On February 6, 2014, Stephen Harper celebrated (or at least one presumes that he celebrated) his eighth anniversary as Prime Minister of Canada. Although not an unusually long time in office by Canadian standards, this milestone places him ahead of several prime ministers who left their mark on the country: Mackenzie, Bennett, Diefenbaker and Pearson to name a few. By the end of 2014, on the fairly safe assumption that he is still in office, Harper will rank as the most durable Conservative prime minister since John A. Macdonald. Assuming that the next election is in October 2015 and that Harper leads his party into that election, he will have been Prime Minister for nine years and eight months, a term of office exceeded only by Macdonald, Laurier, King, Trudeau and Chrétien. If Harper’s party wins enough seats in that election to keep him in office for a while he will easily surpass Chrétien, who was Prime Minister for ten years and one month.

What does Harper’s successful career to date tell us about the state of Canadian politics in the second decade of the 21st century? Has the centre of gravity of Canadian party politics shifted sharply and decisively to the right? Is Canadian party politics becoming less consensual and more polarized? Are we witnessing the Americanization of our political system? Have the recent changes been so fundamental that we have entered an entirely new party system, our fifth since Confederation, as a former student of the present writer has argued? How significant a figure will Harper appear to be in the evaluations of future historians? How does he relate to the past history of conservatism in Canada? And, to pose the last question as crudely as possible, is he really as bad as the chattering classes of Canada seem to believe he is?

Harper and King: The resemblances

While I cannot definitively answer any of these questions, I will begin the discussion by suggesting that, of the 21 prime ministers who preceded him, the one that Harper most resembles is William Lyon Mackenzie King. Without access to Harper’s private papers, and without the opportunity to have known him personally as a leader, employer or colleague, I can only make this assertion very tentatively, but the similarities are striking and interesting. This is not to say that Harper will last as long in office as King did, an accomplishment that is probably impossible for any democratic leader in the present era. Nor is to suggest that Harper is likely ever to be ranked as the greatest Canadian prime minister, an accolade that was posthumously (and in my opinion erroneously) bestowed on King by a committee of distinguished historians in 1997.1 However, the parallel is worth pursuing.

Even Harper’s worst enemies will probably concede that, like King, he is a skilful and effective politician. Like King also, he is totally lacking in the quality that is nowadays usually referred to as charisma. To say the least, neither King nor Harper could be credited with the oratorical talents of Pericles, Lincoln, Churchill or even Laurier. Neither ever said anything particularly memorable, unless one counts “not necessarily conscription but conscription if necessary” to King’s credit. Neither seemed or seems particularly comfortable talking to ordinary voters, in the populist style of a John Diefenbaker or Jean Chrétien. Both are devout Protestant Christians from middle-class Ontario families. Unlike any of our other prime ministers, both had postgraduate training in economics. Both left politics for a while to work in the private sector, and then returned to become successful party leaders and prime ministers. Even Harper’s reputed fondness for cats and King’s well-documented fondness for dogs suggest a warmer and more sentimental side to their respective personalities than is superficially obvious from their political behaviour.

Most significantly, perhaps, both were successful in reinventing, or at least rebuilding, a party that had fallen on very hard times, and thus prevented a radical change in Canada’s party system. The Liberal Party that King inherited from Laurier in 1919 at the age of 44 had been totally shattered by the issue of conscription, with most of its leading figures outside of Quebec joining Borden’s coalition government. On top of that misfortune, what remained of the Liberal base outside of Quebec was seriously threatened by the sudden rise of the Progressive Party in the west and rural Ontario. By 1921 about half of Canada’s people (Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta) were living under Progressive or United Farmers provincial governments. It might have seemed a safe bet that the Liberal Party of Canada, like its British counterpart, would dwindle away to insignificance over the next few years. That it did not do so is mainly a consequence of the political talents of Mackenzie King.

The Conservative Party of which Harper became the leader ten years ago, also at the age of 44, seemed in an equally sorry state. The Progressive Conservatives, after winning back-to-back majorities under Brian Mulroney, had been reduced to a humiliating total of two seats in 1993 under the hapless Kim Campbell. Preston Manning’s Reform Party, like the Progressives in King’s era, had flared up suddenly out of the west, but with the difference that its gains were mainly at the expense of the Tories rather than the Liberals. Making little headway in Ontario, the Reformers adopted the new label of Canadian Alliance, but stumbled under the inept leadership of Stockwell Day. The Progressive Conservatives had rebounded modestly from the nadir of 1993 but their strength was concentrated mainly in Atlantic Canada. Harper’s achievement was to weld these two right-of-centre parties into a united Conservative Party, led by himself, that could challenge the Liberals. Like King before him, he became prime minister just two years after taking over the party. Again like King, he was able to win a parliamentary majority after five years of leading a minority government.

King and Harper accomplished these feats by appearing moderate, pragmatic, ambiguous and cautious, although certainly not very inspiring. There were no bold and creative but risky initiatives like Laurier’s reciprocity agreement with the United States and creation of a Canadian navy, or Mulroney’s Meech Lake accord, goods and services tax, and Canada-U.S. free trade agreement. All of the above initiatives, it must be noted, were not without merit but all contributed vastly to the electoral defeats of the governments that had introduced them. King and Harper knew and understood that fact and acted accordingly. That this caution on the part of King and Harper was not merely the result of lacking a majority in the House of Commons is suggested by the fact that King after 1926, and Harper after 2011, continued to act in much the same cautious and uninspiring way as before.

Moderate or extreme?

4_flickr-3406663745-original Richard Lewis _ newsteam.co.uk Crown CopyrightIn response to the previous paragraph, some will protest that Harper has moved far to the right of centre, and has contributed to a significant polarization of Canadian politics. In certain respects this is true: to bring the ex-Reformers into a united right-of-centre party he had to throw some red meat in their direction, which his government did through an economically senseless and fiscally irresponsible reduction in the GST and a continuing obsession with crime and punishment, even though crime rates in Canada have been declining for several years. He also abolished the long-gun registry, a well-meaning Liberal initiative that was unpopular in rural Canada and that may or may not have been worth as much as it cost.

In other respects, however, there has been less radical right-wing innovation under Harper than is sometimes attributed to him. The welfare state has continued to operate much as before and the response to the economic crisis that began in 2008, including the rescue of General Motors and Chrysler, was Keynesian rather than hard-line conservative. There was no serious effort to abolish same-sex marriage, although Harper had talked about that issue while in opposition, or to restrict access to abortion. The recognition of the Québécois as a nation, while it was no more than a symbolic gesture, is not what one would have expected from a government of the extreme right. The buildup of our military forces (which I personally support) had actually begun under Paul Martin, and eventually petered out under Harper in response to fiscal realities. Multiculturalism, which the Reformers had criticized, has been enthusiastically embraced by Harper’s government, just as it was by Mulroney’s. (Contrary to conventional wisdom, and as I argue in my latest book,2 multiculturalism is not a Liberal invention; John Diefenbaker has a better claim to be considered its father than Pierre Trudeau.) While some left-of-centre critics have complained about the Harper government’s commemoration of the War of 1812, this criticism seems perverse coming from people who for decades accused Canadian conservatives of being too pro-American.

One area in which Harper does seem extreme is foreign policy – specifically his unconditional support for Israel and his hostility to American efforts to seek détente with Iran. Whether this reflects his religious faith, his political convictions or merely his realization that many Jewish voters could be pried away from their traditional support for the Liberals is not clear. It has complicated his relations with the Obama administration and is almost certainly deplored by Canada’s professional foreign service officers. However, it must be remembered that Diefenbaker, Clark and Mulroney were all more sympathetic to Israel than the Liberals, so Harper is not breaking completely new ground in this area either. Also, there have rarely if ever been warm relations between a Conservative Canadian prime minister and a Democratic administration in Washington.

On the whole Harper has manoeuvred rather deftly between the hardliners who came mainly from the Reform Party and the moderates who are mainly former Progressive Conservatives. There are relatively few ex-Reformers in his cabinet. Of course, his government’s centre of gravity is somewhat to the right of the Liberals, but that is what one expects of a Conservative government. Whether one likes him or not, he has made comparatively few of the blunders (such as Joe Clark’s decision to move our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem) that can quickly undermine a prime minister’s reputation.

