For those who are genuinely right-wing, the state of modern conservatism in Canada is rather anemic. The policies of the CPC, Canada’s ‘conservative’ party, are indistinguishable from the platforms of Bill Clinton or Paul Martin-type liberals. One could make a strong argument as to why the modern CPC is to the left of the neo-liberals of yesterday’s politics. But the purpose of today’s piece is not to harangue a political party. Instead, it is important to reflect upon the state of Canadian conservatism. If Canada's origins lay in Toryism, when did the default party become liberal, how did the Tories fall? In his prophetic book, Lament for a Nation, George Grant notes that Canadian sovereignty and Canadian conservatism were defeated with the betrayal of John Diefenbaker by the Canadian media and urban elite in the 1963 federal election. After the fall of Diefenbaker, the Canadian Conservatives were amalgamated into the dialectic of liberalism, abandoning the old Tory tradition of Canada in favour of free-market dogmatism. Faith, family, and order fell to the wayside and were replaced with austerity and free markets. With Diefenbaker’s loss, the Conservatives were relegated to be the second party of Canada, serving merely as a reprieve from the default ruling party of the nation.
In 1917 enlistment rates were insufficient to meet the replacement requirements for battlefield casualties. For example, in April and May of 1917, Canada took 24,000 casualties as a result of the fighting, while only 11,000 men enlisted in the same period. In response, Borden and his cabinet attempted to enact conscription. It is important to put this within context, in 1917, most of the Entente leaders assumed that the war would go past 1918, with Borden assuming the war would go into 1919, as the collapse of the Russians on the eastern front would allow Germany to focus exclusively on the west.
Anglo Canada was overwhelmingly supportive of conscription, having shouldered the majority of the enlistment burden. The English portions of Canada felt that the Quebecois were not doing their fair share. To put this into context, prior to 1917, Canadians primarily conceived themselves as subjects of the British Empire in North America. For them, involvement in the First World War was a given. Their mindset would have been analogous to that of Red State Americans in the early years of the Bush-era wars in the Middle East. Questioning Canadian participation in WWI would have been like asking Texan in 2006 why the Texan people were involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Conversely, the Quebecois were harshly opposed to conscription. The French had abandoned them to the English in 1763 with the treaty of Paris. In the intervening centuries, the Quebecois had developed a distinct culture and dialect. Thus, while they had sympathies with the French suffering in Europe, they felt no obligation to involve themselves in a European war. The Liberal Party took a position of general opposition under the leadership of Wilfred Laurier; however, many Anglophone Liberal MPs felt that it would be a career-ending move to oppose the tides of public sentiment and sided with Borden. As a result, Borden was able to form a unionist government to continue the war effort until the 1917 election.
Still unsure about his capacity to win the 1917 election and subsequently secure conscription, Borden conceived of the wartime elections act, wherein the female relatives of servicemen were temporarily given the right to vote in order to ensure the victory of the pro conscription government. With the onset of conscription in Canada, the anti-conscription sentiment in Quebec began to harden, with a number of major anti-war and anti-conscription newspapers such as Le Réveil and La Liberté being censored by the Borden government. The conscription crisis reached a fever pitch in the summer of 1917, with the anti-conscription newspapers being censored by the government after calls for labour strikes, runs on banks and revolution. Anglophone pro conscription papers in Montreal, such as the Montreal Star, received a number of death threats, with the publisher, Lord Atholstan having his home bombed with dynamite on August 9th.
When an election was called in 1917 to determine the conscription question, Borden won overwhelmingly. However, while he had dominated all of Anglo Canada, the conservatives were almost entirely removed from Quebec. This moment in 1917 is crucial because it marks the permanent alienation of Quebec from the Tories. Prior to 1917, there was a fairly even spread of Francophones on both sides of the aisle. In the election of 1911, Borden took 26 seats in Quebec with 44.1% of the popular vote, whilst liberals took 36 seats in Quebec with 44.6% of the popular vote. However, after 1917 Quebec became overwhelmingly liberal with the occasional exception of Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney’s initial victories. To the modern Canadian, it may be strange to conceive, but the natural ruling party of Canada in its initial founding was the Tories, John A. Macdonald inheriting the long extant Tory tradition established by his predecessors.
It is after 1917 that the conservative nature of Canada’s leadership begins to fade, the nation founded upon stability, order, and a fundamental rejection of the American revolutionary project. After 1917, Canada was steadily absorbed into the American Sphere of influence. For the next thirty-six years, the Liberals would have almost complete domination of the levers of Canadian political power, with the Second World War propelling Canada even closer to the United States.
It was during this period (1921 - 1957) that the Canadian elite became heavily liberalized, cleaving to American interests. Gwynne Dyer notes that Canadian military leaders of the cold war period often submitted themselves to American foreign policy interests in order to involve themselves in more relevant conflicts and secure themselves more resources from parliament. Additionally, during this period, Canadian business elites became ever more interconnected with the Americans as the two world wars decimated the British economy and prompted greater interdependence and exchange between the American and Canadian economies.
However, it is essential to note that Diefenbaker may have signified the final fall of Canadian conservatism, but he was by no means its origins. The death blow to the old conservative way was the passing of the 1917 Military Service Act. In his book, Canada in the Great Power Game, Gwynne Dyer discusses the degree to which the Conservatives alienated the Quebecois with this legislation. The Borden Unionist government composed of Anglo-Canadian MPs pushed conscription through parliament; in doing so, Borden divided the country in half, alienating French Canada from the rest of the nation. Borden’s alienation of Quebec would cede the reins of government to the liberals for the next 36 years. This period allowed for liberal domination of the Canadian institutions.
