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book review

The authors of ‘The Big Shift’ argue that a new suburban, multi-ethnic, upwardly mobile citizen has resulted in a shift to the right.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

On the very first day of the 2006 federal election campaign, the election that would unseat the Liberals and propel the Conservatives into 24 Sussex, a member of the national media had the temerity to ask Stephen Harper, "Do you love Canada?" – more an accusation than a question. Seven years and two elections later, The Big Shift tables an answer: Depends what you mean by "Canada." Back in 2006, remember, the organs and agencies of the political right, from the government of Alberta to private-sector talk-radio stations, voiced one great howl of exasperation about the Canada that was, the Canada that had come to be after decades of Liberal rule. Given the opportunity, many seemed to suggest, they would tear the damn thing down to its timbers and start again.

Love it or list it? Relax, worked-up right-wingers, counsel co-authors Darrell Bricker, pollster and chief executive officer of Ipsos Global Public Affairs, and John Ibbitson, The Globe and Mail's chief political correspondent – the Canada conservatives might wish for has been delivered unto them, not by master strategist Harper and not by backroom political cunning, but by population demographics, a force as uncontestable as the tides.

Immigration policy, the authors argue, has produced a new suburban, multiethnic, upwardly mobile and ever-growing category of citizens who want lower taxes, criminals in prison, far less bureaucracy and an iron grip on the public purse strings. Joined with the traditional conservative base and fired by a newly ascendant energy sector, the immigrant fact has tilted the country away from old collectivist concerns and toward an ethos in which free enterprise is unrestricted, which is what makes it free.

Goodbye Scotland. Hello Singapore.

The Big Shift, as its title suggests, is one of those books that purports to divine a single, telling fact to explain Canada now. If that fact echoes Jacques Parizeau's infamous 1995 comment about "money and the ethnic vote," it is not, as Bricker and Ibbitson advance it, a form of bigotry, but a species of determinism: The political values, and therefore voting tendencies, of new arrivals and first-generation Canadians are contingent on their race and region of origin.

Further, this "Big Shift in power to the West and to suburban immigrants" is not only permanent but "will make Canada inexorably a more conservative place." Resistance is futile. Bad news for progressives, whether they manage to unite or not. They are on the wrong side of demography.

The authors are at pains to stress that they merely document this "seismic" shift to the right; they neither endorse nor condemn it. But it is hard to ignore the note of triumphalism throughout the book. The new power alliance between the resource-rich West and the "strivers" in suburbia amounts to a victory over what the authors repeatedly refer to as the Laurentian elites – who, we are to believe, imposed their condescending will and their big-government command plans on the country throughout the 20th century and into the 21st in a seamless orthodoxy.

The fractious free-trade debate of the late 1980s? Merely a family squabble within the Laurentian elites. Mandarins and intellectuals, titans of Bay Street and the opinion makers in the newsrooms of the nation, they ruled the land like some Château Clique for the television age until they were eventually undone by the open immigration policy they themselves created a generation ago, in the 1970s.

Hence the animosity in certain quarters toward Stephen Harper, whom the Laurentian elites are convinced is an enemy of Canada and whose majority government is an aberration won through anti-democratic chicanery and a splintered opposition. The Laurentian elites just don't get it, and it's only a matter of time before the new regime asks, "Don't you love Canada?"

There is no doubt a measure of satisfaction to be had in whacking the stuffing out of a straw man (or, in this case, a whole imagined class of straw men) and the broad strokes The Big Shift paints certainly capture some of the contours of the country. To their credit, Bricker and Ibbitson offer their argument in the spirit of "a polite provocation," and the book is jauntily written, like an extended newspaper column. But the evidence on which it is based is slender: some polling and census data, a couple of studies from the Fraser Institute and a sheaf of other newspaper columns.

You'll need more than that to prove the proposition that the country has undergone a profound and permanent political rupture. Myself, I have no doubt the prevailing winds favour small government and lower taxes. What I don't believe has changed, however, is that bedrock civic culture, embraced by wave after wave of immigrants, that will not tolerate intolerance.

It's one thing to chafe and protest when in opposition. But Harper's style of government, which for some can feel as though it is undertaken in a spirit of spite, is untenable in a country populated by families who came here to escape entrenched antagonisms. If that ever changes, then the Canada we all love – left and right, newcomer or born-and-bred – will be truly at risk.

Christopher Dornan is director of the Arthur Kroeger College of Public Affairs at Carleton University.

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