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On the 136th anniversary of Confederation: Canadian identity and its predicaments

By Mark Wegierski
web posted June 30, 2003

There are some countries in this world where the perennial dominance of one party or political orientation has led to fundamental distortions of those countries' social outlooks and political cultures and milieux. In the last few years, it has become very clear to many Canadians that Canada, with the Liberals as its "natural governing party," is indeed such a country. The triumph of Jean Chretien and the Liberals over the centre-right Canadian Alliance in the federal election of November 27, 2000 (and in all the succeeding months) means that there will now be even less real debate about different possible futures for Canada. The Canadian Alliance, which emerged from the Reform Party in 1998-2000, appears to have crumbled almost beyond repair. The Reform Party, founded by Preston Manning in 1987, had also failed in its goals to consolidate all of the anti-Liberal forces in Canada into a potential "government-in-waiting."

Hardly any of the first-order issues concerning Canadian national identity ever made it into the 2000 election campaign, or subsequent public debates. In the last few decades, Canada -- once called "the peaceable kingdom" -- has become increasingly troubled.

The 136th Anniversary of Canadian Confederation falls on July 1, 2003. It should be remembered that the two main nations of Canada -- the English and the French -- had existed long before 1867. The Canadian state or polity created in 1867 (called at that time "the Dominion of Canada") is only the latest development of a long history of the French and the British in North America. Canada was created by the British North America Act (an Act of the Parliament of Westminster), and many Canadians have defined themselves as "British North Americans." British identity in Canada was always more cultural than ethnic, extending to anyone who accepted the British system of constitutional monarchy (loyalty to the Sovereign), and Parliamentary government -- as opposed to American republicanism. British North America largely arose as a result of the massive influx of Loyalist refugees from the American Revolution, especially to Upper Canada (Ontario), and to the Maritimes on the Atlantic coast. The War of 1812 -- where the various U.S. invasions of Canada were beaten back in the face of apparently overwhelming odds -- was a defining moment for traditional British Canadian identity.

Today's trivial and shallow attempts to define Canadian identity, as in a recent beer commercial (where a young "Joe Canuck" ever more loudly shouts anti-American slogans), often eviscerate much of Canada's real roots and meaning. (Indeed, that actor has now gone to Los Angeles to advance his career.) One should look to the written medium for more profound attempts to define Canada, and the current predicaments it appears to have fallen into. In his 1986 book about Canada, The Patriot Game: National Dreams and Political Realities (reprinted in 1988 with the subtitle, "Canada and the Canadian Question Revisited"), the conservative political commentator Peter Brimelow (who would later become known for his provocative book about U.S. immigration policy, Alien Nation) had offered, at the beginning, a brief executive summary of Canada's problems "on one half-sheet of notepaper." (A format pioneered by Winston Churchill in dealing with the complex administrative exigencies of manfully directing the Western Alliance's war against the Axis.) What follows is a twelve-point update and radical shift of Brimelow.

1. The evolution of the Canadian state has been marked by continuing conflict between two, long pre-existent, historical nations -- English and French Canada (Quebec). English-Canadian identity has been traditionally monarchist, Loyalist, pro-British, anti-American, socially conservative, and economically statist. Quebec identity has been Catholic traditionalist, very socially conservative, but with a tendency to support the Liberal Party in federal elections in the twentieth century (except for rare instances).

2. Longstanding Quebec and NDP (New Democratic Party -- the social democratic third party -- often a coalition partner of the Liberals) support for the federal Liberal Party allowed for the thoroughgoing reshaping of English Canada after 1965 in a decidedly anti-traditional and left-liberal direction, during the Prime Ministerial terms of Lester B. Pearson (1963-1968), and Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1968-1984, except for nine months in 1979-1980). The capstone of this was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982). It effectively took away power from elected bodies (federal and provincial parliaments) and gave it into the hands of unelected judges and tribunals, a situation similar to (but far more pronounced in Canada) as that which had occurred with judicial activism in the U.S. The intent was to place the left-liberal social agenda forever beyond the reach of popular will. At the same time, Canada was integrated into the structures of American capitalism. The Liberal Party today tends to be socially liberal (multiculturalism, high immigration, feminism, gay rights), and economically and fiscally conservative.

3. Much of Quebec has reacted against English Canada's current drive towards designated minorities and multiculturalism by embracing collectively-based Québécois nationalism. Two attempts to placate Quebec, the Meech Lake Accord, and the Charlottetown Agreements, both failed (in 1990 and 1992, respectively). They were opposed both "from the Right" (Preston Manning, the founder of the Reform Party) and "from the Left" (Pierre Elliott Trudeau). English Canada typically opposed these agreements because they gave Quebec too much; many Québécois opposed them because they gave Quebec too little. The country remains fractured.