Have the so-called Red Tories been permanently eclipsed, and if so, is Harper responsible for this development? Probably no term has been more frequently misused (and overused) in recent Canadian political discourse than Red Tory, and it is well to recall what Gad Horowitz really meant when he invented the term almost half a century ago.3 Genuine Red Tories, who combined reverence for the monarchy and other traditional institutions with misgivings about laissez faire and a willingness to use the state on behalf of the economically disadvantaged, were never in fact very common in the Progressive Conservative Party, although Diefenbaker probably deserved the label. They could also be found in other parties, especially the CCF and NDP. (Horowitz cited Eugene Forsey, a CCF member who later became a Liberal senator, as an example.) Today, however, the term Red Tory is often used to describe Conservatives who combine economic laissez-faire with a liberal position on “social” issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, which is almost the opposite of Red Toryism in the original sense. There are many Canadians who share these characteristics and who vote Conservative, but probably few of them care much about the monarchy. Calling them Red Tories simply confuses the issue. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call them Blue Grits.

Overall, the contrast between Harper’s government and previous Conservative governments has been overstated. Joe Clark (or was it Robert Stanfield?) once observed that no one is as popular in Canada as a former leader of the Conservative Party. Whoever said it first, what he meant was that in retrospect the party’s previous leader always looks better to the liberal intelligentsia than the present one, whatever they thought of the previous one when he actually held the office. This liberal nostalgia, if justified by the facts, would suggest that the party has steadily deteriorated throughout its history, which hardly seems probable. I would concede, however, that the first Conservative leader, John A. Macdonald, was also the best prime minister Canada ever had.

Change or continuity with the past?

Are we entering a new party system? About 15 years ago Kenneth Carty argued that the 1993 election, in which the Bloc Québécois became the official opposition with the Reform Party in third place, marked the beginning of our fourth party system, with the second having begun in 1917 and the third in the early 1960s.4 More recently, Brad Walchuk has argued that the Harper era marks the beginning of a fifth party system. As evidence he cites the rise of social media and the use of the internet for two-way communication; the reliance of parties on financial donations from individual supporters rather than corporations, unions or the state; the establishment of elections on fixed dates, at least in theory; and increasing references to the family in party propaganda.5 These are more profound changes than those of the 1960s (which were not in fact very significant), although the first, obviously, cannot be attributed to Harper or the Conservatives. Whether they are as important as the changes wrought by the conscription crisis of 1917 – or for that matter the depression of the 1930s, which is ignored by both Carty and Walchuk – may be doubted. It is certainly true, however, that the dramatic changes of 1993 were of short duration; the Reform Party has disappeared and the Bloc has dwindled into insignificance. In some ways the emergence of Harper’s Conservative Party as a replacement for the old Progressive Conservatives marks a return to the status quo ante.

Walchuk’s reference to the use of “family” rhetoric is interesting, but what I find even more interesting and significant is the dramatic increase, on both sides of the Canadian-American border, in rhetorical appeals to the “middle class.” Bill Clinton was, I think, the first North American politician to give such prominence to this expression, but the practice eventually spread to Canada, where it is nowadays common to all parties. In November 2013 the Globe and Mail conducted an online poll of its readers in which 80 per cent of the respondents expressed the view that the “middle class” was in decline. What this seems to mean is the perception that incomes are becoming more polarized between rich and poor, with fewer families close to the median income. Be that as it may, people with incomes close to the median are not the middle class – they are the working class. John Porter suggested in the 1960s that a true middle-class standard of living required an income about twice the Canadian average, and that is still true today.6

4_7119599641_a44c5130ff_b_United Nations Photo flickrFlattering the working class by calling them the middle class, a term that originally meant something quite different, may persuade more of them to vote for conservative parties. Implicitly, this practice suggests that the only people who fall below the “middle class” are those who depend on government handouts and pay little or no tax. Left-wing parties or politicians who fail to make the necessary obeisance to the “middle class” can be accused of catering to that (presumably undeserving) group at the expense of the hard-working and the deserving.

This rhetorical sleight of hand is not of course the only or even the main reason for the increasingly conservative tone of North American politics. More important factors are the shift to a service economy and the decline of collective bargaining in the private sector, developments that have lessened the distinctiveness and class consciousness of what used to be called the working class and made it plausible to tag them with the “middle class” label. Furthermore, globalization and the ignominious collapse of Europe’s Communist regimes have totally undermined the credibility of even the modest degree of economic planning and public ownership traditionally associated with the left. In response, left and centre-left parties have redefined themselves by emphasizing issues and policies, such as environmentalism, gay rights and sympathy for Aboriginal peoples, that mainly appeal to people with a university education, and that mainly rely on the courts rather than on parties and elections to pursue their agenda. Right and centre-right parties can therefore mobilize the working class (a.k.a. the “middle class”) against “elitist” liberals who are presumably out of touch with ordinary people.

Does this mean that politics is becoming more polarized? In the United States, yes, but less so in Canada. The current level of partisan polarization in the U.S. Congress is abnormal and unprecedented, which is why its institutions, designed to minimize the influence of “factions,” are working so badly. In Canada, as in other Westminster systems, the parties were always polarized and cohesive, even at times when the ideological differences between them were relatively mild. For example, Conservatives have been accusing Liberals of “socialism” for many decades, and even the Red Tory Diefenbaker indulged in this kind of rhetoric on occasion. Again, the contrast between past and present fades considerably when examined more closely.

In their unsympathetic (and unfinished) biography of Mackenzie King, H.S. Ferns and Bernard Ostry suggested that successful Canadian politicians must cater to, but not exacerbate, the ethnic and cultural cleavages of the country while keeping their eyes on conflicts related to the economy. The politician must decide which kinds of issues, the cultural or the economic, are most prominent at any given moment, while striking a balance between them. Ferns and Ostry concluded that Mackenzie King was a master of this game and that this “explains why he succeeded where men superior to him in many respects and capable of commanding more affection and regard failed.”7

Many things have changed in Canada since the age of Mackenzie King, but much remains the same. Stephen Harper, like Mackenzie King, has understood and mastered the political and social environment within which he operates. There is no need to love him, but it would be unwise to underestimate him.

Continue reading “The Mackenzie King of our time”

Doug Saunders.
The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?

New York: Vintage, 2012.
199 pages.

Doug Saunders, the European bureau chief of the Toronto Globe and Mail, has written an interesting book with the intention of dispelling some of the anxiety about Muslims and their religion that has flourished in North America and Europe, particularly since September 11, 2001. The book is divided into four chapters, each of which is divided into subchapters designated by Roman numerals, and is brief enough to be read in three or four hours. Saunders has previously written a book entitled Arrival City, which deals with the experience of migrants from rural areas who settle in large cities throughout the world, and which is referred to occasionally in the present work.

Islamophobia is a subject that can be approached from different points of view. In various forms it has existed in the Western world at least since 1453, when the expanding Ottoman empire captured the Greek city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and thus put an end to the Byzantine empire. In its modern form it is closely associated with more recent events such as the wars between Israel and its Muslim neighbours, the Iranian revolution of 1979, and of course the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. While these events have kept Islam in the news, large numbers of Muslims have migrated from Asia and Africa to Europe and North America, part of the general mass migration of people from poor countries to richer countries where they can hope to achieve a higher standard of living for themselves and their children.

Saunders’s first chapter, entitled “Popular Fiction,” describes some of the myths and misunderstandings about Muslims that have flourished in the Western world, as represented by an extensive anti-Muslim literature of varying quality, by certain European and American politicians, and also by criminal acts like that of the Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Brievek, whose senseless murder of 77 other Norwegians in 2011 was ostensibly a protest against “multiculturalism.” This chapter provides a useful overview of the anti-Muslim backlash in both its extreme and relatively moderate manifestations. It is unfortunate, however, that Saunders chose to stigmatize two very distinguished scholars, Niall Ferguson and Martin Gilbert, neither of whom has devoted much of his scholarly career to the study of Islam, as “conservative popular historians.” The word conservative has become more an epithet than a useful description of anyone’s political beliefs, and calling someone a “popular historian” is a subtle way of implying that he doesn’t do original research, which is grossly unfair to both Ferguson and Gilbert.

The second chapter, entitled “The Facts,” accounts for nearly half of the book’s pages and is by far the most interesting and important. With facts and figures Saunders convincingly demolishes 13 myths that have contributed to Islamophobia. He demonstrates that Muslims are not going to become a majority of Europe’s population in any foreseeable future; that most Muslim immigrants, like most immigrants in general, want to integrate with their new country of residence; that they are not trying to impose their own religion on the rest of us; and that only a very small minority are religious fundamentalists, extremists or terrorists.

The third chapter, entitled “We’ve Been Here Before,” was of particular interest to this reviewer but proved to be disappointing. Saunders suggests, as I do in my forthcoming book, that parallels can be drawn between anti-Muslim prejudices today and the anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish prejudices that flourished earlier. However, his knowledge of the relevant history is sketchy and his treatment of the subject is superficial. More than four of his eleven and a half pages on anti-Catholicism are devoted to a now-forgotten book called American Freedom and Catholic Power, which appeared in 1949 (a time when there was very little immigration into the United States) and in a revised edition nine years later.

