracy disappears. That is why the minority and the majority both mustadhere to the rules which I spoke of earlier. These are gentlemanly rules and they are based on courtesy and restraint. Because they depend on good manners, the democratic fabric is a very delicate one. It is one that can be easily ruptured; it is one through which violence and brute force and selfishness can break easily. When that happens, men lose their democratic rights, and the strong and unscrupulous prevail. After all, there are very few places in the world today where anything like a democratic system exists. Democracy is the exceptional form of government in the world today as it has always been throughout the centuries. It is a freak, if you will, and one which, because of its fragility, must not only be cherished, but jealously guarded. That, really, is what we say when we sing, "O Canada: We stand on guard for thee."
Question: Why is there today this shabby attitude of Canadians toward the office of the Prime Minister? It does not seem to me, at least, that it has ever existed in this country before, certainly not in my time.
Well, that is a very good and a very difficult question. I think one of the problems is this: Our Prime Minister is a highly intellectual and a very able man. Even his detractors must admit this. What is more, he is accustomed to discussion, to confrontation if you will. His experience as a university law teacher schooled him in the art of man-to-man debate. He has felt that he can take the pulse of the nation and determine its sentiment and disposition by going out amongst the people and discussing with them matters that are of national concern. That is a very worthy objective.
I think he must now have second thoughts on this program upon which he embarked a year ago, for the very simple reason that you really do not find the pulse of the people in the streets at all. Those who are the responsible people of this country simply are not the people who walk or march the streets—or who demonstrate or who appear in mobs or come forward in parades or carry signs or shout slogans at the Prime Minister or anybody else. That is not where the business of the nation is being carried on—whether by mechanics or builders, tradesmen or producers, or by any of the hundreds of useful callings and professions that serve the nation. The thoughtful people, the people that are really concerned with the affairs of our nation, simply do not go out in the streets to air their views; and therefore, if the Prime Minister wishes to take the pulse of the nation, I do not think he will ever find it in the parks or at the curbstones of the cities at all. That is not where he will learn anything beyond the latest obscenities of the day. I think he has come to realize that there isn’t much wisdom there—nor even a willingness to acquire it. That is the first point, which is important.
Secondly, I think that those people who occupy the streets do not come forward with a genuine desire to discuss anything at all with the Prime Minister. They simply press on in order to shout and to demonstrate. What they demonstrate most is their own ignorance and arrogance. Can you think of a more inane way of expressing an opinion on any issue of importance? I do not care whether it is on Viet Nam, on taxation or medical care or pensions or Indians or whatever else. Is there a more inane way of expressing a view on a difficult question of national policy than to carry around a sign with three or four words (one or two of which are probably obscene)? Or by shouting slogans or by marching? These are activities fit for persons who are illiterate, untrained, and incapable of articulating their views. The intelligent person, on the other hand, if he has views on a subject, may enter into a logical debate, tackle nationally and internationally are no less complex; if anything, they are more so. Still, we seem to think that somehow, if we ask enough people and get enough answers, we are going to come up with some profound solution to the problems that bedevil us. I suggest that though we may get answers, they are unlikely to be reliable or useful answers. The public opinion pollsters will no more find the answers on the street than will the Prime Minister.
Question: Is there a fear that our environment of freedom in Canada is being seriously threatened?
I do not think we should have fear. We should have apprehensions perhaps, and we should be watchful. We have all heard: "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." But where is the vigilance in polling the public and asking them what is popular? "What do you want? Do you want annual guaranteed incomes?" If you are asked that, and if you have no other facts before you, it is like asking if you are in favor of motherhood. It sounds like a good thing. And so you say, "Yes—I want a guaranteed income, of course!" So, it appears in a poll that most people want it.
But what is not known or asked is, "What price are you prepared to pay for it?" The price you are bound to pay will be a price reckoned in more government interference, more confiscation of property by way of taxation, direct and indirect, upon death, and in a dozen other ways. There will be less freedom of choice and of occupation, because, let us face it: the more state pension and security plans we have, the more we are hedged about by commitments to these plans; the less mobility we have; the less willing we are to move and try something new.
Every time we subject ourselves to a new measure of social security, each new security measure that takes present earnings from a person in relationship to his job on a promise of future benefits, deprives him of his willingness and freedom to change, to move, to improve himself, to try something new and different. I can understand this fetish for social security in an old and tired culture; perhaps there was nothing else to hope for in a country like England after the War. But the Beveridge cradle-to-grave security has gone a great distance in reducing the inventiveness and resourcefulness of the English people and diminishing the productivity of the population; of that there is no question.
But we are a new nation here in Canada. We are just beginning to waken to our great national potentialities. What a pity if, at a time when we should be stretching our limbs and testing our strength as individuals and collectively straining our sinews as a nation—not just in the physical or economic sense but socially, culturally, spiritually—we crawl into the confining shell of welfarism and seek a safe and unadventurous life in the stagnant backwaters of the world!
Question: Are those people that are able, willing, and do in fact exercise their right to vote—are these persons more qualified today to make decisions than they were say five or ten years ago?
I would say less so. I would say the person who genuinely desires to inform himself on public affairs today has a great many more difficulties in his way than people encountered, say, forty or fifty years ago, because the facts today are so much more numerous and complex. It is so difficult to acquire the reservoir of information that is necessary to form any rational conclusion, that the challenge is considerably greater. But simply because the challenge is so great, I think more and more of us will be moved to accept it. It is not that a tiny group of people and no others are capable of making the decisions. We all are. We all have that capacity; but we can participate in the business of decision-making only if we are prepared to study the facts and issues diligently, continuously.
It is not enough to read the headlines and slogans that we find in the press. It is not enough to listen to what comes off the street even if it is dignified by a radio report or a television broadcast. These are only the superficial symptoms of our agitated times. You will learn nothing from them except that people are still capable of violent, irrational, angry acts. In order to form reasonable, workable, helpful judgments, there is no shortcut even in our electronic age. We must be prepared to work and study, and to inform—not inflame—ourselves and others. These are the prosaic, perhaps clumsy, paving stones that make up the road that democracy must travel. Construction may be slow—but there is no glamorous easy way.