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Another viewpoint.

At the beginning of November, I was driving through the interior of British Columbia, fairly high in the mountains, overlooking a lake--spectacular landscape of course. There was also quite a spectacular windstorm blowing across the lake. There were huge whitecaps. Then, as we drove by a stand of aspens, there was a blizzard of golden leaves streaming across the highway--also a spectacular scene. As we drove further into a dryer landscape, there was sand, tumbleweed, tree limbs, and finally, whole trees blowing across and onto the highway. That's when we opted for an early motel.

I don't think I'm exaggerating if I say we are looking at a similar kind of landscape and potentially similar weather in Canada's political scenery. Anyone who keeps up with the news or who has ever travelled to countries beyond Canada knows that we have a spectacular political system. What? Dull old Canada, you ask? Yes. In political systems, dull can be a very fine adjective. When I was in Bolivia a few years back, our guide pointed out the Cathedral, the Federal Legislature, and the Presidential Palace, all in one closely built square. Bombs, he told us, were planted--and damaged the buildings--in that square on average once every presidential term. Now that's exciting politics!

No, Canada has a respectably dull political system based soundly and deeply in that dull old principle: the rule of law. And I, for one, am very pleased with that. Our idea of a palace coup is for one Minister of the federal Cabinet to quietly scoop up all the memberships in a party before anyone else starts campaigning, and so to assure himself of a 95% vote at a leadership convention. And so, on December 12, Prime Minister Paul Martin, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada takes charge of the country.

Yes, but that's barely a political ripple, hardly a whitecap or windstorm, you object.

I'm not so sure. Lester Pearson, Prime Minister from 1963-1968, was noted for many things, not least for recruiting to the Liberal Party and bringing to Ottawa the "three wise men" from Quebec: Jean Chretien, first elected in 1963; Gerard Pelletier, first elected in 1965, and Pierre Trudeau, first elected in 1965. Along with John Turner, another Pearson recruit, these men all carried the tradition of Pearsonian Liberalism--a Liberalism, based on equality rights, bilingualism, social justice and the just society, active involvement in foreign affairs, constitutionalism and a high respect for the rule of law.

I am not suggesting that Paul Martin's Liberalism is not characterized by those qualities. Frankly, I don't know. I have only seen him in action as a fiscally conservative Finance Minister. But he was first elected in 1988, into opposition under Brian Mulroney, and has only served in Cabinet under Jean Chretien, a man he was neither always in agreement with nor fond of. Thus his experience of federal governing Liberalism is quite different from that of Trudeau or Chretien, although he does carry the lengthy heritage of his father's time in Parliament. In any case, Paul Martin, Jr. becomes Prime Minister on December 12, and I don't have any clear idea of what his kind of Liberalism will be.

However, that's not the only zephyr of change sweeping the Canadian politico-scape. Jack Layton seem to be creating movement in the New Democratic Party, perhaps by presenting himself as something like Eel Broadbent Light--in this time of multiple versions of everything. If my memory serves me at all well, it strikes me that Ed Broadbent was the last leader of the NDP who was able to balance the strengths of labour with the strengths of the more populist, and perhaps theoretical, left. If Layton is able to provide a similar balance he may win back some of the more left-wing Liberals as well as some of the populists who wandered toward the Reform Party some elections ago.

But possibly the biggest gale blowing across our federal politics is the (at time of writing) still potential merger of the Progressive Conservative Party with the Reform Conservative Alliance to form something called The Conservative Party.

Now this is not the first time something like this has happened: "The Progressive Movement in the West was dual in origin and nature. In one aspect, it was an economic protest; in another it was a political revolt. A phase of the agrarian resistance to the National Policy of 1878, it was also, and equally, an attempt to destroy the old national parties" (Prophecy and Protest: Social Movements in Twentieth Century Canada, 1975).

