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State Funerals Need Better Ground Rules

04/17/2014 08:37 EDT | Updated 06/17/2014 05:59 EDT

Jim Flaherty was a great man and a great finance minister. The newspaper editorial pages have been unanimouslysinginghispraises for a reason. He deserved a state funeral.

But after him, no more.

Canadians are rightfully nervous about disrespecting the deceased, but I notice there's been some cautious observation of the protocol-breaking nature of the Flaherty funeral just the same. Some have drawn analogies to the similarly unprecedented state funeral Jack Layton received in 2011, which, given Mr. Layton's comparatively less-than-unanimous reputation, was quite brazenly denounced in the Toronto Sun and National Post.

Both men received the highest posthumous honour this nation can bestoe for one reason -- the Prime Minister wanted it. According to the Department of Heritage, it is "practice" in this country for state funerals to be organized solely at the "discretion of the Prime Minister."

Between 1891 and 2011, it was understood convention that PMs would only use this discretion to honor three classes of people: former prime ministers, former governor generals, and sitting cabinet ministers who died in office.

Prime Minister Harper shattered that convention in 2011 when he allowed the privilege to Layton, who at the time held no senior office in Ottawa whatsoever. Jack stepped down as NDP boss in July of 2011 when he became to ill to function, and the now long-forgotten Nycole Turmel was installed as acting opposition leader a few days later. Layton died on August 22, about a month after that.

No other former party leader in Canadian history received the honor of a state funeral; not even the late PC boss Robert Stanfield, a man who won a greater share of the popular vote than Layton in all three elections he contested, but passed amid little fanfare in 2003.

Harper's decision to break history with Layton seemed inspired by little more than an emotional reaction to the abruptness of the man's death, yet the precedent it unleashed will be hard to get back in the tube.

To be sure, as far as immediate follow-ups go, Flaherty's state funeral was an appropriate counterbalance. You're welcome to believe Layton was a saintly figure in spirit and motive, but it's hard to deny Flaherty -- the recession-battling finance minister of one of the world's largest economies  --  accomplished a great deal more.

Yet it's equally true that Flaherty's memorial would have have been tough to justify in the pre-Layton era. As mentioned, tradition previously dictated that only cabinet ministers who died in office were afforded state honours; Flaherty's passing occurred a month after his resignation. Flaherty's funeral may honor the spirit of the custom more than Layton's did, but the slope remains slippery.

State funerals are expensive  --  Layton's cost taxpayers nearly $370 grand  --  so it behooves us to set some ground rules. If our new standard is simply to honor the passing of any politician who's "important" according to the fancy of the prime minister of the day, the practice  --  and price tag  --  is in deep danger of ballooning out of control.

Consider: all Canada's previous state funerals --  sans one  -- have honored white men. I imagine someone's eventually going to have a problem with that.

There are a lot of elderly former chairs of the Assembly of First Nations out there. Who will be the first to demand one of them get a state funeral?

Or how about Rita Johnston of British Columbia, Canada's first female premier? We've already missed state funerals for the first female MP and cabinet minister  --  what's the justification for Ottawa continuing to snub the historic achievements of Canadian women?

Or how about when another former cabinet minister dies? It's here that we really get into some ghoulish calculations.

Michael Wilson was finance minister under Brian Mulroney. As one of the architects of Canada's 1989 Free Trade Agreement with the United States, he probably did more than any other politician to enrich the Canadian economy, ushering in a prosperous era of continental trade that has, as he recently bragged, increased "fourfold" since the 1990s. As former finance ministers go, will his eventual passing be deemed as worthy of a state funeral as Minister Flaherty's?

This is an incredibly uncomfortable, distasteful question to even contemplate. But if state funerals are to be doled out on a case-by-case basis, these are the debates we're destined to have.

Historically, the purpose of a state funeral is to honor the head of the state. Not necessarily to celebrate their accomplishments, but simply to recognize their passing as a symbolic milestone in the lifetime of the nation they led.

This is how it's done in Mother England, where even prime ministers are almost never awarded the honour and exceptions have to be authorized by parliament. In the United States, there's been no state funeral for a non-president since 1964, when General MacArthur died.

Indeed, it really reveals how far Canada has drifted from the pack that while President Obama rebuffed calls to grant a state funeral to Neil Armstrong, the first human being to touch the surface of the moon, Harper's comparative moment of principle was rejecting calls to give one to Stompin' Tom Connors.

In offering a state funeral to Jack Layton and Jim Flaherty, the Harper administration acted within its rights to honor two distinguished public servants, one on the left and one on the right, with an unprecedented gesture of kindness and sympathy. But both were risky experiments, and this discretionary power should now be retired  --  in law, ideally  --  to spare Canadians the jockeying of partisanship and political correctness that will now invariably greet the future deaths of any political or cultural personality with a loud and vocal lobby.

A difficult decision to make? Perhaps. But establishing clear rules today will sure be a lot easier than turning down a grieving family tomorrow.

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