All Commentary
Monday, December 1, 1969

A Democratic Dilemma

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.