A different tradition of speech-making


The durable importance and appeal of set-piece oratory in American political life, even in the age of television’s ersatz intimacy, is a remarkable thing. It’s tempting to see all the attention being paid to Barack Obama’s inaugural address as a sort of artifact of an era when formal political rhetoric—delivered from platforms, rather than on talk shows—was of central importance.

But the inauguration speech isn’t really a throwback event, at least not in the U.S. Between elections, the tradition of the state of the union address goes a long way toward ensuring that presidents must, at least once a year, attempt an encompassing speech. In Canada, there’s no comparable moment when a prime minister is called upon to compellingly sum up both the country’s temper and the government’s business.

Indeed, our traditions tend to put the big summary addresses in a voice other than the sitting prime minister’s. The governor general reads the Speech from the Throne, making it impossible to hear the speech as a direct expression of prime-ministerial vision. A throne speech is presented as a governmental to-do list, rather impersonally delivered by the vice-regal appointee. The big annual pitch in Parliament is the budget speech, which of course is a finance minister’s job.

As with a throne speech, a budget might well be mostly a reflection of a prime minister’s priorities, but the rhetorical moment does not belong to him.

Inaugural and state-of-the-union addresses establish an oratorical signature for any president. And I imagine the fact that presidencies are partly built around these formal moments changes the office. A president is expected to be a speech-maker who can sum things up, so presidents are expected to prove they can do it on the campaign trail, too.

In Canada, we rarely remember a prime minister for the way he sweepingly summed up the mood of the nation or its challenges in a big speech. Instead, at least in recent decades, we’ve tended to remember what they said in a moment of crisis, often a test to national unity.

And these testing points tend to call, not for uplifting eloquence, so much as flinty resolve. Think of Pierre Trudeau’s no-frills TV address at the time of the October Crisis, or even his May, 14, 1980 Paul Sauvé Arena speech in Montreal, during the first sovereignty-association referendum. In that one, it wasn’t his ability to convey a vision of the country, but his verbal combat with René Levesque that made the words crackle. It was unforgettable, but nothing like the tone an American president has to reach for in an inauguration speech.

Even when we reach back to Sir John A. Macdonald, surely a great speaker, it’s not his ability to draft a speech with poetry that lasts that impresses. The great thing about a Macdonald speech is how his charm and humanity ring through. “And, I really must say, as a bloated aristocrat and office-holder,” he joked as he got rolling in his famous May 30, 1881, National Workingmen’s Union of Canada speech in Toronto, “that I myself am not a bit the worse for my three year’s salary. I therefore congratulate myself, you, and the country, that after three years I come back and find enthusiasm, hope—not only hope, but certainty—of the future.”

But there’s no Macdonald speech that can be read alongside Lincoln. Yet I’m not sure I would welcome an attempt to import the U.S. presidential speech-making tradition. It is, after all, an element of the American sense of a president as a sort of elected king. Maybe we’re just as well off thinking of our prime ministers as politicians who must talk to us about particular things, not near-monarchs whose job it is to crystallize their times into words.

Still, on a day like this, I can’t help but look—or rather listen—from Ottawa to Washington with envy.

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A different tradition of speech-making

  1. Good piece. The only nit I would pick is that an elected PM with a majority is more an ” elected king ” than a President , who has a congress and Court to contend with.

  2. Sis: there is no accusation of being ‘un-Canadian’ or unpatriotic for attacking the PM. The PM is not generally put on much of a pedestal.

    • My comment was about the effective power of the position within it’s own context.

      Perhaps I misunderstood Mr. Geddes point ?

      • Were you watching a different coronation than I was?

        • No, same one. And I agree it rivals the ascension of Augustus.

          But that wasn’t what I was talking about. Doesn’t matter. Sorry for taking up the space.

  3. I must say i’m a little envious too. But the i grew up in the UK where we imbibe Churchills’ speeches at our mothers knee. After more than 30yrs over on this side of the pond, while i have come to cherish Canada, and no longer hate sour cream or consider Canadian beer as slightly preferrable to pop, i’m still puzzled by our seeming aversion to be seen as one country, rather than a motely collection of local yocals known as provinces. In fact it’s one of the things that drew me to Trudeau, not necessarily the liberal party.
    As the years race by i’m beginning to think that Trudeau’s, or any one country vision of Canada was an aberration. We like being separate but sorta together. Our pols learn their oratorical skills in the fire-pit of the HOC, something no President has to contend with.
    Geddes is mostly right even trudeaus best speeches were made in partisan scraps or a moments of crisis. Although i’ll always remember his, ” Who speaks for Canada ” moments. Trouble is we couldn’t hear for the chorus of replies: ” not you anyway; i should, i have the most people; me, i should iv’e got all the oil; and my favourite, over here, we were here before you, and by the way we’re French. Sigh! Well we’re even younger than those guys down there, lots to learn yet and hopefully still time to do it in.

  4. The fact is we cannot have rhetorical grandeur in large part because we are not a real country. The American President swears to protect the constitution. Our Prime Minister swears allegiance to the Queen of a foreign land. The words that inspire are republican words. A monarchy cannot inspire in the modern world it can only run and hide. Fittingly, that is what the PM does in those great occasions (throne or budget speeches).

  5. Gerry, we are very much a real country. We swear allegiance to the Queen of Canada. The fact that she’s also Queen of other counties in addition to Canada is cause for mild celebration (we don’t travel the world without family).

    Anyway, Canada is not the home of Hollywood, Disneyland, or other larger than life fantasies. We are a more pragmatic sort. Even if we did have a Prime Minister as eloquent as the new President, and even if he had a chance to use it, most of us would be embarrassed by his arrogance and presumption, and the rest would pick apart the speech in order to argue with it.

    I envy the Americans for the way they can buy into big speeches; I appreciate Canada for wanting other than words. I like Hollywood and Disneyland. But I’m glad I live here.