Canada: An Introduction for American Conservatives
Canada, at that time often called the Dominion of Canada, was founded on July 1, 1867, 155 years ago, with the passage of the British North America Act in the British House of Commons in London. It was informally a union of two historic nations in the northern half of North America: the English Canadians and the French-Canadians (mostly centered in Quebec). The Aboriginal peoples were included, insofar as they were traditionally considered to be under the special protection of the Crown.
In 1867, Canada was organized into four provinces—Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia—each with local legislatures and Premiers, and a countrywide federal legislature and prime minister based in Ottawa. Canada later expanded to the ten provinces and three northern territories that constitute it today. The prime minister is the head of the largest party, or a majority coalition of parties, in the Canadian House of Commons, where executive and legislative functions are conjoined. The members of legislatures are elected from geographic electoral districts of roughly equal population (though greatly varying territorial size) colloquially called ridings, based on “first-past-the-post” voting. That means that the candidate with the largest number of votes (even if that number is considerably less than 50 percent, given various “third parties” in contention) wins the riding. There is also a Senate that consists of appointed members, and is far weaker than the U.S. Senate. The appointed governor general and provincial lieutenant governors are representatives of the monarch (currently Queen Elizabeth II) and give royal assent to legislation. The various areas of federal and provincial jurisdiction have been carefully delineated in the British North America Act.
Until 1896, Canada was mostly dominated by the Conservatives/“Bleus,” led by the illustrious statesmen Sir John A. Macdonald (Canada’s first prime minister) and Sir George-Étienne Cartier. The Dominion of Canada, with its founding principles of “peace, order, and good government,” was profoundly anti-revolutionary. However, after 1896, Canada has tended to elect Liberal governments, based on the overwhelming support of Quebec voters in federal elections. In 1957, the staunch Tory, John G. Diefenbaker, won a minority government, and, a year later, one of the largest majorities in Canadian history (partially based on unusual support from Quebec voters). However, in 1962, Diefenbaker’s majority was reduced to a minority government.
The federal election of 1963 was one of the most crucial in Canadian history. Diefenbaker faced Liberal Lester B. Pearson. As aptly told by Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Grant, in his 1965 book, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, Diefenbaker was sand-bagged by the managerial and pollster expertise of the North American capitalist classes, who resented Diefenbaker’s resistance to accepting U.S. nuclear weapons in Canada. Pearson began a series of major reforms, the most symbolic of which was the replacement of the traditional Red Ensign with the maple-leaf design as the official flag of Canada. (The Red Ensign included the Union Jack in the upper left corner, as well as the shield of Canada’s traditional coat of arms, on a background of scarlet, royal red.)
Although it was not extensively debated at the time, many political theorists see the change of a country’s flag as a marker of “regime change.” This eventually became the case in Canada, especially with the ascendancy of Liberal Pierre Elliott Trudeau after 1968, dubbed “Trudeaumania.” The term “Dominion of Canada” all but disappeared from official documents and was replaced by “Government of Canada.” Most countries identify themselves as a distinct realm (whether a kingdom or republic), separate from the government. The change in nomenclature foreshadowed the primacy of the federal government apparatus in Canada today.
Ever since this transformative period, the Canadian right has been fighting one losing battle after another. One of the central reasons for the Canadian right’s continuing failure since the 1960s has been the ongoing establishment of vast liberal-leaning media, juridical, academic, educational, bureaucratic, and corporate structures—a nexus of interests that certain American and European critics have called “the managerial-therapeutic regime”—which could be characterized as socially liberal and economically conservative. These multifarious structures and arrangements are also sometimes called the “Trudeaupia.” There is also the fact that “North American” pop-culture is the primary “lived cultural reality” for most people in Canada, which tends to reinforce socially liberal, consumerist/consumptionist, and antinomian attitudes, especially among the young. Unlike most other Western countries, where countervailing factors of various kinds exist to the hegemony of the managerial-therapeutic regime, current-day Canada probably is an example of such a managerial-therapeutic system in its “purest” form.
