Inside Story

Does history end with Canada?

One country shows how liberal democracies can avoid backsliding

Grant Wyeth 15 March 2017 2342 words

Sunny ways: Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, wth his son Hadrien at last year’s Pride Parade. GoToVan/Flickr

In his book The Origins of Political Order, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama explores how human societies are evolving from groups bound by familial and tribal links to an ultimate goal he calls “Denmark.” This is a place that rejects parochial bonds in favour of a universal humanity, a place that is stable, peaceful, prosperous and inclusive, with strong ethical standards, a sense of wider responsibility, and corruption firmly under control.

That trajectory, which once seemed inexorable, now looks to have been pushed into reverse. Powerful Western liberal democracies are struggling with significant existential crises, a number of increasingly authoritarian illiberal regimes have emerged in eastern Europe, the Middle East suffers from grave internal divisions (not all of them self-induced), and strongmen still rule African nations and are on the rise in Asia. Model states like Denmark and Sweden haven’t escaped these “dark emotions” either, with tribalist parties gaining significant traction.

One country seems to be bucking the trend, a country that could potentially claim to be humanity’s new light on the hill. But why, amid the world’s increasing instability, does Canada seem so remarkably comfortable and relaxed? Justin Trudeau might have brought a charming vibrancy and positivity to the office of prime minister, but he can’t be given sole credit. Deep structural factors have contributed; in fact, Trudeau’s charms would not have been the electoral asset they were without the right kind of political culture.

When Trudeau used the phrase “sunny ways” in his election victory speech, it was a throwback to the country’s seventh prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier. Laurier led the country from 1896 to 1911, and he used that phrase to describe his strategy for the rapprochement between the country’s anglophone and francophone communities.

As a modern state created out of two European colonial endeavours, Canada has a political culture and political infrastructure that is geared towards bridge-building. Anglophones have always been the more numerous of the two groups, but at around a quarter of the population francophones have been sufficiently numerous to exert considerable influence.

Although the country hasn’t always been successful in providing its French speakers with a sense of belonging, unlike Belgium and some other bicultural states it has never given up on the project. The desire to seek ways to improve the relationships between the state and its different communities, including its First Nations communities, seems embedded in Canada’s DNA.

The recent history of these efforts begins in 1963, when prime minister Lester Pearson formed the Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. The commission was charged with investigating the state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada and recommending how Canada could further develop “on the basis of an equal partnership between two founding races.”

One result of this commission was prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s Official Languages Act of 1969, which transformed a basically monolingual federal government into a fully bilingual institution, especially giving increased rights to francophones outside Quebec, who had previously suffered from attempts to assimilate them into anglophone communities. Official bilingualism gave Canadians a greater opportunity to understand human difference, even if they weren’t themselves bilingual, and helped prepare the country for the multicultural society that was set to emerge.

While Canada isn’t the only Western country with a highly diverse population, it is generally seen as the pre-eminent example of a harmonious multicultural country. Since the removal of racial criteria from Canadian immigration policies in 1961, all Canadian governments have enthusiastically embraced immigration as an economic imperative. And, rather than simply creating a solid immigration program without providing detailed information about its benefits (a shortcoming of Australia’s approach), Canada has established a strong and positive public narrative about the benefits of immigration.

What Canada realised, and what seems to have escaped other Western countries (and particularly their conservative parties), is that open markets require open arms, minds and hearts. Canada has understood that free trade is an inherently cosmopolitan phenomenon, and if a country wishes to enjoy the benefits of freer movement of goods and services, then it will also need to embrace the freer movement of people and endeavour to understand the human differences that come with it.

But the “Ottawa Consensus” that had formed between the two traditional parties of federal government, the Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservative Party, has faced some major threats. The first came from the growing separatist movement in Quebec in the 1960s. This movement took two forms, the most troubling being the violent separatism of the Front de Libération du Québec. The FLQ was responsible for the bombing of the Montreal Stock Exchange in 1969 and, during the October Crisis of the following year, the kidnapping and murdering of a provincial Quebec cabinet minister and the kidnapping but ultimate release of a British diplomat. The public backlash and a government crackdown forced the group to disband shortly afterwards.

Promoting a democratic path to separation was the Parti Québécois, which gained enough traction to form government in the province in 1976. It then held a referendum to separate from Canada in 1980, only to be defeated by a no vote of 60 per cent.

By the 1990s, with the separatists refusing to give up, Canada faced threats on two fronts. A new federal separatist party, the Bloc Québécois (initially made up of six Progressive Conservative and two Liberal MPs), disrupted the federal parliament’s electoral norms and threatened to undermine the country’s unity. That prospect was only narrowly averted at the second referendum on Quebec sovereignty, in 1995. Alongside the existential threat to the state, the Ottawa Consensus faced an ideological threat from the formation of a new conservative force, the Reform Party, with its stronghold in western Canada.

Over half of Canada’s population lives within a diagonal corridor drawn from Quebec City to Windsor in Ontario. This makes the country’s electoral maths very simple: win the Quebec City–Windsor Corridor and you win government. For electoral strategists, this was often the only consideration, and electioneering and governing priorities tended to follow the numbers.

Ignoring other regions was bound to produce a blowback, of course, and this came in the form of major political resentment within the increasingly resource-rich western provinces, remote from the populous bilingual corridor and sceptical about the need for further investment in francophone services. This was fertile ground for the Reform Party, which brought together classical liberal economics and social conservatism – Fusionism, as it’s known – injected rhetorical steroids from south of the border, and disrupted the positive, pragmatic liberalism of the two traditional parties of federal government.

