The Failure of Canadian Conservatism
Mark Wegierski, writing on the 153rd anniversary of Canadian Confederation
This essay is partially based on Mark Wegierski’s paper, ‘An Ineluctable Direction of Progressive Development?: The Ongoing Failure of the Right in Canada’ (read by Dr. Tomasz Soroka). 8th Congress of Polish Canadianists (Polish Association for Canadian Studies) ‘Canadian (Re)Visions: Futures, Changes, Revolutions’ (Lodz, Poland: University of Lodz, Faculty of Philology) PACS. September 25-27, 2019
Canada has indeed developed far away from its origins. July 1, 2020 is the 153rd anniversary of Canadian Confederation. That was the date on which the British North America Act (Canada’s original constitution) was passed in 1867 by the British Parliament. Four provinces (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) formed Confederation. It was also a union of two, long pre-existent nations, English Canada, and French Canada (the latter mostly centered in the province of Quebec). The Aboriginal peoples were included insofar as they were traditionally considered to be under the special protection of the Crown. The Canadian Constitution of 1867 was anti-revolutionary. What was called the Dominion of Canada was characterized by “peace, order, and good government” in contrast to the American credo of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
Until 1896, the Conservatives under John A. Macdonald dominated the Canadian polity. Macdonald was a real nation-builder, extending the railways across the continent, thus bringing British Columbia into Confederation in 1871. He also suppressed the two Riel Rebellions which stood in the way of a coast-to-coast Canada. However, the execution of Louis Riel for treason was a baneful act. Indeed, in the 1896 federal election, French Quebec turned away from the Conservatives, voting en masse for the Liberal Party of Wilfrid Laurier.
Throughout most of the Twentieth Century, Quebec would overwhelmingly support the Liberal Party in federal elections, thus virtually guaranteeing a Liberal majority in the federal Parliament. However, until the 1963 federal election, this did not have socially radical implications for Canada, as the country was dominated by a “traditionalist-centrist” social consensus. Indeed, even the social democratic third party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), was mostly socially conservative. However, in 1961, the party changed its name to New Democratic Party (NDP), which suggested a more “futurist” orientation.
Before the 1960s, Canada was often considered to be a more conservative society than America, in the better sense of conservatism. Canada largely avoided such harsh and ugly aspects of America as racism and excessive commercialism. Nevertheless, since the 1960s, Canada has been swept up in a surge of progressive development that in retrospect appears ineluctable. The author examines various “turning points that failed to turn” – virtually all of which have turned out to disfavour the Canadian Right.
The first and probably most important turning point was the federal election of 1963, where the staunch Tory John Diefenbaker was defeated by Liberal Lester B. Pearson. As Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Parkin Grant tells the tale, Diefenbaker was swept from office with the assistance of all of the managerialist and pollster expertise of the capitalist North American classes, who resented Diefenbaker’s refusal to accept U.S. nuclear weapons in Canada. Pearson introduced a major series of transformative reforms – the most crucially symbolic of which was the replacement of the Canadian flag in February 1965. The traditional Red Ensign (with the coat of arms of Canada and with the Union Jack in the upper left corner) was replaced by an abstract looking red maple leaf, with a red-and-white flag suggestive of a Liberal Party logo. For political scientists, the replacement of a country’s flag is often seen as symbolic of “regime change”. The message of the flag change was cemented by the celebration of the Centennial of Confederation at Expo ’67 in Montreal, a celebration suffused with progressive imagery, suggesting a “re-Confederation”. Also, the immigration policy was changed by Pearson to the “points system”, which suggested an opening to Third World immigration. Before the 1960s, Toronto was considered as so conservative and British-focussed, it was nicknamed “Tory Toronto”. That was quickly changed by mass, dissimilar immigration, to the point that Toronto now is “the most diverse city on the planet”.
1968, a year of revolutions around the globe, was marked in Canada by “Trudeaumania”. The charismatic Liberal Pierre Elliott Trudeau (later dubbed “the Northern Magus” or “the philosopher-king”) won a huge majority. In 1969, Trudeau legalized abortion and homosexuality. In 1971, he proclaimed Canada a multicultural society, at a time when 96 percent of the population was of European descent. Indeed, the initial definition of multiculturalism was mostly a recognition of non-English, non-French European groups – a definition that was quickly eclipsed in subsequent years by the valorization of so-called visible minorities. Trudeau promoted high immigration from the Third World. He also enacted extensive bilingualism policies, which amounted to a promotion of French.
