The Long Decline of Canadian Conservatism
Though he passed away in 1988, George Parkin Grant is probably still the leading traditionalist philosopher in Canada. And this year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of his most popular and accessible books, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. It first appeared in 1965, and has remained in print almost continuously in Canada.
Lament for a Nation mourns what Grant saw as the end of real Canadian independence in the 1960s. As he tells the story, Canadian Tory Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had refused to accept U.S. nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. As a result, the North American managerial capitalist classes turned against Diefenbaker in the crucial 1963 Canadian federal election. The 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 was prophetic in announcing the passing of a more traditional Canada, though his focus was not exclusively on the impending destruction of what would later become known as social conservatism. Rather, he was more concerned with the dangers of corporate liberalism and technocracy, which he saw as emanating from America and undermining a more traditional Canada. Thus Grant’s outlook lies somewhere between that of a traditionalist conservative and what might be called a social conservative of the Left. There are a number of illustrious figures who embrace the latter outlook—John Ruskin, William Morris, Jack London, George Orwell, Christopher Lasch—and in Canada, the noted constitutional scholar and union adviser Eugene Forsey.
Yet Grant was not really progressive. His Lament expresses a deep pessimism, and 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 very 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. In the 1960s, Horowitz had severely criticized the onset of multiculturalism in Canada, arguing that it would undermine the sense of nationhood that he saw as a prerequisite for the flowering of real social democracy.
Grant, who called himself a “Red Tory,” gave that term one of its most positive and philosophically sophisticated interpretations. As expressed in his other books, including Technology and Empire: Perspectives on North America (1969), English-Speaking Justice (1974/1985), and Technology and Justice (1986), Grant took a stand against the encroaching technological dystopia, or “empire of technology” which he said “speaks with an American accent.” In a thoroughgoing critique of technology, he referred to “the spirit of dynamic technique,” which “makes all local cultures anachronistic.” In such a world, prior notions of the good and the beautiful would become increasingly impossible.
Grant embraced outlooks that in today’s ever-narrowing spectrum of discourse appear to be contradictory. As a conservative, he supported the Canadian Tory party and valorized the British roots of Canada. As a Canadian nationalist, he found much to admire about the Canadian Left, and enunciated a nuanced criticism of America and capitalism, one far more subtle than is usually found on the left. As a Christian, he upheld traditional morality. He saw abortion as evil, the triumph of a Nietzschean exercise of radical will that would have terrible consequences for the notion of human dignity.
Grant also found that the only possible basis for maintaining the notion of human equality in the future—rather than giving ourselves over to maximizing our own pleasure and power—is the notion that all human beings are equal before God.
Some of Grant’s other central themes included a profound critique of the social, cultural, and ecological impacts of technology; a confident patriotism (it is only “by loving our own” that we can come to any further comprehension of a more universal good); a subtle defense of Christianity as one of the last barriers against a technological dystopia; and a genuine compassion for human suffering and the negative effects of war, expressed especially through his reflective pacifism.
He also saw an interconnection between the “left” and “right” factions of a technological society. “The directors of General Motors and the followers of Professor Marcuse,” he contended, “sail down the same river in different boats.” Grant also anticipated a critique that was later made of what has been called the managerial-therapeutic regime: A hyper-technological and hypermodern society would make it increasingly impossible to uphold any notions of human ethicality.
Nevertheless, Grant’s profound belief in God ultimately resulted in a sort of optimism. Because of this belief in a final, unchanging standard of justice, he could say that whatever horrors technological society has waiting for us, and however hopeless the situation appears, “at all times and in all places, it always matters what we do.” For him, the imperative to act morally remained very real.
Unfortunately, shallow Progressive Conservative party operatives have adopted the term “Red Tory” as an excuse to implement policies that support an ever more bloated and intrusive administrative state. They became “socialists” without embracing true community, and “liberals” without embracing genuine individualism and freedom of speech.
In pointing to the 1963 federal election as a turning point for subsequent developments in Canada, Grant was prophetic. Before the 1960s, all the country’s major parties had joined a traditionalist-centrist consensus: While differing on economics, they were all socially conservative to some extent. They all upheld notions of the traditional nation, family, and religion; a strong work-ethic; and strict law-and-order. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (precursor to the New Democratic Party), fought on behalf of the working classes, but was not socially radical. Radical feminism, multiculturalism, and gay rights, which came to the fore after the 1960s, would have been of little concern to this Old Left.
In 1965, the adoption of the Maple Leaf Pennant as the new Canadian flag pointed to a massive social and cultural change in the offing. As long held in the study of politics, this redesign of the country’s flag was a marker of “regime change.”
With the arrival of Liberal Pierre Elliott Trudeau as prime minister in 1968, the country was thrust into ever more massive social and cultural change. This “Trudeaumania” continued unabated for the sixteen years of his premiership. Trudeau’s continued success in the elections of 1972, 1974, and 1980 can largely be attributed to the fact that Quebec voters delivered virtually every seat in that province to the Liberal Party. (His Liberal minority government of 1972 was also supported by the New Democratic Party.) Thus guaranteed roughly a quarter of the seats in the federal Parliament, Trudeau only needed to pick up a majority of seats in Ontario to win an overall majority. He treated most of Western Canada with contempt.
The only discontinuity in Trudeau’s tenure was when Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives unexpectedly won a minority government in the 1979 federal election. Yet Clark’s party quickly lost a “non-confidence vote” in the federal Parliament, and another election had to be called. The Liberals once again won a majority in 1980. Clark’s government had lasted only nine months. In fact, Clark, a so-called “Red Tory,” was one of the most craven supporters of virtually the entire agenda of left-liberalism. His “small-c conservatives” had only a very tenuous representation in the ostensibly “big-C” Conservative party.
By the 1980s, a country that was once very socially conservative had been transmogrified into one of the most “progressive” societies on the planet—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. It was quickly backed up by an increasingly activist Canadian Supreme Court, where one would have been hard-pressed to find even one justice designated as conservative.
The patterns of present day Canadian society, politics, and culture were indeed set down five or so decades ago. Since the late 1960s, a new left-liberal consensus has enveloped Canada—some critics have called it “Trudeaupia”—and it is very difficult to counteract. And now Trudeau’s son Justin, currently the leader of the federal Liberal Party, has a very good chance of winning this October’s federal election.
Given the futility of various “small-c conservative” efforts to change Canada’s course since the 1960s—and their possible failure at the polls again this fall—George Grant’s original diagnosis seems more prescient than ever. By the time his Lament hit the presses a half century ago, traditional Canadian nationalism was already on a path to extinction.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based, Canadian writer and historical researcher.