Written by: Donald Moncreiffe (@Dunbrachen)
A central paradox of Canadian history–one of many–is that today, the country that is probably the most socially and culturally ‘progressive’, liberal, and Americanized grew out of an improbable partnership between two fundamentally conservative founding groups: English-speaking Protestants and French-speaking Catholics. But rather than reinforcing each other’s traditional identities to create a powerful new conservative nation, this partnership has weakened and debilitated British Canada, and provided a context in which French Canada has not only survived but thrived. The net effect of this arrangement has been the gradual emergence of a dysfunctional and perverse polity that is monolithically liberal with an oppressive public culture dominated by American ‘woke’ ideology. How did such a conservative past develop into such an anti-conservative present? While there are many reasons, one of the most important is the French fact in Canada, the focus of what follows.
When the dust settled and the smoke cleared on the blood-soaked Plains of Abraham after the historic battle there on 13th September 1759, the victorious British found themselves facing a dilemma. They were now the dominant power over a sprawling area of north-eastern North America populated by 76,000 French-speaking Catholics and roughly 25,000 Aboriginals, vastly outnumbering 5,000 British and colonial troops.
What to do? The British had three options: expel the French, assimilate them, or accommodate them. They opted for the latter course. Earlier, the British had experimented with expulsion by forcibly returning the relatively small French population on Cape Breton Island to France. Later, in Louisiana, the Americans experimented with assimilation by turning their Francophone Canadiens into English-speaking ‘Cajuns’. But there was no significant British population for the French to assimilate to in Canada. So after 1759 they allowed their new French Canadian subjects to remain more or less as they were, to retain their language, religion, traditional system of land tenure and civil courts under the British imperial Crown. The nation of Quebec exists today as a direct consequence of this fateful decision. Such liberality towards the traditional rights of the Catholic Church caused outrage among the Puritans of New England and the Protestant yeomanry of Virginia, who cited it as a major grievance against the British Crown that soon led to armed revolution in the Thirteen Colonies. When the American Continental Congress sent an army into the colony to ‘liberate’ it from British rule, it was the first, but not the last, unsuccessful American invasion of Canada.
Such apparent magnanimity by the British, which guaranteed the right of the Catholic Church to continue collecting tithes and granted Catholics the right to practice their faith and hold public office, a privilege not enjoyed by Catholics in Britain at the time, was mostly a matter of expediency. But there was a trace of principle involved too, since the British Governor, Sir Guy Carleton, was a Francophile sympathetic to the French Canadians who actively and successfully lobbied the Imperial government in London to be generous to their new subjects.
By 1784 a large influx of English-speaking Protestants had arrived in the colony as refugees from the American Revolution. Most of these Loyalists settled in the Maritimes and what is today Ontario. They were loyal to the British Crown and brought a deep respect for order and tradition with them, embedding a strong ‘tory’ element into the emergent political culture of the colony that contrasted starkly with the Lockean, revolutionary polity they had recently fled.
Following a thwarted rebellion in French Canada in 1837, an official report for the British government by the Whig aristocrat Lord Durham recommended that the colony be assimilated into the English-speaking Protestant mainstream. This Louisiana approach was Britain’s last serious chance to abandon accommodation to Quebec, which it spurned. So, accommodation remained the policy then and ever since, becoming increasingly ambitious, demanding and problematic for the rest of Canada.
This improbable North American, Anglo-French alliance peaked with the Confederation settlement of 1867 that united most of the British colonies of North America into the new Dominion of Canada. The leading architects and prime movers of this federation were Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier. By the time Macdonald died, his Herculean political will had extended Canada all the way to the Pacific Ocean, creating an enormous trans-continental British nation in North America forged against monumental political, economic and physical odds. Macdonald was among the great nation-builders of the era, comparable to Bismarck in Germany and with few peers in the nineteenth century British Empire. ‘Had there been no Macdonald’, his biographer Richard Gwyn wrote, ‘there almost certainly would be today no Canada’.
This great alliance did not long survive Macdonald’s death in 1891 (Cartier died in 1873). The French Canadians, despite their highly traditional, even reactionary, form of life, switched their political allegiance from the Conservative Party, the party of Macdonald and Cartier, to the Liberal Party, the party of Sir Wilfred Laurier, a Francophone. They remained stubbornly loyal to that party for the next century, with only one exception (1958).
