O Canada: Canadian communicator answers our skeptical call for great Canadian oratory

Recently in the weekly ezine Executive Communication Report, I remarked on a paucity of great speeches by Canadians; I received a number of responses from readers, including this one, from Canadian expat communicator Patrick Davitt, which is better than I deserved. Now and for the foreseeable future, it shall serve as the Vital Speeches Guide to Canadian Rhetoric. —ed.


Dear Editor:

In your recent “Executive Communication Report” newsletter, you commented on the seeming absence of great Canadian speakers and their speeches. Your perception is sadly accurate. Even here in Canada, few people can cite great Canadian oratory the way most Americans can, even if reflexively, point to the Gettysburg Address, Kennedy’s inaugural, and Dr. King’s dream.

That said, Canada does have a rich history of oratory. As a Canadian who cut his speechwriting teeth supporting Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow, who was during his tenure Canada’s finest political speaker, I can say with certainty that our oratorical excellence began even before the country.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee was a poet and newspaperman, and a “Father of Confederation.”

He was also Canada’s most popular public speaker, in an era when traveling lecturers were an attraction like today’s rap stars, only with fewer references to “bling.” There was gunfire, however: McGee was also one of Canada’s two victims of political assassination, shot from behind after a stirring speech favoring Canadian national unity. Oddly, McGee earlier in his career had favored Canada becoming part of the U.S.

Joseph Howe was a 19th-century Nova Scotia newspaperman and politician. For printing a letter about corruption by area magistrates, Howe was charged with seditious libel, under an indictment that accused him of “wickedly, maliciously and seditiously desiring and intending to stir up and excite discontent among His Majesty’s subjects.” In a manner befitting a crime melodrama, Howe did not call a single witness in his defence, relying instead on his rhetorical powers to persuade the jury, counting on their ill will towards the magistrates, whose malfeasances were well-known and widely loathed.

Howe’s six-hour closing argument is among the most famous speeches in Canadian history:

While I sat in my office penning these passages (note: he did not actually write the offending words), which were to excite disaffection and rebellion, some of their worships were plundering the poor; and others, by their neglect, were tacitly sanctioning petty frauds and grinding sanctions; and if His Majesty sat upon that bench . . . (He) would tell them that he who robs the subjects makes war upon the King .. . (H)e would tell them they were the rebels, and that against them and not against me, this bill of indictment should have been filed.

He concluded his appeal to the jurors, asking them to do what an English jury might be expected to do in similar circumstances:

Will you, my countrymen, the descendants of these men, warmed by their blood, inheriting their language, and having the principles for which they struggled confined to your care, allow them to be violated in your hands?”

After the judge told them that the case against Howe was clearly proved, the jury took all of 10 minutes to return a “not guilty” verdict, helping solidify freedom of the press in Canada.

Then there’s Louis Riel, the rebel leader who roused the aboriginal and Metis (people of mixed aboriginal and white ancestry) in the west to armed rebellion against the national government in the late 1800s. At his treason trial, his speech to the jury might just as easily have been made by a U.S. founding father arguing what became U.S. First Amendment right to petition for redress of grievances:

Today, although a man I am as helpless before this court, in the Dominion of Canada and in this world, as I was helpless on the knees of my mother the day of my birth. The North West is also my mother. It is my mother country, and although my mother country is sick and confined in a certain way, there are some from Lower Canada who came to help her to take care of me during her sickness, and I am sure that my mother country will not kill me more than my mother did forty years ago when I came into the world, because a mother is always a mother, and even if I have my faults if she can see I am true she will be full of love for me.

When I came into the North West in July, the first of July 1884, I found the Indians suffering. I found the half-breeds eating the rotten pork of the Hudson Bay Company and getting sick and weak every day. Although a half breed, and having no pretension to help the whites, I also paid attention to them. I saw they were deprived of responsible government, I saw that they were deprived of their public liberties. I remembered that half-breed meant white and Indian, and while I paid attention to the suffering Indians and the half-breeds I remembered that the greatest part of my heart and blood was white and I have directed my attention to help the Indians, to help the half-breeds and to help the whites to the best of my ability.

We have made petitions, I have made petitions with others to the Canadian Government asking to relieve the condition of this country….

But those petitions were unanswered, or met with police suppression.

Riel concluded his address with a political argument that, though it refers to British norms, had also been made some hundred years earlier by Thomas Jefferson and the drafters of the American Declaration of Independence: that people have the right to rebel against a government which is not representative of their interests and ignores their petitions for relief. Western Canada, then called the North-West Territory (later the western provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) , was run by a Council appointed by the federal government in Ottawa.

