Do Canadian Conservatives need to rediscover their anti-American roots? It might be one way to convince them to always stand at least two ideological metres apart from their American cousins.
Canada’s federal Conservative Party, its provincial counterparts and an entire political tendency in this country have to find a way to inoculate themselves against airborne intellectual infections wafting across the border. Some are novel viruses; others are decades old. All have to various degrees been absorbed into the Canadian conservative body politic.
But for the sake of the Conservative Party’s ability to win elections, and more importantly for the sake of Canada’s future of peace, order and good government, these imported sicknesses have to be given the full COVID-19 treatment: tested, traced, isolated and tamped down.
Remember Erin O’Toole’s “Take Back Canada” slogan? Yeah, reheated Trump leftovers. But it could be repurposed into something else: Taking back Canadian conservatism from an American diet that’s sickening its heart.
“The Canadian ruling class,” wrote philosopher George Grant in 1965′s Lament for a Nation, “looks across the border for its final authority in both politics and culture.” A lot of things from the Tory philosopher’s screed no longer make sense, but those words are more true than ever. Whether the Canadians in question are right or left, Black or white, progressive corporate elites planning a diversity campaign or resentful working-class stiffs binging on Tucker Carlson, the United States is increasingly Canada’s touchstone for what’s real, relevant and right. But the Americanization of the Canadian imagination is a particularly dangerous problem on the conservative end of the spectrum. That’s because U.S. conservatism, particularly in its Trumpist form, is a dead end.
The current Republican Party will still win elections, and might even win back Congress in two years. But it mostly does not offer answers to real problems. It instead validates anger and stokes resentments, while wedded to policies – upper-income tax cuts, fewer social programs, no health care guarantees – that worsen its voters’ lives.
The illness at the heart of the American right was revealed earlier this month in Washington, when a mob stormed the Capitol, powered by conspiracy theories, frustration and inchoate notions of violently re-enacting 1776.
All of this is foreign to Canadian conservatism’s roots, which go back to events such as the arrival of the Loyalists. They did not come to Canada to escape governmental interference. Quite the opposite. They came seeking the Canadian conservative touchstone of ordered liberty. Building a country separate and distinct from the U.S. was understood by Canadian conservatives as needing government assistance and co-ordination, which is very different from the American neo-conservative vision of government as imposter or bloodsucking lamprey.
It made Canada’s historical Conservatives very different from what has succeeded them since the 1990s.
To take just a few examples, the growth of the welfare state and the creation of Ontario’s huge public university system took place under a series of Progressive Conservative governments. The Canadian Bill of Rights, the forerunner of the Charter, was a Conservative initiative. And while Tommy Douglas and the CCF got the ball rolling on medicare in Saskatchewan, and a Liberal government completed the work of taking it nationwide, the bridge between those two was a Conservative-appointed royal commission that recommended extending Douglas’s model from coast to coast.
Mr. O’Toole seems to get something about all of this. What he will do about it remains to be seen. This week, he was trying to expel MP Derek Sloan, and distancing his party from the U.S. Capitol violence. And in a major speech last year, he hinted at rethinking some neo-con ideas. Maybe.
He spoke of the struggles of working-class Canadians, who he said have been shortchanged by “the elites.” But he didn’t say how they were being shortchanged, or how to stop it. He said he believed in low taxes and small government, but “I also grew up in a working-class community.” Okay. And? He said “it’s time conservatives took inequality seriously,” but did not say how.
So all of this may just be so much marketing bumf. Or, it could also be the start of an attempt to wake Canadian conservatives from their American reverie. Let’s hope for the latter. In Canada, better conservatism is always possible.
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