Reflections On Canada Day: The Shifting Of Power, New Players And Old Challenges
Originally published On IPolitics.ca in 2012
This past Canada Day, I was reflecting on some of the most interesting trends I’ve noticed over the last couple of years in Canadian politics. John Ibbitson has written about the collapse of what he calls the “Laurentian Consensus”, and the subsequent shift of political power to Western Canada, over and above the old consensus, based on power in Ontario and Quebec, that governed Canada. As power shifted west, so too did the electorate’s values, with Quebec on the outside, or so Ibbitson claimed. At the same time, the Harper government also set about establishing a new narrative of Canada, one that came in response to the original narrative supposedly established by the Liberals that centred around developments that could be attributed to their party.
While Ibbitson made several interesting points in his essay, I have to admit that I’m not entirely convinced by his claims that the old values are out of date, or that the old assumptions are entirely gone. Studying Canadian history and the many different viewpoints that I’ve come across, I’ve come to realize that there is in fact much more common ground and common values across Canada than most people seem to realize. Many of us share similar feelings of alienation, even as we often don’t fully understand where the other parts of Canada are coming from.
Take, for instance, the case of John Diefenbaker, the Conservative firebrand from Saskatchewan who was Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963. Diefenbaker has been admired by a variety of different groups, for often varying reasons. Diefenbaker spoke to many Western Canadians who felt alienated from the corridors of power in Ottawa, even as he enacted policies that benefited that region. His legacy has also been invoked by modern Conservatives who describe him as a “populist Conservative” fighting against an entrenched Liberal administration, and his invoking of a “Canada of the North” , both of which the Harper government doubtlessly seeks to invoke with its criticisms of supposed Liberal elitism and its Arctic sovereignty initiatives. However, Diefenbaker is also a respected figure in the Red Tory narrative of Canada for his opposition to closer continental integration with the United States, which is said to compare favourably with Stephen Harper’s desire to follow the Americans’ lead on various foreign policy issues. He was also a remarkably activist prime minister, doing everything from finding new markets for Western Canadian grain to creating the National Council on Welfare.
It’s curious that Diefenbaker could be so respected by two supposedly so different political traditions. One of the popular ideas today is that Red Toryism is dead and the ascending Blue Toryism is supposedly incompatible with it, but you wouldn’t know it looking at Diefenbaker, who clearly didn’t see anything contradictory in his actions and policies appealing to both traditions of conservatism. The supposed demise of Red Toryism is also suspect when we consider some of its key principles as outlined by Ron Dart, such as the positive role of government action, support for and respect of the land and the common good and the positive role religion can play in the state, also continue to play a role in Canadian conservatism.
Preston Manning, one of the leading lights of modern Canadian conservatism, illustrates some of these tendencies. He has spoke extensively about the need for “green conservatism” and the necessity of conservatives to look at environmental issues, and has also gone on record as supporting putting a price on carbon and emissions. Manning is also a religious man who’s written about the positive role Christianity has played in influencing his views and his growth, but he has also very specifically noted that this must be noncoercive. To Manning, true Christianity is distinguished from spurious Christianity in that the former does not seek to impose itself or its solutions on people who do not want to receive them.
As for the common good and the positive role of state action, Conservative governments have proven themselves to be just as willing as Liberal or NDP governments to carry out nation- or province-building projects when they are in the driver’s seat. Even now, the Harper government has made an extensive effort to promote its “Economic Action Plan” to Canadians, even as various Conservative MPs have promoted on their websites the positive actions the federal government has taken for their constituents. Whether you believe it comes from political necessity or genuine belief, under the current government the state can and does continue to play a positive role in the economy and ensuring the common good. Indeed, the political writer Richard Clippingdale, himself an adherent of the Red Tory policies Robert Stanfield espoused, speculates that Stanfield would have found not only worrying tendencies but encouraging trends in the new Conservative party, and that a number of Harper’s policies can be seen to fit into a pattern originally inspired by Stanfield.
