Abortion has been the chief proxy issue dividing Canadians since the death penalty was abolished in 1976. You hear someone’s stand on abortion and you pretty much know what her or his stand is on everything else. It’s not entirely that straightforward, but it’s roughly the case, and the societal fault line is so deep that Canada is one of the very few nations that has no law on abortion. It is the line in the sand of Canada’s culture war. We say “Abortion” and we think “Oh-boy, here be dragons.”
Except, with an ideological blue Conservative government in possession of a parliamentary majority, you can’t say “culture war” in the country without being made to feel you’ve passed wind in front of the Queen or been caught singing aloud the lyrics of The Maple Leaf Forever about bashing the French on the Plains of Abraham. “Culture war” has been deemed offensive, even though culture war is what we’ve got, and abortion is at its core: the primary yardstick held up against Stephen Harper to measure whether he is or isn’t a social conservative. And Canada is fundamentally a progressive place where social conservatives do not win majority governments in Canada. At least, they’re not supposed to.
Thus, when abortion surfaced in the election campaign — bringing needed national attention to Saskatoon-Humboldt MP Brad Trost, a man most Canadians have never heard of — the prime minister’s spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, immediately summoned journalists to a press conference at half-past midnight in a St. John’s hotel to deny that Mr. Trost had been successful, as he had claimed at a public meeting, in blocking government funding to the International Planned Parenthood Federation because of its abortion activities.
Later that day, Mr. Harper himself told reporters: “I’m not opening this debate [on abortion]. I don’t want it opened. I have not wanted it opened. I haven’t opened it as prime minister. I’m not going to open it. The public doesn’t want to open it. This is not the priority of the Canadian public or this government and it will not be.”
Canadian politics are sometimes so simple they belie John Ralston Saul’s dictum that the central mythology of the country is that it’s complicated. Right?
Because while Mr. Harper’s comments could be construed as meaning he is not a social conservative, what he was saying was not exactly what was happening although it nicely illustrated how difficult it can be to govern when a very large whack of the people who support you are social conservatives.
Mr. Trost, a 37-year–old geophysicist, led the anti-abortion rump in the Conservative minority government’s caucus credited with blocking funding for abortion services in Mr. Harper’s 2010 G8 maternal health initiative. And Planned Parenthood (IPPF) has been waiting for its funding since Mr. Trost launched a petition signed by 30 MPs 18 months ago to demand that the organization be denied Canadian government support.
This is an organization whose work has been funded by the Canadian International Development Agency for 40 years. Canadian support makes up five per cent of its budget. It’s application in 2009 for renewal of its three-year $18-million grant was not rejected by the Harper government; it was ignored, which, as an IPPF official in the organization’s London headquarters said this week, made it “dead” and compelled IPPF to dig into its cash reserves to avoid cutting services (incidentally, just 2.5 per cent of the 68.5-million services it provides annually are abortion-related).
In the wake of the G8 maternal health initiative, IPPF submitted a revised two-year application for $12-million in which it pledged to use Canadian money only in countries where abortion is illegal (15 in Africa, three in southeast Asia and Afghanistan). It was met with similar silence until the election was called.
One way of looking at the government’s response would be to say that, while Mr. Harper led a minority government, he couldn’t afford to alienate members of his caucus like Mr. Trost who would not be silenced on abortion. But that now that Mr. Harper leads a majority government, Mr. Trost can whistle Dixie — because the prime minister is right: a strong majority of Canadians do not want the issue re-opened. Except, curiously, after Mr. Trost spoke out, the Harper campaign headquarters issued a statement in the name of International Aid Minister Bev Oda (she who alters documents on aid funding) saying she would approve funding for Planned Parenthood “if” the group submitted an application that met the government’s guidelines, suggesting the organization hadn’t yet asked for money which of course it had. But to be on the safe side, when IPPF heard the minister’s — or the prime minister’s — words, it immediate submitted another application.
So where does that leave us?
