Węgierski: Demolition Day

The 150th Anniversary (or Sesquicentennial) of Canadian Confederation (1867) is being celebrated on July 1, 2017. That holiday was traditionally celebrated as “Dominion Day” – as Canada was officially called “the Dominion of Canada” – a term which has now fallen into disuse. Indeed, the holiday is today 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 officially identified as a distinct “realm” – whether a kingdom or republic — apart from its government. Indeed, it does give some indication of the current Canadian situation where the entrenched state-bureaucracies and juridical apparatus are probably more powerful than the elected government.

What is frequently downplayed today is that the two main historical nations of Canada (the British and the French) had a history that stretched back many centuries before the founding of the Canadian State in 1867. What is also downplayed is that the last fifty or so years of Canadian history and their unfolding political, social, and cultural developments – have been drastically different from the preceding one hundred years. Indeed, there has been the fading representation of more substantive forms of conservatism in Canada, since 1965. Various forms of conservatism have been reduced to fugitive traditions.

Confederation may be seen as the culmination of a long history of the British and the French in Canada – who 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.” These origins of the Canadian State have now been mostly forgotten.

The fact is that Canada was established in 1867 as a profoundly conservative country. Until 1896, Canada was dominated by an alliance of the Conservatives of English-Canada and the “Bleus” of Quebec. (In the earlier part of this period, the Conservatives were officially called the Liberal-Conservative party. The opposition were colloquially called the Clear Grits, and “Rouges” in Quebec.)

After 1896, Canada has tended to elect Liberal federal governments, but it was – until 1963 – dominated by a so-called “traditionalist-centrist” or “centre-traditionalist” consensus, in which all the major parties shared. While they significantly differed on economics, the main parties all tended to be what would today be called socially-conservative.

The federal Conservatives had changed their name to “Progressive Conservative” already in 1942. The ostensible reason for the name change was the 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 disfavour. Despite the name change, the P.C.s remained a home for varying factions. (The provincial Conservative parties also followed suit with the name change.) By the 1970s and 1980s, however, so-called “small-c conservatives” (i.e., substantive conservatives) within the ostensibly “big-C” party were frequently derided as so-called “cashew conservatives” – i.e., “nuts”.

It could be argued that over the last five or so decades – beginning with the replacement of the Canada’s traditional flag, the Red Ensign, in 1965 (which, like Australia’s flag today, had the Union Jack in the upper-left corner) – the memory of Canada’s British past was mostly eradicated and repudiated.  Part of this assault against traditional Canada was the undermining of its 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 and lacking representation in Canada. Social conservatism could be defined as a focus on upholding and valourizing traditional notions of family, religion, and nation; a strong work-ethic; and strict law-and-order.

It could be said that Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson (1963-1968) 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 1979-1980), carried it forward with the greatest enthusiasm and alacrity; Joe Clark (1979-1980) and Brian Mulroney (1984-1993) failed to reverse it; and Jean Chretien (1993-2003) continued in the footsteps of his mentor, Trudeau. A traditionalist cultural critic could say that the creation of the current-day Canada is analogous to demolishing a well-built, long-standing neighborhood, and replacing it with modern gleaming skyscrapers, condo-towers, and ugly housing projects. It could be seen as artificial as a huge gleaming spaceship crash-landing on top of some hapless small town.

Part of the process was the new immigration from non-traditional sources, which Liberal Party adviser Tom Kent has virtually admitted was calculated to strengthen the Liberal Party, and to annihilate what had been, up until that time, often called “Tory Toronto.” In 1987, in an artless attempt to mimic the Liberal strategy of bringing in immigrants who would gratefully vote for the Liberal Party, Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney raised immigration to a quarter-million persons a year, where it has remained ever since. In Trudeau’s last year in office (1983-1984), it 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 a year. The current Liberal government has actually raised it to over 300,000 persons a year. The immigration rate is now among the highest in the world, and is about three times as large 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 the federal 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 future trajectory of Canada. Based on rock-solid support from Quebec, Trudeau was able to win the federal elections of 1968, 1972, 1974, and 1980. It was only in the 1968 election, when “Trudeaumania” swept the country, that he won a majority of seats in English-speaking Canada. He was also importantly supported by the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1972-1974 (and in the bringing down of 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 Progressive Conservative federal and provincial parties – who had, after the 1960s — mostly become so-called “Red Tories”.

Nevertheless, there were more positive senses of “Red Toryism”. As seen in the thought of Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Parkin Grant, it was essentially what could be characterized as a “social conservatism of the Left”. The more positive senses of “Red Toryism” have also been downplayed in Canada, in favour of opportunistic, pedestrian outlooks, especially as typified by Joe Clark, who was briefly Prime Minister of Canada for nine months in 1979-1980 (and leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives between 1976-1983).