So, while Canadian values may have changed to some extent, it’s not clear that they’ve changed to the extent that John Ibbitson claims they have. No less a Conservative than Tom Flanagan, the federal Conservative Party’s former campaign director, stated that the Liberal consensus lives on, and is simply under new management. Certainly, political clout has shifted in Western Canada’s favour, although even then there’s more common ground between the Western and Eastern parts of Canada than is often realized. Even my own home province of Alberta, the province most known for standing up and protesting federal initiatives and criticizing what Ibbitson refers to as the Laurentian Consensus, is an example of this.
In reading Geo Takach’s book Will The Real Alberta Please Stand Up?, I was struck by how much many tendencies and traits in Alberta have reflected those of other parts of Canada. Takach notes that, by and large, Alberta has a strong sense of being treated as an exploited hinterland by Central Canadian interests. This reflects Canada’s treatment as a whole by Great Britain, which often treated Canada as simply to be exploited either for resources or for political favour with the United States. Although Alberta is the most conservative province in Canada, it also has a tendency to move back towards the political centre much like the rest of the country, as witnessed by then-Premier Ralph Klein increasing government spending once again after the provincial books had been balanced, Preston Manning’s support of green issues typically raised by the left, or former Premier Ernest Manning’s support of “an acceptable level of social services that everyone could afford.”
And then there was the positive role government can play in the economy, as witnessed by government support for the oil and gas industry or the more general support many Albertans have expressed for incentives to have more of the province’s oil and gas refined and upgraded in Alberta, or at least in Canada, rather than seeing the raw product shipped to a foreign country. Even the Wildrose Alliance party, the most right-wing major party running in the 2012 Alberta election, talked about such policies as developing a natural gas strategy to create and expand domestic markets for natural gas, reforming the way electricity is bought and sold in Alberta, specifically to reduce price spikes for consumers and businesses, and identifying incentives for the private sector to upgrade and refine more of Alberta’s bitumen within the province.
Government support of the oil and gas industry, as well as the support for incentives to refine more petrochemical products within Alberta’s borders despite what market forces might otherwise desire, remind me of the incentives and other actions taken by Central Canadian governments to encourage particular economic goals. While Alberta may differ from the rest of Canada in some substantial ways, in practice many of the ideas and actions taken by my province are not necessarily as different from those of other parts of Canada as Ibbitson seems to imply. As previously noted, the Harper government is also making an effort to communicate its own support for particular projects in various parts of the country.
Alberta voices have long been some of the most strident in speaking for the concerns of what’s come to be referred to as “Western alienation”, the sense that the Western provinces were shut out of a federal status quo led by decision-makers from Ontario and Quebec who made policy to benefit their regions, often at Western Canada’s expense. In particular, Quebec was seen as benefiting from federal attention and largesse, due in part to the efforts of Pierre Trudeau and later Prime Ministers to fight Quebec separation. Since the Quebec issue doesn’t seem to be solved, many people have concluded that the province is apparently just spoiled and that nothing will satisfy it.
The truth is that, as with Alberta, there’s much more to the story. Quebec writer Christian Dufour has noted that many Quebecers also feel alienated by a federal status quo that doesn’t recognize the unique situation that Quebec faces in North America, and insists on a political arrangement that favours the primacy of Anglophone culture, even as this same status quo prevents the Atlantic and Western parts of the country from fully participating in Confederation. Quebec francophones like Henri Bourassa spoke about describing Canada as being established by “two founding peoples”, with Quebec needing particular recognition as the only province in Canada with a francophone majority. Pierre Trudeau obviously opposed this, but according to some critics in opposing the idea of duality Trudeau ended up supporting Anglo-American political ideas that didn’t fully recognize the distinct situation Quebec faced in Canada. Even Stéphane Dion, as Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs in Jean Chretien’s Cabinet in the 1990s, spoke of the need to recognize his province as a distinct society in the Constitution. It’s an open question whether such francophone Quebecers would see themselves as part of Ibbitson’s Laurentian Consensus. More likely, they would probably feel as alienated from it as many Albertans.