The only things I would like to call your attention to before you retire to deliberate are:

First, that the House of Commons, Senate and Ministers of the Dominion, and who make laws for this land and govern it, are no representation whatever of the people of the North-West.

Second, that the North-West Council generated by the Federal Government has the great defect of its parent.

Third, the number of members elected for the Council by the people make it only a sham representative legislature and no representative government at all.

British civilization, which rules today the world, and the British constitution, (have) defined such government as this is, which rules the North-West Territories, as “irresponsible government,” which plainly means that there is no responsibility … . By the testimony laid before you during my trial witnesses on both sides made it certain that petition after petition had been sent to the Federal Government, and so irresponsible is that Government to the North-West that in the course of several years, besides doing nothing to satisfy the people of this great land, it has even hardly been able to answer once or to give a single response. That fact would indicate an absolute lack of responsibility….

The Ministers of an insane and irresponsible Government and its little one—the North-West Council—made up their minds to answer my petitions by surrounding me slyly and by attempting to jump upon me suddenly, and upon my people in the Saskatchewan.

Happily, when they appeared and showed their teeth to devour, I was ready. That is what is called my crime of high treason, and to which they hold me to-day.

Riel was hanged.

I also recommend Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the second Prime Minister of Canada. Laurier spoke throughout his career for national unity between English and French Canadians, for western development, and for industrial development (including tariff protection if need be, though he later favored reciprocity with the U.S., against the interests of Canadian manufacturers). He insisted that Canada should be politically autonomous from Britain, which helped form the concept of the British “Commonwealth” of independent nations.

Laurier was all the more remarkable in that he spoke with surpassing eloquence in both official languages, thereby putting him two ahead of most of our other political leaders.

Interestingly, one of Laurier’s most famous speeches was when he addressed the House of Commons in 1886 to deplore the federal government’s decision to hang Riel for his rebellion:

(I)t may be fairly presumed that those who were on duty in the NorthWest last spring thought and felt as a great soldier, a great king, King Henry IV of France, thought and felt when engaged in battle for many years of his life, in fighting his rebellious subjects. Whenever his sword inflicted a wound he used these words: “The King strikes thee, God heal thee.”

It may be presumed that perhaps our soldiers, when fighting the rebellion. were also animated by a similar spirit, and prayed to God that He would heal the wounds that it was their duty to inflict, and that no more blood should be shed than the blood shed by themselves.

The Government, however, thought otherwise.

The Government thought that the blood shed by the soldiers was not sufficient, but that another life must also be sacrificed. We heard the Minister of Public Works attempting to defend the conduct of the Government, and stating that its action in this matter was a stern necessity which duty to our Queen and duty to our country made inevitable. Mr. Speaker, I have yet to learn—and I have not learned it from anything that has fallen from the lips of gentlemen opposite—that duty to Queen and country may ever prevent the exercise of that prerogative of mercy which is the noblest prerogative of the Crown. The language of the honorable gentleman was not the first occasion when responsible or irresponsible advisers of the Crown attempted to delude the public, and perhaps themselves as well, into the belief that duty to Queen and country required blood, when mercy was a possible alternative….

In every instance in which a Government has carried out the extreme penalty of the law, when mercy was suggested instead, the verdict has been the same. Sir, in the province to which I belong, and especially amongst the race to which I belong, the execution of Louis Riel has been universally condemned as being the sacrifice of a life, not to inexorable justice, but to bitter passion and revenge ….

In our age, in our civilization, every single human life is valuable, and is entitled to protection in the councils of the nation. Not many years ago, England sent an expedition and spent millions of her treasure and some of her best blood simply to rescue prisoners whose lives were in the hands of the King of Abyssinia. In the same manner I say that the life of a single subject of Her Majesty here is valuable, and is not to be treated with levity. If there are members in the House who believe that the execution of Riel was not warranted, that under the circumstances of the case it was not judicious, that it was unjust, I say they have a right to arraign the Government for it before this country, and, if they arraign the Government for it and the Government have to take their trial upon it, it must be admitted as a consequence that certain parties will feel upon the question more warmly than others.

Laurier is also famous for his 1877 speech on the nature of liberalism to a Quebec City audience. Early in his address, he notes that French-Canadians, in thinking about liberty, find their examples

not in the History of old England, but amongst the nations of continental Europe, amongst the nations that are allied to us in blood or in religion. And, unfortunately, the history of liberty is written there in characters of blood, in the most heartrending pages of the history of the human race. Terrified by these mournful records, you will find amongst all classes of educated people loyal souls, who look with horror upon the spirit of liberty, imagining that that spirit of liberty must, here, result in the same disasters and crimes as in the countries of which I speak. For these well meaning minds, the very name of Liberalism is fraught with national calamity.

