This blog represents an attempt to think carefully about whether Canada, as a political project, as a patchwork of cultural traditions and as a wonderfully chaotic collection of interests and values is facing deep changes in how it understands itself. We conceived of this blog in the last days of an election campaign – a campaign that may overturn the natural order of things in electoral politics – because we wonder whether our current politics might be a function of deeper forces that are at work.
So we will ask a lot of questions. We wonder how did Canada move in slightly more than one generation from Red Toryism to neo-conservatism? How did we shuck half a century and more of mythologies about ourselves in the blink of an eye? Was our Red Toryism ever really real?
Was the influence real of our social gospel thinkers like Tommy Douglas and the brilliant foreign policy strategists around Lester Pearson? Was our independent voice at the margin of empire once really cherished: the fresh eyes, fresh thoughts, fresh analysis Canada could bring to global geo-politics? Is our opposition to religion in the public sphere real — when a marginal preacher from the religious right can compel the government of Ontario — in a 21st-century country said to be closer to the spiritual cold belt of Europe than to the theocratic forces at work among our southern neighbours — to hastily withdraw its new sexual education curriculum?
Were we really a rights culture in Canada, before the police were let loose on the G20 demonstrators (not to mention ordinary citizens who had nothing to do with the G20) and Maclean’s magazine yelled on its cover “Lock ‘em up!” and The Toronto Sun newspaper advocated the suspension of habeus corpus and denial of the right to legal counsel for those arrested?
Is it real that the world still celebrates our multicultural model and almost all the world’s best philosophers of multiculturalism are Canadian — Will Kymlicka, Charles Taylor, James Tully and others — when at home our elites have begun talking about junking multiculturalism altogether? What happened to the bonds, the glue, wrought by our myth of collective survival on the vast breast of the north? What’s happening, for that matter, to our social cohesion? What happened to our imagined community — or did anything?
What does it mean when former strategists for the Conservative Party are caught red-handed simultaneously advising their party while working for the self-professed ‘just the facts’ SunTV news network? Or that the same sort of collusion exists between the Ontario government and the so-called Working Families Coalition, an umbrella of powerful unions that supports the governing Liberals – is stuck before the courts?
We ask where Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford and his Ford Nation, come from? Were they always there in waiting, an ideological army the existence of which no one had guessed? If not, how did a man almost universally labelled a right-wing buffoon during the municipal election campaign get elected on the votes of 46 per cent of Torontonians in November 2010, and five months later in March 2011 has a 60 per cent approval rating?
Questions like these about myth and image are virtually ignored by the mainstream news media or cannot be adequately answered. But contest over myths are an essential element of contemporary politics. And the people of Ford Nation — “Dougies,” “Steves,” “Eunices” and “Heathers” in the named cohorts of the Conservative Party of Canada’s careful demographic profiling — are as Canadian as “Zoey,” “Marcus” and “Fiona,” the highly educated, cosmopolitan, inner city elites who would leave the country before voting for a Rob Ford or a Stephen Harper.
They are people the Conservatives liken to foot soldiers in a class war that Canadian politics has become in the early 21st century, people the party defines as economically beleaguered “battlers,” as both native and new Canadian “aspirational voters” who feel morally, financially and, yes, aspirationally ripped off by the state, the elites and big corporatism, as “victims” who are rising up angry against liberal elites who have ruled Canada seemingly forever; elites in the state bureaucracy and the courts and the professions like law and medicine and the media and the academy. Why are they only being heard now?
It is likely Ford Nation has the answer in its hip pocket to the baffled question posed by The Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin in a column: how can the Conservatives break election financing regulations, alter a civil service-approved foreign aid funding decision, bring thousands of protesters to the street by its perceived abusive shut-down of Parliament, give a half-million-dollar get-out-of-town package (along with a gag forbidding her to talk about it) to a Conservative-appointed public servant who patently didn’t do her job, refuse to disclose to Parliament the cost of controversial crime legislation, punish and humiliate civil servants who do speak openly to Parliament about things the government does not want spoken about, broadcast horrific and tasteless political attack ads, and on and on and on — how can they do all this and it doesn’t stick to them, doesn’t get them whacked in the polls? Surely, wrote Lawrence they must be getting close to the tipping point. Don’t bet on it. “Dougie” and “Steve” and “Eunice” and “Heather” are homers, and Stephen Harper’s government and party are their home team. Full stop. So if the home team slips up now and then? Politics is dirty. New Democrats vote for their party regardless of what it does. New Democrats are homers, just like Dougie.
This blog and the questions we ask here are not meant to trash the Dougies and the Eunices, — far from it — but rather to inquire into what has changed either perceptually or in reality in Canada in the past quarter-century and explain why the voices of the Dougies and Eunices today are being heard so loudly, their emotions felt and their values noticed in the public sphere.
In so doing we also ask what has happened to the country’s liberal elites, Canada’s natural governors for so many decades. It appears at least in the few days before the election, and with seemingly improbable polls in hand, that the liberal elites are indeed facing a very different political landscape.
All of this is fundamentally an inquiry into the nature of Canadians’ imagined community — the mental image of their affinity with each other, the assumption of what values they hold together, the nationhood they think they feel in common. As political scientist Benedict Anderson, who coined the label “imagined community” has put it: “A nation is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”.
This sense of community requires us to look to the past and to the mythologies that have until recently served as bedrock in our collective sense of self. Mythology — or meaning-endowed narrative – from which we construct our national community and our social cohesion, the essence of who we feel ourselves to be and what is us, these mythologies are what a society believes about itself to be true. They will remain authoritative so long as members of the society act as if they believe them to be accurate. University of Toronto political scientist Peter Russell wrote in his book on Canadian nationalism, “Myth is above all an expression of faith, a call for action, a plea for collective solidarity which depends for its validity not on the truth or logic of its contention but on its ability to inspire its adherents with a belief in historical destiny.” In other words, it is in the accomplishments of our community that have become mythologized — the image in the mirror — that we recognize ourselves and feel drawn together to continue building on achievements from a past we culturally share regardless of where we or our parents were born.
Sometimes history and mythology are on the same track. Sometimes they aren’t. The dilemma for Canadians, as the writer John Ralston Saul once explained, is that whereas the purpose of mythologies is to simplify complex ideas, the overriding mythology of Canada is that nothing about the place is simple.
And so we ask if Canada has really changed in the last quarter century and, if it has, by how much? What is left of Red Toryism? What is the imagined community of Canada of Ford Nation and Harper conservatism and where has it come from? What are their mythologies? What do Dougie and Zoey still have to say to each other? What in heaven’s name does the advent of an astonishingly revitalized New Democratic Party mean?
That is what this blog is about.