A Narrow Vision: Politics in Canada in Historical Perspective

By James Cullingham

As the imbroglio concerning Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jane Philpott and the Liberal government emerged, an immediate wave of sentiment broke across social media. The panicky message can be summed up:  “In light of this scandal, Canadians will inevitably end up with an Andrew Scheer government.”

This type of thinking reflects a reductive historical and political fallacy that assumes Canadians have only two choices.

It also seems that many cannot distinguish the Conservative Party’s identity from that shaped under the tenure of Stephen Harper. The assumption that any conservative government is a right wing threat to Canadian civility seems baked into the perception of many who consider themselves progressive.

Actually it is too early at present to discern whether Scheer will discover electoral good sense and distance himself from the harder social conservative elements of his Conservative party as October’s federal election nears. From a historical perspective, however, the belief that a Liberal regime is automatically more righteous than a Conservative one is based on thin historical evidence.

There’s no doubt that over the past few weeks Justin Trudeau and his government have faced its worst crisis since the scandal caused by last year’s trip to India. This time, the government that self-brands as a champion of Indigenous reconciliation alienated its most prominent Indigenous cabinet minister. The fact that Jody Wilson-Raybould is a woman further tarnishes the brand of the self-described feminist Trudeau. However, my aim here is not to re-litigate the various depositions made by Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Messrs Butts, Trudeau or Wernick nor to debate the merits of Deferred Prosecution Agreements, but to provide some context about what this moment says about Canadian political culture.

Here are some basic, if inconvenient, historical facts:

Conservative governments under Macdonald introduced a national transportation system (the CPR) and under Bennett an incipient national broadcasting network (the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission). In 1960, the government of conservative John Diefenbaker passed a Bill of Rights that allowed Indigenous people on reserves to vote in federal elections – this 93 years after Confederation. In 2008 with the encouragement of Indigenous leaders, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, and the late Jack Layton, Stephen Harper apologized in parliament for Canada’s national shame – the system of residential schools that had been maintained for decades by Conservative and Liberal governments in concert with Christian churches.

In 2015 Justin Trudeau famously proclaimed his “sunny ways” which he attributed to the example of Liberal prime minister Wilfred Laurier. Laurier’s ways were not entirely sunny. His government championed the settlement of the Canadian west with an Indigenous policy of aggressive civilization featuring passes controlling movement and residential schools as central planks of a programme of assimilation and removal of First Nations peoples. Laurier’s powerful western minister Clifford Sifton oversaw an expansion programme based on marginalizing Indigenous peoples. Canadian manifest destiny was in firm Liberal hands. Laurier was often pragmatic and the economic interests of some Canadians were at the top of his mind.

It is also perhaps timely to remind readers that the consolidation and hardening of colonial Indian policy under The Indian Act was achieved by Liberal prime minister Alexander Mackenzie in 1876. Distinguished historians such as Olive Dickason, Jim Miller, John S. Milloy, Ian McKay and Brian Titley have documented that with The Indian Act, the fledgling Canadian state launched a vigorous assault on First Nation rights executed by various governments for decades. Rights articulated by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and practiced in pre-confederation military and trading alliances were swept aside as the new liberal state expanded westward.

At his press conference of March 7, the Prime Minister evoked his father’s devotion to justice. Given the circumstances, that may have struck some as tone deaf. Many Indigenous people associate his father with the introduction of a 1969 White Paper on Indian Policy that would have completed Canada’s assimilationist project; it was also the Trudeau Sr. government that with questionable evidence extradited Leonard Peltier, where he remains in a Florida prison. Yet Justin Trudeau chose to compare himself to his father over matters of justice during a crisis involving two MPs most closely associated with justice and First Peoples.

Nor was Pierre Elliott Trudeau a model feminist. His Liberal government legislated severe restrictions to access to abortion and participated in the prosecution of Dr. Henry Morgentaler as he championed better access.

The current Liberal government can claim some success on progressive policies including the abatement of child poverty and the legalization of marijuana. On other files held dear by progressives, the Trudeau government has failed or simply changed course. Trudeau vigorously campaigned in 2015 on a promise of electoral reform, stating famously that that campaign would be the final “first past the post” election in Canadian history. After that plank – pilfered from the NDP – helped secure a majority, Team Trudeau abandoned the project early in its mandate.

The assumption that Liberals are more progressive also wobbles occasionally in the domain of foreign policy. Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s response to apartheid in South Africa was tepid compared to that of conservative Brian Mulroney. And didn’t Justin Trudeau himself recently apologize for the horrendous 1939 decision of Liberal prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to bar the  MS St Louis, a ship carrying Jewish refugees in flight from Nazism?

I am not building a case for conservative government rule. Nor am I suggesting every Liberal government including the present one is inherently benighted. I am questioning the assumption that Liberal government means progressive policies, or a different style of politics as the current prime minister expects Canadians to believe.

Many in the Canadian chattering classes seem to have decided that there is no alternative to Conservative or Liberal rule. This at a time when the people of Alberta, British Columbia and Québec have indeed found alternatives. The population of those provinces represents close to 50 percent of the entire Canadian populace. The NDP-Green alliance in BC, the NDP government in Alberta and the Coalition Avenir Québec government of François Legault belie the notion that Canadians have only two choices.

The assumption that only Liberals or Conservatives can rule federally seems to be most deeply held by some members of the media who routinely exclude commentary and proposals from the smaller parties, even when their caucus is sizeable, as is the case currently with the New Democratic Party.

The historical and journalistic amnesia regarding the NDP overlooks the decisive breakthrough that Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair achieved in Québec which vaulted the party into official opposition status less than a decade ago. It remains to be seen whether current leader Jagmeet Singh can get his footing and make Québec an important battleground come October. If he does, that alone could make the difference between minority and majority rule. Needless to say, no meaningful historical or political analysis of modern Canada can underplay the contribution of the NDP’s predecessor the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in achieving Canadian social progress, especially accessible health care.

Justin Trudeau may have stemmed the negative tide of recent news surrounding his government. He will certainly campaign vigorously for re-election. Trudeau’s recent appearances have made that clear at least. Come October Canadians will likely judge him and his government in part on the residue of the SNC–Lavalin matter and the resignations of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott. Hopefully they will also recognize that a mature democracy such as Canada’s affords nuanced and diverse alternatives to Liberal hegemony.

James Cullingham is a documentary filmmaker, historian and journalist with Tamarack Productions in Toronto.

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One thought on “A Narrow Vision: Politics in Canada in Historical Perspective

  1. Jonathan Weisman

    It is worth noting that it is the Bill of Rights which formed the basis for rights legislation incorporated into the constitutions of many new Commonwealth nations in the 1960s and 70s, and not the Charter which is so frequently cited by Canadians as a global inspiration. The Charter post-dates most of the rights codes in use today.

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