Astonishingly, Saunders fails to mention the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant “Know-Nothing” party, which was formed a century earlier in response to the massive Irish immigration of the 1840s. At their peak the Know-Nothings held 75 seats in the U.S. Congress and controlled the legislatures of half a dozen states. Even before that party existed, and after it disappeared, there were many anti-Catholic riots and acts of violence in the 19th-century United States. Saunders also fails to mention the U.S. presidential election of 1928, in which anti-Catholicism doomed the chances of the Democratic candidate, Al Smith. He even fails to mention the anti-Catholic Orange order, which played such an influential part in 19th-century Canadian politics and still remains an important political force in northern Ireland. On the other hand he cites as evidence of anti-Catholicism a bureaucratic memo about Italian immigrants written by a French Canadian Catholic public servant in the 1950s. The section on anti-Semitism is even briefer (ten pages) and equally superficial, and erroneously suggests that Prussia expelled its Jews in 1885. In fact it expelled 32,000 illegal immigrants, most of whom were Polish Catholics. Jews remained very influential in Prussian life until the Nazis took power in 1933.

The last section of Saunders’ book is called “What We Ought to Worry About” and makes a number of useful suggestions for helping Muslims integrate into North American and European societies. It also provides a sensible reminder that most Muslims think of themselves primarily in terms of their ethnic origin or nationality and that the notion of “Muslims” as a homogeneous category is a Western invention. Like Christians, Muslims include many ethnic groups, a variety of different sects and schools of thought, and great variations in the extent of their religious faith and observance.

Despite its faults this book is well worth reading. Any book that attacks prejudices and encourages different peoples to live harmoniously as neighbours and to settle their differences without violence should be welcomed in these troubled times. In particular, observant Christians, Muslims and Jews should recognize the close kinship among their respective religions, as even George W. Bush pointed out on more than one occasion. Saunders, who is not religious, does not emphasize this fact but it is worth remembering nonetheless.

The Canadian general election of May 2, 2011, was perhaps the most dramatic and surprising general election in 90 years. The closest parallel is 1921, when an entirely new party, the Progressives, won 64 out of 235 seats in the House of Commons and the Conservatives, who had governed Canada for 34 of the 54 years since Confederation, emerged with only 50. But the Progressives’ impressive showing in 1921 proved to be a flash in the pan, partly because they unwisely refused to designate one of their members as Leader of the Opposition. Deeply divided and disorganized, the party lost most of its seats at the next election, and most of its remnants were eventually absorbed by Mackenzie King’s Liberals.

The New Democratic Party, despite its name, is not a new party, having celebrated its 50th anniversary three months after the election, and it is obviously a better organized and more coherent entity than the Progressives ever were. It also won a larger percentage of the seats in the House in 2011 than the Progressives did in 1921 (33 per cent as opposed to 27 per cent), and a larger percentage of the popular vote (31 per cent as opposed to 23 per cent). Most significantly, it has widespread support on both sides of the great divide between anglophone Canada and Quebec. This is something that no “third party” has ever achieved with the possible and short-lived exception of Social Credit in the 1960s, which like the NDP in 2011 won more than half its seats in Quebec in 1962 after failing to make a significant impact there in any previous election.

The question that many Canadians began to ask themselves as soon as the dust of the election campaign had settled was whether the NDP (unlike the Progressives and Social Credit) would actually succeed in consolidating its position as one of two major alternatives in a new party system. The tragic death in August of NDP leader Jack Layton, who was rightly given practically all of the credit for the party’s breakthrough in Quebec, has naturally reinforced this uncertainty, since the NDP has shallow roots in Quebec and its organization there is practically nonexistent. A second question almost automatically arises from the first: What will be the consequences for Canadian government and politics if the NDP does in fact succeed in breaking the Liberal/Conservative monopoly of power that has lasted since the achievement of responsible government in the mid-19th century?

Roots of the NDP breakthrough

If the NDP succeeds, it will be the realization of a dream with deep roots in Canadian history. Even in the 19th century, there were Canadians who argued that the differences between the two traditional parties were essentially meaningless and that a fresh alternative was needed to revitalize the political system and replace the sordid politics of brokerage and patronage with a politics of idealism and reform. The Canada First movement, which existed for almost a decade after Confederation, and the Patrons of Industry, who elected two members of Parliament from Ontario in 1896, were early expressions of this sentiment. So were the occasional Labour candidates who mounted the hustings in the years before the First World War.

Laurier’s acceptance, in practice, of Macdonald’s National Policy for most of his time in office reinforced this discontent, particularly in western Canada. But the First World War was the most important catalyst for change, for at least two reasons. First, it involved the federal state in people’s lives to a greater extent than ever before, with the War Measures Act, military conscription, income tax, wage and price controls, the internment of “enemy aliens,” the sordid manipulation of the franchise in the election of 1917 and the restriction of movement in and out of the country. Second, the coalition between the Conservatives and, outside of Quebec, most of the Liberals persuaded many Canadians that the differences between those parties had been artificial and meaningless all along.

In Britain, where a Liberal-Conservative coalition also formed during the war, the first postwar election saw the emergence of Labour as a major party and the reduction of the Liberals to the status of a minor party. This was seen as a hopeful precedent by Canadian radicals like J.S. Woodsworth, William Irvine and Abraham Heaps. Irvine and Heaps were both born in the United Kingdom, as were M.J. Coldwell, Tommy Douglas and a large proportion of the Canadian labour union activists who championed the cause of a new left-wing party over the next half century. Woodsworth had studied at Oxford, as had other enthusiasts for the idea like Frank Underhill, F.R. Scott, Eugene Forsey and David Lewis.

For such people British politics pointed the way to the future. In a modernizing society the old politics of brokerage and the pork barrel would and should be replaced by what John Porter in The Vertical Mosaic called “creative politics”: a clear choice between the democratic left and the democratic right.1 That was the objective behind the creation of the CCF in 1932, although the CCF incorporated some elements of agrarian radicalism whose roots were more clearly North American. By the 1950s it was clear that the dream of a “cooperative commonwealth” was just that – a dream. In 1958, John Diefenbaker decimated the CCF’s rural base. In 1961 the party was revived in the guise of the NDP, with closer ties to organized labour than the CCF had ever achieved. The NDP largely wrote off the agrarian vote as inevitably Conservative.

At the provincial level the left did manage to form governments: in Saskatchewan for most of the time after 1944, in Manitoba and British Columbia several times after the NDP was formed, in Ontario in 1990 and most recently in Nova Scotia. The NDP remains either the government or the official opposition in each of those provinces, apart from Ontario. Quebec developed its own style of “creative politics” with the Parti Québécois, which for a time claimed to be and really was a social democratic party. But at the federal level success eluded the left, at least until now, and the Liberals remained the dominant party. Occupying the centre of the political spectrum, the Liberals were able to shift their attention from one front to the other as circumstances required. When CCF support surged in 1943, Mackenzie King shifted to the left. When Eisenhower made conservatism respectable in the 1950s, Louis Saint-Laurent shifted to the right. Although the Liberals never actually received 50 per cent of the vote in a general election, their various opponents could never combine against them, and the Liberals usually won.

The Liberals’ success was also based on their ability to shape the public’s perception of the political landscape. Frank Underhill suggested that Mackenzie King, conscious of the fate of the British Liberals, privately regarded the left as the greatest long-term threat to his party. He kept the left at bay by publicly emphasizing the threat of a Tory government and the importance of the Liberals as a bulwark against that possibility.2 H.S. Ferns and Bernard Ostry, in their critical biography of the young Mackenzie King, argued that King always considered the class struggle between left and right as the fundamental issue in politics, but deflected attention from it by emphasizing issues of region, language and ethnicity.3 This interpretation is somewhat different from Underhill’s, but not necessarily incompatible with it, since the Liberals were pragmatic and flexible in their choice of arguments and strategies.

If region, language and ethnicity served the Liberals well for many years, it is somewhat ironic that they contributed largely to the Liberal Party’s decline and fall. Liberal strength on the prairies, where the party won a plurality of seats as late as 1953, never recovered from the impact of John Diefenbaker’s electoral campaigns in 1957 and 1958. In 1980, the year after Diefenbaker’s death, the Liberals famously failed to take a single seat west of Winnipeg, although the CBC declared them the winners with a majority government before the polls had even closed in Manitoba.

