The 150th Anniversary (or Sesquicentennial) of Canadian Confederation will be celebrated on July 1. That holiday was traditionally denominated “Dominion Day,” as Canada was officially called “the Dominion of Canada”—a term which has now fallen into disuse. The holiday is now called Canada Day, and on nearly all state documents, the Canadian state is identified as “The Government of Canada.” It is exceedingly rare for a country not to be identified officially as a distinct “realm”—whether a kingdom or republic—apart from its government. This official identification gives some indication of the current Canadian situation, in which the entrenched state bureaucracies and juridical apparatus are probably more powerful than the elected government.
The two main historical nations of Canada, the British and the French, have an interwoven history that stretches back many centuries before the founding of the Canadian state in 1867. Confederation may be seen as the culmination of this long history. The British and the French were traditionally called the founding nations; the aboriginal peoples were included insofar as they were considered under the special protection of the Crown. The Act of Confederation was called the British North America (BNA) Act, and many Canadians have seen themselves as “British North Americans.” This history is downplayed today, as is the reality that the last 50 or so years of political, social, and cultural developments have been drastically different from the preceding 100 years of Canadian history. Indeed, since 1965, more substantive forms of conservatism in Canada have been reduced to fugitive traditions.
Canada was established in 1867 as a profoundly conservative country. Until 1896, she was dominated by an alliance of the Conservatives of English Canada and the “Bleus” of Quebec. (Early on, the Conservatives were officially called the Liberal-Conservative party. The opposition were colloquially called the “Clear Grits,” and “Rouges” in Quebec.)
Since 1896, Canada has tended to elect Liberal federal governments, but up to 1963 the country was dominated by a “traditionalist-centrist” or “center-traditionalist” consensus, in which all the major parties shared. While they significantly differed on economics, the main parties all tended to be, in today’s parlance, socially conservative.
In 1942, the federal Conservatives became Progressive Conservatives. The ostensible reason for the name change was an attempt to attract the support of the Progressives, a mostly Western Canadian-based populist third party. However, it was also rather convenient in a society that, even at that time, tended to look at political conservatism with some disfavor. Despite the name change, the PCs remained a home for divers factions. (The provincial Conservative parties followed suit with the name change.) By the 1970’s and 80’s, however, “small-c conservatives” (i.e., substantive conservatives) within the “big-C” party were frequently derided as “cashew conservatives”—that is, nuts.
It could be argued that over the last five decades or so—beginning with the replacement of Canada’s traditional flag, the Red Ensign (which, like Australia’s flag today, had the Union Jack in the upper-left corner), in 1965—the memory of Canada’s British past was mostly eradicated and repudiated. This assault on Canada included the undermining of her armed forces (a common locus for national tradition), which were virtually destroyed through punitive budget cuts, the ridiculous unification of the separate services, and the fostering of various progressive agendas in the military.
William D. Gairdner and Ken McDonald are two prominent socially conservative critics of post-1965 Canada. They have argued that, as a result of what Gairdner has called the post-1965 “regime change” (and what McDonald calls “the Trudeau revolution”), social conservatism has become increasingly marginalized in Canada.
Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson (1963-68) began the process of the social and cultural transformation of Canada; Pierre Elliott Trudeau (prime minister from 1968 to 1984, except for nine months in 1979-80), carried it forward with the greatest enthusiasm and alacrity; Joe Clark (1979-80) and Brian Mulroney (1984-93) failed to reverse it; and Jean Chrétien (1993-2003) continued in the footsteps of his mentor, Trudeau. The creation of present-day Canada is analogous to demolishing a well-built, long-standing neighborhood and replacing it with modern gleaming skyscrapers, condos, and ugly housing projects. It is, in a way, as if a huge, gleaming spaceship crash-landed on some hapless small town.
The process of transformation included the encouragement of immigration from nontraditional sources, which Liberal Party advisor Tom Kent has virtually admitted was a calculated effort to strengthen the Liberal Party and to annihilate what had been, up until that time, called “Tory Toronto.” In 1987, in an artless attempt to mimic the Liberal strategy, Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney raised immigration to a quarter-million persons per year, where it has remained ever since. In Trudeau’s last year in office (1983-84), immigration had fallen to around 54,000 persons—and, indeed, in the whole period from 1965 forward it had been on average about 100,000 persons each year. The current Liberal government has actually raised the number to over 300,000 persons a year. Canada’s immigration rate is now among the highest in the world—about three times as high per capita as that of the United States.
At the same time, various elements of the social-liberal agenda have been precipitously advanced, such as Parliament’s embrace of same-sex “marriage” in 2005 (following on the heels of the decisions of two provincial courts in 2003, which the federal government had chosen not to appeal).
The federal elections between 1963 and 1980 were the most crucial for the political and social trajectory of Canada. Relying on rock-solid support from Quebec, Trudeau was able to win the federal elections of 1968, 1972, 1974, and 1980. Only in the 1968 election, when “Trudeaumania” swept the country, did he win a majority of seats in English-speaking Canada. He also received the crucial support of the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1972-74 (and in bringing down the Tory minority government in Parliament after Joe Clark’s fleeting win in 1979).
One of the main reasons for the attenuation of social conservatism in Canada has been the downplaying of that outlook within the federal and provincial Progressive Conservatives—who had, after the 1960’s, mostly become “Red Tories.”
Nevertheless, there were some positive aspects of “Red Toryism.” As seen in the thought of Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Parkin Grant, Red Toryism could be characterized as a “social conservatism of the Left.” Yet the more positive senses of Red Toryism have also been downplayed in Canada, in favor of opportunism, typified by Joe Clark, who was prime minister of Canada for nine months in 1979-80 (and leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives between 1976 and 1983).
