The Pirates of Penzance was the fifth comic opera to come out of the collaboration of librettist Sir W. S. Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. It premiered in New York City – the only one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas to open first in the United States rather than London – on New Year’s Eve in 1879, a year and a half after their fourth work, the H.M.S. Pinafore, had become a huge hit, both in London and internationally.
The hero of The Pirates of Penzance is the character Frederic, a role performed by a tenor. The opera begins with his having completed his twenty-first year – not his twenty-second birthday, for he was born on February 29th, a distinction, or rather, a “paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox”, that becomes essential to the plot in an amusingly absurd way – and the titular pirates throwing him a party. He has, up to this point, served as their apprentice due to a mistake that his nurse, Ruth, made, when he was a boy (she had heard the word “pilot” as “pirate” in his father’s instructions regarding his apprenticeship). The bass-baritone Pirate King (“it is, it is, a glorious thing to be a pirate king”), congratulates him and tells him that he now ranks as a “full blown member of our band”, producing a cheer from the crew, who are then told “My friends, I thank you all from my heart for your kindly wishes. Would that I can repay them as they deserve.” Asked what he means by that, Frederic explains “Today I am out of my indentures, and today I leave you forever.” Astonished, since Frederic is the best man he has, the Pirate King asks for an explanation. Frederic, with Ruth’s help – for she had also joined the pirate crew – explains about the error, and that while as long as the terms of his indentures lasted it was his duty to serve as part of the pirate crew, once they were over “I shall feel myself bound to devote myself heart and soul to your extermination!”
In the course of explaining all of this, Frederic expresses his opinion of his pirate colleagues in these words “Individually, I love you all with affection unspeakable, but, collectively, I look upon you with a disgust that amounts to absolute detestation!”
As tempting as it is to continue this summary until we get to the “doctor of divinity who resides in this vicinity” and Major-General Stanley who, as he likes to introduce himself, is the “very model of a modern Major-General”, I have already arrived at the lines that are the entire point of my having brought all of this up.
I have stated many times in the past that I prefer to call myself a Canadian patriot rather than a Canadian nationalist. There are two ways in which patriotism and nationalism are usually distinguished. The first is a distinction of kind. Patriotism is an affection that people come by naturally as they extend the sentiment that under ordinary circumstances they acquire for the home and neighbourhood they grew up in to include their entire country. Nationalism is an ideology which people obtain through indoctrination. The second is a distinction of object. The object of nationalism is a people, the object of patriotism is a country. I have talked about the first distinction in the past, it is the second which is relevant in this essay. I love my country, the Dominion of Canada, and its history, institutions and traditions. When it comes to my countrymen, however, Canadians, and to be clear, I mean only those who are living at the present moment and not past generations, I often find myself sharing Frederic’s sentiments which were again:
Individually, I love you all with affection unspeakable, but, collectively, I look upon you with a disgust that amounts to absolute detestation!
The more my fellow Canadians show a lack of appreciation for and indifference towards Canada’s traditions and institutions the more inclined I am to think of them, taken collectively, in such uncharitable terms. If opinion polls are any real indication – and to be fair, I do not think that protasis to be certain, far from it - this lack of appreciation and indifference has been very much on the rise among Canadians as of late.
Take personal freedom or liberty, for example. This is a vital Canadian tradition. It goes back, not just the founding of the country in Confederation in 1867, but much further for the Fathers of Confederation, English and French, in adopting the Westminster constitution for our own deliberately chose to retain continuity with a tradition that safeguarded liberty. Sir John A. Macdonald, addressing the legislature of the United Province of Canada in 1865 said:
We will enjoy here that which is the great test of constitutional freedom – we will have the rights of the minority respected. In all countries the rights of the majority take care of themselves, but it is only in countries like England, enjoying constitutional liberty, and safe from the tyranny of a single despot, or of an unbridled democracy, that the rights of minorities are regarded.
Sir Richard Cartwright made similar remarks and said “For myself, sir, I own frankly I prefer British liberty to American equality”. This sentence encapsulated the thinking of the Fathers of Confederation – Canada was to be a British country with British freedom rather than an American country with American equality. In the century and a half (with change) since then, this has been reversed in the thinking of a great many Canadians. In the minds of these Canadians “equality” has become a Canadian value, although not the equality that Sir Richard Cartwright identified with the United States but a much uglier doctrine with the same name, and freedom has become an “American” value. The Liberal Party and their allies in the media and academe are largely if not entirely to blame for this. Indeed, this way of thinking was evident among bureaucrats and other career government officials who tend to be Liberal Party apparatchiks regardless of which party is in government long before it became evident among the general public.
About fourteen years ago, in the Warman v. Lemire case before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, Dean Steacy, an investigator with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, was asked “What value do you give freedom of speech when you investigate?” His response was to say “Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.” This despite the fact that in the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which people like this usually although contrafactually regard as the source of constitutionally protected rights and freedoms in Canada, “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication” is the second of the “fundamental freedoms” enumerated in Section 2. Perhaps Steacy did not think “speech” to be included in “expression”.
When Steacy’s foolish remark was publicized it did not win him much popularity among Canadians. Quite the contrary, it strengthened the grassroots movement that was demanding the repeal of Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, a movement that was ultimately successful during the premiership of Stephen Harper by means of a private member’s bill despite it lacking the support of the Prime Minister and even, as many of us thought at the time, with his tacit disapproval. This demonstrates that as recently as a decade and a half ago, Dean Steacy’s knee-jerk rejection of Canada’s traditional British liberty as “American” did not resonate with Canadians. Can the same be said today?