Soon after this triumph Pierre Trudeau fatally alienated Quebec, the party’s stronghold since the days of Laurier, by his rash decision to make fundamental changes in the constitution without Quebec’s consent, something that he himself had declined to do a decade earlier. Brian Mulroney won most of Quebec’s ridings for the Conservatives in the next two elections, only to see most of those ridings fall to the Bloc Québécois in six elections after his retirement. These results totally and permanently undermined the Liberal claim, which had previously had some credibility in anglophone Canada, that only a Liberal government could bridge the gap between the “two solitudes.” The Liberals were left with an electoral base consisting of official language minorities, immigrants, the Newfoundland outports and the dwindling number of people who could still be frightened into voting Liberal to keep the Tory wolf from the door.

Consecutive choices of two unappealing party leaders, first Stéphane Dion and then Michael Ignatieff, along with the emergence for the first time of an NDP leader, Jack Layton, who had a real rapport with and understanding of Quebec, finally gave the left the opportunity it had sought for the better part of a century. As in 2006 and 2008, the Liberal Party campaigned in 2011 by demonizing Stephen Harper as a threat to Canadian “values” and urging NDP supporters to cast strategic votes for the Liberals to keep him out of office. The voters ignored this advice. In May 2011 the Conservatives won but the NDP outpolled the Liberals in every province except Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island. In the three largest provinces the NDP won a total of 92 seats while the Liberals took only 20. Most dramatic of all was the outcome in Quebec, where the NDP inherited practically all of the seats formerly occupied by the Bloc Québécois and several that had formerly belonged to the Liberals or the Conservatives. In fact more than half of the victorious NDP candidates were from Quebec.

The perils of a Liberal-NDP merger

Ignatieff’s resignation after he lost his own seat and Layton’s death three and a half months later have left both of the principal opposition parties marking time under interim leaders. What happens next will largely depend on who will lead the two parties into the next election. At the time of writing the front-runners to succeed Layton are Brian Topp, who was close to Layton but is not well-known outside the party’s inner circle, and Thomas Mulcair, a former minister in Quebec’s Liberal government who was the only NDP candidate elected in Quebec in 2008. Both Topp and Mulcair grew up in Quebec and are fluently bilingual, but Mulcair’s support for closer ties or even a merger between the NDP and the Liberals would make him a questionable choice.

The idea of a possible merger between the two parties was discussed to some extent even before the election, the merger between Harper’s Canadian Alliance and Peter MacKay’s Progressive Conservatives in 2003 providing the precedent. The merger scenario appeals mainly to those who are more preoccupied with identity politics and fearful of the alleged social conservatism of Harper’s Conservatives than with the economic and class issues that have traditionally defined the difference between the business-oriented Liberals and the labour-oriented NDP. Insofar as it can be said to stand clearly for anything in particular, the post-Trudeau Liberal party represents the mantra among the affluent metropolitan new middle class: liberal on social policy and conservative on economics. The NDP, on the other hand, still claims to be a social democratic party that favours economic redistribution to counteract the effects of the market economy. Unless they are certain of which side will come out on top, those on either side who consider this distinction important should be very cautious about initiatives to merge the two parties.

But that is precisely where no certainty exists. It is easy, but misguided, to assume that because the NDP currently has more seats in the House of Commons than the Liberals it will dominate any successor party. In the aftermath of Layton’s death, that kind of reasoning may persuade many New Democrats to pursue the merger option as quickly as possible, before the Quebec ridings won under Layton’s leadership are lost. Such a decision is based on a false premise. A historical event in Quebec is worth pondering. In the Quebec election of 1935 the Conservatives led by Maurice Duplessis won 16 seats and the Action Libérale Nationale led by Paul Gouin won 26. The two parties merged to form the Union Nationale, with Gouin naively accepting a tradeoff whereby he would determine the new party’s program while Duplessis would be the leader. The Union Nationale won the next election in 1936 and became, in effect, Quebec’s conservative party. Gouin and his program were soon forgotten. Duplessis was the dominant figure in Quebec politics until his death in 1959.

The lesson is that political experience, sagacity and a certain degree of cynicism count for more in the harsh world of political bargaining than electoral arithmetic, idealism and high hopes. The NDP should be very wary lest the next Liberal leader, whoever he or she may be, attempts to follow the example of Duplessis. Like Duplessis, but unlike New Democrats, Liberals regard programs and policies as means to an end. They will promise to implement any program the NDP is likely to suggest if in return they can get their hands on the levers of power, and on the 59 Quebec ridings represented by New Democrats in Parliament.

In these circumstances, a hasty decision to unite the two principal opposition parties would be a mistake for social democrats. Supporters of unification make much of the fact that the Harper government received fewer than half the votes in the 2011 election, as though that were new in Canadian politics. In fact since the First World War only two general elections, 1958 and (by a very slim margin) 1984 have resulted in one party receiving more than half the votes, yet we have always had one-party governments since 1921 and most of them have held a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. Canada has survived them all and will no doubt survive Harper as well. In fact with ten powerful provincial governments and a hyperactive Supreme Court brandishing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there are strict limits to what any federal government can do, for better or for worse.

Supporters of unification also assume too easily that if Party A receives x votes and Party B receives y votes, a party formed by merging A and B would automatically receive x+y votes. This is not necessarily true, and in fact it did not happen when the Canadian Alliance merged with the Progressive Conservatives. If the Liberals and NDP merged, some Liberal voters would switch to the Conservatives or the Green Party, some NDP voters would switch to the Green Party or the Bloc Québécois, and some from both of the premerger parties might try to form new parties or would not vote at all. Almost certainly the result would be another two-and-a-half party system in which the Green Party, which is not a social democratic party by any stretch of the imagination, would replace the NDP as the perennial minor party. There would be no social-democratic alternative, and single-party governments would continue to dominate Parliament with less than half the popular vote.

A less radical option than merger would be a coalition between the two parties, which might include the Green Party as well. While superficially attractive, this idea raises a number of problems. First, most Canadians are unused to coalitions. It is almost 60 years since the provincial ones in Manitoba and British Columbia ceased to exist, and the one in Saskatchewan between 1999 and 2003 attracted little attention elsewhere. Second, Canadian voters would not be happy, nor should they be, if a coalition was formed after an election in which the coalition option had not been discussed – as was attempted in December 2008. Third, a coalition promised before the election would tend to lock the two parties into a more or less permanent alliance, like the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union in Germany or the Liberal and National parties in Australia, with the same party always being the dominant partner whose leader becomes the head of government. In our system of government the prime minister is far more than the “first among equals,” and the party whose leader holds that office will inevitably dominate the government. A coalition of this kind differs only slightly from an outright merger, and has some of the same disadvantages.

It would be wrong for the post-Layton NDP to assume that it must or should settle for its previous status as a perennial third party, winning occasional concessions from minority governments but never forming a government itself. I fear that some New Democrats secretly find this thankless role more comfortable than any effort to exercise real power and influence. Some of them are probably content with Liberal governments, having persuaded themselves that the Liberals are in some sense a party of the left, and are happy to leave the problem of accommodating Quebec nationalism to someone else. But this would be to betray the hopes that have kept the social democratic option alive, although not always vigorous, from Woodsworth to Layton and beyond.

Next steps for the NDP

Until May 2011 the NDP, like the CCF before it, was fatally handicapped by its total lack of support or influence in Quebec. This ruled it out as a serious contender at the federal level, even though it formed governments in five of the ten provinces at various times. The breakthrough in Quebec was the most important event in the history of the NDP: it finally established the party’s credentials as a serious aspirant to power in our binational and federal country. Canada’s binational nature, and the inability of the CCF and the NDP to deal with it, has been the main obstacle to the left being taken seriously at the federal level. Layton’s last campaign removed the obstacle. If the party can retain and build on the Quebec base that Layton established, it should be able to form a government at the federal level from time to time, just as it does in some of the provinces.

Admittedly, building on this achievement will not be easy, particularly with Layton no longer at the helm. It can be taken for granted that the NDP’s opponents will try to sow discord between the NDP’s Quebec and non-Quebec wings, as shown by the fuss in the media about interim leader Nycole Turmel’s alleged ties with the Bloc Québécois. It can also be assumed that most who vote NDP in Quebec are sympathetic to Quebec nationalism, while most Canadians outside Quebec, including those who vote NDP, have been influenced by years of propaganda against asymmetrical federalism and Quebec nationalism by the late Pierre Trudeau and his disciples. The party should not exacerbate this difference of opinion by overemphasizing the issue, but it should not evade it either.

The immediate goal for the NDP must be permanently to replace the Liberals, in fact and in the minds of Canadians, as the main alternative to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, and indeed the only viable one. This means reducing the Liberals to the status of a minor party, which might be the junior partner in a coalition with either of the major parties but which can never again hope to form a government on its own. This is not to demonize the Liberal Party. It deserves credit for helping to build the Canadian welfare state, albeit usually under pressure from the left, and for other major achievements like bringing Newfoundland and Labrador into Confederation. But the Liberals have served their historical purpose and have little to offer Canadians today. It is time to move on.

