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Regionalism and nationalism in Canada – Part Three

By Mark Wegierski
web posted July 30, 2007

There have been throughout Western Canada's history a number of regionalist or outrightly separatist parties that are usually considered as being on the fringe. These have included, among others, the Western Canada Concept, West-Fed, and so forth. The Social Credit Party (based loosely on the ideas of C. H. Douglas) was a right-wing populist party that arose in response to the Great Depression. It held the governments of Alberta and British Columbia at various times. Preston Manning's father, Ernest C. Manning, was the long-time Social Credit Premier of Alberta. The term "retread Socreds" was one of the labels circulated about Preston Manning's Reform Party. Nevertheless, Manning was in some ways more of a successor to the Progressive Party of the 1920s to 1940s. The remarkable electoral insurgency of the Progressive Party was able at one point to win the largest number of seats in the federal Parliament, but they more-or-less squandered their opportunity, and were never able to establish themselves as a permanent presence on the Canadian political scene. (What could be seen as an achievement of sorts was the adoption of their name as an adjective to the official name of the erstwhile Conservative Party in 1942.)

The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) – the precursor to today's New Democratic Party (NDP) – also arose in Western Canada. It has been argued in earlier articles that the CCF, while socialist in economics, was, to a large extent, socially conservative – and especially so in Western Canada. The left, especially in the Prairie provinces, was usually considerably more sensible than in Toronto after the 1960s – which has tended to become a city filled with a hyper-urban, socially ultra-liberal, left.

Despite all the pejorative media comments about Preston Manning and the Reform Party, it should be remembered that their battle-cry was "The West wants in!" and not "The West wants out!" Thus, Preston Manning was manifestly willing to work within the federal system, hoping actually to eventually be elected with a majority government in Ottawa. Indeed, the Reform Party formally existed solely at the federal level – with Preston Manning severely frowning on any attempts at having provincial branches of the Reform Party that could run candidates in provincial elections. Had he won his hoped-for majority in the federal Parliament, presumably the federal government would then have undertaken considerable decentralization initiatives.

However, given the past of various periodic so-called "regional revolt" movements (such as, especially the Progressives) it would have seemed unlikely – even in better circumstances -- that the Reform Party would have been left as the sole centre-right party at the federal level. In 1996, it had looked like the Progressive Conservative party remnants (with their two seats in the federal Parliament) were close to dissolution – but the Reform Party clumsily marched directly into an ambush over gay-rights – which gave new life to the P.C.s – but of course served mainly the interests of the Liberal Party.

In the 1997 federal election, the Liberal Party won a considerable majority in Parliament with 38% of vote; while the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservatives each received 19% of the vote, i.e., a total of 38%. The unified Reform Party and Progressive Conservative vote would have probably put such a hypothetical party within striking distance of winning a majority government. It had been suggested around that time that there should have been a coalition between the two parties along the lines of the Reform Party running candidates only in Western Canada, and the Progressive Conservative party running candidates in Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces. Had the P.C.s actually won enough seats to form a majority government in coalition with the Reform Party, the latter would have clearly been the junior partners (thus presumably assuaging many Canadians' fears about the possible "right-wing extremism" of the Reform Party). The political analogy was said to have been the stable coalition between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) in Germany. (The more conservative CSU is based entirely in Bavaria, a more conservative region of the country.)

There was in 1998-2000 the United Alternative movement, which eventually led to the creation of the Canadian Alliance (officially called the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance). The federal P.C.s really should have folded in 1998, but Joe Clark won the party's leadership in that year. It was only in late 2003, after Joe Clark had resigned from the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party (thus ending his long years as a "spoiler" of various, possibly more successful centre-right initiatives) – and Peter MacKay won the leadership --  that there finally occurred the merger of the two parties into the new Conservative Party. Just the willingness of the party to call itself "conservative" without the adjective was politically electrifying. The embrace of the term "conservative" was important, as Preston Manning had undertaken considerable (and almost silly) semantic maneuvers to mostly avoid using that term in Reform Party circles.

Ironically, in the 1997 to 2003 period, the federal Progressive Conservative party could easily have been considered a regional party – of the Atlantic provinces. However, Joe Clark persisted in his illusions that the unreconstructed federal P.C.s under his leadership could again constitute a country-wide force.

The merger into the new Conservative Party convinced many people in Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces that this new centre-right party could be "safely" voted for. The Liberals endeavoured to put into circulation the notion that the Conservative Party was nothing but "the Reform Party – Version Three." And the mere mention of the Reform Party was supposed to bring, at least some people in Ontario, into a sense of feared panic about alleged "right-wing extremism." Those kinds of persons had never understood – and indeed, preferred not to understand – what "small-c conservatism" might actually represent.

So now there is a Conservative minority government in Ottawa, led by someone who is emphatically a Western Canadian. However, it remains to be seen whether the Conservatives can ever reach the felicitous state of winning a majority in the federal Parliament. This will certainly test whether a Western Canadian of great political skill, and who does not lack what are considered the major attributes for the Prime Ministership in Canada (such as being fluently bilingual and friendly to Quebec) can actually win a majority in the federal Parliament. (Although Joe Clark was geographically from Western Canada, most Western Canadians increasingly came to view him as playing the role of a "collaborator" with the "Eastern" elites.)

It can be predicted that the now abeyant Western Canadian alienation will reach a boiling point, if it is seen in the next election that Stephen Harper has been "done in" by the hostile, "Eastern" [1] media and intellectual elites.

Western Canada has waited for a very long time for a so-called "place at the table" in Ottawa, and if there are widespread feelings in the West that Harper has been unfairly savaged, it will indeed be the hour of fury in Western Canada, and especially in Alberta. [2]

Footnotes:

[1] In Western Canada, the terms Eastern or Easterner or Eastern Canada refer mainly to Ontario and Quebec. Such terms frequently have a pejorative feel. In Ontario, the terms Eastern Canada or "from the East" are usually a reference to the Atlantic provinces. They are not considered pejorative.

[2] Another possible scenario is that Harper himself will come to be seen by considerable numbers of Western Canadians as betraying them to "Eastern" interests. Although this issue cannot really be laid at the doorstep of "Eastern" malevolence, there has recently been a considerable revolt in Saskatchewan over equalization payments. It's certainly possible that the NDP in Saskatchewan and Manitoba – which is perceived as more sensible and less radical than on "the Left Coast" or in Ontario – will be able to draw on substantially increased support in those two Prairie provinces. If Alberta or the more conservative-tending parts of British Columbia begin to feel betrayed by Harper, they really have no current major party to conceivably vote for.

To be continued next week. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

 

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