The Freest Country on Earth?

This year on Canada Day, July 1, it took an act of faith to find something to celebrate. We are eight years into the “post-national” regime of Justin Trudeau. The government elected in 2021 is a minority: technically, it could fall at any time. Yet, in March 2022, on the heels of the prime minister’s invocation of the Emergencies Act to crush the Trucker Convoy, the Liberal Party of Canada struck a supply and confidence agreement with the socialist New Democratic Party. Barring any unforeseen turns, the agreement will keep it in power until June 2025. 

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party of Canada is shut out of power, despite having gained the largest share of the popular vote in both 2019 and 2021. The immediate cause is mechanical: Conservative votes are more concentrated by riding and region, translating into fewer seats in Parliament. But Conservatives are also chronic outsiders to federal power. Could the ultimate cause lie in our political culture?

This question is addressed in the introduction to Canadian Conservative Political Thought, a collection of fifteen essays edited by political theorists Lee Trepanier and Richard Avramenko. Since Canada’s founding in 1867, a conservative party has governed only four times. For its part, the Liberal Party of Canada expunged classical liberalism decades ago—at the latest with the “just society” election campaign of Pierre Trudeau in 1968. Now, bureaucrats, judiciary, and media are of a similar left-leaning caste. 

So, is Canada consigned to rule by a culturally homogenous administrative state insulated from the popular will? Are Canadians doomed to perpetual governance by the left—or do we have the resources to lead a conservative renewal? If so, can these resources be retrieved, debated, and made relevant again? The questions unite the disparate contributions to this volume. With their authors ranging from established to new scholars, the essays offer a chronological overview of Canadian conservative thought. The goal is to inform a conservative restoration. 

Some contributions bring fresh Anglo-European resources to the fight. Brian Thorne finds parallels between Edmund Burke’s critique of British colonialism and those put forward by Indigenous theorists and activists in North America. Indigenous political thought is not often depicted as conservative, but Thorne astutely discerns its equivalence to Burke’s emphasis on local custom, ancestry, and ancient tradition as the source of legitimate government. Addressing Canada’s other significant minority group, the French Canadians, Richard Avramenko and Noah Stengl examine Alexis de Tocqueville’s letters describing his little-known visit to Lower Canada in 1831. French Canadians safeguarded their governance and distinct identity under English rule through their “art of congregation,” a variation on the art of association that Tocqueville perceived at work in America.

An article by David Edward Tabachnick explores conservatism in contemporary Quebec—specifically, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s attempt to conserve minority rights in the face of strong homogenizing cultural forces. Taylor recommended a “civic nationalism” centred on the French language, yet without introducing a hierarchy of cultures. His effort to stem the ethnic nationalism of Quebec’s majority population ultimately failed: minorities in Quebec continue to face laws asserting the pre-eminence of the French-Canadian majority culture. The author is critical of Taylor’s attempt to stem it, asking: “If his concern is marginalization and stigmatization, why not instead embrace procedural liberalism and abandon collective goals entirely?” 

It’s a good question. It’s also a big ask for many of the thinkers profiled in this volume: a collectivist, communitarian understanding of the state extends far back into our history. One example is offered in Jeremy Geddert’s essay on the Anglican bishop John Strachan, a United Empire Loyalist who founded what would become the University of Toronto in 1843. Geddert presents Strachan as a “broadminded ‘authoritarian reformer’” aiming to cultivate a homegrown Canadian aristocracy through religion and education. Unimpressed by American republicanism, Strachan sought to use Anglican-led public institutions to nurture a more restrained, deferential, and tolerant society. His proposals were ultimately rejected. In Geddert’s view, however, Strachan’s victory was lasting: “Today’s characteristic Canadian custom, caution, courtesy, competence, and community surely owe something to Strachan’s United Empire Loyalism.”

The Red Tory strain of conservativism is rife with a sense of noblesse oblige—long a source of self-congratulatory rhetoric in Canadian elite circles. 

Ben Woodfinden and Sean Speer examine the work of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister. Against those who see an “unrooted political opportunism” in Macdonald’s use of state power, the authors find a “rich ideological tradition that we call ‘state capacity conservatism.’” Due to its low population density coupled with a vast geography, the new dominion of Canada needed a “national developmentalist strategy” similar to what Alexander Hamilton had proposed for America. As the authors present it, the government Macdonald helped found was a uniquely North American one, actively solving for market failures and incentivizing projects to build a new nation. Yet, Macdonald was no imitator of American democracy, either. Among governed and government alike, he favoured prudence, order, and loyalty to the Crown.