It could be argued that social, political, cultural, and economic life in Canada—lacking, in fact, either an authentic right or left—has therefore become less subject to popular will and democratic input. Indeed, it could be called “post-democratic.” The lack of robust democratic participation and input in Canada should be of concern to theorists across the political spectrum. Insofar as the system maintains itself through massive “prior constraint” against a very broad array of ideas, beliefs, and opinions, its pretense of upholding democracy is questionable. Such a profound lack of equilibrium is radically harmful to a more “ideal-typical” form and exercise of democracy.
Canada today may be seen as combining the most liberal aspects of America and Europe; indeed, Canada may be (apart from a few Scandinavian countries) the world’s most liberal society. Like some European countries such as the Netherlands, Canada is extremely socially liberal, as demonstrated by the Canadian federal government’s total acceptance of same-sex marriage. Although a vote on the issue took place in the federal House of Commons in 2005, it was with direct referral to the Canadian Supreme Court. What conservative critics call “judicial activism” is in Canada a comparatively late but now flourishing development, which only really got underway with the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) into the Canadian Constitution.
The Charter, clearly a left-liberal rather than classical liberal document, essentially enshrined virtually the entire agenda of Pierre Elliott Trudeau as the highest law of the land. After Brian Mulroney’s huge Progressive Conservative (that was the official name of the party from 1942 to 2003) majorities in 1984 and 1988, whose record in regard to social and cultural conservatism was abysmal, Canada’s federal Liberal Party (headed by Jean Chrétien) comfortably won the elections of 1993, 1997, and 2000. Liberal Paul Martin Jr. was reduced to a minority government (a plurality of seats in the House of Commons) in 2004.
Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party in power (2006-2015) tended towards centrism and moderation, despite the overheated rhetoric of his left-wing critics. This was partly due to the fact that Harper held only a minority government in 2006-2011, failing to win a majority in the 2006 and 2008 elections. His majority government in 2011-2015 was also a disappointment for “small-c conservatives” (the term by which more ideological conservatives in Canada are known—as opposed to the “big-C” Conservative Party, which has been less ideologically conservative) and social conservatives. In any case, he failed to break the pattern of the almost-inevitable return of the Liberals to power. And he did nothing to dismantle or convert liberal redoubts in the media, academia, and the judiciary.
Justin Trudeau (Pierre’s son) won a strong Liberal majority in 2015. Although he was reduced to a minority government in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections, he still comfortably governed, mainly with the support of the New Democratic Party (NDP), which is even further left. (There have been a fair number of “third parties” in Canadian history, of which the NDP is among the most prominent.)
Canada has now embraced some of the more negative aspects of American society—such as the excesses of pop-culture, political correctness, and growing litigiousness. However, Canada lacks many aspects of America that may temper the aforementioned trends. Some of these countervailing factors in the United States include such things as the far greater importance of the military, the far greater presence of organized religion (both in regard to fundamentalist Protestants and traditionalist Catholics), homeschooling as a major social trend, the existence of hundreds of traditional-leaning private colleges, and a large network of right-leaning think-tanks and publications. The United States also has a more robust tradition of independent-minded, left-wing, anti-corporate, ecological, or agrarian dissent, such as that typified by Ralph Nader, Christopher Lasch, Rachel Carson, Helen and Scott Nearing, and Wendell Berry. Nevertheless, despite the better position of the right in America, any realistic assessment must note the increasing prominence of progressive elites in America, who have captured one institution after another. America is the global center of “political correctness.”