The liberalization of Canadian institutions reached its culmination in the Diefenbaker years, wherein he was ousted at the behest of American interests. During 1963 the Canadian military elite conspired against the elected Prime Minister of Canada multiple times. General Charles Foulkes, Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, lobbied the government of Canada on behalf of American foreign policy interests multiple times, eventually deceiving the Diefenbaker government into signing the NORAD agreement in 1957, almost immediately after he had won the election. To quoth Air Chief Marshal Frank Miller, then deputy minister of national defence, “I don’t even know if he read it. It came out of there so… signed so suddenly. We were prepared to make a presentation to cabinet and so on.”. Gwynne Dyer is notably critical of Diefenbaker, calling attempts to turn Diefenbaker into a tragic hero “ludicrous.” Yet it is indisputable that NORAD would not have been signed without the pressure of Foulkes, an agreement that completely subordinated Canadian Air defence to American control. It also committed Canada to nuclear armament despite government opposition, an issue that would eventually destroy his government, earning him the ire of Kennedy and subsequently the Canadian military, industrial and media elite.
The betrayal of the Canadian military elite and their complete loyalty to the commander of a foreign power became apparent in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. Wherein firstly, the Canadian military explicitly ignored the directives of their Prime Minister and obeyed the commands of a foreign power, and secondly conspired to have him lose his election in 1963. When Norad issued DEFCON 3 alert, it was expected that the Canadians would follow suit and go on full alert, however as Diefenbaker notes in his One Canada memoir (excerpt taken from Canada in the Great Power Game 1914-2014)
“President Kennedy requested that we immediately and publicly place the Canadian NORAD component on maximum alert. I considered it unacceptable that every agreed requirement for consultation between our two countries should be ignored. We were not a satellite state at the beck and call of an imperial master. I telephoned the President … [and told him] that I did not believe that MR. Khruschev would allow things to reach that stage. While I hated the communist system and its philosophy. . . I knew something about politicians, whatever their stripe.
"I saw Nikita Khruschev as essentially a cautious man, well aware of the strategic superiority of the United States. He could have no interest in a major confrontation with the United States except where the vital security interests of the USSR were at stake. He had been caught fishing in American waters, and the President had seized the opportunity to erase the memory of the Bay of Pigs fiasco.”
However, the Canadian military had, at this time, entirely aligned with the desires of America. Douglas Harkness, then minister of national defence, proceeded as follows. (excerpt is taken from Canada in the Great Power Game 1914-2014)
“My response immediately was that we had to go to the same stage of alert. I went to see Mr. Diefenbaker and told him that this was the situation. He insisted on holding a cabinet meeting [the following day]. . . .
So following that, I went back to my headquarters and called the Chiefs of Staff together-- That would be in the evening, well on in the evening as a matter of fact-- and told them that this was the situation; that we’d go on the alert anyway but say nothing about it. They put those orders out immediately, starting, I should think about midnight.”
This sentiment was echoed by Rear Admiral Jeffery Brock, then vice-chief of Naval Staff.
“I suppose that I bore the ultimate responsibility for that. It was just too abhorrent to me that Canadians should be put in the position, the whole of Canada, of dishonouring its solemn pledge and word. How wrong would it have been for us to have been caught unaware, with neither ships in position, nor ammunition, nor fuel. Somebody had to do it, so I said: “Go ahead, do it.””
Following this blatant foreign alignment, General Norstad retired from his NATO command. He was invited by Douglas Harkness and the Canadian Chiefs of Staff to hold a press conference in Ottawa where he was asked if Canada had met its nuclear commitment, to which he replied “No.” This debacle was conducted on January 3rd, 1963, a few months before Diefenbaker’s 1963 election. The military had orchestrated a deliberate attempt to discredit their head of state due to their support for nuclear armament, a position which was heavily opposed by both Diefenbaker and the External Affairs Minister Howard Green, who was spearheading the nuclear disarmament movement. Diefenbaker would go on to lose the federal election of 1963 to Lester B Pearson, who would go on to submit to American demands of nuclear armament.
Canadian sovereignty may have finally expired in 1963, with the defiance of Diefenbaker earning him the graceless betrayal of his countrymen. However, the collapse of a truly conservative Canada began in 1917. Could the powers of neoliberalism and Americanism have been resisted? Considering the circumstances, it is unlikely, as noted by Gwynne Dyer, “If war ever came, either the Canadians would instantly give SAC’s bombers permission to fly north across Canada on their way to bomb the Soviet Union, or they would go anyway, and Washington would sort out the diplomatic niceties afterwards.”
What does this mean, and why is this important? The answer is that 1917 caused a revolutionary change in Canada’s institutions of power. Prior to 1917, Canada was a conservative country. This was conservatism in the old sense of the word; Canada’s political elites were concerned primarily with stability and order. However, the conservatives and unionists under Borden destroyed themselves by prosecuting WWI, leaving the Liberals the levers of power in Canada for the next 36 years. As a result, the Liberals and their fellow continental apologists were able to gain control of all of the major Canadian institutions. They used this time in power to transform the landscape of Canadian power-politics. Hence when Diefenbaker stands up in opposition to Kennedy’s dictation of Canadian defence policy, the entire elite apparatus of Canada, revolutionized over the preceding decades, betrays him. The final defeat of Canadian conservative-nationalism in 1963 was made possible by its first defeat in 1917.