The last year has provided us with many reasons to doubt this. In March of 2020, after the media irresponsibly induced a panic over the spread of the Wuhan bat flu, most provincial governments, strongly encouraged to do so by the Dominion government, followed the example of governments around the world and imposed an unprecedented universal quarantine, at the time recommended by the World Health Organization, as an experiment in slowing the spread of the virus. This involved a radical and severe curtailing of our basic rights and freedoms. Indeed, the freedoms described as “fundamental” in the second section of the Charter – these include, in addition to the one quoted two paragraphs ago, the freedoms of “conscience and religion”, “peaceful assembly” and “association” – were essentially suspended in their entirety as our governments forbade all in-person social interaction. Initially, as our governments handed over dictatorial powers to the public health officers we were told that this was a short-term measure to “flatten the curve”, to prevent the hospitals from being swamped while we learned more about this new virus and prepared for it. As several of us predicted at the time would happen, “mission creep” quickly set in and the newly empowered health officials became determined to keep these excessive rules and restrictions in place until some increasingly distant goal – the development of a vaccine, the vaccination of the population, the elimination of the virus – was achieved. Apart from a partial relaxation of the rules over the summer months, the lockdown experiment has remained in place to this day, and indeed, when full lockdown measures were re-imposed in the fall, they were even more severe than they had been last March and April. This despite the fact that the evidence is clearly against the lockdown experiment – the virus is less dangerous than was originally thought (and even last March we knew that it posed a serious threat mostly to those who were very old and already had other health complications), its spread rises and falls seasonally similar to the cold and flu, lockdowns and masks have minimal-to-zero effect on this because it has happened more-or-less the same in all jurisdictions regardless of whether they locked down or not or the severity of the lockdown, while lockdowns themselves inflict severe mental, physical, social, cultural and economic damage upon societies.
Polls last year regularly showed a majority – often a large majority – of Canadians in favour of these restrictions and lockdowns, or even wishing for them to be more severe than they actually were. If these polls were at all accurate – again, this is a big if – then this means far fewer Canadians today respect and value their traditional freedoms than has ever been the case in the past, even as recently as a decade ago. It means that far too many Canadians have bought the lie of the public health officers, politicians, and media commentators that valuing freedom is “selfish”, when, in reality, supporting restrictions, masks, and lockdowns means preferring that the government take away the rights and freedoms of all your neighbours over you taking responsibility for your own safety and those of your loved ones and exercising reasonable precautions. It means that far too many Canadians now value “safety” – which from the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution to this day has ever been the excuse totalitarians of every stripe, Nazi, Communist, woke, whatever, have used to tyrannize people and take away their freedoms – over freedom.
Over the past week or so, the mainstream media have been reporting opinion poll results that seem to indicate that a similar lack of appreciation for an essential Canadian institution is growing. According to the media the poll shows that support for replacing our hereditary royal monarch with an elected head of state is higher than it has ever been before, although it is not near as high as the lockdown support discussed above and is still below having majority support. There is good reason to doubt the accuracy of such poll results in that they indicate growing support for a change the media itself seems to be trying to promote given the way it has used the scandal surrounding the recent vice-regal resignation to attack the office of the Queen’s representative, the Governor General, when the problem is obviously with the person who filled the office, and the way in which she was chosen, i.e., hand-picked by Captain Airhead in total disregard of the qualities the office calls for, selection procedures that worked well in the past such as with Payette’s immediate predecessor, or even the most basic vetting. There is also, of course, a question over whether these poll results indicate an actual growth in small-r republican preferences or merely disapproval of the next in line of succession, His Royal Highness Prince Charles.
To the extent that this poll is accurate, however, it indicates that many Canadians have traded the Canadian way of thinking for the American way of thinking. Americans think of the Westminster system as being inferior to their own republican constitution because they consider it to be less than democratic with a hereditary monarch as the head of state. The historic and traditional Canadian perspective is that the Westminster system is superior to a republican constitution because it is more than democratic, incorporating the monarchical principle along with the democratic. To trade the Canadian for the American perspective on this is to impoverish our thinking. That a constitution is better for including more than just democracy is a viewpoint with an ancient pedigree that can be traced back to ancient Greece. That democracy is the highest principle of government and that a constitution is therefore weaker for having a non-elected head of state is an entirely Modern perspective. It cannot even be traced back to ancient Rome, for while the Roman republic was like the American republic in being kingless, it was unlike the American republic in that it was openly and unabashedly aristocratic and made not the slightest pretense of being democratic. Some might consider an entirely Modern perspective to be superior to one with an ancient pedigree, but such are ludicrously wrong. Novelty is not a quality of truth – the truer an idea is, the more like it is that you will be able to find it throughout history, stretching back to the most ancient times, rather than merely in the present day.
Indeed, to think that an elected head of state is preferable to a hereditary monarch at this point in time, that is to say after the clownish mayhem of the fiascos that were the last two American presidential elections, is to embrace the Modern perspective at the worst possible moment, the moment in which it has been utterly discredited. It is bad enough that Canadians have lately allowed the American presidential election style to influence the way we regard our parliamentary elections so as to make the question of which personality cult leader we want as Prime Minister into the primary or even sole factor to be considered in voting for whom we want for our local constituency representative. We do not need to Americanize the office of head of state as well.
We are better off for having a hereditary royal monarch as our head of state and a constitution that is therefore more than, not less than, democratic. Historically and traditionally, the institution of the monarchy has been the symbol and safeguard of our traditional rights and freedoms. I have long said that in Canada the monarchy and freedom stand and fall together. Therefore, if the polls are correct about waning Canadian support for both, this speaks very poorly about the present generation of Canadians. Which is why if these trends continue, Canadians who still love their country with its traditional monarchy and freedoms will be increasingly tempted to individually love their countrymen with affection unspeakable, but collectively look upon them with a disgust that amounts to absolute detestation.