That said, such debates mask the commonalities francophone Quebecers share with other Canadians. Federalist writer and politician Claude Ryan has written in glowing terms about the positive effects of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, while Alberta commentators have noted that, while the Charter was ostensibly the outcome of a struggle between Québec politicians, actually reflects a number of Western Canadian values on human rights. Even a young Stéphane Dion, in his days as a university professor, wrote about how the values of francophone Quebecers were becoming increasingly in line with those of other Canadians, even as francophone Quebecers made an effort to assert their distinctiveness.
More generally, the debates Québec has had over the last 45-50 years regarding the status of the French language in that province, as well as how new immigrants should adapt to it, remind me of the criticisms many English-speaking Canadians have had of multiculturalism and how it supposedly reinforces differences between new and old Canadians, when the new arrivals would be better served by assimilating into the established society. Both the language debates in Quebec and the broader cultural debates across Canada come from a concern held by members of the established societies that concern that their cultures are being undermined by new arrivals that aren’t interested in conforming to the society they’ve joined and are more concerned with importing their own values. In that respect, francophone Quebecers aren’t necessarily that different from other Canadians.
Nor are they the only ones who are trying to assert their distinctiveness from other Canadians. For decades, Aboriginal peoples in Canada have been trying to make the point that they form a distinct part of society, and that many of the problems they currently face were in fact caused by the efforts of white society to erase their distinctiveness and force them to assimilate into it. Correspondingly, many Aboriginal activists have also called for their distinctiveness to be recognized in Canada and talked about their status as a founding people. This is not unlike the idea of “two founding peoples” enounced by some francophone Quebecers, and in fact John Ralston Saul incorporated both ideas into a notion of Canada having been founded by the “three founding peoples” of Anglophones, Francophones and Aboriginals.
Another tendency I’ve noticed that Western Canadians, Aboriginal peoples, and Quebecers all share is that they’ve all been asked what they “want”. Westerners have been asked this question, Aboriginal peoples have been asked it, and Quebec has been asked it. This clearly implies that there’s a lot of mutual misunderstanding in Canada, misunderstanding that obscures a lot of the common ground we as Canadians have.
Aside from the problem of assuming that the old values are completely eclipsed, another flaw in Ibbitson’s analysis is his attributing specific values and accomplishments exclusively to one region, party or ideology. Support for the military is not an exclusively conservative virtue, considering that the Liberals under Sir Wilfrid Laurier created the Canadian Navy in 1910, while the Canadian military as a whole reached the height of its power and prestige under the Liberal William Lyon Mackenzie King during World War II. Fiscal prudence is not an exclusively conservative virtue either, when one recalls that it was the Chretien Liberals who got rid of the deficit in the 1990s. Nor is populism, when one recalls Pierre Trudeau’s efforts to undercut provincial opposition to his constitutional initiatives in the early 1980s by appealing directly to the public and trying to forge a broad popular consensus in support of his actions or the significant role he played in derailing the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords by arousing popular opposition to them.
On the other hand, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has important Conservative and NDP influences as well, given the inclusion of such things as the notwithstanding clause and the increased recognition of resource taxation rights for the provinces, at the insistence of the Conservative and NDP provincial premiers who eventually agreed to Pierre Trudeau’s constitutional patriation. Nor are Canadian Liberals the only ones to embark on nation- or province-building projects when they are in office, as Canadian Conservatives have been quite happy to do the same thing when they themselves are in power. Similarly, it was John Diefenbaker who created the National Council on Welfare, and created the original Canadian Bill of Rights, accomplishments that most people today would associate with the Liberals or the NDP. In short, many of the ideas and evolutions experienced by Canadian society have cut across regional and party lines, and do not exclusively belong to any party or part of the country.
