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George Parkin Grant in Canadian context

By Mark Wegierski
web posted November 12, 2018

George GrantThis year is the centenary of George Grant’s birth, and thirty years since his passing.

George Parkin Grant (1918-1988), is Canada’s leading traditionalist philosopher. The main expression of George Grant’s thought occurs in his four major books: Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965), Technology and Empire: Perspectives on North America (1969), English-Speaking Justice (1974/1985), and Technology and Justice (1986). Philosophy in the Mass Age (1959), and Time as History (1969), are his two major earlier works.
Grant is a complex philosophical critic of technology and America.

Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965), was one of Grant’s more popular and generally accessible books. That work has remained almost continuously in print in Canada.

Lament for a Nation mourns what George Grant sees as the end of real Canadian independence in the 1960s. As George Grant tells the story, Canadian Tory Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had refused to accept U.S. nuclear weapons on Canadian soil – with the result that all the instrumentalities of the North American managerial capitalist classes were turned against him, in the crucial 1963 Canadian federal election. Diefenbaker’s lost campaign is characterized in the book as “the last strangled cry of his pre-modern Loyalist ancestors”. (The Tories were already officially called the Progressive Conservative party, having added the adjective in 1942.) The Liberal Lester B. Pearson won the election.

Grant is highly prescient in mourning the passing of a more traditional Canada, although his focus is not exclusively on the impending destruction of what would later come to be called social conservatism. Rather, he is more concerned with the dangers of corporate liberalism, and corporate technocracy, which he sees as emanating from America to undermine a more traditional Canada. Grant’s outlook lies somewhere between that of a traditionalist conservative, and of a “social conservative of the Left”. There are a number of illustrious figures who embrace the latter outlook, notably John Ruskin, William Morris, Jack London, George Orwell, Christopher Lasch, and, in Canada, the noted constitutional scholar and union adviser Eugene Forsey. 

The work seems to express a deep pessimism, and certainly does not offer any pat answers in regard to what is to be done to redeem Canada.

Certain sectors of the Canadian Left, including George Grant’s close friend, Gad Horowitz, were greatly impressed with the book, and understood it as a clarion call for the creation of infrastructures of a “more compassionate” society in Canada – their idea of fighting for Canadian nationalism. Gad Horowitz had also, in the 1960s, severely criticized the onset of multiculturalism policies in Canada, arguing that they would undermine the sense of nationhood that he saw as a prerequisite for the flowering of real social democracy in Canada.

George Grant, who was sometimes called a “Red Tory”, clearly gave that term one of its most positive and philosophical interpretations. Unfortunately, others, notably shallow Progressive Conservative party operatives, used the term as an excuse for opportunistic policies. They became “socialists” without embracing true community, and “liberals” without embracing genuine individualism and freedom of speech.

Grant was prescient in pointing to the centrality of the 1963 federal election, for subsequent developments in Canada – although, as has been noted above, he did not focus exclusively on social conservatism. 

It can be seen that, before the 1960s, all the major parties had partaken of a “traditionalist-centrist consensus”, i.e., they were all socially conservative to some extent, while differing in regard to economics. The adoption of the new flag (the Maple Leaf Pennant, also sometimes dubbed “the Pearson Pennant”) in 1965 pointed to the fact that massive social and cultural change was in the offing. It is a longstanding idea in the study of politics that a change of a country’s flag is a marker of “regime change”.

With the arrival of “Trudeaumania” in 1968, the country was thrust into ever more massive social and cultural change, which continued unabated for the sixteen years that Liberal Pierre Elliott Trudeau held the Prime Ministership. Trudeau’s further success in the elections of 1972, 1974, and 1980, can largely be attributed to the fact that Quebec voters delivered virtually every seat in Quebec to the Liberal Party. Also, importantly, the Liberal minority government of 1972 was supported by the left-wing New Democratic Party. Guaranteed roughly a quarter of the seats in the federal Parliament, Trudeau needed then to pick up only a majority of seats in Ontario, to win an over-all majority. Trudeau had indeed realized that a majority in the federal Parliament could probably be cobbled together from only Ontario and Quebec. He treated most of Western Canada with contempt.

The only discontinuity in Trudeau’s tenure was when Joe Clark’s P.C.s unexpectedly won a minority government in the 1979 federal election. However, the P.C.s quickly lost the so-called “non-confidence vote” in the federal Parliament, meaning that another election had to be called. The Liberals once again won a majority in the federal Parliament, in 1980. Joe Clark’s government had lasted only nine months.

A society that in 1965, was often seen as very socially conservative, was transmogrified into one of the most “progressive” societies on the planet, by 1984 – especially with the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into the Canadian constitutional structure in 1982. The Charter essentially enshrined virtually the entire Trudeau agenda, as the highest law of the land. The Charter was quickly backed up by an increasingly “activist” Canadian Supreme Court, where one would have been hard-pressed to find even one designated conservative.

In 1983, a fascinating leadership contest in the P.C. party set the ineffectual Joe Clark aside, and selected Brian Mulroney as leader. At this time, Mulroney allowed the aura of a “right-winger” to settle over him, as he perceived it would be to his advantage in the upcoming election.

