View from the North: The Sesquicentennial of Canadian Confederation and 205th Anniversary of the War of 1812
A Comparison of the Conservative Traditions in America and Canada, Divergent Paths of Development in Two Distinct Countries
By Mark Wegierski
This article is based on a draft for a presentation read at the “Conservatism: Made in USA” Conference, held at The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin (Lublin, Poland), on April 28, 2010.
Comparing the conservative traditions in America and Canada – and their paths of development – may yield some surprising insights.
America was founded, at least ostensibly, as a revolutionary society, which had cast off the fetters of the Old World. The origins of Canada lay in two distinct cultures. The first of these was French Canada – which had, to a large extent, maintained its Ancien Regime – being already under British rule at the time of the French Revolution. The origins of French Canada go back to at least the founding of Quebec in 1608. By 1760, French Canada had been conquered by the British, especially after their victory at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham at Quebec City (1759). However, the British were relatively tolerant, allowing, for example, the maintenance of the Roman Catholic faith. The second culture – which emerged as decidedly more dominant, especially in the nineteenth century — was British (or English) Canada, whose origins lay mostly in the United Empire Loyalists – refugees from the American Revolution – who settled mostly in Upper Canada (Ontario) and the Maritimes (on the Atlantic coast). It might also be noted that the Aboriginal population was considered under the special protection of the British Crown and that there was a considerable degree of affinity between the British and the Indians. (Much more so than in the case of the United States, where, it may be remembered, the Declaration of Independence had accused George III of loosing “the Savages” upon the American population.)
The culmination of the evolution of the long prior history of the British and the French in Canada was Confederation in 1867. The British North America (BNA) Act that constituted the Dominion of Canada was an Act of the British Parliament in London, England. The key phrase was “peace, order, and good government” – as opposed to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the American founding document. Confederation was mostly the achievement of English-Canadian (Macdonald) and French-Canadian (Cartier) conservatives. Indeed, Sir John A. Macdonald served as Canada’s Prime Minister for most of the rest of the nineteenth century.
One of the proximate reasons for Canadian Confederation was the fear of an expansionist America, in the wake of the fateful American Civil War/War Between the States, where – according to some interpretations — the American South had been crushed in favour of a more unitary view of the American polity. Indeed, for some American conservatives, the defeat of the American South was said to have resulted in a fundamental deviation from the truly federalist principles of the American Founding. Unfortunately, so-called “states’ rights” had latterly become categorized as purely the defence of Southern bigotry and the oppression of blacks.
One of the defining historical moments of English Canada had been the War of 1812, where the various U.S. invasions were beaten back in the face of apparently overwhelming odds. English Canada’s great tragic hero of the war, Sir Isaac Brock, had organized the energetic defence, and had heroically perished in battle. He was ably assisted by Tecumseh, the Indian war-chief. The campaigns of Brock and Tecumseh are studied to this day as examples of military achievement, though ironically probably more in current-day America than Canada.
Thus, it might have appeared during the late nineteenth century, that Canada had been founded on anti-revolutionary, highly conservative and traditionalist principles.
However, twentieth century developments have shown the difficulties of effectively maintaining a “binational” polity. Since the federal election of 1896, when the voters in the mostly French-speaking province of Quebec switched their votes, en masse, from the Conservative to the Liberal Party, Canada has been characterized at the federal level by long periods of Liberal government, with comparatively brief Conservative interludes. Although Quebec was for decades a very conservative society, they voted for the federal Liberal Party as an expression of resistance to sometimes supercilious English-Canadian Conservatives. What resulted was that a solid bloc of seats from Quebec, combined with a minority of seats from English Canada, have allowed the Liberals to almost always form the government in Ottawa.
Being kept for long decades out of power has tended to atrophy the intellectual resources and possibilities of conservatism in Canada. Indeed, the Conservative Party had re-designated itself as the Progressive Conservative Party (already in 1942), and has latterly mostly eschewed nearly all aspects of what is called in Canada “small-c conservatism.” There emerged a tendency called “Red Toryism”. Although the term was embraced in the thought of Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Parkin Grant – where it was essentially a “social conservatism of the Left” – it also became a catch-all term for opportunistic, pedestrian P.C. party hacks, who simply adopted the ideas and policies of left-liberalism. The negative sense of Red Toryism was probably most typically exemplified by Joe Clark, leader of the federal Progressive Conservative party from 1976-1983 (and again in 1998-2003), as well as briefly Prime Minister in 1979-1980.
