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On the 153rd anniversary of Canadian Confederation (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted June 29, 2020

This series is based on my paper, An Ineluctable Direction of Progressive Development?: The Ongoing Failure of the Right in Canada (read by Dr. Tomasz Soroka) 8th Congress of Polish Canadianists (Polish Association for Canadian Studies) “Canadian (Re)Visions: Futures, Changes, Revolutions” (Lodz, Poland: University of Lodz, Faculty of Philology) PACS, September 25-27, 2019.

July 1, 2020 is the 153rd anniversary of Canadian Confederation. That was the date on which the British North America Act (Canada’s original constitution) was passed in 1867. It was an Act of the British Parliament. Four provinces (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) formed Confederation. It was also a union of two, long pre-existent nations, English Canada, and French Canada (the latter mostly centered in the province of Quebec). The Aboriginal peoples were included insofar as they were traditionally considered to be under the special protection of the Crown. The Canadian Constitution of 1867 was anti-revolutionary. What was called the Dominion of Canada was characterized by “peace, order, and good government” (in contrast to the American credo of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.)

Until 1896, the Conservatives under John A. Macdonald dominated the Canadian polity. Macdonald was a real nation-builder, extending the railways across the continent, thus bringing British Columbia into Confederation in 1871. He also suppressed the two Riel Rebellions which stood in the way of a coast-to-coast Canada. However, the execution of Louis Riel for treason was a baneful act.

Indeed, in the 1896 federal election, French Quebec turned away from the Conservatives, voting en masse for the Liberal Party of Wilfrid Laurier.

Throughout most of the Twentieth Century, Quebec would overwhelmingly support the Liberal Party in federal elections, thus virtually guaranteeing a Liberal majority in the federal Parliament. However, until the 1963 federal election, this did not have socially radical implications for Canada, as the country was dominated by a “traditionalist-centrist” social consensus. Indeed, even the social democratic third party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was mostly socially conservative. However, in 1961, the party changed its name to New Democratic Party (NDP), which suggested a more “futurist” orientation.

Before the 1960s, Canada was often considered to be a more conservative society than America (in the better sense of conservatism). Canada’s 1867 Constitution (the British North America Act) characterized Canada as defined by “peace, order, and good government” (in contrast to the U.S. founding credo of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.) Also, Canada’s “niceness” and politeness meant that it largely avoided such harsh and ugly aspects of America as racism and excessive commercialism. Nevertheless, since the 1960s, Canada has been swept up in a surge of progressive development that in retrospect appears ineluctable. The author examines various “turning points that failed to turn” – virtually all of which have turned out to the disfavour of the Canadian Right.

The first and probably most important turning point was the federal election of 1963, where the staunch Tory John Diefenbaker was defeated by Liberal Lester B. Pearson. As Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Parkin Grant tells the tale, Diefenbaker was swept from office with the assistance of all of the managerialist and pollster expertise of the capitalist North American classes, who resented Diefenbaker’s refusal to accept U.S. nuclear weapons in Canada. Pearson introduced a major series of transformative reforms – the most crucially symbolic of which was the replacement of the Canadian flag in February 1965. The traditional Red Ensign (with the coat of arms of Canada and with the Union Jack in the upper left corner) was replaced by an abstract looking red maple leaf, with a red-and-white flag suggestive of a Liberal Party logo. In political science, the replacement of a country’s flag is often seen as symbolic of “regime change”. The message of the flag change was cemented by the celebration of the Centennial of Confederation at Expo ’67 in Montreal, a celebration suffused with progressive imagery, suggesting a “re-Confederation”. Also, the immigration policy was changed by Pearson to the “points system”, which suggested an opening to Third World immigration. Before the 1960s, Toronto was considered as so conservative and British-focussed, it was nicknamed “Tory Toronto”. That was quickly changed by mass, dissimilar immigration, to the point that Toronto now is “the most diverse city on the planet”.

1968, a year of revolutions around the globe, was marked in Canada by “Trudeaumania”. The charismatic Liberal Pierre Elliott Trudeau (later dubbed “the Northern Magus” or “the philosopher-king”) won a huge majority. In 1969, Trudeau legalized abortion and homosexuality. In 1971, he proclaimed Canada a multicultural society (at a time when 96 percent of the population was of European descent). Indeed, the initial definition of multiculturalism was mostly a recognition of non-English, non-French European groups – a definition that was quickly eclipsed in subsequent years by the valorization of so-called visible minorities. Trudeau promoted high immigration from the Third World. He also enacted extensive bilingualism policies, which amounted to a promotion of French.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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