The Canadian Ambivalence

Canada is a strange and weird country. Its history is full of contradictions, and now in 2011 we can see that “history repeats itself in Canada”. Elections Canada reported the results of 2011election on its website, giving the Conservatives 164 seats, which means a fixed four-year term of uninterrupted government for Harper. Former colleagues of Harper say his long-term goals are to kill the image of the Liberals, as the natural party of government in Canada. But Harper can be a new “Brian Mulroney” for Conservative party. The political landscape of the 1980s and 1990s was like the 2000s and 2010s, that contrasted sharply with that of the 1960s and 1970s. Canadians grew tired and skeptical of the salient features of Trudeau liberalism. Active state intervention in social and economic life had led to uncontrolled spending and high taxation . So in the national election of 1984, Canadian voters decided to oust his successor, John Turner, after less than three months in office. The Conservatives captured 211 of 282 seats, including a majority of Quebec ridings. In fact, Mulroneys promise of an era of national
reconciliation was appealing enough to lead the Conservatives to the greatest triumph in Canadian electoral history
But Canadians had another great surprise for Mulroney and the Conservatives. By the early 1990s, Canadians were virtually united in their antagonism toward Mulroney and the Conservatives. The government was plagued by a succession of political scandals that reinforced its image as a corrupt regime. From their Liberal predecessors, the Conservatives inherited a national debt exceeding $200 billion and an annual budget deficit that reached $38 billion in 1985. By 1991 the annual federal deficit still hovered around $40 billion and the national debt approached $500 billion. About 35 percent of federal revenue went to paying interest on its previous borrowings, more than was spent on health and welfare. Astoundingly, the Bloc Québécois became the Official Opposition, and the Conservative party officially collapsed, because they gained just 2 seats in 1993 election, in the greatest defeat in Canadian electoral history. With the Liberals relying mostly on support from Ontario and the Atlantic provinces, Canada had never been so divided, and its political landscape had never experienced such a degree of upheaval. The volatility of Canadian politics was also evident at the provincial level, notably in Ontario, where the Liberals ended the 42-year reign of the Progressive Conservatives in 1985. In fact, the history of Canada shows Harper and the Conservative party that they should not be so happy. History repeats itself in Canada .

Election Year Liberals Conservative CCF/NDP Seats(Total)
1867 80 100 181
1900 129 79 213
1917 82 152 235
1921 117 41 235
1930 90 134 245
1940 177 39 8 245
1949 191 41 13 262
1958 49 208 8 265
1968 155 72 22 265
1974 141 95 16 265
1984 40 211 30 282
1993 177 2 9 295
2000 172 12 13 301
2006 103 124 29 308
2011 34 167 102 308

The Great Depression of 1930s, that was like the great recession of our era, dramatically altered the Canadian political landscape and perceptions of the role of government in social and economic life. These conditions are exactly like the recent conditions in Canada. Disappointed with government responses to their plight, Canadians were willing to consider political alternatives that emerged at the federal and provincial levels. The demand for greater government intervention was most vigorously expressed by the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a coalition of farmer and labor groups formed in Calgary in 1932 under the leadership of an avowed socialist, J. S. Woodsworth. On the one hand, CCF was an extension of the old Progressive Party in the sense that it was backed by the United Farmers of Alberta and other western farmers organizations. On the other hand, CCF resembled the British Labour Party with its belief in the British parliamentary system and a gradual, peaceful progress toward socialist goals . Despite embracing socialism, CCF had little inclination to associate with the emerging Canadian Communist Party led by Tim Buck. The CCF platform, outlined in the Regina Manifesto in 1933, was influenced by a group of university intellectuals based in Toronto and Montreal who had already formed the League for Social Reconstruction to promote political education. The manifesto, which called for a new social order included such radical measures as centralized government planning, public control of financial institutions, nationalization of key industries, socialized public health services, security of land tenure for farmers, and a national labor code that included provisions for insurance covering illness, accident, old age, and unemployment. Deeply rooted in Prairie farm politics, especially those of Saskatchewan, the CCF also gained support among workers in the ports and mines of British Columbia and the factories of Ontario. But the party was unable to make any headway in Quebec, where the powerful Catholic Church vehemently opposed socialism, as it did communism. In 1961 the CCF Party formed an alliance with the Canadian Labour Congress. Under the leadership of T. C. Douglas, this merger of traditional socialism and organized labor became known as the New Democratic Party (NDP) .

In the late 1960s, the youthful, flamboyant, and decisive image projected by the new prime minister inspired a popular enthusiasm that was dubbed Trudeaumania. Trudeaus vision of the just society held out the promise of a revised Canadian constitution that would guarantee personal and political liberties, protect minority rights, and offer greater opportunities for underrepresented or less privileged regions and social groups. He also envisioned a renewed federalism based not only on a strong central government capable of standing up to the provinces but also on the institutionalization of bilingualism, in order to give French Canada a major role to play in national politics . To Canadians weary of the political chaos of minority government, federal-provincial conflict, and regional polarization, Trudeau rekindled hopes for a new era of national unity and social justice. Consequently, in the election of June 1968, the Liberals won a clear majority. For the next 16 years, Trudeau, like Macdonald, Laurier, and King before him, would dominate and define Canadian politics. The Trudeau administration appeared determined to convert the rhetoric of the just society into reality. In 1969 Prime Minister Trudeau asserted that to build and maintain a strong and united country, it is essential that both French- and English-speaking Canadians should be able to feel at home in all parts of the country, and that their rights as members of our major language groups should be respected by the federal government. According to the Official Languages Act , based upon a recommendation of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, English and French were to be coequal languages of the federal civil service, the Crown agencies, and the federal courts.