In the 1972 federal election, Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield fell only two seats behind the Liberals. That election could have gone either way. The election was characterized by extensive “negative campaigning” by the Liberals, such as the famous “football fumble photograph” taken of Robert Stanfield. The New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s social democratic party, declared their support for the Liberals, thus keeping them in power until 1974. In 1974, the Liberals won another majority.
In 1976, Joe Clark was selected leader of the Progressive Conservative party. In the 1979 election, he unexpectedly formed a minority government, winning a plurality of seats in the House of Commons. There were surely better leaders available, who could have avoided Clark’s reputation for bungling. He declared, for example, “that he would govern as if he had won a majority”. He made no effort to attract the six Creditistes from Quebec, who could have upheld a majority in the House of Commons. Joe Clark’s defeat in Parliament on a non-confidence motion in 1979 could have conceivably been won with their support.
In the 1980 election, after Trudeau came back from a supposed retirement, the Liberals won another majority. They were able to bring in the Constitution Act, 1982, most importantly encompassing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Trudeau called this “patriating the Constitution”. Considering that Canada had been given full self-government through the Statute of Westminster (1931) it was far from clear that this “patriation” was even necessary. The Charter was characterized by both its supporters and critics as a virtual coup d’état. It basically set up nearly all of Trudeau’s most cherished principles as the highest law of the land. It also set the stage for an “activist judiciary”. In contrast to the United States, one would have been hard-pressed to find even one designated conservative on the Canadian Supreme Court.
Joe Clark clung on to the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party, but it was clear his days were numbered. Forced to call a leadership convention because of weak support in a leadership review vote, Joe Clark continued to put himself forward as a candidate for the leadership. In the amazing dynamic of a leadership convention based on delegates, Brian Mulroney rather than John Crosbie won the leadership. Much of Mulroney’s success was due to Joe Clark’s clinging on to the bitter end, rather than, for example, throwing his delegates to Crosbie. It was a fateful choice. Although, in 1983-1984, Mulroney, with a few well-timed statements, allowed the mantle of a “right-winger” to fall on him (probably feeling that it could help him in the oncoming federal election) once in office he governed with an unusual timidity. Indeed, in an ironic reversal of Joe Clark, Mulroney governed as if he had won a minority government, rather than one of the largest majorities in Canadian history. One of the most non conservative things Mulroney did was to raise the immigration numbers to a quarter-million persons a year, whereas they had actually fallen to 54,000 in Trudeau’s last year in office in 1983-1984). By now 75 to 80 percent of the immigration was from the Third World.
So-called “small-c conservatives” (or substantive conservatives) had had enough of Mulroney. Indeed, in the 1980s, they were frequently derided, both inside and outside the party, as “cashew conservatives”, that is “right-wing nuts”. Mulroney had also snidely said that “all the ideological conservatives in Canada could probably fit into a telephone booth”.
In November 1987, Preston Manning co-founded the Reform Party of Canada – which was initially based solely in Western Canada. The party played a negligible role in the 1988 federal election, which Mulroney had framed as a referendum on Free Trade with the U.S. Actually, while it is considered Mulroney’s main “right-wing” accomplishment, Free Trade with the U.S. had traditionally been opposed by the Conservatives (who looked to Britain), and supported by the Liberal Party. Ironically, John Turner, the Liberal leader, who was patriotically arguing against the Free Trade deal, could be seen as more of a traditional conservative than Brian Mulroney. Nevertheless, the Progressive Conservatives won a majority in the 1988 federal election.
The time of reckoning for the Mulroney Progressive Conservatives would come in the 1993 federal election, when, under the leadership of Kim Campbell, they won only two seats. They were caught between the rise of the Reform Party in Western Canada (52 seats), and the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec (54 seats). The Liberals won a majority under Jean Chrétien. The Reform Party had become a Canada-wide party by 1991.
