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Some advice for Canadian conservatives

By Mark Wegierski
web posted February 21, 2005

It is a time of despondency for so-called social conservatives in Canada. Whether in terms of the political classes' suppression of debate about abortion, or the impending legal recognition of "same-sex marriage", or the multifarious attacks on family and faith, social conservatism appears to be in pell-mell retreat throughout Canadian society today. Colby Cosh, a self-proclaimed atheist, Western Canadian libertarian, has argued on his "weblog" that -- largely because of the Internet -- a world of polymorphous perversity is upon us. In our hypermodern world, which is apparently awash in Internet porn, "gangsta"-rap, and lurid reality-TV shows, social conservatism looks to be a rather quixotic stance.

Whatever one's opinion about the extent of current American decadence, a major point to be made about Canada is that it especially lacks those elements and counter-tendencies that definitively temper the deconstructive power of the left-liberal media, academic, and bureaucratic structures in the United States. Relative to the United States, both social conservatives and "the broader Right" have very little influence and resources in Canada. Indeed, the term "small-c conservative" arose in Canada precisely because the "big-C Conservatives" -- the Progressive Conservative Party -- mostly fought against real conservatism and traditionalism. In December 2003, the merger of the Canadian Alliance (which had arisen out of the broadening of the more decidedly right-wing Reform Party) with the Progressive Conservative remnants, finally created a party that dared to call itself "Conservative" -- without the adjective.

Among the various right-of-centre American think-tanks and foundations, one could hold up the model of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) as an institution whose lack in Canada is sorely missed. The ISI focusses on academic activism, publishing a number of fine scholarly books and journals, and offers very substantial scholarships to tradition-minded students. It also has the considerable modern-day advantage of not explicitly identifying itself with any one religion or denomination. One could perhaps hope that the Ottawa-based Centre for Cultural Renewal could evolve in the direction of ISI, but, considering that the CCR offers neither scholarships nor grants at the current time, it must appear as a forlorn hope.

The two main Canadian right-of-centre institutions, the Fraser Institute, and the National Citizens' Coalition, are almost entirely economically focussed, very rarely discussing nuanced social or cultural issues. The Donner Foundation has made some effort over the years to support three broadly right-of-centre intellectual publications, The Idler, The Next City, and Gravitas -- but that now is clearly ancient history. Michael Taube's interesting From The Right collapsed after three issues. Peter Worthington's unsuccessful, 1980s, Influence magazine apparently consumed most of his personal fortune. The Byfields' Report magazines collapsed a few years ago.

The Toronto-based Mackenzie Institute had a higher profile in the 1980s but now looks to be the personal enterprise of one indigent person.

There is now the Alberta-based Western Standard, but it is clearly limited by its newsmagazine format and derivative neoconservatism, without much scope for more extended and loftier intellectual debate.

Although The National Post, The Toronto Sun, and The Calgary Herald are often characterized as overwhelmingly right-wing -- one finds this rather questionable. It has also been shown in surveys that most Canadians rely on television for their news, and there is no vestige of conservatism that can be seen in any of the major Canadian television stations. Whenever hockey commentator Don Cherry -- probably the best-known Canadian conservative media personality -- tries to make a political point on the CBC, he is sharply slapped down. Michael Coren was fired from his popular Toronto radio-show on CFRB and subsequently has, it could be argued, considerably altered his message.

So social conservatives in Canada are essentially left with The Interim: Canada's Life and Family Newspaper and Catholic Insight (Toronto) (and possibly some smaller publications of which it is rather difficult to become aware).

The Canadian "blogosphere" is also seriously underdeveloped. Apart from freedominion.ca -- a self-posting forum -- enterstageright.com is the only widely-known, long-standing, broadly right-wing e-zine in Canada. The website conservativeforum.org is extremely infrequently updated.

As far as conservative-tending political books published in Canada, there are probably no more than two dozen over the last two to three decades, the latest prominent one being Paul Tuns' book about Jean Chretien.

The main ginger-group of the "broader Right" in Canada is Civitas, founded by, among others, William D. Gairdner and Tom Flanagan. Prof. Flanagan teaches at the University of Calgary, whose political science department is apparently the only one in Canada with a significant right-wing presence.

One often hears from the United States about the bias against conservatives in the academy. Yet, in the United States, there are probably hundreds of more traditionalist-oriented, private colleges. For example, there was recently launched there, with great fanfare, a new, major, tradition-minded Catholic institution, Ave Maria School of Law, and Ave Maria University. In Canada, the only major private college that quickly comes to mind is Trinity Western University in British Columbia. One remembers the problems TWU had with accrediting their teacher education program -- because of its perceived inculcation of "homophobia."

Given the various points above, one could have three main, at least somewhat possible, hopes for the evolution of events in Canada.

First of all, that there will be sharp battle over "same-sex marriage." It is even somewhat conceivable that the proposal will fail -- for a while -- in the federal Parliament. This would be a signal victory.

Secondly, one must hold out the hope that, in some future election, the Conservatives will finally win a comfortable majority in the federal Parliament -- something which would be only the beginning of the emergence of a significant counter-tendency in Canadian politics.

Thirdly, there must be strenuous endeavours to bring at least a fragmentary, small-c conservative intellectual infrastructure into existence. This would hopefully include a major, profound, intellectual magazine, that could serve a mobilizing role in Canada similar to that of the early National Review in the United States. It would also hopefully include an institution along the lines of "ISI-Canada" which would offer scholarships and grants to worthy students, writers, researchers, and professors, as well as bringing out books and shorter issues and policy papers.

The establishment of intellectual infrastructures, in however fragmentary a form, will ensure the persistence of social conservatism on the public scene regardless of the fortunes of the Conservative Party, which is clearly unsuited as a vehicle for deep-thinking political debate.

It is the intellectual infrastructures that are the "laboratory of ideas" from which policy prescriptions might eventually filter through to all of the mass-parties. Insofar as the healthy but untutored impulses of the majority of Canadians are not effectively focussed by reflective thinkers and writers -- who have to be given the wherewithal to become serious "players" in the current-day intellectual arena -- the "culture wars" in Canada will truly be over.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher, published in Alberta Report, American Outlook, Chronicles, Calgary Herald, New Brunswick Reader, Telos, and The World & I, among others. An article of his about Canada was reprinted in Annual Editions: World Politics, 1998-99 (Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1998).

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