The Republicans in the U.S. have been far more successfully electorally competitive in America, than the Conservatives in Canada. The Conservative or Progressive Conservative Party in Canada roughly corresponded to twentieth-century Republicans in the U.S. (but were considerably more moderate, and considerably less electorally successful), whereas the Liberals have corresponded to post-1930s Democrats (but were considerably more left-liberal, and considerably more electorally successful).
As long as the Liberal Party of Canada embraced, to a large extent, a “traditionalist-centrist” consensus (for example, under Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister), the effects of their continual electoral victories did not necessarily result in massive social change.
However, the election of 1963 was one of the most important in Canadian history. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, a staunch Tory, faced Liberal Lester B. Pearson. Diefenbaker had won the Prime Ministership in 1957, and in 1958, had won of the largest majorities in Canadian history. However, his Prime Ministership coincided with an economic downturn, which largely became associated in
many people’s minds with the Tory government. He also did not capitalize on the rare support from Quebec that had come from Maurice Duplessis. The ultra-conservative Duplessis, called “Le Chef”, was a figure somewhat similar to Huey Long, and had been Premier of Quebec for decades. Among other accomplishments he had given Quebec its distinctive, traditional-looking flag – the blue cross with four Bourbon lilies. He loathed the Liberals. However, Duplessis had passed away by 1960, and a promising young leader of the Union Nationale (Duplessis’ party), had died in a car accident. Thus, in the early 1960s, the so-called Quiet Revolution took place in Quebec under the leadership of the Quebec Liberals. This was marked by a pronounced de-clericalizing and de-conservatizing of Quebec society.
Pearson won the 1963 election, and began a process of ever-increasing innovation. In 1965, he engineered the replacement of the Red Ensign, Canada’s traditional flag (which had, like Australia’s today, a Union Jack in its upper-left corner) with the Maple Leaf Pennant, which some Canadian traditionalists saw at that time as a “new Liberal Party” banner. Although it was little commented upon by observers at the time, a change of flag is often seen in political science as a marker of “regime-change”.
Indeed, this was the beginning of a massive transformation of the Canadian polity, society, and culture, spectacularly continued in 1968-1984 (except for nine months in 1979-1980), by Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Except for the first election of 1968, when “Trudeaumania” swept the country, Trudeau failed to receive a majority of seats in English Canada in the successive federal elections (while winning virtually every seat in Quebec). The Liberals were also assisted by the presence of the social-democratic third party in English Canada – the New Democratic Party (NDP), which had evolved out of the much different and sometimes rather socially-conservative CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation). It could also be argued that the Liberal Party had been largely “hijacked” by Trudeau, away from its earlier, so-called “traditionalist-centrist” consensus.
The culmination of the transformation was the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into the Canadian Constitution in 1982, which virtually set down Trudeau’s entire agenda as the highest law of the land. The pretext for the introduction of the Charter was the so-called “patriation” of the Canadian Constitution from Britain. Nevertheless, both supporters and opponents of the Charter characterized it as a constitutional coup d’état. The Charter in effect took away power from elected bodies (federal and provincial parliaments), and gave it into the hands of unelected judges and various tribunals — a situation similar to (but far more pronounced in Canada), as that which had occurred with so-called judicial activism in the United States. The intent appeared to be to place the left-liberal social agenda forever beyond the reach of popular will.
It might be noted that the Canadian Constitution today is far more “progressive” than the U.S. Constitution of 1787. Indeed, conservatives in the U.S. frequently talk about the restoration of “Constitutional government” – whereas in Canada the Charter is presumably functioning in a perfectly “constitutional” fashion in pushing forward the left-liberal social agenda.
In 1984, Brian Mulroney won a huge landslide as leader of the Progressive Conservative party. The unwillingness of Brian Mulroney, who was Prime Minister of Canada from 1984-1993, to carry out some substantively conservative policies, almost certainly resulted in the arising of the Western Canadian-based Reform Party in 1987 (which formally became a countrywide party in 1991). It should be noted, however, that the Reform Party of Canada was much different from the U.S. Reform Party (especially in its brief Buchananite incarnation). The Reform Party of Canada was comparatively far more electorally credible and attracted about a fifth of the popular vote in federal elections in 1993 and 1997 (although the Liberals won comfortable majorities in the federal Parliament in those elections). The frequent characterization of Canadian Reformers as “far right” was wildly inaccurate.
It is important to note that although Mulroney was commonly considered part of the conservative electoral wave of Reagan and Thatcher, he was mostly, viscerally, a “small-l liberal”. Thus, nothing like the Reagan or Thatcher revolutions ever took place in Canada.
