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Harried without quarter: social conservatism in Canada since 1965.

The 145th Anniversary of Canadian Confederation (1867) is being celebrated on July 1, 2012. What is frequently downplayed today is that the two main historical nations of Canada (the British and the French) had a history that stretched back many centuries before the founding of the Canadian State in 1867. What is also downplayed is that the last forty-five or so years of Canadian history and their unfolding political, social, and cultural developments have been drastically different from the preceding one hundred years.



The fact is that Canada was established in 1867 as a profoundly conservative country. Until 1896, Canada was dominated by an alliance of the Conservatives of English-Canada and the "Bleus" of Quebec. After 1896, Canada has tended to elect Liberal federal governments, but it was--until 1963--dominated by a so-called "traditionalist centrist" or "centre-traditionalist" consensus, in which all the major parties shared. While they significantly differed on economics, the main parties all tended to be socially conservative.

William D. Gairdner and Ken McDonald are two prominent socially conservative critics of post-1965 Canada. They have argued that as a result of what Gairdner has called the post-1965 "regime change" (and what McDonald calls "the Trudeau revolution") social conservatism has become increasingly marginalized and lacking representation in Canada. Social conservatism focuses on upholding and valourizing traditional notions of family, religion, and nation; a strong work-ethic; and strict law-and-order.


The federal elections between 1963 and 1980 were the most crucial for the future trajectory of Canada. Based on rock-solid support from Quebec, Trudeau was able to win the federal elections of 1968, 1972, 1974, and 1980. It was only in the 1968 election, when "Trudeaumania" swept the country, that he won a majority of seats in English-speaking Canada. He was also, importantly, supported by the New Democratic Party in 1972-1974.

One of the main reasons for the attenuation of social conservatism in Canada has been the downplaying of that outlook within the Progressive Conservative federal and provincial parties--who mostly, after the 1960s,--had become so-called "Red Tories."

Nevertheless, there were more positive senses of "Red Toryism". As seen in the thought of Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Parkin Grant, it was essentially what could be characterized as a "social conservatism of the Left". The more positive senses of "Red Toryism" have also been downplayed in Canada, in favour of opportunistic, pedestrian outlooks, especially as typified by Joe Clark, who was briefly Prime Minister of Canada for nine months in 1979-1980 (and leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives between 1976-1983).

Joe Clark has appeared to act as a perennial "spoiler" of any possibly successful initiatives of the centre-right. For example, between 1998-2003, when he was again leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives, he obstinately refused to enter into an alliance with the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance.

In 1998-2000, the Reform Party had undertaken a "United Alternative" process designed to create an alliance with the Progressive Conservatives. It renamed itself as the Canadian Alliance (the full name of the new party was the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance). It was only when Joe Clark left the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives in 2003 that a successful merger took place, creating the new Conservative Party (significantly without the adjective "progressive.")

There were a few sporadic moments since 1965 when social conservatism tried to re-assert itself. Among the most notable of these were the founding of the Reform Party in 1987, and its eventual rise to Canadian prominence in the 1993 (52 of 295 seats) and 1997 (60 of 301 seats) federal elections. Another moment when social conservatism was perceived as prominent was in the selection of Stockwell Day as the leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2000. Although Stockwell Day began well, he was increasingly derided by most of the Canadian media as a "fundamentalist Christian extremist"--which buried his chances of winning the November 2000 election (the CA won 66 of 301 seats).

Mostly lacking an infrastructure outside the nominally right-wing political parties, social conservatism was tied to the vicissitudes of party politics--where it was just one of many factions. Socially conservative notions have also been generally overwhelmed by the antinomian "North American" pop-culture and the consumer society.


In the federal Parliament, the Liberals were reduced to a minority government in 2004 while the Conservatives won minority governments in 2006 and 2008, and finally a majority government in 2011. Looking at the current federal Conservative government of Stephen Harper, it cannot be said that social conservatism is having any impact today. For example, Harper has said many times that he will not be re-opening the abortion and same-sex marriage issues. He does seem to be willing to offer some support to marriage and the family, for example, through tax credits to parents. He also seems to be trying to re-introduce some elements of a more traditional patriotism in Canada--such as the cherishing of the Monarchy and the military.

Not having enjoyed much success through party politics since 1965, the possible re-assertion of social conservatism through the building up of a think-tank infrastructure can be seen as only a very remote possibility in Canada. Social conservatism is extremely isolated in what has become an ever more anti-traditional and antinomian Canada. There are, indeed, vast infrastructures of social liberalism in Canada - most of the mass media and mass education systems; the "activist judiciary" (which some critics have called "the Court Party"); most of the "official" Canadian culture; and most of the governmental administrative apparatus. The monetary and societal resources available to social liberals outweigh those available to social conservatives by astronomical factors.

Indeed, Canada is quite likely to follow all the current-day trajectories, to become an increasingly "hypermodern" society. In such a society, social conservatism--even if tacitly supported by a not-insignificant percentage of the population --will tend to play less and less of a role. The continuing excision of social conservatism from Canadian politics, society, and culture could be seen as something very anti-democratic--a drastic narrowing and reduction of the possible political, social, and cultural options available to Canadians today.

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and researcher.
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Author:Wegierski, Mark
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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