As a first step it should leave us thinking about the fact that Mr. Harper has the support of 25 per cent of the electorate who are social conservatives. They are his. They are not going to go anywhere else. And they vote more enthusiastically and in larger numbers than any other demographic cohort in the electorate. They tend to be older, and Canadians are getting older at a gallop. They are attracting new Canadians to their ranks who previously would have been expected to vote New Democrat and especially Liberal — not a lot, but significantly enough, and Canada adds one million immigrants every four years.
And for the first time possibly since the Depression, they are significantly introducing social class issues into a society noted for its relative egalitarianism. Whereas university-educated Canadians — the country’s comparatively well-off elites — are clustered in the rational/empirical camp, their community college-educated co-citizens — who have suffered wage-stagnation and the slings and arrows of an increasingly unequal society — are clumped in the moralism/certainty faction.
Thus we are becoming a country with deep fault lines, but with an outcome that’s not certain.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper , looking at the abortion issue, the government’s tough-on-crime policies, its determination to raise the age of sexual consent, its persistent attempts to close Vancouver’s safe drug injection program — it could have gone on to mention the elimination of the mandatory long-form census, the general withering of the state, the suspicious full-blown support of Israel, the equally full-blown re-imaging of the armed forces into an aggressive fighting machine, the withering of interest in foreign aid etc. etc. — proclaimed, “Progressive Canada is slipping away.”
The National Post, on the other hand, looking at the abortion issue and an earlier promise by Mr. Harper not to re-open the debate on same-sex marriage, reported during the election campaign that they were likely the final proof (“observers say”) that social conservatives have become a spent force in national politics.
What seems evident is that Mr. Harper, on the here-be-dragons issue of abortion, is going to continue to work both sides of the street. He can’t ignore, even with a majority government, the big lump of his supporters who oppose abortion. Neither can he ignore the overwhelming majority of Canadians, while they may be periodically confused by the pollsters’ questions on the subject, who favour abortion and whose numbers, unlike in the U.S., are not eroding.
That’s abortion. On the cluster of other issues falling under the social conservative rubric, the future is not clearly predictable. Canada likely is inching to the right. The evidence is that it is adding immigrants who are more morally conservative than native-born Canadians. Support for moral certainty and skepticism of the state and expert planning rise with age (the baby boomers have been a pain in the behind since the late 1970s). I quietly think the elimination of the mandatory long-form census was a test case to see how much of a social conservative agenda Canadians will swallow.
We are becoming a country with two conflicting worldviews that present clear differences and are profoundly and relatively impervious to opposition persuasion. We have culture war.
But there is one element to the war that bears careful watching, and which this blog will watch.
Perhaps the most destabilizing force today in Canada is rising inequality. Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research, says it’s been the wind that’s blown so many Canadians into the social conservative camp. It is fracturing social cohesion, hobbling the future of young Canadians, creating a country comprising a handful of elite “haves” who are getting farther and farther removed from an economically inert majority . Corporations and bank economists, finally, are becoming aware of it. Michael Ignatieff said in an interview that he mentioned it in every speech he gave during the election campaign (which he suggested failed to get through the media filter). For those of us who live in Toronto, it may explain Rob Ford in the mayor’s chair. The conflict of class interests it is producing has similarities to the Tea Party Movement in the United States.
Some years back, Mr. Harper said in a speech to a British think-tank: “Rebalancing the conservative agenda will require careful political judgment. First, the issues must be chosen carefully. For example, the social conservative issues we choose should not be denominational, but should unite social conservatives of different denominations and even different faiths.”
Support for moral certainty and skepticism of the state and expert planning also rises with socio-economic vulnerability, hence the reason why so many victims of inequality have entered the social conservative camp.
Sitting outside the camp are Jack Layton and his New Democrats. Suppose they can make inequality the new proxy issue of Canada’s culture war. Suppose the victims of inequality come to see maybe that they are not part of a re-balanced conservative agenda, that maybe their best interests are met by a polity where the state is the terrain where all Canadians meet to defend each other’s class interests.
That would make for a meaningful social debate, and the subject of another post.