At the same time the NDP must do some hard thinking about policy. The party no longer seems to benefit from the expertise of Canadians who could help it to develop innovative and constructive policies, as it did in the past. Too often in recent years it has sought popularity by adopting populist policies that make no sense economically or, in the long run, even politically. For example, its provincial wings in both British Columbia and Ontario opposed the harmonized sales tax, which British Columbians eventually rejected in a California-style referendum. In both the federal and Ontario election campaigns of 2011 the NDP advocated removing the sales tax on home heating fuel, an idea that is not only senseless but also harmful to the environment. In Ontario the provincial Conservatives made exactly the same proposal, which should have embarrassed the NDP but apparently did not. Social democrats in Europe (and in Quebec) recognize the necessity for broadly based consumption taxes to finance the welfare state, while the NDP’s opposition to them encourages the immature and irresponsible attitudes about taxation of which the Tea Party movement in the United States is the most extreme manifestation.

The environment is another area in which clear thinking is needed. The NDP has stirred up opposition to the development of Alberta’s tar sands (and thereby forfeited any chance of a political breakthrough in that province), but its British Columbia wing opposed the B.C. Liberal government’s carbon tax, which is a constructive and efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The federal NDP failed to offer a coherent policy on the environment in 2008, when the Liberals made the environment the centrepiece of their campaign.

It is sometimes argued that social democracy has become irrelevant, that the bread and butter issues of “who gets what, when, how” will somehow take care of themselves in a market economy, or that everyone now belongs to an undifferentiated “middle class” in a postindustrial society. These ideas are not new, and in fact they tend to reemerge in each generation. The term used for them in the 1950s, shortly before the NDP was born, was “the end of ideology.”

Nonetheless, inequality in our society is increasing. Many young people cannot find the jobs for which they were trained, or any jobs at all. Antitax propaganda from the Tea Party movement and other such phenomena has spilled over the U.S.-Canada border and is given a wide audience by commercial talk radio and other media. The welfare state is becoming more costly, but also more essential, while people who could afford to contribute more to its costs resist doing so and force governments to borrow money instead of taxing. Private affluence and public squalor, a term coined long ago by John Kenneth Galbraith, aptly describes our society today. Collective bargaining in both the public and private sectors is under attack. Food banks are ubiquitous, and for the time being are essential. People begging on the streets, a sight that shocked me when I first encountered it in India almost three decades ago, are common in Canadian cities today and seem to be taken for granted as a normal part of life. The condition of our Aboriginal peoples remains a national disgrace, and it is not clear that the self-government proposals favoured by the Assembly of First Nations would improve it, particularly for the majority of Aboriginal people who no longer live on reserves. These problems will not be solved by the courts or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, nor will they be solved by traditional brokerage politics. The NDP is more necessary than ever.

Continue reading “The NDP: Can it break the Liberal/Conservative monopoly of power?”

Some Canadian reflections

Imagine the following scenario. The United States is bogged down in an inconclusive and unpopular war. The Republicans nominate an aging war hero as their presidential candidate. The Democrats select an eloquent and thoughtful man from Illinois who is loved by the liberal intelligentsia but seems to have some difficulty connecting with ordinary Americans. The Republican wins in a landslide.

The reference, of course, is to the first American election that I remember, now more than half a century past. I don’t remember it very well, since I was only nine years old, but the fact that the unlucky Democrat shared my family name did capture my attention. I won’t make any trite comment about history either repeating itself or not repeating itself, particularly as this is written in September. My point is merely that I have been interested in the United States for a very long time, and that makes me a fairly typical Canadian.

Banner Welcome: A sign welcomes returning soldiers at Anchorage airport in Alaska. Taken on June 7, 2008, months before Sarah Palin was introduced to the world as John McCain’s VP candidate at a rally in Dayton.

Canadian attitudes toward the United States have never been simple. Canada was literally founded on anti-Americanism, the one common bond between the American Loyalist refugees who came here after 1776, the Orangemen who arrived from northern Ireland a little later and the Catholic clergy in Quebec. General elections have been fought on anti-American platforms, although the last time this really worked was in 1911. Yet we have never been able to ignore the United States even if we wanted to, and our kind of anti-Americanism, unlike the more robust variety that exists in some European intellectual circles and in the Middle East, has almost always been mixed with fascination and even admiration. I find it significant that three of our best novels (Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, The Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh McLennan and St. Urbain’s Horseman by Mordecai Richler) are built around the lifelong relationship between a rather wimpy and introspective central character and a more aggressive, more adventurous and slightly older man whose colourful and exciting life is viewed from a distance. That is a perfect metaphor for the relationship between Canada and the United States.

My own life has been intertwined with the United States for as long as I can remember. The first books I recall were American: The Wizard of Oz and its many sequels and the wild animal stories of Thornton W. Burgess. My mother’s older brother moved to Illinois shortly before I was born, so I have always had American relatives. I have taken countless vacations in the United States, my doctorate was earned there, I have spent a sabbatical there and my first marriage took place there. It was in the United States that I first saw a diesel locomotive, first watched television, first used a push-button phone and first fed data into a computer (yes, we used them for computing in those days, before e-mail and the Internet existed). I have always preferred baseball to hockey, and no northern lake has ever appealed to me as much as the beaches and salt marshes of Cape Cod, which I visit every summer. At an early age I acquired an interest in American history (perhaps because we didn’t learn about it in school), particularly the history of the Civil War, and I have accumulated quite a library on the subject. Unlike most academics, I even drive an American car – built by the United Auto Workers in Kansas City.

Remembering: Viola Liuzzo, a white woman born in the south, was living in Detroit when she volunteered to help in the struggle for voting rights in 1965. She was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan while driving her car near Selma, Alabama.

Over the course of my life I have visited all 50 of the United States, mainly by car although I have also crossed the country four times by rail and have landed at most of the major airports. I’ve walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and climbed the Pilgrims’ Monument at Provincetown, watched the Cubs at Wrigley Field and listened to jazz at Preservation Hall, visited Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park and the Everglades, Mount Vernon and Monticello, the log cabin where Lincoln was born, the battlefields where Grant won his victories, the church where Eamon de Valera was baptized, the cottage where Franklin Roosevelt died, the Texas School Book Depository and the grassy knoll, and the ballroom where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper gave their last concert. I’ve ridden the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Seward and the cog railways to the tops of both Pike’s Peak and Mount Washington, followed the trail of Martin Luther King from Atlanta to Montgomery to Selma to Memphis, and taken the boat excursion around Pearl Harbor, where the world changed forever on a Sunday morning in 1941. I could say of the United States what Dr. Johnson said of London: if you are tired of it, you are tired of life, for it contains everything that life provides.

Does all this make me a suitable target for investigation by the committee on un-Canadian activities, assuming the next Liberal government decides to establish one? I don’t think so. There are many things I deplore about the United States: capital punishment, the gun lobby, elected judges and prosecutors, the absurd system of tort law and the ambulance-chasing lawyers who feed off it, and the chaotic system of health insurance, to name only a few. I was shocked and repelled by the war in Vietnam (more so than I would have been if the Russians, the French or even the British had done it, since my expectations of the United States were higher) and by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. I needed no urging to return to Canada when I completed my graduate studies shortly after those events. I have read Lament for a Nation many times and am saddened that so few of my students nowadays have read it. And I still prefer Anglo-Canadian spelling to Noah Webster’s version.

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, is where Martin Luther King Jr., was pastor in the 1950’s

For a decade or so after I returned from my years in the United States as a graduate student I was, or thought I was, anti-American, although never to the point of losing interest in what went on south of the border. But that sentiment gradually faded, and a few years ago, when a Liberal MP from Toronto said that she hated Americans, I was shocked. (How could she hate 300,000,000 people? I have difficulty hating even one at a time.) Furthermore, I find it ironic that the most anti-American Canadians today seem to be on the Trudeauvian wing of the Liberal Party. Ironic because the things they revere about Canada – judicial activism, the legalization of political discourse, the proliferation of state-funded special interest groups, and the obsession with gender, ethnicity and “race” – are all essentially American imports (the late Seymour Martin Lipset pointed out when the Charter was adopted that it was the greatest step Canada had ever taken toward Americanization). Even their rigid insistence on a perfectly symmetrical federalism, with no concessions to Quebec, is American, contrasting with the pragmatic British approach to minority nationalisms in Scotland and Wales.

