Imagine I am describing for you a candidate in my riding. He is the “greenest” of advocates for the environment, says that he went into politics to ensure that the needs of the least are protected, supports institutions like the CBC and prefers that a surplus of government revenue be diverted to entitlement programs before tax cuts. Which party do you think this mythical candidate would be running for? The NDP, of course! Maybe, just maybe, he would be a Liberal. But wait, no, this candidate is none other than ordained Baptist minister and former Nova Scotia environment minister Mark Parent, a proud Progressive Conservative. Shocking.

In the 21st century it is simply unheard of for a conservative politician to be an outspoken advocate for the poor, the environment or state-run institutions. And that really bugs Parent. In fact some might say Parent is on a personal campaign to save the “Progressive” side of the conservative movement in Canada. Although Mark Parent prefers the term “Classical Toryism,” most call him a Red Tory.

Recently Parent addressed the Manning Centre and laid out the three basic tenets that make a “progressive” conservative vision unique:

  • the influence of British conservatism (obligation of rich to poor, the recognition of human sin, the emphasis on the community over and above the individual, peace/order/good government, tradition, conservation of the environment, caution about change, hard work);
  • a vigorous and strong role for government in the economy;
  • a rootedness in local culture that can give voice to the organic identity of a people.

It is not surprising that Atlantic Canada remains the last habitat for Red Tories in this country. Since Confederation Atlantic Canadians have understood that the price of their participation in this experiment was the loss of their manufacturing sector. They have a sense of being “owed,” and over the decades Ottawa has made large-scale government investments in the regional economy. Stephen Harper may see this mentality as the “culture of defeat,” but to Atlantic Canadians it is simply recognition that some capital is needed to create the jobs and economic activity necessary for a healthy organic community. Without indigenous captains of manufacturing industry, government ministers of the crown become the “little engine that could.”

What Parent does not address in his lectures and articles is the tension between dependency and collective economic goals. One likely reason that Tories across the country have moved right is the concern – in their ranks and beyond – that dependency may generate a spirit that can deflate economic creativity and productivity. While Red Tories value hard work as much as any other group of politicians, it is less clear that entrepreneurialism has the same appeal to them as it obviously does to Reform conservatives. This focus on work as opposed to entrepreneurialism may have something to do with a settled notion in Tory culture of who are the “bosses” and who are the “workers.”

Mark Parent remembers when he felt the “blue tide” of right-wing conservatives discolouring his cherished Red Tory brand. Ironically during the years when John Hamm, a self-described Red Tory, was premier, Mike Harris Tories came to Nova Scotia to assist in election campaigns. Parent felt these volunteers and paid workers brought their brand of conservatism with them.

The shift in the conservative movement in Canada can be seen as both an awakening and plain greed. In 1979 Britain elected Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister; in 1980 the United States elected Ronald Reagan as President. Milton Friedman’s economic ideas were ascendant and Christian fundamentalism in the American south turned conservative Democrats into right-wing Republicans.

In both countries conservatives were reacting to what they believed were liberal excesses: government control over the economy and open-ended “anything goes” social values. Progressive Conservatives failed to differentiate themselves adequately from Liberals and the NDP. Deficits in provinces with PC governments were no smaller, and policies on law and order, abortion and education were no less permissive. Businesses were tired of high taxes and wanted a larger bottom line. It was during the leadership of Robert Stanfield that this cleavage between Red and Blue Tories became most pronounced. In an effort to define what kind of Tory he was, Stanfield sent his caucus a memo laying out his political philosophy:

For a Conservative in the conservative tradition which I have described, there is more to the national life than simply increasing the size of the Gross National Product. A Conservative naturally regards a healthy economy as of great importance, but increasing the size of the Gross National Product is not in itself a sufficient goal for a civilized nation: according to a Conservative … A Conservative will be concerned about the effects of economic growth – what this does to our environment, what kind of living conditions it creates, what are its effects on our countryside, what are its effects on our cities, whether all parts of the nation benefit or only some parts of the nation, and whether a greater feeling of justice and fairness and self-fulfillment results from this growth, thereby strengthening the social order and improving the quality of national life.

Stanfield was reacting against those inside his party who wanted a more unfettered arrangement for businesses: less tax, less regulation, less nanny state.

This cleavage persisted throughout the Stanfield years, under his successor Joe Clark and in part under Brian Mulroney. Only in the early years of the Mulroney government were the divisions quelled. But even power could not keep the coalition of Red and Blue Tories intact: in 1987 Preston Manning and his Reform Party split the right for more than a decade. When Peter MacKay, last leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, and Stephen Harper, then leader of the Canadian Alliance, were discussing merger possibilities, it was Mark Parent who emerged as the voice of the progressive side of the PC party. In an October 2003 open letter to the party, Parent quoted from Toronto Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson’s article “The Death of Communitarian Conservatism,” in which Ibbitson stated that Red Tories believe that government must first and foremost ensure the health of the community.