Although the Reform Party was even more pro-American than Mulroney, earlier proposals for a Canada-U.S. Free Trade deal (Mulroney’s major accomplishment, over which he waged and won the 1988 federal election) had been, historically-speaking, strenuously opposed by more traditional Conservatives, who had looked to Britain. Mulroney also precipitously raised immigration, from the 54,000 to which it had fallen in Liberal Prime Minister Trudeau’s last year in office (1983-1984) to about a quarter-million persons a year, where it has remained ever since. With Canada’s population now at over 35 million, it is more than double the official U.S. immigration rate, per capita – and probably the highest rate of immigration per capita in the world. The imposition of the GST (Goods and Services Tax), the Canadian equivalent of a value-added tax (VAT), while interpreted as a “hard right” move by some, could also be seen as a typically liberal tax grab. In terms of society and culture, Mulroney appeared beholden to the multicultural, feminist, and other politically-correct agendas, and, despite his then rather unpopular rhetoric of “deficit-fighting,” actually incurred huge deficits, doubling the total federal government debt to about $500 billion (Canadian) by the end of his tenure in office.
Most of the developments in the Canadian polity, society, and culture occurring in the wake of Trudeau, have consisted of a further extension and pushing forward of his social liberal agenda. In the last two decades, however (presumably in reaction to the collapse of Soviet Communism) left-liberalism has become far more willing to concede some major fiscal and economic issues to the “managerial Right” — while continuing a ferocious struggle against small-c conservatism and social conservatism.
Left-liberals had tried to maintain the centre-right parties in Canada in the 1990s and early 2000s in as eviscerated a shape as possible, building up the federal Progressive Conservatives at the expense of the Canadian Alliance (which arose out of the Reform Party in 1998-2000) and trying to bleach out substantive conservative thinking as far as possible from all these parties. In the 2000 federal election, the splitting of the popular vote between the P.C.s and CA, as well as the continual deriding of Stockwell Day, the CA leader, as a “fundamentalist Christian extremist”, resulted in another comfortable Liberal majority in the federal Parliament.
In December 2003, a reconstituted Conservative Party was formed from a merging of the federal Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance – and seemed to have unexpectedly acquired a certain conceptual energy under the leadership of Stephen Harper. In the June 2004 federal election, the Liberals were reduced to a minority government. (A plurality of seats in the House of Commons.) From January 2006 to 2011, the Harper-led Conservatives held onto a minority government in the federal Parliament, having won a plurality of seats in the federal elections of 2006 and 2008. In the May 2, 2011 federal election the Conservatives finally won a strong majority.
Given the left-liberal dominance in so many social and cultural areas, the election of a putatively substantively conservative majority government at the federal level in Canada, did not result in major change. Nevertheless, it’s clear that only a Conservative majority in Parliament could ever hope to really change things.
And, in the October 19, 2015 federal election, the Conservatives were swept out, when Liberal Justin Trudeau (Pierre’s son), won a strong majority in the federal Parliament.
Another possible challenge to the mostly Ottawa-and-Toronto-centred left-liberalism could arise from the ideas of maximal regional devolution (decentralization or so-called “provincialization”) becoming more salient in Canada.
It could be argued that, given the left-liberal predominance in the Canadian media, in the education system (from daycare to universities), in the judiciary and justice system, in the government bureaucracies, in so-called “high culture” (typified by government-subsidized “CanLit”), in the North American (Canada and U.S.) pop-culture and “youth-culture”, in the big Canadian banks and corporations, and (for the most part), in the leaderships of the main churches, any existing “small-c conservative” tendencies are being continually ground down. There is also the panoply of left-oriented special interest groups, who receive extensive government and some corporate funding.
In contrast to Canada today, which could be seen as mostly a left-liberal country, the United States could be perceived as more conservative. There are the superpower exigencies of America which require it to maintain a large and effective military. There is the vast influence of Christianity, both of fundamentalist Protestants and tradition-minded Catholics. There is a large network of conservative think-tanks and foundations. There are also hundreds of more traditional, mostly religious-based, colleges in the United States.
In the United States, there appears to be much more of a sense of space and debate within the generalized right-wing, between such groupings as paleoconservatives, social conservatives, neoconservatives, libertarians, paleolibertarians, right-wing Greens, “social conservatives of the Left” (such as Christopher Lasch), classical liberals, religious conservatives (sometimes called “theocons”), and so forth. However, some critics have charged that this generalized right wing is in fact dominated by neoconservatives and Republican Party operatives, which tends to weaken the saliency of traditionalism in the U.S.