As soon as they had entered the federal Parliament, the Reformers were making overtures to the federal P.C.s, to absorb that now-tiny party. However, the Liberal Party and the media encouraged the federal P.C.s to hang on. In 1996, when the federal P.C.s seemed close to dissolution, the Reformers marched straight into a Liberal Party ambush over gay rights. A Reform M.P. was quoted making some inflammatory comments about “having gays or blacks work at the back of the store” and the characterization of Reform as the “party of bigotry” became widely circulated. Indeed, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien went so far as to compare the Reform Party to the Ku Klux Klan!
The failure of the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum – which came within a fraction of a percentage of success — was another turning point which failed to turn. Ironically, the success of the referendum could have had a profoundly conservatizing effect on English-speaking Canada, as it would have betokened the failure of the long-standing Liberal vision of Canada. Presumably, Preston Manning would have been in a good position to pick up a majority of seats in English-speaking Canada, should an election have been held in the wake of the referendum.
In 1998, Preston Manning began a “re-branding” initiative within the Reform Party, called “the United Alternative”. However, Joe Clark won the leadership of the federal P.C.s in that year, and he stubbornly held out against any partnership with the Reform Party. As a result of the United Alternative, the Reform Party was re-named the Canadian Alliance, or, more fully, the Canadian Reform and Conservative Alliance. This was another example of conservative bungling with the initial name, Canadian Conservative and Reform Alliance – or “C-CRAP” as it was dubbed by the Liberals and media. The Canadian Alliance was opened up to a leadership selection process. The former Alberta Treasurer, Stockwell Day, rallied so-called “social conservatives” to wrest the leadership away from Preston Manning. Stockwell Day gave the impression of being a young, dynamic leader.
However, Joe Clark still refused to come on board with the Canadian Alliance in the 2000 federal election. It could be argued that Stockwell Day had a real chance of winning the 2000 federal election, before a flurry of “negative campaigning” by the Liberal Party. The Canadian Alliance was accused of being “a haven for Holocaust-deniers, racists, and bigots”. Stockwell Day was also personally accused of being “a fundamentalist Christian extremist”, and the label stuck with many voters. A Liberal political operative made great fun of Stockwell Day’s supposed belief in the divine creation of Earth six thousand years ago. In the 2000 federal election, the Canadian Alliance received a quarter of the popular vote, winning 66 seats, 64 in Western Canada, and two in Ontario.
In 2001, the constant sniping at Stockwell Day by the Liberal Party and the media, induced a caucus revolt in the Canadian Alliance, which at one point encompassed thirteen M.P.s. Stockwell Day was forced to call for a leadership election. Although Stockwell Day ran as a candidate for the leadership, it was Stephen Harper who won the leadership in 2002.
Joe Clark finally having retired from the leadership of the federal P.C.s, the stage was set for the merger between the Canadian Alliance (led by Stephen Harper), and the federal P.C.s (led by Peter MacKay), which was finalized by December 2003. In an electrifying move, the adjective “progressive” was dropped from the name of the new party, now simply being called the Conservative Party of Canada. The new party immediately became more competitive on the federal scene. Stephen Harper won the leadership of the new Conservative Party. In the 2004 federal election, the Liberals under Paul Martin, Jr. were reduced to a minority government.
The Liberals were basically clinging to power for most of their tenure in government under Martin, for example, resorting to the defection of Belinda Stronach from the Conservatives, to avoid falling to a non-confidence motion. But in November 2005, the Liberals were finally defeated in Parliament, when the NDP joined in to vote against them. In the ensuing federal election of 2006, Stephen Harper won a minority government. He kept himself in power by pursuing mostly moderate, centrist policies. In 2008, Harper himself called an election, and won a stronger representation, although a majority still eluded him. In 2011, the Conservatives were defeated in Parliament. However, Harper finally won a majority in 2011. This was the first putatively conservative majority since that won in 1988.
Harper continued with largely centrist policies, although he had won a majority, thus disappointing many “small-c conservatives”. Indeed, in the area of immigration policy, the high levels apparently set in stone since Mulroney, continued unabated. The arrival of a Conservative majority government in 2011 (after two minority governments) failed to see any significant enactment of substantively conservative policies, despite the frequently overheated rhetoric of its liberal opponents. Indeed, dozens of books highly critical of Harper appeared shortly before the 2015 federal election, accusing him of trying to establish a “dictatorship”.