The Liberal Party of Canada at the time favoured greater Canadian independence from Britain and closer links to the United States. It was the ‘Continentalist’ party, whereas the Conservatives supported strong Imperial bonds and remained wary of American domination, as Macdonald had been. The expressly British character of the Canadian state, with a constitution ‘similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom’, was valued very highly by the Conservatives, who also opposed freer trade with the US. The Liberal Party, though not yet openly anti-British, as it would later become, was much less attached to the Imperial connection than the Conservatives at the time, which suited most French Canadians.
The First World War turned the French Canadians even more strongly against British Canada and pushed them more closely into the bosom of the Liberals, just as it pushed the rest of the country in the opposite direction. Canada became ‘Two Solitudes’, with the French strongly opposed to Canadian participation in the war and the English equally strongly in favour. Largely because of British accommodationism after the Conquest, the French Canadians retained a powerful sense of identity and nationhood that increasingly resented the British Canadian state, to which they felt diminishing attachment and no hint of gratitude for offering an alternative to the Louisiana option. So they loyally voted for the Liberals in Ottawa in election-after-election, decade-after-decade, while remaining socially, culturally and religiously anti-liberal within their own borders. In the 28 Canadian general elections in the country’s first century, from 1867 to 1968, the Liberal Party won a majority of seats in Quebec 22 times. Politically, Quebec helped to make Canada as a whole more politically liberal than it would otherwise have been as a way of maximizing its own freedom to remain conservative.
Until about 1960 Quebec remained a highly traditional, mainly rural, church-dominated society, perhaps best embodied in the person of its premier Maurice Duplessis and institutionalised in his Union Nationale Party. The Liberal Party that the Quebecois so faithfully supported in Ottawa was of a very different character; more urban, modern and ‘progressive’ than Quebec itself. But it was also increasingly anti-British. By the mid-1960s, the federal Liberal Party under Lester Pearson, uninhibited by its lack of a parliamentary majority, had begun a revolutionary transformation of the symbolic order of the Canadian state. His policy of neutralizing the Canadian state so it lacked the British character Macdonald, Cartier and the other ‘Fathers of Confederation’ had deliberately given it a century earlier was intended to make it more congenial to French Canadians. Pearson was always very explicit about this. His minority government, with its very large contingent of Quebec MPs, comprehensively restructured and reoriented the symbolic order of Canada’s federal state which had defined its collective identity since its inception in 1867. This involved replacing the Red Ensign, with its Union Jack, as Canada’s national flag in favour of the anodyne Maple Leaf flag; abolishing the traditional names and uniforms of the Canadian military; removing royal symbols such as those on post boxes; adopting ‘O Canada’ as the country’s national anthem; and opening Canada to large-scale non-European immigration. Opposition leader John Diefenbaker’s fierce resistance to this project was the last roar of the British lion in Canada, as all of his Conservative successors enthusiastically endorsed the Liberal reinvention of the country.
Pearson’s accommodation of Quebec during the 1960s did nothing to slow the rise of Quebecois nationalism and the movement for separation from Canada, which culminated in two referendums on the question (in 1980 and 1995). His accommodationist politics had antagonized much of Canada outside of Quebec without reconciling the province to the federation. Pearson naively assumed that the inoffensive new Canadian flag (literally designed by a parliamentary committee), as the perfect symbol of his new, inclusive, post-British Canada, would be embraced by French Canadians in a way the Red Ensign had not been. It was typical of his general lack of understanding of Quebec, whose language he could not speak despite his long career as a professional diplomat. Although the deliberate vacuity of the new invented symbols of Canada gave the Quebecois nothing to oppose, it also gave them nothing to identify with either.