He then looks at the very meanings of the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” and their effects on political thinking. He begins by quoting the British historian Thomas MacAulay:

“Everywhere,” (MacAulay writes), “there is a class of men who cling with fondness to whatever is ancient, and who, even when convinced by overpowering reason that innovation would be beneficial, consent to it with many misgivings and forebodings. We find also, everywhere, another class of men, sanguine in hope, bold in speculation, always pressing forward, quick to discern the imperfections of whatever exists, disposed to think lightly of the risks and inconveniences attending improvements, and disposed to give every change credit for being an improvement.”

He then applies MacAulay’s historical analysis to the current time:

The first are the conservative; the second are the liberal.

Such is the real sense, the true explanation of both principles liberal and conservative. They are two attributes of our nature. As Macaulay admirably says, they are to be found everywhere, in the arts, sciences, in all branches of speculative knowledge; but it is in politics they are most apparent. Thus, those who condemn liberalism as a new idea, have not reflected upon what is happening every day before their eyes. Those who condemn liberalism as an error, have not considered that they thereby condemn an attribute of human nature.

It is a happy coincidence that Canada honours Laurier’s vast contributions by putting his likeness on its currency—specifically, on the five-dollar bill, much as the U.S. honours its most eloquent leader.

At the head of many lists of stirring Canadian speakers is the former Saskatchewan Premier and federal New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Thomas C. Douglas. Douglas’ fiery populism—he was a Baptist preacher who knew how to use a radio microphone as well as a podium—elected North America’s first social-democratic government, and introduced government-funded medical insurance to the country. In a poll a few years ago, Canadians chose “Tommy,” as he was universally known, the greatest Canadian ever. Text versions of his speeches are hard to find, but there are quite a few video and audio clips online.

Finally, there is the former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis, who was also a UN special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa and Canada’s ambassador to the UN. Here is an excerpt from a speech he gave at a women’s conference at the University of Pennsylvania:

I well realize that this is a conference on women’s global health, and everything I’m about to say will apply to that generic definition. But the more I thought of the subject matter, the more I want to use HIV/AIDS in Africa as a surrogate for every international issue of women’s health, partly because it’s what I know best, partly because it’s an accurate reflection of reality.

I’ve been in the Envoy role for four years. Things are changing in an incremental, if painfully glacial, way. It’s now possible to feel merely catastrophic rather than apocalyptic. Initiatives on treatment, resources, training, capacity, infrastructure and prevention are underway. But one factor is largely impervious to change: the situation of women. On the ground, where it counts, where the wily words confront reality, the lives of women are as mercilessly desperate as they have always been in the last twenty plus years of the pandemic.

Just a few weeks ago, I was in Zambia, visiting a district well outside of Lusaka. We were taken to a rural village to see an “income generating project” run by a group of Women Living With AIDS.

They were gathered under a large banner proclaiming their identity, some fifteen or twenty women, all living with the virus, all looking after orphans. They were standing proudly beside the income generating project … a bountiful cabbage patch.

After they had spoken volubly and eloquently about their needs and the needs of their children (as always, hunger led the litany), I asked about the cabbages. I assumed it supplemented their diet? Yes, they chorused. And you sell the surplus at market? An energetic nodding of heads. And I take it you make a profit? Yes again. What do you do with the profit? And this time there was an almost quizzical response as if to say what kind of ridiculous question is that … surely you knew the answer before you asked: “We buy coffins, of course. We never have enough coffins.”

It’s at moments like that when I feel the world has gone mad. That’s no existential spasm on my part. I simply don’t know how otherwise to characterize what we’re doing to half of humankind.

There are others. Conservative Sir John A. MacDonald, the first Prime Minister, was an ardent oratorical supporter of Canadian unification (Howe might have been his most impressive opponent on that score); the later Conservative Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker could ignite a stump with the best of them. Besides Laurier, the province of Quebec produced stirring writers and speakers like Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque, public intellectuals who did rhetorical battle for years over Quebec’s place in the Canadian nation.

In general, you will probably have a hard time finding speeches by any of these speakers on the Web, but there is indeed a printed compendium. Great Canadian Speeches, collected and edited by the former Member of Parliament Dennis Gruending, was a bestseller in Canada and has been released in paperback (ISBN-10: 1550419145; ISBN-13: 978-1550419146). There was also a periodical called Canadian Speeches, similar in purpose to VSOD, but it stopped publishing in 2003.

Patrick Davitt


Patrick Davitt is senior writer in corporate communications at Bank of America. He may be reached at [email protected].

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