Ironically, in the 2015 federal election, the NDP under Tom Mulcair, actually appeared to be more centrist than the Liberals. Justin Trudeau, the son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, won by appealing to young people and minorities, many of whom had never voted before. Indeed, the Conservative vote in the 2015 federal election was only slightly numerically smaller than in the 2011 victory – but they were swamped by the new Liberal voters. When the campaign began, the NDP was in the lead, so one might have theoretically seen an NDP government that was more centrist than the Liberals, winning the election. However, the NDP’s centrist phase did not last long – in the wake of his defeat in 2015, Tom Mulcair was de-selected as leader, and the NDP opted for the trendy Jagmeet Singh to take his place.
Justin Trudeau’s victory in 2015 was a signal for a new progressive surge in Canada, of the overturning of whatever fragmentary conservative measures Harper may have been able to introduce. Indeed, Justin Trudeau declared Canada to be the world’s first “post-national state”. And now, Trudeau is proposing a Digital Charter, to combat ill-defined “hate on the Internet”, as well as establishing a program to give Canadian mainstream media outlets close to six hundred million dollars over six years. This is on top of the yearly 1.3 billion dollar subsidy to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
In the 2017 federal Conservative leadership contest, Maxime Bernier came within a fraction of a percentage point of winning. Had he won, there would have been a united, somewhat more “small-c conservative” Conservative Party contesting the 2019 federal election rather than Bernier’s quixotic People’s Party of Canada initiative.
In the October 2019 federal election the PPC won a mere 1.64 percent of the vote, but the Liberals were able to hang on to a strong minority government – which will probably be supported by the New Democratic Party (NDP) which is even further to the left. Andrew Scheer’s leadership of the Conservative Party proved uninspiring.
It is deeply disappointing to conservatives, that after all the efforts of the Reform Party and the years in the wilderness between 1993 and 2004, the current Conservative Party still does not appear to be substantively conservative. The Conservatives had been handed “a gift” with the SNC-Lavalin scandal. Two Liberal ministers had resigned over the scandal, and ran as Independents – one of whom (Jody Wilson-Raybould) won. An MP also left the Liberal Party, to sit as an Independent, but she did not run in the October 2019 federal election. The scandal also forced the resignation of Justin Trudeau’s closest adviser, as well as of the Clerk of the Privy Council (Canada’s most senior bureaucrat). Another “gift” to the Conservatives was Justin Trudeau’s blackface/brownface scandal – but in the event it had comparatively little impact on the election outcome.
It should also be remembered that decades of progressive dominance have eroded much of the conservative social base in Canada, and the principles which people who call themselves “conservative” typically hold. The progressive governments have usually consciously and deliberately practiced “activist”, “transformational” politics, whereas most of the conservative governments have confined themselves to administrative tinkering.
Indeed, given the progressive dominance in the mainstream media, the education system and the academy (from early childhood education to post-graduate studies), likewise in the government bureaucracies, the judiciary, the various cultural industries and the large corporations and banks, it is clear that any “small-c conservative” tendencies are continually being ground down. Indeed, the resources available to progressives outweigh those available to substantive conservatives, by astronomical factors.
While social liberalism has become entrenched in Canada, this goes hand in hand with economic conservatism and a plutocracy. It is social conservatism that has virtually no register on the Canadian political scene. This combination – social liberalism and economic conservatism — has been characterised by certain critics as “woke capitalism”. Multiculturalism, alternative lifestyles, as well as the consumption society and an economy of never-ending growth, have all become unquestionable.
Whenever an opportunity for the Right to score a major victory in Canada arose, it almost always became a fateful fork in a road not taken. The result of this ongoing failure is that the Canadian polity has become seriously unbalanced. With the passing years, it becomes less and less likely that any kind of substantively conservative party will ever come to power in Canada. Also, the unceasing mass, dissimilar immigration, is decisively transforming Canada. To have such one-sided politics is a contradiction of Canada’s longstanding traditions and history, as well as of democracy itself.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher