True North: The Canadian Tradition

October 22, 2016 Book Reviews Comments (0) 971

[This is the second of three essays in which I review Canadian author and thinker George Grant’s work Lament for a Nation, and consider its relevance for reactionary thought in Canada and the West today. Click here for Part I]

Previously, we set the stage that George Grant laid out in Lament for a Nation: a Canada built on foundations older than those of liberalism, nonetheless being transformed by American power and an elite which rejected Canada’s roots. We will now examine several of the key institutions and traditions of Canadian life which exist in tension with the liberalism and which have engulfed much of Canadian society, because they are fundamentally incompatible with it. Grant’s own reflections will show how well these tensions were understood mere decades ago.

George Grant speaks about the divergent paths which English civilization took after the American Rebellion:

Many of [English Canada’s] elements were shaped by that strange phenomenon, British conservatism, which led the settlers to try to build on the northern half of this continent an independent society. British conservatism is difficult to describe because it is less a clear view of existence than an appeal to an ill-defined past.

The writings of Edmund Burke are evidence of this. Yet many of the British officials, many Loyalists, and later many immigrants felt this conservatism very strongly. It was an inchoate desire to build, in these cold and forbidding regions, a society with a greater sense of order and restraint than freedom-loving republicanism would allow. It was no better defined than a kind of suspicion that we in Canada could be less lawless and have a greater sense of propriety than the United States…

Whatever differences there were between the Anglicans and the Presbyterians, and however differently their theologians might interpret the doctrine of original sin, both communities believed that the good life made strict demands on self-restraint. Nothing was more alien to them than the “emancipation of the passions” desired in American liberalism. An ethic of self-restraint naturally looks with suspicion on utopian movements, which proceed from an ethic of freedom.

The early leaders of British North America identified lack of public and personal restraint with the democratic Republic. Their conservatism was essentially the social doctrine that public order and tradition, in contrast to freedom and experiment, were central to the good life.

We may begin our investigation of this order at the very foundation of Canadian sovereignty: the Crown. This is fitting, because there is no element of Canadian society more illiberal, more un-progressive, and more inherently reactionary than the monarchy. The principle of a sovereign who was born to power and holds her place without election or democratic input is a slap in the face to everything liberalism holds dear. That she rules by Christian oath is a further rebuke to the secularist and post-Christian order which has established itself across the West. A common criticism of monarchy from the Right is that Her Majesty has done little, if anything, to stop the tides of chaos. Some might say her actions have even furthered them. Of course, criticism of the sovereign’s (in)actions may well be valid. But the fact remains that her position is reactionary not merely in action, but in principle. Were the Queen to become a Leninist tomorrow, this would remain the case.

Of course, it must be clarified that Canada’s official self-definition is that it is a constitutional monarchy. The Canadian constitution extends back to the Magna Carta, imposed on King John by his nobles (a further nod to the idea that Canada is the more conservative nation – it has a much older political tradition to conserve). But the monarchy is an institution, whereas “constitutional monarchy” describes a power relationship. As a result, one must distinguish between those who defend the institution versus those who defend the power relationship.

Most explicit Canadian monarchists of the modern day – including the official organization – claim to defend the constitutional monarchy. To this author’s knowledge, there is no mention of “constitutional monarchy” in the writings of the United Empire Loyalists. Their attitude – embodied in their name – implies devotion to monarchy as an institution, and the individual monarch who sat on the throne in their day. Ontario’s provincial motto embodies this principle:  Ut incepit fidelis sic permanet (“Loyal she began, loyal she remains”). Canadians who identify with the tradition of the Right would do well to reflect on this important distinction.

A more subtle rejection of liberalism inherent in the Canadian heritage is the historical focus on the rights of nations and peoples as opposed to individuals. This recognition forms a core part of George Grant’s thesis that Canada represents a more authentic conservative order than the American Republic. This also led him to take a position rather unusual for a Canadian conservative: sympathy for Quebec nationalism and the defence of its distinct culture as a “Franco-American civilization”. Unlike most Quebec nationalists, he realized that liberalism represented perhaps an even greater danger than English Canadian hegemony:

…the French Canadians are determined to remain a nation. During the nineteenth century, they accepted almost unanimously the leadership of their particular Catholicism – a religion with an ancient doctrine of virtue. After 1789, they maintained their connection with the roots of their civilization through their church and its city, which more than any other in the West held high a vision of the eternal. To Catholics who remain Catholics, whatever their level of sophistication, virtue must be prior to freedom. They will therefore build a society in which the right of the common good restrains the freedom of the individual. Quebec was not a society that would come to terms with the political philosophy of Jefferson or the New England capitalists.

He approvingly quotes Quebec politician Henri Bourassa, a father of modern French-Canadian nationalism who tangled with Prime Ministers from Laurier to Borden:

Our special task as French Canadians, is to insert into America the spirit of Christian France. It is to defend against all comers, perhaps even against France herself, our religious and national heritage. This heritage does not belong to us alone. It belongs to all Catholic America. It is the inspiring and shining hearth of that America. It belongs to the whole Church, and it is the basic foundation of the Church in this part of the world. It belongs to all French civilization of which it is the refuge and anchor amid the immense sea of saxonizing Americanism.

As an aside, it is worth noting that line: “perhaps even against France herself.” This reveals, in the minds of at least some French-Canadians of the day, a devotion to the France of the Catholic Kings, rather than that of the Republic.

The concept of national rather than just individual rights carries over in the policy of multiculturalism. While its current form has been used and abused on behalf of identity politics for generations, one must not forget that the policy depended on a fundamentally illiberal conception of rights. Unfortunately, many Canadian conservatives today criticize it on the grounds that rights ought to be purely individualist – which is to say, on the grounds that it is not liberal enough.

However, the nationalist Diefenbaker did not make attempts to gain widespread French support for his agenda. In fact, he did not even maintain the traditional expressions of ethnoreligious truce which had emerged in Canadian life, such as the inclusion of Catholics in high government positions. Grant reserves harsh words for his failure, which in his eyes may well have cost Canada its ultimate sovereignty:

This failure to recognize the rights of French Canadians, qua community, was inconsistent with the roots of Canadian nationalism. One distinction between Canada and the United States has been the belief that Canada was predicated on the rights of nations as well as on the rights of individuals. American nationalism was, after all, founded on the civil rights of individuals in just as firm a way as the British appeal to liberty was founded on these rights.

As the price of that liberty, American society has always demanded that all autonomous communities be swallowed up into the common culture…On this principle, the French Canadians might as well be asked to be homogenized straight into the American Republic. In so far as he did not distinguish between the rights of individuals and the rights of nations, Diefenbaker showed himself to be a liberal rather than a conservative.

The Canadian position on ethnocultural rights and privileges presents a challenge to the liberal idea of the sovereign individual. Against the homogeneous blank-slate who bears “universal human rights”, Canada defended the social (and indeed, religious) human person whose formation depends on rooted and distinct cultures and ways of life.

The final point we will examine is the Canadian conception of government. Specifically, we will show that the Canadian Right – the Tory and Loyalist tradition – lacked any American conception of “limited government”. Rather, it embraced the principle of good government, sound government, and competent government. Free trade or protectionism, state intervention or private enterprise, tariffs or tax cuts – these did not have any inherent value in and of themselves. Rather, they derived their value based on the interests of the Crown and the Dominion. The Tories variously used both in different governments.

Grant notes the following:

In our early expansions, this conservative nationalism expressed itself in the use of public control in the political and economic spheres. Our opening of the West differed from that of the United States, in that the law of the central government was used more extensively, and less reliance was placed on the free settler. Until recently, Canadians have been much more willing than Americans to use governmental control over economic life to protect the public good against private freedom.

Grant goes on to give some examples of such projects, which we will review in more detail now.

The devotion to public order and tradition lead Canadians of all stripes to see government as useful and necessary rather than problematic. This was especially true when it came to defending Canadian sovereignty – cultural and economic as well as political. A key concern with the expansion of radio was the growing influence of American media in Canada. The governing powers of the day understood the power which radio would have to control narratives and inform minds. That is, they understood that media power is a subset of geopolitical power.

In response, the Conservative government of R. B. Bennett founded the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission in 1932. The Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King had the same understanding, and reorganized this body into a Crown corporation which survives to this day: the CBC. It is ironic that many modern Canadian conservatives who hate the CBC on grounds that government should not have a presence in media have forgotten its origins. Now the conservative may object that the CBC is filled with liberals – so how can a nationalist support it? Of course our point here doesn’t concern the CBC as it currently exists, but the mindset which led to its creation. But one can further point out that in reflecting the mindset of the Laurentian elite, the CBC is in fact proving that it fulfills its role. Were Canada’s elite to turn to another political tradition, one can well expect the CBC to follow.

It should also be pointed out that the very acceptance of Crown corporations – business ventures owned by the Crown – are entirely antithetical to the worldview of “small government” conservatism. Another example is the Canadian National Railway, which was founded by the Conservative government of Robert Borden just after WWI, at a time when it seemed the failure of private sector companies might cause a breakdown in transportation. Borden himself was a former Liberal who turned Tory due to his opposition to the Liberal free trade policies. Again, this is not a statement for or against free trade as such – precisely because the Canadian tradition viewed “free trade as such” as being morally neutral. Its worth lay in what advantage or disadvantage it gave to Canada. This tradition rejects what could be called the “social scientism” of publications like The Economist—the belief that the mere knowledge of economic laws can tell us what decisions we ought to make.

To conclude, we have examined three elements of Canadian political society which are incompatible with liberalism in its various American forms. The institution of the Monarchy is a rejection of the idea that sovereignty lies in the people. The Canadian Monarch in particular swears coronation oaths which stem from the age of Christendom rather than that of liberalism. In addition, the people themselves are not conceived of existing as sovereign blank slates. Rather, the liberal tradition of individualistic human rights exists at best in tension with a heritage of national and cultural particularism which governing powers must take into account. Finally, the notion of government has not until recent decades been viewed as being fundamentally undesirable. Government’s task is to be competent rather than “big” or “small”. At times this is achieved through respecting ordered liberties, at others it requires dynamic action.

These currents continue to exist in Canada to this day. To examine and embrace them once again must lead one to a core of principles which exist beyond the scope of the liberal world: concepts such as peoples, civilizations, hierarchies, telos, and a freedom which depends on both internal and external order rather than the unbridled passions of omnium contra omnes.


[Editor’s note: cross-posted from Social Matter]

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