Yes, those two national parties--not surprisingly known as the Liberals and Conservatives--had begun to alienate the western farmers within 11 years of Confederation ... before most of the prairies were part of Canada or inhabited by many farmers! I could go on to detail more examples of the phenomenon, but suffice it to say that whenever one western populist protest party (e.g., United Farmers Party) dies, another rises to take its place--and to take its views to Ottawa. The federal election of 1921 was fought largely on the merits of protectionism and tariffs (supported by the Conservatives), free trade (sup ported by the Progressives) and free trade for those that need it, tariffs for those that need them (supported by the Liberals under Mackenzie King). While the Liberals won that election, the Progressives came second with 65 seats. Unwilling to sacrifice their principles by allying with the Liberals or by taking on the role of official opposition, that was the high point of the Progressives. After that, they dwindled until the remains of the Progressives joined with the Conservatives partly to fight off allegations that they supported the Ku Klux Klan and partly to fight together for the maintenance of the British and the protestant nature of Canada.

The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada with which we are currently familiar--the party of John Diefenbaker and Joe Clark--has, however, long since left behind the elements of prejudice in its history and embraced the equality. Indeed, Diefenbaker brought in the Canadian Bill of Rights, which though less legally effective than the later Charter, certainly invoked many of the same basic values:

"1. It is hereby recognized and declared that in Canada there have existed and shall continue to exist without discrimination by reason of race, national origin, colour, religion or sex, the following human rights and fundamental freedoms, namely,

* the right of the individual to life, liberty, security of the person and enjoyment of property, and the right not to be deprived thereof except by due process of law;

* the right of the individual to equality before the law and the protection of the law;

* freedom of religion;

* freedom of speech;

* freedom of assembly and association; and

* freedom of the press"

However, despite rejecting motions at conventions to join forces with the Canadian Alliance; despite having a leader who made an agreement never to join with the Alliance in order to be voted leader, the PC Party is (at time of writing) getting ready to vote on an agreement to merge.

Much of the Agreement-in-principle on the establishment of the Conservative Party of Canada is unobjectionable: among the founding principles of this new Conservative Party of Canada is

"A belief in the equality of all Canadians". Other founding principles, however, seem to me to use weasel words to create the potential for inequality:
 "A belief that English and French have equality of status,
 and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions
 of the Parliament and the Government of Canada"

--Only in the Government of Canada? That sounds like an end to bilingualism in provincial governments, hospitals, schools, and other institutions where it has been.
 "A belief that the best guarantors of the prosperity and
 well-being of the people of Canada are:

 The freedom of individual Canadians to pursue their
 enlightened and legitimate self-interest within a competitive

 The freedom of individual Canadians to enjoy the fruits of
 their labour to the greatest possible extent; and

 The right to own property;"

Hmmmm? To me that suggests a survival of the economically fittest that does not accord with all persons' "security of the person"; a Canada where the prosperous are more equal than others.
 "A belief that it is the responsibility of individuals to provide
 for themselves, their families and their dependents,
 while recognizing that the government must respond to
 those who require assistance and compassion;"

Respond to? Anti-squeegee laws and anti-panhandling laws of governments like Mike Harris' Ontario respond to those who require assistance. Allowing people only two years of social assistance out of five as in Gordon Campbell's British Columbia responds to the poor and the vulnerable. Pity the individual without a family to take care of him or her should a party with this as a founding principle become the national government.

This agreement I fear carries with it the winds of the old--parties that embraced principles of exclusion; parties that wanted to preserve the British heritage in the face of massive immigration.

Today we are watching a changing of the political landscape. New and largely unknown leaders head the NDP and the Liberals. Should the Progressive Conservative Party and the Canadian Alliance carry through their merger, there will also be a new old political party, definitely with a new leader. Canada will once again have three major parties; an unequivocal right, a similarly determined left, and Paul Martin's Liberal middle. To me, that looks like a decrease in our political choices ... and a change that carries with it the possibility of some very stormy political weather ahead.
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Title Annotation:Canadian political landscape
Author:Mildon, Marsha
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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