Joe Clark has acted as a perennial spoiler of any possibly successful initiatives of the center-right. For example, between 1998 and 2003, when he was again leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives, he obstinately refused to enter into an alliance with the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance.
In 1998, the Reform Party embarked on a “United Alternative” process designed to create an alliance with the Progressive Conservatives. It renamed itself the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance (CA). But it was only when Joe Clark left the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives in 2003 that a successful merger took place, creating the new Conservative Party (significantly without the “progressive” adjective).
There have been a few sporadic moments since 1965 when social conservatism has tried to reassert itself. Among the most notable of these were the founding of the Reform Party in November 1987, and its eventual rise to prominence in the 1993 (52 of 295 seats) and 1997 (60 of 301 seats) federal elections. Another was when Stockwell Day was selected as the leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2000. Although Stockwell Day began well, he was increasingly derided by most of the Canadian media as a “fundamentalist Christian extremist”—which buried his chances of winning the November 2000 election. (The CA won 66 of 301 seats.) A caucus revolt against Day’s leadership attracted 13 CA MPs and led to a leadership contest, which was won by Stephen Harper.
Lacking a significant infrastructure outside the nominally right-wing political parties, social conservatism was tied to the vicissitudes of party politics, where it was just one of many factions. Socially conservative notions have also been generally overwhelmed by the antinomian North American consumer society and pop culture.
In the federal Parliament, the Liberals were reduced to a minority government in 2004. The Conservatives won minority governments in 2006 and 2008, and finally captured a majority government in 2011.
Unfortunately, social conservatives had little influence in the federal majority Conservative government of Stephen Harper. For example, Harper said many times that he was not going to reopen the abortion and same-sex marriage debates. However, he did seem willing to offer some support to marriage and the family through, for example, tax credits to parents. He also tried to reintroduce some elements of a more traditional patriotism in Canada—such as support for the monarchy and the military.
As of mid-2017, none of the provincial Progressive Conservative parties (where they exist) have dropped the adjective from their names. When Alison Redford won a PC-majority government in the April 2012 election in Alberta—against a challenge from the decidedly more conservative Wildrose Alliance—some commentators called Redford “Alberta’s first NDP premier.” Unexpectedly, in the May 2015 Alberta election, the actual NDP won a majority.
Yet even as social conservatism has faded from the Canadian scene, fiscal or economic conservatism has remained comparatively robust. Indeed, the “managerial-therapeutic” regime has always been socially liberal and economically conservative. There are discernible plutocratic aspects to modern-day Canada, and wide swaths of the population are unemployed or underemployed in what is, at least for some people, a “hyper-competitive” environment.
Today, social conservatism is defined almost solely by the two highly charged flashpoint issues of abortion and same-sex marriage—issues that (especially in Canada) seem now to be entirely resolved in public debate. What is lost in that definition of social conservatism is any notion of a more robust patriotism, a concept that has almost no register on the political scene in Canada today, but might have a more widespread, nondenominational appeal.
The situation is especially dire for “small-c” conservatives in Canada. People of unquestionable decency and culture, who might have been able in different circumstances to give a clear voice to true Canadian patriotism, are frequently relegated to obscurity, often eking out a hardscrabble existence—while various mediocrities, parvenus, dissimulators, and radical agitators rule the roost. Canada, a consumptionist welfare state, has consumed vast resources, which could have sustained earlier societies in relative comfort and stability for centuries.
Until a few years ago, it appeared that, with regard to cultural cohesion and hope for a sound future, French Quebec had a leg up on what is sometimes called TROC (“The Rest of Canada”). But in the last few years Quebec has seen a real trailing off of its nationalist passions, and its low birthrate and high abortion rate have ended “the revenge of the cradle” that had earlier allowed it to wield increasing power in the Canadian Confederation. This decline coincided with the collapse of the center-right Action democratique du Quebec (ADQ) in the 2008 Quebec provincial election, and the turning of many Quebec voters in the 2011 federal election toward the New Democratic Party (giving the NDP 59 of the 75 seats available). It was especially surprising to see the collapse of the Bloc Québécois (the separatist party in the federal Parliament), which had held a majority of seats in Quebec from 1993 to 2008. The Bloc won only four seats in 2011. In the 2015 federal election, the party won only ten seats. In the 2014 provincial election, the Liberals won a commanding majority with 70 of 125 seats—suggesting that the province is undergoing precipitous “liberalizing” shifts.
The general condition of the Canadian state today comprises such aspects as regional chasms; ecological disasters (such as the near-disappearance of the cod-fishery); the presence of an engorged federal bureaucracy that works hand in glove with the resurgent Liberal government of Justin Trudeau (son of Pierre); an unwillingness to control the borders effectively; and armed forces that are very poorly funded.
Clearly, the 2011 federal election (in which the Conservatives won a majority) did not lead to any salutary changes in the parlous condition of Canada. Indeed, it may appear from the current vantage point that anything more than a purely nominal Conservative Party will never again win a majority in the Canadian federal Parliament.
Given this lack of success through the pursuit of party politics, a re assertion of social conservatism through the building up of a think-tank infrastructure seems only a remote possibility. There are vast infrastructures of social liberalism in Canada—most of the mass media and mass education; the “activist judiciary” (which some critics have called “the Court Party”); most of the “official” Canadian culture; and most of the governmental administration. The monetary and societal resources available to social liberals vastly outweigh those available to social conservatives.
Indeed, Canada is quite likely to follow all the present trajectories to become an increasingly “hypermodern” society. In such a society, social conservatism—even if tacitly supported by a significant percentage of the population—will tend to play less and less of a role. The continuing excision of social conservatism from Canadian politics, society, and culture could be seen as something very antidemocratic—a drastic narrowing and reduction of the possible political, social, and cultural options available to Canadians today.
Leave a Reply