Despite the fate of Red Tories in Canada, Mark Parent sees promise in new British Prime Minister David Cameron, a self-confessed “green” Tory. Although Cameron favours a more laissez-faire approach to the economy than Labour, he is clear that on matters of the environment there is a strong role for government. Further, Cameron does not echo Margaret Thatcher’s famous line: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour.”1 By contrast, Cameron’s favorite political punch line is “the big society.” Many have criticized Cameron for being vague on details but Red Tories like the appeal to communitarian values.

From the other side of the country comes the voice of Ron Dart, a professor at the University of Fraser Valley described in Wikipedia as “one of the main keepers of the Red Tory tradition in western Canada.” According to Dart there are seven essential ingredients to a Red Tory tradition: the wisdom of tradition, the importance of the common good, the need to combine ethics and economics, the priority of preserving the environment, the role of the state as a beneficent actor within society, the truth that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely and the need to respect the political and religious traditions that have shaped our society.

The words Red Tory first appeared on the Canadian political landscape in a 1966 essay by Gad Horowitz in the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, “Conservatism, Liberalism and Socialism in Canada: An Interpretation.” Horowitz made the bold assertion that Red Tories prefer socialists to liberals. While that may seem like hyperbole, it once again points to the communal aspect of a Red Tory vision, which they share with their New Democratic cousins. You will hear none of that kind of talk from liberals, right-wing conservatives and libertarians, who look to a Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its focus on the individual as their lodestar.

In 2010 there is little for Red Tories to cheer. Even David Cameron presents a mixed case; his economic policies are hard to distinguish from those of Blue Tories. On social policy most Canadians are moving in the libertarian direction. Pierre Trudeau’s Charter increasingly trumps publicly funded health care among younger Canadians as symbol of what it means to be a Canadian. Tradition has been shorn of meaning and ghettoized in museums, multicultural festivals and months named for ethnicities by libraries and schools.

The one opening for Red Tories, as demonstrated in Britain, is the environment. In announcing his ultimately successful candidacy for the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative leadership, Jamie Baillie made mention of this link:

Why would we accept an environmental deficit and not a fiscal one? After all what is a deficit, other than taking out more of something than you are putting back in? It is a mystery to me why the Conservative Party is not seen as the most responsible party when it comes to the environment. It is so core to Conservative thought that I cannot understand why we are not seen that way.

Liberals are pro-development, Baillie argues, because at their core they desire change and progress: economic progress, social progress, technological progress. For Liberals to oppose a new mine, chemical plant or sawmill seems contrary to their very reason for being. The NDP, while a pro-environment party with a green leader in Jack Layton, has at its core the pursuit of equality of outcomes, and if economic development creates well-paying jobs for otherwise poor workers, then it trumps environmental concerns. For Baillie, a Conservative, at her or his core, wants to conserve. A Conservative appreciates that there to be something inherently valuable about how our planet has existed for millions of years. Who are we to tamper with what we have inherited?

Conservative parties in Canada have not always been true to the spirit of conservation – witness Stephen Harper’s reluctance even to admit there is an environmental crisis – but conservatives are among those who have articulated a green vision. Writing about those he called “Radical Tories,” the journalist Charles Taylor made this link:

With his belief in man’s essential freedom, the liberal regards landscape as something to be subdued and exploited in the name of progress. There is neither reverence nor any sense of roots: nature is something to be used. To the conservative, on the other hand, man and his world are part of an organic whole – a unity which includes other races, other species and the land itself.2

The philosophical underpinnings of this Red Tory movement come from the late George Grant. To read Grant is to know the mind of the Red Tory and the centrality of the environmental issue. For Grant, theology answers the question of what we as human are fitted for: “The idea of God, having been discarded as impossible and immoral, comes back in the twentieth century as men recognize that if there is no theoretical limit there is no practical limit, and any action is permissible.”

As long as liberals focus on “rights,” socialists focus on “equality” and Blue Tories focus on “the pursuit of happiness,” there will be ample room on the political spectrum for a movement that sees natural limits to progress, freedom and greed. Red Tories are comfortable with the language of limits and this tradition may rise again as voters in the 21st century come once again to appreciate the need to constrain narcissism, consumerism and related excesses that are despoiling the planet.

Red Tories will continue to have voice so long as there is an appreciation of the need for a moral vision of limits, whether it be a limit on public spending, on changing traditional institutions or on destroying the environment. The challenge Red Tories face is to articulate a vision of limits while not dampening the entrepreneurial spirit or needed social movements like feminism, gay/lesbian liberation and justice for the disabled.


1 Margaret Thatcher, Woman’s Own, October 31, 1987.

2 Charles Taylor, Radical Tories (1982; Halifax, NS: Goodread Biographies, 1984), pp. 79–80.