Anti-Americanism will probably always be with us. But whether we like it or not, Canadians cannot ignore what happens south of the border, for the economic, social and cultural ties between our two countries are innumerable and inescapable. Our interest in American politics reaches its peak during presidential election campaigns, as interminable as they seem to have become in recent years. We tend to favour the Democrats over the Republicans, a preference that should discourage the Republicans from ever wanting to annex us. The roots of this attitude go back to the 19th-century Republicans’ anti-British sentiments (understandable given British sympathy for the South during the Civil War) and preference for high tariffs. It was also the Republicans who outflanked our young Dominion by purchasing Alaska in 1867, hoping that British Columbia would soon follow their new acquisition into the Union. The Democrats, on the other hand, entered two world wars as Britain’s and Canada’s ally and built the American welfare state, which was largely the prototype for the Canadian version. In recent years the Democrats have also been perceived as more socially liberal (which is true) and less militaristic (which is not so true) than their Republican rivals.

Dealy Plaza in Dallas, Where President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

So most Canadians, myself included, are cheering for Obama this year. However, some caveats are in order. First, as the base of the Republicans has shifted from north to south, they have ceased to be the protectionist party, and the Democrats, whose base has shifted in the opposite direction, have taken over that position. Second, the foreign policy differences between the two parties are not as great as we like to believe. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden both supported the war against Iraq, and Bill Clinton’s war against Yugoslavia in 1999 was the prototype and precedent for that adventure. Unconditional support for Israel is of course a given in both parties, although Jimmy Carter did finally question it a quarter-century after he left office. Lyndon Johnson, a great liberal president in terms of his domestic policies, was mainly responsible for the disastrous war in Vietnam. Dwight Eisenhower’s famous but often misinterpreted warning against the “military-industrial complex” was actually a warning that the Democrats would spend too much on defence. Eisenhower believed that excessive spending and public debt were greater threats to the United States than the Russians or the Chinese.

The third caveat is perhaps the most important. Canadians have a simplified view of American politics, derived from our own experience with a parliamentary system. The good guys win, take over the White House, and undo all the policies of the bad guys, or vice versa. But the American system does not work that way, and as James Madison explained in The Federalist Papers, it was deliberately designed not to work that way. When the president is elected, so are 435 representatives of congressional districts and one third of the 100 senators, who may or may not support the president on particular issues even if they belong to the same party. Policy, especially domestic policy, is made by bargaining between president, Senate and House of Representatives, as well as a plethora of organized interests, and its implementation is filtered through the 50 states, under the supervision of the courts. So every new policy or program is a compromise, and public policies change very slowly, if at all. Periods of major innovation, such as the Great Society programs of the 89th Congress (1965–67), are few and far between.

Election Night: This statue in Rapid City, South Dakota, depicts Harry Truman holding a Chicago Tribune with the headline announcing, erroneously, that he had lost the 1948 election. The elctoral college can make close electionsdifficult to predict, then as now.

So what does the future hold for our southern neighbour? Canadians have been predicting the doom of the United States for a long time. Twelve weeks before General Lee surrendered, the Montreal Gazette absurdly asserted that the Union was no closer than ever to winning the Civil War. Today some Canadians gleefully look forward to the day when China replaces the United States as the greatest power, although why that should be any cause for celebration certainly escapes my understanding.

But rumours of Uncle Sam’s death, as Mark Twain said of his own, are greatly exaggerated. The current financial crisis, the result of financial deregulation and of excessive lending in the form of residential mortgages, is admittedly serious, and may even provoke a global depression like the ones that began in 1929 and in 1873, but the United States survived those events and will undoubtedly survive the present one also. However, the massive bailout recently authorized by Congress will exacerbate the problem of chronic fiscal deficits, caused by the reluctance of Americans to pay taxes sufficient to support all the tasks performed by the federal government (Americans complain about their taxes as obsessively as Canadians complain about our weather, although with considerably less justification). That problem will continue until American politicians, particularly self-styled “conservatives,” develop the courage to tell American voters that the reckless expansion of the public debt cannot continue forever, and that cutting taxes while fighting two wars is ludicrously irresponsible.

On the other hand some things in the United States are good and getting better. Racism has greatly declined, and a large African-American middle class has emerged. The major cities, with the sad exception of Detroit, are much more lively, attractive and prosperous than they were a generation ago. The homicide rate has been declining for years, although one would never know it from watching television. The universities are by far the best on the planet. Immigration is at the highest level since before the First World War. The number of babies born in the United States in 2007 was the largest in any year since the 1960s, while Japan, Russia and much of Europe face demographic decline.

Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see,” was the refrain of a popular song in the 1950s. The ultimate destiny of the novus ordo seclorum proclaimed in 1776 is still unfolding and, as Zhou Enlai famously said about the consequences of another revolution, it’s too early to tell. Whatever happens, we Canadians will be right next door to watch the action up close, and for that we should probably be thankful. Nations have even less ability than homeowners to choose their neighbours, but ours could be a lot worse – and a lot less interesting.


Official public inquiries backed by public hearings and extensive research are a practice of which Canadians, or at least their governments, seem particularly fond. At the federal level the Rowell-Sirois, Gordon, Dunton-Laurendeau and Macdonald royal commissions, the Pépin-Robarts Task Force and the Mulroney government’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples are among the best known examples. In Quebec the Tremblay, Gendron, Bélanger-Campeau and Larose inquiries have been particularly significant, although there have been others.

Formally these various exercises are derivatives of the British practice of a royal commission, still sometimes used in Canada for its traditional purpose of investigating a disaster or a scandal involving the state. In practice they have a different and even more political function, one which in Britain is more typically entrusted to the bureaucracy and in the United States to a committee of Congress: to explore a contentious area of public policy, consult both the public and the “experts,” and arrive at presumably disinterested recommendations for policy which may or may not find their way into the statute book. Yet as the list above indicates, they at times transcend the normal policy process by exploring the most fundamental issues of national identity and national purpose.

The latest example of this Canadian art form is the Bouchard-Taylor Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences. The commission was established by the Quebec government in the wake of some rather trivial incidents involving complaints either by or against religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Hasidic Jews, which led to a debate about what was termed the “reasonable accommodation” of religious differences. At about the same time the obscure village of Hérouxville adopted a semi-serious “code of conduct” for immigrants (of which it has almost none) which warned them against, among other things, burning or beating women in public. (Whatever its intentions, this document won the village a level of renown, or notoriety, that has rarely been achieved by a community of comparable size.) Viewed in a broader context, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission is a product of the Western world’s growing anxiety about exotic religions since the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It is unlikely that the commission would exist today if that event had not happened.

The document issued by the commission in mid-August to guide the public consultations scheduled to begin about a month later defines the aims of the exercise as exploring the nature and source of cultural conflicts within Quebec and imagining the means of resolving them. It rejects a narrow focus on the legal concept of “reasonable accommodation” in favour of a broader approach, including four main themes which are defined as values and rights, cultural diversity, Quebec’s existing model of intercultural integration, and secularism. (Explicitly excluded, however, is the enormous question of relations with the First Nations.) In an appendix, the document includes definitions of a number of terms related to its mandate.

Although generally bland and uncontroversial, the document contains some dubious assertions and some careless, and not always well-documented, use of statistical data. For example, on page 5 it states that problems associated with cultural diversity are found in a long list of Western nations and to a lesser extent (my emphasis) in anglophone Canada. On page 10 it implicitly uses the term English origin to include Scottish and Irish, and on the same page it makes the questionable (and, given the current methodology of the census, unverifiable) allegation that only 70 per cent of Quebec’s people are of French ancestry. Also on page 10, it states that persons of origins other than “English” or French are probably about 25 per cent of Quebec’s population, but on page 23 it asserts that “ethnic minorities,” whatever that may mean, account for only 12 per cent of the population. The discrepancy is not explained, and perhaps was not noticed by the editors. Perhaps it would have been better to omit all of these numbers.

As I write these lines in early September the commission is already enduring flak from all directions. To some extent, admittedly, it has brought this criticism onto itself by broadening its own terms of reference, as indicated above, beyond what Premier Charest probably intended. Two of these tempests in the teapot are allegations that Commissioner Bouchard made some mildly disparaging comments about the general public’s understanding of the issue and (hold your breath for this one) criticism of Commissioner Taylor for accepting this year’s Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities, a prestigious award from a respected British foundation.

In fairness, not all of the criticism has been as absurd as these two examples. Some of it is based on concern that the public discussion of these issues will exacerbate tensions and conflicts in Quebec society rather than helping to resolve them. Some has come from immigrants, including a woman of Chinese ancestry who was a candidate for the Bloc Québécois in 2006 and who complains that the commission is a conversation among “white men” from which she feels implicitly excluded. Other critics, including Carole Beaulieu, the editor of L’Actualité, and Danic Parenteau, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, have charged that the commission has defined its terms of reference too broadly and is inventing a problem where none really exists, since Quebec has been remarkably successful in integrating immigrants and minorities.