The Canadian medical system is stringently socialized to an extent unheard of in the United States. While most medical services do not require payment, the trade-off is that most medical care is subject to severe rationing, which in practice amounts to long delays. Canadians are not permitted to buy extra medical services, so wealthier persons often end up going to the United States for medical treatment. There are now 1.3 million people in Ontario (of a total population of about 14.5 million people) without a family doctor. The Canadian medical system is often seen as a central feature of “Canadian values” that are alleged to make Canada definitively more compassionate, caring, and ethical, than the said-to-be morally indifferent United States. Many Canadians are willing to accede to virtually anything the government demands—if they can only be assured of quality medical care.
Canada’s control of its borders is also very lackadaisical. Canada has been characterized by very high rates of immigration, and has wholeheartedly embraced multiculturalism, affirmative action (called “employment equity” in Canada), and diversity with startling intensity. Canada’s official immigration numbers were more than twice as large as those of the United States, per capita, for over three decades, and are now probably among the highest in the world. With a population now reaching about 38 million persons, Canada had been receiving about a quarter-million immigrants every year. (The Liberals recently raised the numbers to 300,000, and, in 2021 and coming years, to over 400,000 a year.)
Unlike the United States, fundamentalist Christianity plays virtually no role in Canada. Relative to the United States, the debate about abortion and many other social issues is considered effectively closed. Moreover, Canada’s gun-control laws are also extremely strict (at least as far as legal gun ownership). While there are incredibly onerous restrictions on legal gun ownership, the penalties for violent crimes committed with guns have been loosened up by Justin Trudeau, in contrast to Harper’s mandatory-minimum sentencing.
In another extreme contrast to the United States, in relation to its geographic size and NATO responsibilities, Canada has virtually no military (the entire armed forces, including army, navy, air force, and reserves, number about 92,600 men and women) and there is major disdain throughout much of Canadian society (and especially among elites) towards the military. In practice, this weakness in international security has resulted in decades of morally and politically debilitating dependency on the United States.
Canadians appear to be characterized both today and in their earlier history by an unusual deference to governmental authority. Before 1965, Canada probably was a substantively more conservative society than the United States (in the better sense of conservatism), but now, when the paradigm at the top has been fundamentally altered—in the wake of the Pierre “Trudeau revolution”—most Canadians are manifestly willing to follow the new, politically correct line from Ottawa. There is virtually no heritage of independence, self-reliance, or belief in rambunctious free speech in Canada. Indeed, many Canadian officials and citizens point proudly to their aggressive and sweeping laws restricting freedom of expression under often too broadly defined “hate speech” laws as being highly necessary. They often say they do not have “the American hang-ups” about restricting freedom of speech.
What may be said in Canada’s favor is that it is still a comparatively law-abiding and peaceful society, with a far more pleasant quality of life in Canadian large cities than is so in America’s cities. The medical system, however imperfect, helps Canadians avoid the catastrophic personal medical costs frequently incurred in the U.S. However, Canada is changing in certain ways. For example, the laws are enforced in increasingly asymmetrical ways, especially as regards protests, based on the “victim status” of the perpetrators.
It could be concluded from the combination of points above that right-of-center positions are rarely seen or heard in Canada (except perhaps in the Western Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as in the ambiguous case of the now mostly secular, French-speaking, Quebec nationalism, which, after the 1960s, has been frequently characterized by a powerful separatist movement). Left-liberals predominate in the Canadian media (especially in the taxpayer-funded CBC—the “BBC of Canada”—yet better described as a TV and radio version of NPR/PBS with the reach of America’s mainstream news networks). Left-liberals also predominate 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 North American pop-culture and “youth culture,” in the big Canadian banks and corporations, and (on most issues) in the leaderships of the main churches in Canada. The result is that any existing remaining right-of-center tendencies are being continually ground down. There is also the panoply of special-interest groups, who receive extensive government and corporate funding. The social, political, and cultural situation of conservatives in Canada is desperate indeed.
Decades of “wearing down” has resulted in the ever-more-limited ability of a conservative—be he a social, political, or cultural conservative—to participate and influence the Canadian polity. And participation in those debates is, after all, essential to democracy itself.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based Canadian writer and historical researcher.