Tyler Chamberlain’s treatment of High Tories helps further explain the collectivist cast of a dominant strain of conservatism in this country. Eugene Forsey, a Canadian senator in the 1970s, was a constitutional scholar and author of a well-used primer, How Canadians Govern Themselves. Forsey was also a social radical from a young age. Long active in the predecessor to today’s New Democratic Party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, he espoused a strong national government guided by Parliament and a monarch prepared to intervene to safeguard democracy at crucial intervals. Chamberlain explains: 

The important point to stress is that there need be no tension between Forsey’s social radicalism and constitutional traditionalism. In fact, each is derived from the theory that the state exists to promote the common good, even when doing so requires restricting individual liberties. 

Forsey’s friend, John Farthing, articulated a similar position in his 1957 work, Freedom Wears a Crown. The tract contrasts the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to those of peace, order, and good government—the rationale for the powers given to the national Parliament in the British North America Act of 1867.

High—later Red—Toryism has been a decisive influence in Canadian political culture. “If there is to be a distinctly Canadian contribution to conservative political thought,” Chamberlain offers, “perhaps this is where it can be found.” Its position on the Crown is in perfect opposition to populist understandings:

Whereas populism places elites and political institutions in opposition to the people, and sees the people as the true representatives of the nation, High Toryism conceives of the national idea embodied in the Crown as the fullest representative of the nation. Society is not defined by a harsh opposition between people and elites; there is rather, at least in healthy societies, an organic unity of people, Crown, constitution, and national ideal. 

As with Strachan over a century before, this strain of conservativism is rife with a sense of noblesse oblige—long a source of self-congratulatory rhetoric in Canadian elite circles. 

Strachan, Macdonald, Forsey, and Farthing: All perceived a collective unity that precedes the rights and liberties of an individual subject. All saw the need for a strong central state acting with vigour to realize a collective good. All favoured deference to the Crown’s authority, order, restraint, and self-regulation. All displayed antipathy to American republicanism.

By this point, the question jumps from the page. Could these strains of Canadian conservatism not have enabled—even abetted—the left-liberal cast of governance in this country? Beyond rejecting a particular national vision, or perhaps appealing to the mores of an era that progressives dismiss as irrelevant, is Canadian conservatism even capable of mounting a defense against authoritarian, collectivist government?

Such government was coming at us already in the 1950s, as the volume also illustrates. Ian Dowbiggin familiarizes readers with the mid-twentieth-century globalist, bureaucrat, and public intellectual Brock Chisholm. A celebrated progressive, Chisholm does not belong in a volume on conservatism at all—except perhaps to illustrate the internationalist thought that many conservatives saw to portend tyranny. 

Chisholm was appointed in 1948 to serve as the first director general of the World Health Organization. He was a vocal proponent of population control, medically assisted dying, and eugenic sterilization. A champion of world government, he saw national sovereignty as an outdated impediment to meeting pressing global needs. The author presents Chisholm as an early champion of the same globalist sentiment uttered by our current prime minister in 2017, when he called Canada the world’s “first post-national state.” 

Indeed, Dowbiggen’s conclusion on Chisholm helps map out where we now are in Canada: 

In preferring governance by global institutions answerable to no one other than alleged experts, Chisholm exhibited a breath-taking disregard for the bedrock liberties and trusted traditions of democratic societies. 

With George Grant, one can indeed lament for a nation whose unifying collective good, pursued vigorously by its national government, is self-cancellation. 

Hope springs, always. Fortunately, there are resources to muster against abuses of state power by left-liberal authoritarian globalists. This volume also presents some of them. Travis D. Smith’s essay, “Ajzenstat versus the Oligarchs,” offers renewed grounds for confidence in our Canadian tradition. Janet Ajzenstat, a Canadian political theorist, rejected the arguments of those who saw Canada’s founding as the product of oligarchic political deals among elites. Consulting primary sources and debates, she found a profound commitment to parliamentarism and liberal self-government among Canada’s founders. Though distinct from the Lockean tradition, their dedication to minority rights and liberties was real.