It is too early to state with any assurance whether the commission will achieve anything of value, or indeed whether its creation will prove to have been a good idea. However, at least two observations may be offered at this early date. The first is that Quebec’s existing approach to integrating immigrants and minorities is appropriate and has, on the whole, been successful. The concept of “interculturalism,” developed by the Parti Québécois in the early 1980s, is a middle-of-the-road strategy avoiding the two extremes of Trudeauvian “multiculturalism” on the one hand and the hard-line assimilationist approach of French republicanism on the other. Reinforced by the Charter of the French Language, it has enabled most recent immigrants to integrate successfully into Quebec society and to learn the common public language in which that society functions. This is a significant achievement, comparable to that of the United States which has pursued a similar strategy in far more favourable circumstances.

The second observation that comes to mind is the fundamental shift in the parameters of the debate over diversity and immigration, not only in Quebec but in Canada and to a large extent throughout the Western world. When multiculturalism first became a buzzword in Canada more than 30 years ago, most people still envisaged it in terms of folk dancing, perogies and the perpetuation of heritage languages. In the 1980s, with most immigrants coming from non-European sources, emphasis shifted to the politics of “race,” an orientation reinforced by then-recent memories of the African-American struggle for civil rights in the United States. (It was at this time that the hideous Canadian expression visible minority, since rightly condemned as racist by the United Nations, entered the lexicon.)

The third phase, which may be dated from September 11, 2001, although it had other causes as well, is marked by a growing recognition that religion, a subject that makes many intellectuals nervous but is an elephant in the room that can no longer be disregarded, is really the most important aspect of our diversity. People don’t kill one another, or risk death, for perogies, but religion is fundamental. Even language, while a source of serious conflict in many parts of the world, is less likely to survive among the grandchildren of immigrants than is religion. We have thus returned by a circuitous route to one of the oldest and most complex questions in Western political theory: the relationship between church and state. It is more complex now than previously because the Catholic-Protestant dichotomy that played a large part in the histories of both Canada and western Europe has been replaced by a pluralism in which all of the world’s major religions are now well represented in Canada’s (and Quebec’s) population, although some of them have not really participated in the debate, at least until recently.

Both France and the United States have articulated clear positions on this thorny issue, both of which seem to work well for the countries concerned, although I happen to prefer the American approach. Canada, including Quebec, has not. Although we have never actually had a state church, as in England, Catholicism was given a quasi-official status in Quebec in 1774, and Protestantism, or at least the versions of it that originated in Britain, was almost as hegemonic in the other provinces, as Frederick Vaughan has reminded us in his recent book The Canadian Federalist Experiment.1 There is still a crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly, a fact of which Mr. Boisclair complained when he was leader of the Parti Québécois, and the perennial issue of funding religious schools reared its head again in Ontario’s 2007 election campaign, as it has done with monotonous regularity for almost a century and a half. The recent decision by Elections Canada to let veiled Muslim women vote without revealing their faces, an absurd expression of political correctness that was rightly condemned by almost everyone, is a further reminder of the issue that won’t go away.

Not only Quebecers, but all Canadians, thus have reason to be interested in the work of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. While these two distinguished scholars are not likely to resolve the issue, their contribution to the debate should receive a respectful hearing.

1 Frederick Vaughan, The Canadian Federalist Experiment: From Defiant Monarchy to Reluctant Republic (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).

It is incorrect to state that Canada lacks a melting pot tradition. It arose and gained support at the time a similar tradition was explicitly formulated in the U.S. Its continuity can be traced through John Diefenbaker’s notion of “One Canada” to Preston Manning’s Reform Party. Manning’s view of bilingualism and multiculturalism as special privileges for distinct groups is strikingly reminiscent of Dalton McCarthy’s Equal Rights movement …

Apart from French Canada, two other forces have reinforced the Canadian mosaic. The first was the fact that Canadians of British ancestry wished to retain their British roots and traditions. Not really wishing to become unhyphenated Canadians themselves, they had difficulty persuading others to do so. British Canadians would not trade the rights of Englishmen for the rights of man, or the reflected glories of the Empire for a Canadian identity that might have included their fellow Canadians. The second force was anti-Americanism, as the sociologist S.D. Clark has explained most clearly. In 1950, Clark noted that the frontier had served as a melting pot in both North American countries but that Canadian elites had resisted this tendency so as to preserve the colonial character of Canadian society1 …

In sum, the legacy of Canadian history and the complex character of Canadian society prevented either the melting pot or the mosaic philosophy from gaining hegemony. The former was strong in provincial politics and in populist movements. The latter reigned supreme in Quebec and dominated the two major parties at the federal level, Diefenbaker notwithstanding. The Liberals’ early espousal of a melting pot philosophy came to an end as the populist roots of that party withered away under Laurier’s leadership.

Meanwhile, south of the border, by 1963 two noted students of American ethnicity maintained that the melting pot theory was no longer useful or credible, if it ever had been. In Beyond the Melting Pot, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded that ethnicity had persisted in the U.S. and seemed likely to do so indefinitely, reinforced by race and religion. By the time the second edition appeared in 1970, evidence had accumulated to prove them right.

Multiculturalism: Trudeau’s invention

The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which seemed to mark the triumph of Henri Bourassa’s vision of an equal partnership between two founding peoples, actually contributed to its disintegration. Its public hearings encountered considerable resistance to the notion of English-French duality. The Commission was forced to devote an entire volume of its report to “the contributions of other ethnic groups” in an effort to preserve its own legitimacy. One result of its efforts was to turn French Canadians and “other ethnics,” traditionally allies against the melting pot tendencies of English Canada, into adversaries. The more sophisticated opponents of Quebec nationalism saw their opportunity.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau borrowed from his favourite philosopher, Lord Acton, the idea that a truly liberal state should not be dominated by one ethnic group because it will use its power to oppress other groups and provoke a reactive nationalism on their part. Trudeau viewed French Canadian nationalism, which tried to use the Quebec government for nationalist ends, as a reaction against British Canadian nationalism, which had tried to use the colonial state, and later the federal state, for nationalist ends. But if one group is a majority, how can it be prevented from dominating?

The answer is to have no majority. If no group is large enough to dominate, government will have to be based on compromise, and the evils of “nationalism” will be avoided. (English Canadians were slow to realize that when Trudeau denounced “nationalism,” he meant loyalty to an ethnic group, not loyalty to the state. The different meanings of nation in the two languages caused considerable confusion.)

Official multiculturalism, a policy first proclaimed by Trudeau in the House of Commons on October 8, 1971, thus served several related purposes. It was a quid pro quo to “other ethnics” for the 1969 Official Languages Act. It was a reminder to Quebec nationalists that the French were only one of several ethnic groups. It was a warning against any effort by Quebec to create its own melting pot, an effort already urged by many nationalists (and undertaken a few years later with Bill 101). Finally, multiculturalism was intended to ensure that the Canadian state would never again be an instrument of British Canadian nationalism by dissolving “English Canada” into a congeries of different ethnic groups. If there was no majority, according to this Actonian reasoning, French Canada did not have to worry about being a minority. In a sense multiculturalism was an updated version of the British imperial policy of divide and rule.

Multiculturalism was quickly endorsed by the opposition parties and soon adopted as policy by several of the provinces, with the conspicuous exception of Quebec. One reason for its rapid acceptance was its apparent resemblance to the more familiar notion of the Canadian mosaic. Another was its un-American symbolism, at a time when anti-Americanism in Canada was especially high. Still another was that most non-French Canadians preferred multiculturalism to equal partnership between French and English, including those who would have preferred a more “British” definition of the country. Significantly, the popularity of the concept only began to decline after non-white and non-European groups replaced the Italians and Ukrainians as its most obvious beneficiaries, and the Mulroney government shifted the focus of multiculturalism policy from the dubious notion of encouraging cultural differences to the more praiseworthy objective of combating racism.

Meanwhile, multiculturalism had been entrenched in Canada’s constitution. Section 27 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms directs that “this Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” In his statement of October 8, 1971, Trudeau asserted that in Canada “there is no official culture.” If it is true, this statement apparently does not have a meaning analogous to the statement that in the U.S. there is no official religion. While the U.S. government avoids any involvement in religion, even to the point of refusing to take note of it in the census, the Canadian government is heavily involved in culture, to the tune of more than $1.5 billion annually. Indeed, if there is no official culture, why have a policy? Presumably because the market cannot be counted upon to produce the results that Lord Acton would have preferred.