Pearson’s French Canadian successor as prime minister and leader of the Liberal Party, Pierre Trudeau, continued the policy of stripping the Canadian state of its remaining British character by officially changing the name of the country’s annual national holiday from ‘Dominion Day’ to ‘Canada Day’ and marginalizing the Queen’s role and presence in Canada in favour of the Governor-General. In 1978 Trudeau’s government introduced a bill (C-60) into the House of Commons that declared the executive government of Canada would henceforth be ‘vested in the Governor General’ rather than the Queen, although she would remain its sovereign, whatever that might mean given the other proposed changes. According to the bill, Parliament would henceforth be made up of the Governor General and the two houses; the Queen would no longer be a part of it. It also explicitly made the Governor General, who was to be formally designated ‘The First Canadian’, the Commander-in-Chief of the country’s Armed Forces.
Bill C-60 died on election night 1979, when Trudeau’s Liberals lost to Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives. The monarchy had unexpectedly survived as the one major institution that the Liberal neutralization of the Canadian state failed to eradicate, mainly because of provincial opposition. This explains why it is now valued so highly by those who object to the liberal project of comprehensively overhauling the symbolic order of the state, a process that has culminated in the world’s first and only ‘post-national state’, an empty, neutral shell configured to inoffensively contains many diverse, and often incompatible, sub-cultures. But the Liberal cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s was not total. The monarchy survived against the odds and now has a symbolic importance in Canada among those who oppose the neutralization of the state and the traditional conception of Canada that its historic symbols represented, the latter best expressed, as always, by George Grant: ‘the belief that on the northern half of this continent we could build a community which had a stronger sense of the common good and of public order than was possible under the individualism of the American capitalist dream’.
Pierre Trudeau also adopted an official policy of ‘multiculturalism’ to formally redistribute social status among Canada’s linguistic and ethnocultural groups. This ‘status politics’ reflects the struggle between contending groups over the distribution of symbolic resources. The Confederation settlement in 1867 had been between two founding peoples, the French and the English (more accurately, the Anglo-Scottish). Multiculturalism rejected that conception by formally acknowledging and supporting all cultural groups in Canada as equal. It was as much a repudiation of the idea of a French-Canadian nation, something the liberal individualist Trudeau strongly opposed as a form of retrograde nativism, as it was a further assault on British Canada. And the mass influx of new immigrants during these years further weakened the special status of both British and French Canada, which was its main purpose after increasing the number of Liberal voters. Yet Trudeau was prime minister for fifteen years having won an average of 85% of seats in Quebec in the five federal elections he fought as leader of the Liberal Party and only once (in 1968) winning a majority of seats outside Quebec.
Perhaps the perfect manifestation of Quebec’s political schizophrenia, its Liberal conservatism, is Pierre Trudeau’s ‘magnificent obsession’ of an American-style, constitutionally-entrenched Charter of Rights, the apotheosis of the long post-war project to reinvent Canada as a liberal, un-British, post-national state. His political base was Quebec, which simultaneously elected a separatist government provincially that completely repudiated Trudeau’s Charter. The price Trudeau was forced to pay by the provinces outside Quebec for his beloved Charter was to make it virtually impossible to abolish the monarchy in Canada.
Canada’s two leading conservative intellectuals in the 1960s and ‘70s were Protestant, Oxford-educated Ontarians—historian Donald Creighton and philosopher George Grant. Both were Canadian nationalists ‘grounded in the wisdom of Sir John A. Macdonald’ (in Grant’s words) who bitterly lamented the transformation of Canada from a British to an American state. They were avowed enemies of the Liberal Party, which they saw as the primary political vehicle for the Americanization of Canada. And they shared a contempt for Pearson and Trudeau that was both personal and political. The only point on which their views diverged sharply was Quebec.
Whereas Grant greatly admired Quebec as a conservative Catholic society and was highly sympathetic to it as a ‘keystone of a Canadian nation’, Creighton viewed the province as a Trojan horse that was an electoral stronghold of the federal Liberal Party and a persistent thorn in the side of British Canada. Grant was publicly critical of his old ally on this question, which badly wounded Creighton, who was consoled by the support he received from other prominent intellectuals such as W. L. Morton and Eugene Forsey. Although Grant and Creighton shared a deep respect for the political vision of Macdonald and his British conception of Canada, Grant departed from the former prime minister in his willingness to cede extra rights and powers to Quebec in the hope this might empower it to better resist absorption into North American modernity. He even rejoiced at the election of the separatist Parti Quebecois in 1976 and endorsed moves to decentralize the federation to accommodate the French fact in Canada. Creighton fiercely opposed all such demands from Quebec, fearing they would further weaken the Canadian government, making it even easier prey to the overwhelming power of American capital and popular culture.
