We Cannot Escape History
Mark Wegierski contrasts American and Canadian Conservatism
[An article based on a presentation read at the “Conservatism: Made in USA” Conference, held at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, on April 28, 2010]
America was founded as a revolutionary society which cast off the fetters of the Old World, whereas Canada originated in two distinct cultures. The first of these was French Canada – which had maintained its Ancien Regime – being already under British rule at the time of the French Revolution. The origins of French Canada go back to the founding of Québec in 1608. By 1760, French Canada had been conquered by the British. However, the British were relatively tolerant, allowing, for example, the maintenance of the Roman Catholic faith. The second culture – which became 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 in Upper Canada (Ontario) and the Maritimes (on the Atlantic coast).
The key phrase of the British North America Act of 1867 that created the Dominion of Canada 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 an English-Canadian (Sir John A. Macdonald) and a French-Canadian (George Etienne Cartier). Both were conservatives. 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 fear of an expansionist America, in the wake of the American Civil War, in which – 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 represented a fundamental deviation from the truly federalist principles of the American Founding. Unfortunately, so-called “states’ rights” has become equated with the defence of Southern bigotry and the oppression of blacks.
A defining historical moment for English Canada was the War of 1812, in which various U.S. invasions were beaten back in the face of overwhelming odds. English Canada’s tragic hero of the war, Sir Isaac Brock, organized the energetic defence and 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 more in current-day America than in Canada.
During the late nineteenth century, Canada was founded on anti-revolutionary and traditionalist principles. Yet since the federal election of 1896, when the voters in the mostly French-speaking province of Québec switched their votes en masse from the Conservative to the Liberal Party, at the federal level Canada has experienced long periods of Liberal government, with comparatively brief Conservative interludes. Although Québec was for decades a very conservative society, it voted for the federal Liberal Party as an expression of resistance to the supercilious English-Canadian Conservatives. What resulted was a solid bloc of seats from Québec, combined with a minority of seats from English Canada, that almost always allowed the Liberals to form the government in Ottawa.
Excluded for decades from power, the Conservative Party re-designated itself as the Progressive Conservative Party in 1942, and has latterly eschewed nearly all aspects of “small-c conservatism.” There even emerged a tendency called “Red Toryism”. Although the term was embraced by the traditionalist philosopher George Parkin Grant – for whom it was essentially a “social conservatism of the Left” – it also became a catch-all term for opportunistic, P.C. party hacks, who simply adopted the ideas and policies of left-liberalism.
The Republicans in the U.S. have been far more successful electorally than their Canadian counterparts. Because of the left-liberal predominance in Canadian society, “small-c conservative” tendencies are continually ground down. There is also a panoply of left-oriented special interest groups, who receive extensive government and some corporate funding.
In contrast to Canada, a predominantly left-liberal country, the United States is fundamentally conservative. The superpower exigencies of America require that it maintain a large and effective military. There is the vast influence of Christianity, both of fundamentalist Protestants and of tradition-minded Catholics; there is a large network of conservative think-tanks and foundations; and there are hundreds of traditional, mostly religious-based, colleges.
In the United States, there is debate within the right-wing, between such groupings as paleo-conservatives, 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.
Canadians, in contrast, have traditionally exhibited 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 arguably persists today in the form of the lower crime rates and greater civility in political discourse.
The disadvantage of this deference was that when, in the Sixties, the ruling paradigm was changed from the top, most Canadians tended to follow. Today, they tend to be more ostentatiously politically-correct than Americans. Indeed, there is virtually no heritage of independence, self-reliance, or belief in free speech in Canada. Canadian officials laud the laws against so-called hate-speech. They maintain that they do not have “the American hang-ups” about restricting freedom of speech.
Massive processes of social and cultural transformation in Canada are in train. On March 9, 2010, Statistics Canada predicted that “visible minorities” (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 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 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.
Some of Canada’s problems have their origins in the British establishment. The WASP elites are the most self-hating and politically-correct grouping in Canada. While they enjoy comfortable lives, they look down with disdain at the “reactionary” lower-middle and working-classes, who evidently have greater residues of genuine patriotism. Other groups who appear to be without a bright future in Canada are the “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 mean “multiracialism”.
Twentieth century developments have underlined the difficulties for conservatives of maintaining a “binational” polity. In the federal elections from 1993 to 2008, the voters of Québec gave most of the seats in the federal Parliament to the separatist Bloc Québécois – only to massively switch their allegiance to the NDP in 2011. Despite strenuous efforts, the Conservatives won only 10 seats in Québec in 2006, 10 seats in 2008, and 5 seats in 2011. The large Conservative majority in the federal election of 2011, likewise, was not the prelude for radical change.
Bereft of a vibrant intellectual and think-tank infrastructure and lacking a living right-wing, Canada is thereby deprived of a critical source of intelligence about human nature and society. Thus, in the future, it may become more prone than the US to social, cultural and economic dislocations.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher. He was born in Toronto of Polish immigrant parents.
Bob Barron comes from County Durham. Following studies at Sunderland College of Art, the majority of Barron’s working life as a full time artist has been spent in his native North-East. He has recently relocated and now works from his studio in Southampton.