The long defeat -- where the Canadian Right went wrong (Part One)
By Mark Wegierski
The Dominion of Canada was founded in 1867 as the result of a “compact” between two peoples of longstanding history, English and French Canada, whose respective heritages stretched back centuries. The Aboriginal peoples were included insofar as they had been traditionally considered to be under the special protection of the Crown. Canada was dominated by the Conservatives/Bleus of Macdonald and Cartier until 1896. In the federal election of that year, partly owing to the baneful execution of Louis Riel, French Quebec switched its vote en masse to the Liberals, led by Wilfrid Laurier. After 1896, most of the federal governments were Liberal, with only brief Conservative interludes. However, Canada was dominated by a “traditionalist-centrist” consensus in which all major parties shared. For example, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), while economically social democratic, was mostly socially conservative, viewing traditional nation, family, and religion as part of a pre-political consensus that they had no desire to challenge. Thus, the frequent Liberal victories had comparatively little impact on a society, politics, and culture dominated by the “traditionalist-centrist” consensus. Nevertheless, the long years spent out of power by the Conservative Party (from 1942 to 2003, the Progressive Conservative Party) tended to atrophy their political skills and steadily reduced the salience of traditionalism and conservatism in the country. The long years out of government prevented the Tory party from ever learning “the discipline of power”.
The federal election of 1963 was one of most critical in Canadian history. The staunch Tory, John Diefenbaker (who had been Prime Minister from 1957), faced the Liberal, career diplomat, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in establishing United Nations peace-keeping, Lester B. Pearson. Diefenbaker had won a minority government in 1957, and one of the historically largest majorities in the federal Parliament in 1958, with the support of Quebec. As Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Parkin Grant has noted, one of the focuses of the 1963 election was the fight over whether to accept U.S. nuclear weapons on Canadian soil, which Diefenbaker opposed. Diefenbaker lost the election, while Pearson won a minority government (a plurality of seats in the House of Commons). Pearson was to a large extent an archetypical liberal, filled with a reforming zeal. One of his most important acts was the change of the Canadian flag from the Red Ensign to the Maple Leaf Flag (dubbed “the Pearson Pennant”). Although the importance of the change has frequently been underrated in Canada, many political thinkers have interpreted the change of a country’s flag as a compelling symbol of “regime-change”. Arguably, this was ultimately proven in the case of Canada as well. The conclusion of this crucial phase in the political history of Canada is clearly the celebration of the Centennial of Confederation in 1967, dominated by the spirit of the times – progressive thinking was in the air, “forward-looking” ideas were at the heart of Expo ’67 in Montreal. Canada was literally the changing world’s stage in this pivotal year.
Sometimes called “the philosopher-king” or “the Northern Magus,” Trudeau arrived on the scene in a big way in the federal election of 1968, characterized as one of “Trudeaumania”. Winning virtually every seat in Quebec, plus about half of the seats in English-speaking Canada, Trudeau easily formed a majority government. An unabashed “progressive,” he governed in an “activist”, “transformational” way, imposing his wide-reaching agenda on the federal government, and the country as a whole. 1968 has been seen by historians as a pivotal year – a year of major cultural shifts in European and North American countries as well as around the world – and it marked the beginning of a fundamental shift in the Canadian polity – traditional Canada was dying.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.