Fading blues – the decline of the Tory tradition in Canada since the 1980s (Part One)
By Mark Wegierski
This series of pieces will look at the so-called “Centre-Right Opposition” in Canada over the last four decades. I use the term “Centre-Right Opposition” to point to the fact that, since the 1960s, the dominant party in Canadian politics has clearly been the federal Liberal Party.
As has been argued in earlier articles, the federal Progressive Conservative party of Brian Mulroney, although it won huge Parliamentary majorities in 1984 and 1988, was a very pale, thin shadow of what the Conservative Party had represented in Canada from Confederation in 1867, to 1896. Indeed, the Conservative Party had dominated Canada in the nineteenth century (1) almost as thoroughly as the Liberal Party would rule the country in the twentieth century. Brian Mulroney did not prove to be another John A. Macdonald. The federal PCs of the 1980s indeed in no way resembled the powerful conservative alliance of Upper Canada and Maritime Tories, and Catholic Quebec Bleus, who had originally been the pre-eminent elements in the creation of the Dominion of Canada. The situation was such in the nineteenth century, that Sir Etienne-Paschal Taché had said, in reference to his own people, the French-Canadians: "We are, in our habits, by our laws, and by our religion, monarchists and conservatives."
It should also be remembered that, until 1963, the Liberal Party – especially under the very long-serving Prime Ministers, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Mackenzie King -- on most issues solidly embraced the “traditionalist-centrist” consensus. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the pre-1960s precursor to the New Democratic Party (NDP) (Canada’s social democratic “third party”) while emphatically social-democratic in economics was, to a large extent, socially conservative, mostly upholding traditional notions of nation, family, and religion. Thus, it could be argued that the absolutely critical Canadian elections – when it really mattered whether Liberals or Conservatives prevailed – occurred in 1963 to 1980.
One must again return to the vital role that Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the emphatically Liberal Prime Minister from 1968 to 1984 (except for nine months in 1979-1980) played in establishing a “new consensus” in a society which had until the 1960s been considered to be at least somewhat tending towards traditionalism and conservatism. Indeed, even Stephen Harper, to a large extent, had not dared to break out of the “Trudeau consensus reality” on Canada (a construct which some have termed “Trudeaupia”). It is difficult to find any society in history, where there has been seen the degree of impact by one individual, as is the case with Canada and Trudeau. Indeed, the imprint of Trudeau has been so massive, that the system appears virtually incapable of being tempered or moderated. Despite his massive majority in 1984, Mulroney’s mind was to a large extent enthralled by the Trudeau vision of Canada, and he could not bring himself to challenge any significant aspect of the Trudeaupia. Thus, it could be argued, there has been, even until today, no major countervailing efforts by a sitting federal government against the ever-accelerating entrenchment of the system.
Lester B. Pearson, the Liberal Prime Minister from 1963 to 1968, to a large extent had paved the way for Trudeau, especially in regard to the change of the flag in 1965 – which many political theorists would consider a major symbol of “regime-change”. The very traditional-looking Red Ensign – with a Union Jack in the upper-left corner, and the shield of the coat-of-arms of Canada on a field of royal scarlet – was replaced by the rather abstract-looking Maple Leaf in a rather plastic shade of red. At the time of its adoption, the flag was criticized by some people as being to a considerable degree, a Liberal Party banner. It was dubbed “the Pearson Pennant”.
Nevertheless, Pearson to some extent justified various changes such as the new flag, using somewhat traditionalist language. Such policies as incipient multiculturalism were at that time seen as simply being a call for decency and politeness in ethnic relations, certainly not a challenge to more traditional notions of Canadian nationhood. It may also be remembered that multiculturalism in its original definition was perforce focussed on such groups as Ukrainian- and Italian-Canadians, as there were comparatively few “visible minorities” (2) in Canada at that time. And the polymorphous socio-sexual agenda of social liberalism as it has flowered in Canada today would likely have repelled Pearson.
Trudeau took these various tendencies and drove them very far, indeed – speaking, for example, about how Canada was going to become a veritable laboratory of cultural mixture for the world to admire and emulate. There was also the concerted Liberal strategy to destroy “Tory Toronto”. The city had received that nickname decades earlier because it was considered so conservative and British-oriented. Today, it is still snidely said by some people that in the 1950s, you could fire a cannon down Toronto’s main street on Sunday, and not hit anyone (because they were all at church!).
The excesses of the system were, ironically, exacerbated even further by Mulroney, who raised immigration levels to about a quarter-million persons a year (from the approximately 54,000 persons to which they had fallen in Trudeau’s last year in office in 1983-1984). At the same time, official multiculturalism policies became even more deeply entrenched. All the various panoply of the Trudeaupia acquired an ever-accelerating dynamic of their own -- that certainly did not brook any tempering or moderation -- driving Canada into what at least some traditionalists and conservatives would see – at least in some aspects -- as a near-dystopic, quasi-apocalyptic condition.
Indeed, by the 1980s, the PC party had lost any sense of even slightly traditionalist and conservative principles and beliefs. Such principles and beliefs -- however antiquated sounding -- might have given it a better chance in 1993 (3) and later, to capture the imagination of the voters, and would have clearly delineated it from its two main ideological rivals, the Liberals and the NDP. At the same time, had the federal PCs remained – to some extent at least -- a "small-c conservative" (i.e., substantively conservative) party, there would have been no need for the arising of Preston Manning's Reform Party. In fact, however, the Progressive Conservative party of Brian Mulroney frequently and actively fought and opposed “small-c conservatism”.
To be continued.
(1) Strictly speaking, the Conservative Party was known in the earlier part of this period as the Liberal-Conservative party. Their opponents were the so-called Clear Grits in Upper Canada (Ontario), and the Rouges in Quebec. The term suggests that a “traditionalist-centrist” consensus existed in the nineteenth century as well. There has clearly occurred a radical overturning of the traditional Canada in the post-Sixties period, the creation of the so-called “Trudeau consensus.” In an earlier article, I had called this “Canada Two.”
(2) A term officially used by governments in Canada. However, the use of the term “minority” (without the adjective) in Canada today, also almost invariably suggests a person of colour.
(3) It may be recalled that the Progressive Conservatives won a total of two seats in the federal election of 1993.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.