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A comparison of the conservative traditions in America and Canada (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted November 21, 2011

Comparing the conservative traditions in America and Canada -- and their paths of development -- may yield some surprising insights.

America was founded, at least ostensibly, as a revolutionary society, which had cast off the fetters of the Old World. The origins of Canada lay in two distinct cultures. The first of these was French Canada -- which had, to a large extent, maintained its Ancien Regime -- being already under British rule at the time of the French Revolution. The origins of French Canada go back to at least the founding of Quebec in 1608. By 1760, French Canada had been conquered by the British, especially after their victory at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham at Quebec City (1759). However, the British were relatively tolerant, allowing, for example, the maintenance of the Roman Catholic faith. The second culture -- which emerged as decidedly more dominant, especially in the nineteenth century --was British (or English) Canada, whose origins lay mostly in the United Empire Loyalists -- refugees from the American Revolution -- who settled mostly in Upper Canada (Ontario) and the Maritimes (on the Atlantic coast). It might also be noted that the Aboriginal population was considered under the special protection of the British Crown and that there was a considerable degree of affinity between the British and the Indians. (Much more so than in the case of the United States, where, it may be remembered, the Declaration of Independence had accused George III of loosing "the Savages" upon the American population.)

The culmination of the evolution of the long prior history of the British and French in Canada was Confederation in 1867. The British North America (BNA) Act that constituted the Dominion of Canada was an Act of the British Parliament in London, England. The key phrase was "peace, order, and good government" -- as opposed to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in the American founding document. Confederation was mostly the achievement of English-Canadian (Macdonald) and French-Canadian (Cartier) conservatives. Indeed, Sir John A. Macdonald served as Canada's Prime Minister for most of the rest of the nineteenth century.

One of the proximate reasons for Canadian Confederation was the fear of an expansionist America, in the wake of the fateful American Civil War/War Between the States, where -- according to some interpretations -- the American South had been crushed in favour of a more unitary view of the American polity. Indeed, for some American conservatives, the defeat of the American South was said to have resulted in a fundamental deviation from the truly federalist principles of the American Founding. Unfortunately, so-called "states' rights" had latterly become categorized as purely the defence of Southern bigotry and the oppression of blacks.

One of the defining historical moments of English Canada had been the War of 1812, where the various U.S. invasions were beaten back in the face of apparently overwhelming odds. English Canada's great tragic hero of the war, Sir Isaac Brock, had organized the energetic defence, and had heroically perished in battle. He was ably assisted by Tecumseh, the Indian war-chief. The campaigns of Brock and Tecumseh are studied to this day as examples of military achievement, though ironically probably more in current-day America than Canada.

Thus, it might have appeared during the late nineteenth century, that Canada had been founded on anti-revolutionary, highly conservative and traditionalist principles.

However, twentieth century developments have shown the difficulties of effectively maintaining a "binational" polity. Since the federal election of 1896, when the voters in the mostly French-speaking province of Quebec switched their votes, en masse, from the Conservative to the Liberal Party, Canada has been characterized at the federal level by long periods of Liberal government, with comparatively brief Conservative interludes.  Although Quebec was for decades a very conservative society, they voted for the federal Liberal Party as an expression of resistance to sometimes supercilious English-Canadian Conservatives. What resulted was that a solid bloc of seats from Quebec, combined with a minority of seats from English Canada, have allowed the Liberals to almost always form the government in Ottawa.

Being kept for long decades out of power has tended to atrophy the intellectual resources and possibilities of conservatism in Canada. Indeed, the Conservative Party had re-designated itself as the Progressive Conservative Party (already in 1942), and has latterly mostly eschewed nearly all aspects of what is called in Canada "small-c conservatism." There emerged a tendency called "Red Toryism".  Although the term was embraced in the thought of Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Parkin Grant -- where it was essentially a "social conservatism of the Left" -- it also became a catch-all term for opportunistic, pedestrian P.C. party hacks, who simply adopted the ideas and policies of left-liberalism. The negative sense of Red Toryism was probably most typically exemplified by Joe Clark, leader of the federal Progressive Conservative party from 1976-1983 (and again in 1998-2003), as well as briefly Prime Minister in 1979-1980.

The Republicans in the U.S. have been far more successfully electorally competitive in America, than the Conservatives in Canada. The Conservative or Progressive Conservative Party in Canada roughly corresponded to twentieth-century Republicans in the U.S. (but were considerably more moderate, and considerably less electorally successful), whereas the Liberals have corresponded to post-1930s Democrats (but were considerably more left-liberal, and considerably more electorally successful).

As long as the Liberal Party of Canada embraced, to a large extent, a "traditionalist-centrist" consensus (for example, under Mackenzie King, Canada's longest-serving Prime Minister), the effects of their continual electoral victories did not necessarily result in massive social change.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.





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