An even more serious contradiction concerns the concepts of individual and collective rights. In Trudeau’s political thought individual rights have always been of primordial importance, and collective rights viewed with suspicion. Multiculturalism was valued because it allegedly made individual rights more secure, not as an end in itself. Yet multiculturalism, if taken seriously, has undeniable collectivist implications.

These collectivist implications have surfaced most clearly, and most ominously, in the form of demands by various ethnic groups for symbolic and even financial compensation for past wrongs allegedly perpetrated by the Canadian state. First it was the Japanese Canadians protesting against their internment and resettlement during the Second World War. When the government capitulated to their demand for apology and compensation, Chinese Canadians demanded similar redress for a tax on Chinese immigration imposed a century earlier. Then Italian Canadians demanded compensation for the internment of suspected fascists (about 1 per cent of the Italian-Canadian population) during the Second World War. After Mulroney apologized for that episode, Ukrainian Canadians demanded compensation for the internment, during the First World War, of some of their ancestors who had emigrated from Austria-Hungary. Even a group of Franco-Ontarians is trying to take the government of Ontario to court for “cultural genocide.” Note that in the nature of collective rights, no injury to actual living persons need be claimed, much less proved.

Even the most vehement supporters of official multiculturalism are beginning to resist the financial implications of such demands. In December 1994, one week after denouncing Neil Bissoondath’s critique of multiculturalism, Sheila Finestone, Minister of State for Multiculturalism and Trudeau’s successor as Mount Royal MP, announced that the government would no longer consider financial redress for any wrongs inflicted on ethnic groups by previous governments. The government, she said, could not rewrite history. Spokesmen for the Chinese, Italian and Ukrainian ethnic lobbies reacted angrily.

The pot that didn’t melt

While all this has been going on in Canada, there have been parallel developments in the U.S. The word multiculturalism has surfaced also to become a subject of great controversy. As in so many other respects, the two countries appear to be converging, even as Canadians turn a blind eye to the fact and insist on their own distinctiveness.

The publication of Beyond the Melting Pot in 1963 coincided with the end of an era in U.S. ethnic relations. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought his campaign for Afro-American civil rights to Birmingham, Alabama, and President Kennedy brought civil rights to centre stage in his administration. Kennedy’s civil rights legislation would be adopted in the following year, and Johnson’s Voting Rights Act a year later. Increasingly, however, Afro-American militants replaced the original goals of “integration” and “civil rights” by “Black Power,” collective rights and quasi-separatism. They contended that Afro-Americans would continue to be, as they always had been, excluded from the melting pot, that integration would, at best, benefit a relatively small black middle class. Instead, they emphasized their African “roots” and alleged cultural distinctiveness vis-à-vis white America …

Perhaps the most significant developments in ethnic relations in the U.S. involved the so-called “Hispanic” population. Like the Canadian term francophone, Hispanic is a generic term covering a number of distinct groups, which include Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans and the indigenous “Chicano” element in the southwest which predates the acquisition of the territory from Mexico in 1845. Largely because of rising immigration, legal and otherwise, “Hispanics” are increasing much more rapidly than the population as a whole. Following the example of Afro-Americans, they have come to expect a proportionate share of political appointments and nominations and of access to education and opportunity. Perhaps more ominous demands include bilingual or Spanish-language education, which already exists in some areas, and the availability of Spanish-language services from all three levels of government.

The erosion of the melting pot concept has also been reflected in the census. The 1970 census was the first to attempt to determine the total number of “Hispanics,” although Mexicans had been counted separately since 1930. In 1980, the U.S. census for the first time followed Canada’s example of asking ethnic origin.

Even the expression multiculturalism has entered the American vocabulary, although with no acknowledgement of its Canadian origins. Jesse Jackson in his attempt to build a “rainbow coalition” was perhaps the first prominent politician to use the term, but since that time it has become generally familiar. On the other hand, the term melting pot has largely acquired connotations of forced assimilation or even racism and is rarely used by Americans except in a hostile or ironic sense. Bilingual education, which was widespread before the First World War, has been revived in many states and been subsidized by the federal government since 1968 …

In actual fact there has probably been more resentment among Afro-Americans than among Euro-Americans against the new multiculturalism. Increasing emphasis on the goals of Hispanic Americans has tended to deflect attention away from the still unresolved problems of Afro-Americans. The social and economic progress of some relatively recent immigrants, as contrasted with African Americans, has not failed to attract attention. (Canadians may recall the reaction in Quebec when the Dunton-Laurendeau commission revealed the fact that French Canadians ranked near the bottom among ethnic groups in average income.) Resentment seems to focus specifically on certain immigrant groups, notably the Koreans who often operate small stores and other businesses in neighbourhoods with large Afro-American populations.

Increasingly ethnicity in American life is being defined as a zero-sum game between Euro-Americans, Afro-Americans, Asian Americans and “Hispanics.” (The fact that the last of these is a linguistic rather than a racial classification and thus overlaps with the others is usually disregarded.) Jesse Jackson notwithstanding, the rainbow coalition is a long way off.

Where do we go from here?

Clearly the two North American federations have far more in common so far as ethnicity and ethnic politics are concerned than the traditional stereotypes would suggest. The ideological partition of the continent in 1783, and the fact that French was originally, and rather ironically, the predominant language on the “British” side of the new boundary, led to some significant differences, differences sustained by the fact that Canada encouraged large-scale immigration from continental Europe during most of the period when the U.S. restricted it under the quota system. But developments since the 1960s have caused the two countries to converge.

The Quiet Revolution in Quebec and the civil rights revolution in the southern states gave ethnic questions a prominent place on the political agenda at the same time as the increasing weight of immigrants of non-European background altered the ethnic composition of the cities of both countries. The result has been increased emphasis on ethnicity and friction between the traditionally contending groups: English and French in Canada, Whites and Blacks in the U.S. French Canadians and Afro-Americans have on balance been more hurt than helped by the new emphasis on the problems and objectives of immigrant groups.

A recent study by two of Canada’s leading sociologists presents strong evidence of convergence, undermining the contrasting stereotypes of melting pot and mosaic.2 Jeffrey G. Reitz and Raymond Breton examined attitudes toward the retention of minority cultures, the degree to which minorities actually retain their cultures, the extent of prejudice and discrimination, and the incorporation of ethnic minorities in the economy. They found few significant differences between Canadians and Americans. Furthermore, one that they did find contradicts the stereotype: Americans were more supportive of cultural retention by minorities than Canadians, not less.

Some significant differences remain. Quebec has no counterpart in the American federation, although this could change in the long term if one or more southwestern states become predominantly Spanish-speaking. And Canada, largely because of its determination to resist absorption by the U.S., has a much stronger tradition of involvement by the state in “culture.” But these do not constitute a valid reason why “multiculturalism” should assume such a prominent place in the symbolic order of Canada as it has assumed recently.

In reality, multiculturalism does not in fact distinguish Canada from the U.S., it causes anxiety in Quebec and increasing resentment in anglophone Canada, and it is a highly questionable blessing for ethnic minorities, as Neil Bissoondath, among others, has recognized. For most of them, individual opportunity and participation in the mainstream of Canadian life are higher priorities than collective “rights” to cultural retention and the refighting of historical controversies.

Given the difficulties of the amending process, Section 27 can probably not be removed from the Charter. There are other ways in which Canada can retreat from its ill-advised policy of official multiculturalism. The Mulroney government moved in the right direction by downsizing the Ministry of State for Multiculturalism and shifting from cultural retention toward combating racism. Cultural assimilation and equal opportunities for all are in the long run the best defences against racism.

Another desirable step would be to eliminate the ethnic question from the Canadian census, while retaining the questions dealing with language. The ethnic question originally had the primary purpose of measuring the weight of the francophone minority but the language questions now do so in a more accurate and acceptable manner. The accuracy and reliability of the ethnic data have always been questionable, and since they do not measure the degree of assimilation they are largely irrelevant in any event. Their chief consequence is to encourage inflated claims by various “ethnic” lobbies as to the number of people they allegedly represent. In the last Canadian census more than 765,000 persons, mainly in Ontario, defied the instructions on the form and wrote in their ethnic origin as “Canadian.” Where is John Diefenbaker now that we need him?

Canada, to its credit, is a land of immigration, as is the United States. However, immigrant-receptive polities work best when the natural process of integration into the community is allowed to take its course. Ethnic diversity caused by immigration is very different from ethnic diversity caused by territorial expansion, like that of the former Soviet Union and (Lord Acton’s favourite example) the Austro-Hungarian empire.

“Multiculturalism” is a dysfunctional symbol and a misguided policy insofar as it blurs this fundamental distinction. It is time to let Lord Acton rest in peace.

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