Joe Clark has appeared to act as a perennial “spoiler” of any possibly successful initiatives of the centre-right. For example, between 1998-2003, 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 1998-2000, the Reform Party had undertaken a “United Alternative” process designed to create an alliance with the Progressive Conservatives. It renamed itself as the Canadian Alliance (the full name of the new party was the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance). 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 were a few sporadic moments since 1965 when social conservatism had tried to re-assert itself. Among the most notable of these were the founding of the Reform Party in November 1987, and its eventual rise to Canadian prominence in the 1993 (52 of 295 seats) and 1997 (60 of 301 seats) federal elections. Another moment when social conservatism was perceived as prominent was in the selection of Stockwell Day 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). There then occurred an unforeseen caucus revolt against Day’s leadership, which attracted thirteen CA MPs. This led to a leadership contest which was won by Stephen Harper.

Mostly lacking an 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” pop-culture and the consumption society.

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 a majority government in 2011.

Looking at the federal majority Conservative government of Stephen Harper, it cannot be said that social conservatism was having any great impact on it. For example, Harper said many times that he was not going to re-open the abortion and same-sex marriage issues. However, he did seem to be willing to offer some support to marriage and the family, for example, through tax credits to parents. He also tried to re-introduce some elements of a more traditional patriotism in Canada – such as the cherishing of the Monarchy and the military.

As of mid-2017, none of the provincial P.C. parties (where they exist) have dropped the adjective from their names. When Alison Redford won a P.C. majority government in the April 2012 election in Alberta – against the challenge from the decidedly more conservative Wildrose Alliance — some commentators called Redford “Alberta’s first NDP premier”. Ironically, in the May 2015 Alberta election, the actual NDP very unexpectedly won a majority.

Yet, even as social conservatism has faded from the Canadian social and cultural scene, fiscal or economic conservatism has remained comparatively robust. Indeed, it may be part of the configuration of the so-called “managerial-therapeutic” regime – which is socially liberal, and economically conservative. Indeed, there are discernible “plutocratic” aspects to the current-day Canada – and wide swaths of the population are unemployed or underemployed – in what is, at least for some people, a “hyper-competitive” environment.

There is also today the somewhat unfortunate situation that sees social conservatism defined almost solely by the two highly-charged, flashpoint issues of opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage – issues which (especially in Canada now) seem to be entirely resolved in public debate. What gets 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 putatively have a more widespread, non-denominational appeal.

Nevertheless, the situation is indeed dire especially for so-called “small-c conservatives” in Canada. It often happens in Canada that persons 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 obscure oblivion, often eking out a hardscrabble existence — while various mediocrities, parvenues, dissimulators, and radical agitators rule the roost.

Traditionalist critics would suggest that the current-day Canada, which could be characterized as a consumptionist welfare-state, has consumed for little good reason, and with obvious, manifest, widespread detriment to society, social ethos and cohesion, and authentic culture, vast resources which could have probably sustained earlier societies in relative comfort and stability for centuries.

Until a few years ago, it might have appeared that French Quebec may have better assured the prospects of its future flourishing, than what is sometimes ironically called TROC (“The Rest of Canada”). However, Quebec has in the last few years seen a real trailing off of its nationalist passions, especially when one considers that its low birthrate and high abortion rate has ended “the revenge of the cradle” which had earlier allowed it to wield increasing power in Canadian Confederation. And now, one must look at such developments as the collapse of the centre-right Action democratique du Quebec (ADQ) in the 2008 Quebec provincial election, and the turning of many Quebec voters in the 2011 federal election towards the New Democratic Party (giving the NDP 59 of the 75 seats available). It was especially surprising to see the collapse of the Bloc Quebecois (the separatist party in the federal Parliament) which had held a majority of seats in Quebec across the federal elections of 1993 to 2008. They won only four seats in 2011. In the 2015 federal election, they were able to win only ten seats. In the 2014 provincial election, the Liberals were able to win 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 may be pointedly summarized by 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 (the son of Pierre); an unwillingness to control the borders effectively; and armed forces that are very poorly funded.

It is clear that the results of the 2011 federal election (that is, the Conservative majority government) have not led to any salutary changes in the parlous condition of Canada, with its various current-day syndromes. 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.

Not having enjoyed much success through party politics since 1965, the possible re-assertion of social conservatism through the building up of a think-tank infrastructure can be seen as only a very remote possibility in Canada. Social conservatism is extremely isolated in what has become an ever more anti-traditional and antinomian Canada. There are, indeed, vast infrastructures of social liberalism in Canada – most of the mass media and mass education systems; the “activist judiciary” (which some critics have called “the Court Party”); most of the “official” Canadian culture; and most of the governmental administrative apparatus. The monetary and societal resources available to social liberals outweigh those available to social conservatives by astronomical factors.

Indeed, Canada is quite likely to follow all the current-day trajectories, to become an increasingly “hypermodern” society. In such a society, social conservatism – even if tacitly supported by a not-insignificant 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 anti-democratic – a drastic narrowing and reduction of the possible political, social, and cultural options available to Canadians today.

Mark Wegierski

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based, Canadian writer and historical researcher.

This article first appeared in “Chronicles” magazine

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