4. Although English and French Canada were for a long time traditional societies, their cohabitation in the Canadian state tended to reinforce a progressive drive in both of them. In the end, the Canadian state presides over what is probably the world's most "post-modern" (or, "hypermodern") society.

5. Reflective persons aware of other national traditions (such as those of Continental Europe) often find the current-day left-liberal concept of Canadian identity incoherent, puzzling, and self-destructive. Such a concept appears fundamentally unable to command real loyalty, allegiance, patriotism, sacrifices for the common good, duty to the country, and so forth. The traditional identity of English Canada -- pro-British, Loyalist, monarchist -- has been thoroughly repudiated.

6. The current Canadian state could be seen as mostly a congeries of arrogant, soulless bureaucracies that dominate a society that feels little real allegiance towards the administrators. With ideas of multiculturalism and related concepts, the current Canadian state denies both English and French Canada's longstanding historical traditions. Some would argue that Canada's left-liberal "official culture" is almost entirely artificially maintained by government largesse. It has to be so precisely because it makes very little or no appeal to perennial historical and social realities, deliberately cutting itself off from its roots. In that sense, it is utterly different from the patriotic étatisme of Sir John A. Macdonald (National Policy), R. B. Bennett (Fair Deal), or the C.C.F. (the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a more socially conservative
precursor of the NDP).

7. The Greater Toronto Area (along with some bits of Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, and Quebec City) is the overwhelming social, cultural, and media node of the country. The rest of Canada is effectively reduced to a periphery or hinterland. What this amounts to is that, to a great extent, left-liberalism dominates Canada socially and culturally by dominating a few trendy and/or grungy areas in the city of Toronto. Those regions outside the node have to make extraordinary efforts to have their voices heard, and different social concerns acknowledged, in Confederation.

8. The aboriginal peoples of Canada -- Indians, Métis, and Inuit -- have been historically subjected to severe persecution. However, their current-day attempts to wrest vast territories and resources at the expense of other Canadians, and their exclusive claim to the status of a native-born majority, immemorially tied to the land, tend to delegitimate French and English Canadians' senses of identity, reducing them to mere interlopers, rather than founding nations.

9. There is little prospect of changing the massively reconstructed post-1965 and post-1982 Canada. It appears to be on a road without exit. The two slim hopes for change would be the election of a working centre-right majority government at the federal level, or the regional devolution of the country, where regional leaders would counter the centralized state and cultural apparatus.

10. Canada has not had a working "small-c conservative" (i.e., substantively conservative) majority government at the federal level since the early 1960s. Brian Mulroney (the Progressive Conservative Prime Minister from 1984-1993), continued and intensified nearly all aspects of social liberalism -- notably, raising immigration in 1987 from the 54,000 or so persons of Trudeau's last year in office, to about a quarter-million persons per year, where it has remained ever since. He also failed to challenge the Canadian Supreme Court's "judicial activism," especially in regard to its striking down of all laws against abortion in 1988. At the same time, Mulroney brought in the Canada-U.S. Free Trade deal, following in this the conventional Liberal policy of economic conservatism. Mulroney's imposition of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), Canada's equivalent of a value-added tax, while interpreted as a "hard right" move by some, could also be seen as a conventionally Liberal tax grab. Trudeau had indeed been able to drag the Liberal Party in the direction of economic socialism, but his anti-traditional social liberal agenda has, in the final analysis, turned out to be a far more important and lasting part of his legacy.

11. If neither of the aforementioned events (federal "small-c conservative" majority, or regional devolution) occurs relatively soon, ordinary life in Canada could become decidedly and progressively more uncomfortable (both socially and economically) for nearly all Canadians as the decades advance. Among other reasons, there will be social liberalism's habitual disdain for the traditional family, its promulgation of destructive child-rearing and educational theories, and its unwillingness to carry out real punishments for real crimes. And the careless profligacy of a social liberal welfare-state will be simply untenable over more than a few decades.

12. The continuation of cultural, intellectual, and academic endeavour in Canada, insofar as it tries to be free of prevalent strictures, is today under severe threat. Without some reflective resistance to prevalent forces, any possible popular counter-tendencies will simply atrophy into nothingness. The life of the mind and spirit in this society will also tend to become a road without an exit, a bleak, barren wasteland, if current trends continue unopposed.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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