Who was right? In retrospect, the original eighteenth century policy of British accommodation to French Canada seems to have been fatal to the rest of the country in the long term. It worked while Canada needed and enjoyed the protective power and support of the British Empire to fend off repeated American invasions and threats, such as in 1775 and 1812. But when that threat abated after Confederation, the French Canadians cooled to Canada’s status as a Dominion within the British Empire, which they were never going to fight for, as the conscription crisis in World War One proved. And as the sun gradually set on the Empire, its usefulness to most Canadians declined with it, even if a strong emotional attachment lingered on among English-speakers.
Grant, Creighton, Morton and Forsey were among a generation of Canadian intellectuals who inherited from Macdonald and his conservative successors down to John Diefenbaker the realization that the main threat to the country’s independence and identity lay with the imperial power of the United States, and always would. Few, if any, French Canadians shared that concern. Their principal allegiance, often their only allegiance, was to Quebec rather than to Canada. Most were indifferent (at best) to the ultimate fate of Canada as a whole and many perceived their English-speaking compatriots as a much greater obstacle to their own national aspirations than the great republic to the south. Grant and Creighton were right that the deliberate and systematic destruction of the British character of the Canadian state and the political values it symbolized was the political project of the federal Liberal Party after World War One, a process that greatly intensified in the 1960s and ‘70s. They were also right to see this as more than just imperial nostalgia or a sentimental attachment to the Canada of their youth. They agreed with Macdonald that Canada would be either British or American. And only as British would it have any reason to exist independently on the continent of North America. They saw their fight for British Canada as continuous with Macdonald’s as a fight for the country’s very existence as a distinct and sovereign polity in the looming shadow of American power. And both Grant and Creighton knew that beneath the surface of this culture war over symbols was a deeper battle of ideas and values that would determine how Canadians lived on a continent it shared with a superpower that happened to speak English. Grant spelled out the civilizational implications of Canada’s ‘culture wars’ of the 1960s with entrancing eloquence and depth in his masterpiece Lament for a Nation (1965).
Beyond doubt Grant is right that the French fact is an important part of Canada’s distinctiveness on the continent. And this remains so largely because of the British, and later Canadian, policy of accommodationism, which contrasts starkly with the American assimilationist policy towards its own French fact. But the French fact has also made Canada less British, and therefore more American. And this has been much more damaging to Canada’s distinctiveness and independence than any gain it has enjoyed from its French fact. By systematically stripping the federal state of its British character in large part to accommodate the sensibilities of increasingly nationalist French Canadians, what Grant admirer James Laxer calls ‘the liberal idea of Canada’ has removed the very symbols and substance that made it distinctive in North America, with the sole exception of the monarchy. It is little wonder that American ‘woke’ ideology has so easily filled the void that is now Canada.
The relentless pressure the American Empire has exerted on Canada in the 20th century has greatly weakened its independence and distinctiveness from without, just as the accommodation of the French fact in Canada has weakened it from within. Together they have acted as upper and lower millstones gradually grinding down British Canada and, with it, the country’s capacity to distinguish itself from the behemoth next door. The integration of Canada into the American economic empire was likely with or without Quebec. And the massive power and attraction of American popular culture would have been very hard for English-speaking Canada to resist regardless of Quebec. But accommodating the French fact in Canada for the last 250 years has only hastened this process by turning the country into an empty vessel theoretically held together by a liberal Charter of Rights, which is meant to provide the new locus of national identity by embodying ‘a system of values such as liberty, equality and the rights of association that Canadians from coast to coast could share’, as only a liberal cosmopolitan intellectual like Trudeau could express it. This is well below the minimal threshold of political unity beneath which a people must eventually dissolve into its constituent parts. It is probable that French and English Canada would have been better off had they not been federated into a single polity in the first place but gone their separate ways instead. In trying to save Canada as a British state, Macdonald may have doomed it by creating a federal Anglo-French union.