Canadians have been traditionally and are even today characterized by a deference to authority. When the ruling paradigm was conservative, they tended to be more conservative than Americans (in the positive sense of conservatism). Canada throughout its earlier times could be seen as a more polite and orderly country than America – something which has arguably persisted even today in the form of the lower crime rates and greater civility in political discourse.
The disadvantage of this deference was that when the ruling paradigm was changed from the top in the Sixties and later, most Canadians have tended to follow, in a conformist fashion. Today, they tend to be far more ostentatiously politically-correct than most Americans. Indeed, there is virtually no heritage of independence, self-reliance, or belief in rambunctious free speech in Canada. Canadian officials point proudly to their laws against so-called hate-speech as highly necessary. They say they do not have “the American hang-ups” about restricting freedom of speech.
In the United States, far more persons are putatively conservative, and there appears to be far more of a real social base for conservatism. However, the solid conservative base is arguably poorly led and misled by narrow cliques within so-called “movement-conservatism” and the Republican Party. In Canada, the conservative leadership sometimes appears to be sounder, but is hamstrung by unfortunate circumstances in the social, political, and cultural environment.
The processes of massive social and cultural transformation in Canada are only beginning. On March 9, 2010, Statistics Canada released projections that so-called visible minorities (this is a term of official usage) will constitute a third of the Canadian population in 2031. They are projected to be 63 percent of the population of Toronto and its suburbs (43 percent in 2006); 59 percent of the population of Vancouver (42 percent in 2006); and 31 percent of the population of Montreal (16 percent in 2006). Unlike in the United States, the centrifugal forces in Canada are very strong, typified by the official multiculturalism which requires all levels of Canadian government to support and valorize – to a greater or lesser extent — the distinct cultures of the various diasporas. The so-called majority culture is becoming ever more attenuated. At the same time, more intellectual forms of traditionalism, conservatism, and nationalism, have been virtually excised from the academy and the mass media.
Part of Canada’s problems may have their origins in the British establishment. The WASP elites are probably the most self-hating and politically-correct grouping in Canada. Ironically, they maintain themselves in very comfortable lives while looking with disdain at the “reactionary” lower-middle and working-classes, who may have greater residues of genuine patriotism. Others who appear to be without a bright future in Canada are the so-called “white ethnics” such as Ukrainian-, Italian-, and Polish-Canadians. The term “multiculturalism” – which once also referred to “white ethnic” fragment cultures — seems to be increasingly taken to mean “multiracialism”.
Conservatives have, since 1896, faced the problem of their lack of support in Quebec. The voters of Quebec have, in the federal elections from 1993 to 2008, given most of their seats in the federal Parliament to the separatist Bloc Quebecois – only to massively switch their allegiance to the NDP in 2011. Despite strenuous efforts, the Conservatives have won only 10 seats from Quebec in 2006, 10 seats in 2008, and only 5 seats in 2011. A centre-right party existing at the provincial level, the Action democratique du Quebec (ADQ) after surging in an earlier provincial election, has faded – and now folded itself into the new, more centrist, Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ). The Quebec issue appears intractable for the Conservatives. At the same time, until the federal election of 2011, it appears that most of the immigrant communities, including “white ethnics” and visible minorities, have tended to support the Liberal Party. (Some exceptions being Ukrainians and Balts, who tended to support the P.C.s and Conservatives.) In the future, the Liberal Party (or the possibly surging NDP), can probably count on the Toronto-Montreal-Vancouver bloc, where, in 2006 and 2008, the Conservatives failed to win a single seat. As these urban areas grow ever larger, their influence in the Canadian polity will increase. At the same time, in the rural hinterlands, a growing Aboriginal population has become increasingly radicalized. Aboriginal issues clearly have a far greater saliency in Canada than in the United States.
Without much of an intellectual and think-tank infrastructure, conservatism in Canada was not able to translate the strong majority of the Conservative Party won in the federal election of 2011, into an instrumentality for activist, highly transformational change.
Now mostly lacking an active, living and sometimes rambunctious right wing as in the United States, Canada — it could be argued — is deprived of a source of critical intelligence about the realities of human nature, society, and culture, and of the social and cultural underpinnings of economic achievement. Thus, in the future, it might in fact become even more prone than the U.S. to various social, cultural, as well as economic dislocations, disasters and calamities.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based, Canadian writer and historical researcher.
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