In the December 2000 issue of the Canadian Historical Review (CHR), Ian McKay’s ‘The Liberal Order Framework’ was published and very quickly sparked a great deal of debate. Some of that ongoing debate is captured in this publication. It is a superbly edited collection of critical essays by historians from a variety of disciplines and approaches, combined with a reprinting of McKay’s essay from the CHR, and rounded off neatly with a fascinating reply by McKay himself. Thinking of nations such as Canada as a project (or as McKay would have it an empire) of liberalism is certainly a challenge to the established master narrative of progress and increasing freedom as Canada the colony becomes Canada the dominion becomes Canada the fully-fledged nation. McKay’s article was a step beyond the post-modern debates of the 1980s and 1990s and a push towards a post-postmodern history and an attempt to recover, but not romanticise, the insights of social history for a postmodern age.
The core of the book is formed by a series of critical responses to McKay’s liberal order framework and what it means for Canadian history. Some, such as Bruce Curtis and Michèle Dagenais contend that McKay’s Gramscian vision of liberal hegemony is weaker than the Foucault-inspired concept of (liberal) governmentality. Other contributions such as that by Sandwell see in McKay’s framework ‘potential to disrupt and de-naturalise that persistent master narrative that has, until recently, tended to measure the progress of the Canadian peoples … within the hegemonic terms of liberalism’ (p. 246). That is a position shared by Adele Perry, who pushes McKay’s thesis into the territory of race and gender. Brownlie’s essay on the place of First Nations in the liberal framework is a telling reminder that the freedom and progress of liberalism has a very clear racialised dimension. ‘The state’s inability to eliminate reserves’, he writes, ‘stands as one of the most visible failures of the liberal order’ (p. 316). That questions of race and gender emerge as key extensions of McKay’s thesis make the absence of a consideration of language within this collection all the more conspicuous. McKay is certainly not neglectful of the privileging of English by the liberal order and it would certainly have strengthened this collection to have had some broader consideration of that issue.
McKay’s response is the longest piece in the book, covering over 100 pages. It is typically wide-ranging and provocative and fleshes out a decade’s worth of further thought about the liberal order. We are given a further taste of ‘reconnaissance’, the critical realist stance employed by McKay in his recent studies of Canadian socialism but which deserves to be thought about across the historical discipline.
This is a deeply challenging book and is one that merits a wide audience inside and outside of Canada. The editors can congratulate themselves for having produced a volume that goes far beyond their aim of stirring debate about and extending the possibilities of the liberal order framework. Those waiting for the big books that challenge the way we think about Canada would do worse than read this in the meantime.