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View From The North
October 7, 2008

What’s Really the Matter with Canada:
The 2008 Federal Election in Context

by Mark Wegierski

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 stake.

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 NDP.

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 to do
• the Unemployment Insurance (UI) reforms, which drastically reduced benefits
• 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 scenarios.

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View From The North is copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved. Please forward this copyright info and links when sending to friends and colleagues.

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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