The 1993 election saw the Progressive Conservatives almost wiped out, their governing majority of 156 seats reduced to a tiny rump of just two seats. The Bloc Québécois won fifty-four seats and the Reform Party fifty-two. This created an odd situation: not only did it create an official opposition (the Bloc Québécois) who ran candidates in one province, but also sought the break-up of the country itself. At the same time, the Reform Party’s electoral gains gave the country a new electoral alignment of political ideals.

In 2000, the Reform Party became the Canadian Alliance in an attempt to win seats in the eastern provinces, where it had no traction, and to seduce the Progressive Conservatives into a merger in order to “unite the right.” The merger occurred two years later, with the Alliance’s leader, former Reform Party wunderkind Stephen Harper, heading a new Conservative Party of Canada. By 2006, Harper was prime minister, a position he would hold until Justin Trudeau’s election in 2015.

Harper’s worldview was undoubtedly more socially conservative than those of both the Liberal Party and the old Progressive Conservative Party. But while he may have maintained his Reform/Alliance veneer rhetorically, he made little attempt to implement any major reactionary policies. He had a conservative fondness for beefed-up law and order measures, and a nostalgia for the word “Royal,” which had been removed from the names of the Canadian navy and air force in 1968 but was now reinstated. But for the most part he governed like a conventional Progressive Conservative prime minister, not messing too much with the Ottawa Consensus.

He didn’t repeal Liberal legislation that he may have found distasteful, like the 2005 legalisation of gay marriage, and he worked hard to embrace the country’s multicultural character. He understood that the Conservative Party could only win elections by reaching out to Canada’s kaleidoscope of ethnicities rather than doubling down on the grievances of its Anglo base.

The latter parochial tactic does not carry much weight in Canada’s wider political culture. Unlike the agitated and pessimistic response of most of the Western world to the slow rate of recovery from the global financial crisis, Canadians were hankering for upbeat and inclusive rhetoric from their political leaders by the time of the 2015 election. Harper’s monotone delivery and negative demeanour had run its course in a country where “sunny ways,” although often subdued, were part of the national character.

In the current Conservative Party leadership race, only one of the fourteen candidates has made a concerted effort to harness any Islamophobic sentiment, although others may be inching towards the tactic. Unfortunate as these attempts to tap into racism are, they are clearly intended to rouse the emotions of the committed party members who will vote in the leadership race. Once elected, the new leader will have no electoral choice but to shift his or her rhetoric back towards the Ottawa Consensus.

This is not to say that the consensus on immigration holds universally. In Quebec, far from the conservative heartland of the western provinces, the debate about what constitutes “reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities still gains significant traction. In 2013, reflecting the aggressively secular model of France, the Parti Québécois attempted to legislate a Quebec Charter of Values, which would have banned public sector employees from wearing religious symbols (a move generally seen to target Muslim women). Outside Montreal, Quebec is the most ethnically and culturally homogeneous region of Canada, and the province has at times struggled with the country’s increasing diversity. When the 1995 sovereignty referendum was defeated, premier Jacques Parizeau famously revealed more than he might have intended when he declared that “we” had been defeated by “money and ethnic votes.”

These sentiments surfaced again during the 2015 federal election campaign. The Bloc Québécois ran an advertisement depicting a drop of oil morphing into a niqab, which appears to have assisted the party to win a handful of seats back from the social democratic New Democratic Party, which had swept the province in the 2011 election. But after the recent shooting at a Quebec City mosque, the current Parti Québécois leader, Jean-François Lisée, expressed some regret over these tactics. “It wasn’t a good idea to bring that idea into the Quebec debate,” he said in January. “It’s not easy to be Muslim in the twenty-first century. We could turn down our language while still debating our values.” The shooting seems to have shocked Quebec into reconsidering its approach to multiculturalism.

Self-examination of this kind ties into a strong and understandable desire to distinguish Canada from the United States. Historically, this sentiment has allowed Canadians to recognise flaws in the US system – especially its inadequate welfare system – and strive to avoid them in their own model of governance. Canada’s economy is heavily reliant on trade with the United States, so it can’t seek to provoke the new administration. But since Donald Trump’s election as president, Canada has been confident enough in itself to continue to pursue and promote the positive and pragmatic liberalism that has been the foundation of the country’s success.

For now, Canada’s primary existential threat seems to have subsided. At the 2014 Quebec provincial election, the Parti Québécois attracted its lowest share of the vote since it first ran in 1972, and it continues to poll poorly. Quebec separatism is increasingly seen as having essentially been a baby boomer project, with the average party member now sixty years old. A recent party report highlighted the fact that the party is perceived to be unable to reconcile itself to the young and vibrant multiculturalism of Montreal. Younger voters see the idea of separatism as limiting, not empowering, and the Parti Québécois is now seen as too insular to harness the aspirations of francophone youth. This development also indicates that reforms designed to give francophones a greater sense of investment in the Canadian state have worked.

Although it’s seen as a quiet, even mundane nation, in recent decades Canada has engaged in a contest of provocative and even (when the topic is Quebec’s potential separation) emotionally draining ideas. The public has become uniquely well-informed and willing to conduct positive conversations about the larger, universalist ideas behind the Canadian project.

The rise of inequality within Western societies is causing significant democratic problems, but it is inequality of knowledge that is becoming a deeper danger (although the two obviously overlap). It is here that Canada has done better than most countries – both actively and less consciously – in providing its populace with the tools to handle the current era of change and integration. Creating exactly the same conditions in other countries is impossible, but the country still provides a compelling case study of how liberal democracies can prevent a widespread backsliding into populist parochialism. •