Where Ibbitson is correct is in noting how demographic and political power have shifted westward, and how other parts of the country were often treated by Central Canadian leaders as semi-colonial possessions. Quite often, these leaders made policy that benefited their own home provinces, but caused headaches for other parts of Canada. This, as much as anything, was the root cause of Western alienation and the sense that the Western provinces weren’t being treated fairly by the federal government. However, there are signs that now the shoe is on the other foot-Preston Manning, for one, has expressed his concern over Eastern alienation, which has replaced the Western alienation that inspired him to create the Reform party in the first place.
Unfair treatment by the federal government created alienation in Western Canada, and the perception that Ottawa did not care about the West’s interests, masking many of the common values that Westerners shared with their fellow Canadians. Now, however, the West is “in”, and many of the issues Western Canadians have been raising for years are finally being dealt with. As a Westerner and an Albertan myself, I’m very glad these issues have finally received attention that has been, in many cases, long overdue.
However, I also share Manning’s concerns about whether we’ve simply exchanged one set of problems with another. Does the collapse of the Laurentian Consensus make Aboriginal people or francophone Quebecers feel any less alienated? Will it mean that issues of importance to Atlantic Canada, the region whose people now feel they are the worst-treated by the federal government, will receive more attention in Ottawa? Is Arctic sovereignty the only issue that of interest to the Northern territories that will be addressed? In our rush to promote some of our values and historic accomplishments that were previously overlooked, are we now letting others fall by the wayside? And who is to say that the West will not find itself back on the outside looking in, if power shifts once again in Ottawa?
The Laurentian Consensus can be criticized for not paying sufficient attention to these issues and focusing only on the matters that personally interested its proponents. However, the major challenge that we now face, in 21st century Canada, is how we bridge the gap between all these different perspectives and peoples who are often alienated and don’t understand one another, despite the common ground that continues to exist between them.
Too often it’s easy to stereotype all Albertans as radical laissez-faire conservatives who don’t care about any other part of the country, all French Quebecers as entitled bigots who don’t care about anyone who’s not a “pure laine” of French ancestry, or all Aboriginals as lazy, entitled and refusing to contribute to Canada. What this overlooks, however, is why people have often come to the conclusions they have, and just why they feel alienated in the first place and why they want the changes they do.
Indeed, I would like to see all of these perspectives heard, and all of these accomplishments celebrated in Ottawa. The “Laurentian Consensus” can be quite rightly criticized for often treating the outer parts of the country as colonial hinterlands and treating with contempt any efforts by these outer parts of the country to assert themselves. It’s great that the West is finally in, and that many of the West’s biggest frustrations are being addressed, but even if economic and political power is shifting West we cannot afford to leave other parts of the country hanging, even if they do not support the government of the day. This was one of the reasons for the Laurentian Consensus’s supposed downfall, after all.
Ibbitson describes the new “Conservative Coalition” that he claims has replaced the Laurentian Consensus as incorporating everyone from Saskatchewan wheat farmers to Filipina nannies. Perhaps the final flaw in Ibbitson’s analysis is his describing such a coalition as something new in Canada. What’s worth remembering is that the Laurentian Consensus itself still attracted support from outside Ontario and Quebec. Even the likes of Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien, at different points, won seats on the Prairies that helped bolster their majorities. Despite all the problems many of the Consensus’s policies might have caused for these other parts of Canada, its proponents had and continue to have support in these other regions.
More broadly, Canada itself is a broad coalition of many different groups, who have often had to make compromises with one another in order to be able to live together. In turn, they found common ground on a lot of issues, common ground that enabled them to form a country despite the very real differences they had in other areas. These differences continue to exist in Canada today, but so too do the common values and common ideas that distinguish who we are as a country. While political and economic power has shifted in Canada, the country continues to hold many of the same fundamental ideas and face many of the same fundamental challenges it always has as it enters its 145th year.
Jared Milne is a researcher and Unity activist from Alberta