The fight for freedom
Reflecting on the historical and social context of the upcoming federal
election in Canada on October 14 helps to reveal what is really at
The origins of French Canada go back at least to the founding of
Quebec in 1608. In 1759, the British conquered Quebec. However, in
subsequent years they allowed the French-speaking population a considerable
degree of autonomy, such as the right to practice the Roman Catholic
faith. English Canada got its main population impetus from the Loyalist
refugees from the American Revolution, who settled mostly in Ontario
(then called Upper Canada) and the Maritimes (which later became the
provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island).
The War of 1812 could be considered as a war for Canadian identity,
where various American invasions were beaten back, largely through
the efforts of General Sir Isaac Brock.
Until 1867, and from the time of Confederation in 1867, to 1896,
Canada was an emphatically traditionalist and conservative country.
Liberal hegemony at the federal level began in 1896 and has been punctuated
by only a few notable Conservative interludes. However, until the 1960s,
Canada was characterized by a traditionalist-centrist consensus, such
as that typified by her longest-serving Prime Minister, Mackenzie King.
The Liberal Party was politically dominant from 1896 forward, but many
of its outlooks were at least somewhat traditionalist. All the main
parties of the time — including the Co-operative Commonwealth
Federation (a precursor to today’s much-different New Democratic
Party, NDP) — were to a large extent socially conservative, upholding
notions of traditional nation, family, and religion.
In 1942, the Conservative Party renamed itself as “Progressive
Conservative,” hoping to appear more moderate and to attract
supporters from a large, mostly Western Canadian party (called “the
Progressives”). Despite the name change, the party remained for
a long time a home to various outlooks.
The electoral battle in 1963 between Liberal Lester B. Pearson, who
defeated the staunch Tory John Diefenbaker (Prime Minister from 1957
to 1963), was one of the most important in Canadian history. The adoption
of the new flag in 1965 could be perceived as a clear marker of “regime-change.” Pierre
Elliott Trudeau, who rode to power on a wave of “Trudeaumania” in
1968, undertook ambitious social engineering initiatives. Some have
argued that Trudeau, a former NDP member, largely hijacked the centrist
Liberal Party. Critics have also charged that the 1968 election was
the only one in which Trudeau won a majority of support in English-speaking
Canada; he remained in power from 1968-1984 (except for nine months
in 1979-1980), based on overwhelming support from Quebec voters and
The culmination of the Trudeau revolution was the Charter of Rights
and Freedoms in 1982 — which enshrined most of Trudeau’s
long-term agenda as the highest law of the land. After that watershed
date, the activist judiciary went quickly to work, undermining the
longstanding principle of the supremacy of Parliament. The social framework
of Canada had been changed so drastically during the Trudeau years
that Brian Mulroney's huge Progressive Conservative majorities of 1984
and 1988 ended up being — for so-called "small-c conservatives" (or
substantive conservatives) — little more than a “defeat
in victory” — or a “false dawn.”
Mulroney’s main significant achievement was free trade with
the U.S. — which had, ironically, been strenuously opposed by
Conservatives throughout most of Canadian history. Mulroney’s
attempts to heal the rift with Quebec, which had especially emerged
at the provincial level in the late-1960s, essentially failed. In 1993
and subsequent elections, the Bloc Quebecois represented Quebec separatism
in the Canadian federal Parliament (for example, with 54 seats from
Quebec in 1993).
The ever-diminishing Canadian Right tried to regroup through the
launching of the Reform Party in 1987. Preston Manning’s Reform
Party — very much a center/center-right party — was rather
different from the U.S. Reform Party (especially in its brief Buchananite
incarnation); it gained about 20 percent of the countrywide vote in
1993 and 1997, albeit mostly from Western Canada. The climate of unrelenting
media and institutional hostility toward the Reform Party created a
suitable context for the encouragement of Liberal arrogance — and
the Liberal majority governments of 1993 and 1997 under Jean Chretien.
It was alleged in 1998 that the Liberals were maintaining a slush fund
of close to a billion dollars per annum (this popularly termed the
HRDC scandal) for their prominent friends and supporters.
Part of the Liberal Party's strategy in the 1990s, to draw the sting
of Reform Party criticism, was to adopt so-called fiscal or economic
conservatism. The extent of the Liberal austerity measures against
the mass of ordinary Canadians included the following:
• not rescinding the Goods and Services Tax (GST) — the
Canadian value-added tax — as they had explicitly promised
• the Unemployment Insurance (UI) reforms, which drastically
• the Canada Pension Plan reforms, which substantially raised
the amount of contributions that have to be paid into the program
• the Old Age Pension and Old Age tax-exemption clawbacks (the
taxing away of the Old Age pension and removal of the Old Age tax
exemption above a certain, comparatively modest, income threshold).
The establishment of the Canadian Alliance in 1998-2000 failed largely
because of the stubborn intransigence of Joe Clark, who had briefly
been Prime Minister in 1979-1980 and was now the leader of the “ultra-moderate” federal
Progressive Conservatives from 1998-2003. Although Stockwell Day, the
leader of the Canadian Alliance, began well, he was increasingly sandbagged
by the accusation that he represented “Christian fundamentalist
extremism” — losing the November 2000 election to Chretien.
The merger between the Canadian Alliance and the federal Progressive
Conservatives in December 2003 failed to produce a Conservative government
in 2004. Paul Martin Jr., the acclaimed Finance Minister under Chretien,
had succeeded him in November 2003 and won a plurality of seats in
the House of Commons in June 2004.
Martin’s attempts to cling to his minority government and a
scandal called Adscam – where tens of millions of dollars of
public money had apparently gone to the coffers of a few highly placed
Liberal Party members — finally resulted in the Conservative
minority government coming to power in the election of January 23,
2006. It remains to be seen in this 2008 election whether Canada is
at the beginning of a new era of more salient Conservative influence.
Since the 1960s, Canada has seen the ongoing establishment of liberal-leaning
governmental, juridical, media, academic, educational, and corporate
structures. These constitute a nexus of interests some critics have
termed “the managerial-therapeutic regime” that could be
characterized as socially liberal and economically conservative. Major
structures of the federal and provincial human rights commissions and
similar tribunals have curtailed political and social discussion. North
American pop-culture is, indeed, the primary “lived cultural
reality” for most people in Canada, and tends to reinforce socially
liberal, consumerist/ consumptionist, and antinomian attitudes, especially
among the young. The resources available to left-liberals in Canada
clearly outweigh those of small-c conservatives by astronomical factors.
Given the direction of developments in Canada over the last four
decades, the future of Canadian politics is quite likely to move toward
a “post-democratic” and de facto one-party system that
will be overwhelmingly socially liberal and economically conservative.
Life in such a society for serious conservatives could eventually tend
to resemble some unhappy combination of the existence of Winston Smith
in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and of Bernard Marx and
John the Savage in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
If the Conservatives even now fail to significantly break through
at the federal level (especially at a time when, unlike in most earlier
periods of history, they have a real chance of obtaining substantial
support from Quebec voters), it appears that little will remain for
small-c conservatism in Canada, apart from the possibilities of private
self-cultivation by isolated resisters. The only hope for significant
social action in Canada may then become various regionalist/devolutionist
View From The North archives
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Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer, social critic, and historical
researcher and is published in major Canadian newspapers, as well as
in U.S. scholarly journals such as Humanitas,
Review of Metaphysics, and Telos, and in U.S. magazines such as Chronicles
and The World & I. His writing has also appeared in Polish, British, and German publications.
See author's bio and other articles.
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