Two essays on Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan present a body of work that was both prescient and restorative. The first essay by Christopher S. Morrisey convincingly argues that McLuhan offers a political philosophy to help navigate our digital age. The piece by Grant Havers reminds us that McLuhan foresaw possibilities for new forms of tyranny and conflict, but also participation of humanity in a “global village.” McLuhan’s views on maintaining perspective, even humour, in an age of disruptive new media were rooted in his Christianity. Asks Havers: “Why do we need religion to make sense of the changes brought on by electric media? The answer is that only a religious mind can understand the paradox of hope amid apocalypse.” 

Some of our most useful conservative resources arise in regions beyond central Canada, the seat of federal power. In “Of Homesteaders and Orangemen,” Richard Avramenko contrasts the political realities of western and central Canadians. The essay reaches beneath their thought to explore the formative political experience of Loyalists, the early refugees who “endured great hardships to hold on to their freedom to be part of the empire.” The communities they created were garrisons, that famous military image of Northrop Frye, with “little room for dissent, never mind sedition.” Protestant Orangeman marked a further elaboration on the garrison experience. 

The goal to guard individual rights and freedom against an ever-encroaching state is by no means universal across this country, but has a broad cachet in the population.

Yet there is another, lesser-known experience. Following the Western Canadian political philosopher Barry Cooper, Avramenko submits that too many commentators have wrongly applied the garrison experience to Canada as a whole. He contrasts the Orangeman to the homesteader, whose defining experiences were the expansive land and sky of the Canadian Prairie, and the promise of freedom to millions of immigrants fleeing despotism. The result was radically differing views of liberty: the negative liberty, the absence of external impediments of the Westerner compared to the positive liberty of the Central Canadian, enjoyed in a community with like-minded survivalists in the garrison. 

One could argue that Avramenko’s metaphors are overly localized. But they may also offer resources to help illuminate the collision of experiences between the jubilant supporters of the Freedom Convoy who arrived from across Canada on January 29, 2022, and the residents of Ottawa hunkered in their garrison, their ire channelled by the political rhetoric of a national government and state-sponsored media conjuring a January 6 American-style insurrection. Thus did an event celebrated by one group as a liberation from COVID tyranny become the Siege of Ottawa for the other.

So where to now? Our situation is dire. To date, five Liberal cabinet ministers have been found in breach of federal ethics legislation—including the prime minister, twice. Successive briefings leaked by Canada’s intelligence service suggest that the Liberal cabinet knew of Chinese interference in the past two federal elections, yet did nothing to address it. Google and Meta are now blocking all links to Canadian news articles in compliance with Bill C-18, the Online News Act, which Parliament passed before it rose for the summer break. Users of Google, Facebook, and Instagram already find themselves without access to Canadian news on the internet.

If one looks, editor Lee Trepanier submits, “one discovers a complex and rich tradition from which contemporary Canadian conservatives can draw and renew themselves for the future.” This volume is an invaluable first foray into the field. Much of it helps us understand how we came to this pass—in terms at least of political culture, if not of Canadian electoral arithmetic. But apart from helping us diagnose our current problems, we will need to look further afield for the prospect of a restoration. 

Fortunately, as the editors themselves suggest, the present volume is not the last word on Canadian conservative thought. The goal to guard individual rights and freedom against an ever-encroaching state is by no means universal across this country, but has a broad cachet in the population. One thinks of that spontaneous act of association, the Trucker Convoy, and the thousands of Canadians who came together to cheer it along the highways. One notes that this spontaneous national community affirmed its liberty under the same maple leaf flag that Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson introduced in 1965, as well as the many Fleur de Lys and Patriote flags at the event. Supporters of the convoy were a minority—but a large one. Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre quickly took note, winning his 2022 campaign under a slogan to make Canada “the freest country on earth.” 

Political theorists might take note as well. A potential second volume might present populist conservative political thought in Canada—which thrives predominantly in regions outside the centre. In the vein of Avramenko’s contribution, such a volume could take up the symbols and experiences of negative liberty from across this country, manifested in the electoral successes of conservative parties in the provinces. Indeed, the work of recovery is only now beginning—and will grow in urgency and significance as the authoritarian excesses of this current Liberal regime play themselves out.


Canadian Churches

Canada Is on Fire

Once the perceived villains of today are gone, who will be next? Who, for that matter, will be last?