From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, Canadians worried more about the economy than they had at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Stagflation marked by the simultaneous occurrence of high rates of unemployment and inflation slowed down economic and population growth, which in turn intensified conflict among regions, levels of government, and social classes. Although much of Canadas economic difficulties were related to the troubled state of world affairs, Canadians expected, in part because they were promised, decisive action on the part of their federal and provincial governments, which were all too ready to blame each other for the nations ills. The lightning rod for popular discontent was Pierre Trudeau, who adeptly took advantage of national anxieties over economic uncertainty, western alienation, and the Quebec sovereignty threat to maintain his dominance over Canadian political life. The Liberals uneasy partnership with the NDP ended in 1974 with the defeat of the government budget on a parliamentary motion of non confidence . Just as they had turned to John Diefenbaker in the late 1950s and Pierre Trudeau in the late 1960s, Canadians hailed Brian Mulroney as their political savior in the mid-1980s. In the aftermath of the cultural and intergovernmental confrontations of the Trudeau era, Mulroneys promise of an era of national reconciliation was appealing enough to lead the Conservatives to the greatest triumph in Canadian electoral history . A strong economic recovery marked by the steady retreat of inflation offered hope for the development of a new national political consensus. In an ironic reversal of roles and results from nearly a century before, the Conservatives succeeded in convincing voters that free trade with the US was the key to future national growth, while the Liberals stood in defense of Canadian economic nationalism. But amid the failure to negotiate a constitutional accord with Quebec, a skyrocketing government deficit, and a struggling economy, Canadians became so disillusioned with Mulroney that they decimated his historic political party. The Liberals by default regained their status as the governing party within a fragmented federalism despite the lack of a national vision to sustain Canada into the new millennium.

Prime Minister Political Party Years in Office Duration (Years)
John A. Macdonald (Liberal-)Conservative 1867-1873, 1887-1891 9
Wilfrid Laurier Liberal 1896-1911 15
Robert L. Borden Conservative 1911-1920 9
William L. Mackenzie King Liberal 1921-1930, 1935-1948 22
Louis S. St-Laurent Liberal 1948-1957 9
Pierre E. Trudeau Liberal 1968-1979, 1980-1984 15
Brian Mulroney (Prog-)Conservative 1984-1993 9
Jean Chrétien Liberal 1993-2003 10

The continuing ambivalence of Canadians has been to some extent politically induced. No compelling vision, such as Macdonalds National Policy or Trudeaus just society, has emerged from the political arena to foster a sense of national unity or identity. Instead, political leadership has been preoccupied with holding on to power, reacting to public opinion polls, or dealing with internal party wrangling. After a decade as prime minister, the fourth-longest tenure in Canadian history, Jean Chrétien retired in late 2003 amid growing allegations of corruption and scandalas well as pressure from the supporters of his arch-rival and successor, Paul Martin, Jr., son of a cabinet minister in the King, St. Laurent, Pearson, and Trudeau administrations. From the outset, Prime Minister Martin was besieged by the so-called sponsorship scandal, or AdScam, originally conceived in response to the Quebec referendum scare of 1995 as part of a two-pronged plan to combat future separatist threats. In late 2003, the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives agreed to merge into the Conservative Party of Canada, under the leadership of Stephen Harper. The new party was the culmination of a Unite the Right movement, driven by the desire to present an effective opposition that could draw support from all parts of Canada and would not split the right-wing vote as had been the case in the previous three federal elections. Now in 2011, they have won the majority, and have forgotten their historical defeat of 1993. But they should not forget that “history repeats itself in Canada”.

Canada is a liberal country. Five liberal Prime Ministers -Wilfrid Laurier, William L. Mackenzie King, Louis S. St-Laurent , Pierre E. Trudeau, Jean Chretien- ruled more than 70 years in Canada, i.e. the half of its +140 years history ! (The liberal party was in power for more than 85 years in Canada) Now the leftist New Democrats are projected to become the main opposition party for the first time in Canadian history with 102 seats, in a stunning victory over the Liberals, who have always been either in power or leading the opposition. If both Liberal and NDP were smart, they could form a coalition under the leadership of NDP’s leader and win the majority in 2011 election. But now they should wait, 4 years, and see. The leader of the Green party, Elizabeth May, was elected to parliament on Monday, marking the first time a member of the environmental party has won a federal election in North America . It’s a good sign for Canada, and even for the US. Harper has managed to nudge an instinctively centre-left country to the right. He has gradually lowered sales and corporate taxes, avoided climate change legislation, promoted Arctic sovereignty, upped military spending and extended Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan. In 2011,a coalition of economically conservative-minded voters who cast their ballots based on pocketbook issues rather than concerns over cultural issues, including the Tories supposed leanings toward social conservatism, voted fore Harper and Tories. The voters have delivered Harper his majority government. Keeping it, and keeping them, will depend on the Conservatives proving that their only agenda is prosperity. But the history shows us that the Conservatives are the biggest enemy of the healthy economy. Would Harper’s destiny be like Mulroney’s destiny? We should wait and see.

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