Trudeau finally retired, and John Turner was chosen leader of the Liberal Party, immediately becoming Prime Minister for a few months before the election. John Turner had been one of the many somewhat more right-leaning Liberals that Trudeau had increasingly shunted aside from major roles in the party. Indeed, it is sometimes argued that Trudeau had “hijacked” a far more centrist Liberal Party, and turned it into a personal instrument for revolutionary change.

Brian Mulroney, with his huge P.C. majorities of 1984 and 1988, actually mostly continued in the footsteps of Trudeau. The 1988 federal election was fought and won on the issue of Free Trade with the U.S. Traditionally, the Tories had opposed Free Trade with the U.S., whereas the Liberals had promoted it. In 1988, the roles were reversed. The Liberal leader John Turner, who was patriotically arguing against the Free Trade Agreement, could be seen in many ways as more conservative than Mulroney.

Western Canadian and “small-c conservative” alienation from Mulroney led to the founding of the Reform Party of Canada in 1987. (The term “small-c conservative” in Canada refers to so-called “ideological” conservatives – as opposed to the “big-C” Conservative Party, whose commitment to conservative principles has frequently been lackadaisical or non-existent.) The Reform Party’s main founder and leader was Preston Manning, the son of a long-time Alberta Premier, who had represented a smaller, centre-right, protest party (Social Credit). The Reform Party was initially a Western Canadian regional party, but, by 1991, had become a Canada-wide party.

In the 1993 federal election, the Reform Party won 52 seats, while the Bloc Quebecois, which had arisen after the failure to ratify the Meech Lake Accord and Charlottetown Agreements (two constitutional attempts to conciliate Quebec) won 54, thus becoming the Official Opposition. Since 1982, the province of Quebec had refused to accede to the Charter, because it claimed that it undermined the “collective rights” of the Quebecois. In 1993, the Liberals under Jean Chretien won a majority, while the P.C.s were reduced to two seats.

Having won a majority in the provincial parliament of Quebec in 1994, the Parti Quebecois launched a referendum to separate from Canada in 1995, which came very close to success.
This was already a second attempt to secede. In 1980, the Parti Quebecois had undertaken a referendum, although the question was ambiguously phrased as “sovereignty-association”, and was defeated by a ratio of about 60-40.

Because of the “vote-splitting” between Reform and the P.C.s – as well as the continual climate of derision against the Reform Party in the Canadian “main stream media” – the Liberals were able to easily win parliamentary majorities in the federal elections of 1997 and 2000. In 1997, the Reform Party won 60 seats (all of them from Western Canada) and became the Official Opposition. The 2000 campaign was waged by the Liberals against the Canadian Alliance, which had been an attempt to broaden the Reform Party. The Canadian Alliance’s hopes were sunk when its leader, Stockwell Day, became widely characterized as a “fundamentalist Christian extremist”. Preston Manning had run against Stockwell Day in 2000 for the leadership of the CA, but had lost, when Stockwell Day had massively organized social conservatives on his behalf.

Although the CA had improved its seat total slightly (to 66) (and remained the Official Opposition) there occurred in 2001 a revolt in caucus against Day’s leadership, which at one time attracted thirteen CA M.P.s. As a result, Day was forced into a leadership contest, which he lost to Stephen Harper. Harper had been elected as Reform M.P. in 1993, but chose not to run in 1997, instead becoming for several years, the head of the National Citizens’ Coalition (NCC), one of the most prominent of Canada’s few right-wing lobby organizations.

Finally, in December 2003, there occurred a merger between the CA and the federal P.C.s – who renamed themselves as “the Conservative Party of Canada” – significantly without the “progressive” adjective. Stephen Harper became the leader of the new Conservative Party in 2004.

In 2004, the Liberals won only a minority government under their new leader, Paul Martin, Jr.

In 2006, the Conservatives were able to win a minority government. Through deft maneuvering and centrist policies, Harper kept the minority government in power continuously, with the other three parties (the Liberals, the left-wing New Democratic Party, and the separatist Bloc Quebecois) never combining their majority of Parliamentary seats, to vote it down.

In 2008, Harper called an election himself, and the Conservatives won a strengthened minority in the federal Parliament.

Finally, in 2011, the government was voted down in Parliament, thus necessitating the calling of an election. But Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were then able to win a majority in the federal Parliament.

This was supposed to be the culmination of more than twenty years of “small-c conservative” efforts. However, the years of the Conservative majority government (2011-2015) proved rather disappointing to “small-c conservatives”.

This indeed suggests that since the late 1960s, a new, “Trudeau consensus” or “left-liberal consensus” has enveloped Canada – which it is very difficult to counteract. Some critics have used the term “Trudeaupia” as shorthand for the various structures that Trudeau created. So, it could be argued that the patterns of current-day Canadian society, politics, and culture, have indeed been set down five or so decades ago.

And now, Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s son, Justin, has come roaring back to power, with the Liberals winning a strong majority in the October 2015 federal election. The youthful Justin projects a “rock-star ambience” which it is very difficult to challenge in the kind of society Canada has become.

The seeming futility of various “small-c conservative” efforts since the 1960s, seems to point to the prescience of Grant’s thesis that any more substantive and traditional Canadian nationalism, had been defeated and beaten down, already in 1963. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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