In The Bedrooms of the Nation I: A Brief Canadian History and Political Forces

Social consciousness was in a state of flux.  Oral contraceptives had been available in the U.S. for several years but were banned in Canada.  Sodomy had been decriminalized in the U.K. in 1967.  Medical professionals and activists called for the legalization of abortion in circumstances where the pregnancy caused immediate danger to the mother.  And George Klippert was convicted of “gross indecency” for having consensual gay sex — and because he was determined to be “incurably homosexual,” he was sentenced to indefinite “preventive” detention (essentially a life sentence, which the Supreme Court of Canada later upheld).

On Dec. 21, 1967, Justice Minister and future Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau responded by introducing Omnibus Bill C-150, which amended the Criminal Code of Canada.  It decriminalized homosexuality, made abortion possible, legalized contraception, tweaked gambling and gun laws, and more.  It passed on May 14, 1969, coming into force on the eve of the Stonewall riots in New York City.  When introducing the bill, he famously told CBC,

there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.

42 years later, it keeps trying.

Welcome to 2011.  Beyond our borders, Canada has a reputation for being socially progressive, benevolent and forward-thinking.  Behind the scenes, there is a marked detour to the right — particularly within our political, judicial, media and social infrastructure — driven by Christian Nationalism (a particular brand of Christianity that is hardline and openly declares that government should be run solely by people of faith) which has learned much in the past five to ten years from the American Evangelical and Republican right, and energized by opposition to social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.  As it has throughout history, the pendulum swings forward, then back.   While Canadians have remained largely socially progressive, their political and social systems have swung back hard — but those at the wheel have been careful to do so almost invisibly.

A Diverse Nation

If any one thing differentiates Canada from its neighbour to the south, it’s Canada’s approach to diversity.  While Trudeau had faults, arrogance and hypocrisies, he still had vision, and that vision was one of multiculturalism.  Rather than some “melting pot” of assimilation, Canada was to welcome all, and celebrate our uniqueness rather than shun it.  Canada had been born of three distinct societies — Aboriginal peoples, English-speaking immigrants and French-speaking immigrants — although they’ve historically been in ongoing competition, with the French struggling to keep from being dwarfed by English colonization, and with the people of the First Nations often not even recognized as being part of the equation, and facing ongoing disenfranchisement at every step in a land that was once theirs.  So the promise of multiculturalism was meant to bridge those divisions, as well as to further welcome an international community of ideas.  Canada achieved some success with the latter but because this multicultural vision was still tethered to colonial thinking, efforts to bridge the divide between the big three often teetered on failure.

Regionalism increasingly played a part in the cultural tug-of-war as well. In Ontario, “Eastern Canada” became often a code phrase for Toronto and Ontario’s southern peninsula, where growth and industry driven by a strong manufacturing sector led to a kind of invulnerable mentality that is sometimes guilty of presuming to be validated in speaking for the entire country.  French-speaking Quebec found itself both empowered and alienated by its inimitable nature as it engaged in an ongoing struggle to retain its culture and distinct identity.  A diverse British Columbia grew to bust traditions and create a number of its own.  The prairie provinces and east-coast Maritimes both fell into isolation and became almost as much as an afterthought as the sparsely-populated northern territories… although an oil boom later enabled Alberta to establish economic self-reliance.  Two of these regions underwent transformations that affected the balance of Canadian society.

Révolution Tranquille

Quebec had been founded largely by staunch Catholic tranditionalists and heavily influenced by the Roman Catholic Church.  In the 1950s, a growing secularism and progressivism developed as the population aspired to lead and define what constituted the modern.  However, the legislative structures resisted and defied this, striving to maintain a theologically-advised society.  Consequently, the electorate revolted, and in 1960, the election of a Liberal provincial government brought strong social and political reforms in what is called Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.  This somewhat jolting reassessment of faith-dictated government fed an ongoing societal questioning of English culture -dictated government, and there was a resurgence of desire for independence and sovereignty.  Quebec had carved for itself a distinct identity and self-determination, and became determined to preserve it against all attempts to erode that away.  By 1995, that sentiment had grown strong, and a referendum on separation from Canada had only narrowly failed, on a vote of 50.6% to 49.4%  Separatism still maintains some support in the Province, although it is made more complex by Aboriginal peoples who feel disaffected by both English and French governance, and a kind of partitionism between Anglophone and Francophone residents.  Currently, the popular political objective of both federal and provincial elected legislators is most often to do whatever is necessary for the betterment of Quebec’s culture and self-determination — with even a Federal political party set up for the purpose.

The Alienated West

Another transformation resulted in the resurgence of Canada’s far right, even if social conservative (so-con) principles weren’t the main intent.

While governed by two successive radio evangelists (William Aberhart, Premier from 1935 to 1943, and Ernest C. Manning, Premier from 1943 to 1968), Albertans had developed a “social credit” perspective that believed in the principle of the Province’s wealth being shared by its citizens.  This later evolved into fiscal conservatism, when oil resources were discovered and industry brought both prosperity and a strongly capitalist business attitude.  The Social Credit Party of Alberta managed to adapt to the change in fiscal perspective, but miscalculated by maintaining a staunchly right-wing theologically-driven governance — meanwhile, the urban, modernist Progressive Conservatives brought an approach that combined fiscal conservatism with social enlightenment.  Alberta too wanted to modernize and redefine itself.  In 1971, the Socreds were decimated in an electoral defeat that they never recovered from.  But old habits die hard, and when a sense of alienation common across the Prairies became combined with an almost frontier-style spirit of capitalism and a newfound economic strength that the federal government attempted to wrest away, economic priorities overrode social change, and the still-entrenched religious right experienced a resurgence.

Governing easterners seemed largely unable to understand the West.  Pierre Trudeau proposed a National Energy Program in the early 1970s — largely seen as an attempt to seize oil revenues (which differed from the way provincial resources were handled in nearly every other circumstance), all the while leaving eastern provinces’ revenue generation untouched.  This was recceived poorly, and the Liberal governments were eventually defeated. Alberta initially pinned its hopes on the Mulroney Conservative government, only to find that they took Western support for granted — causing Albertans to largely retreat and ponder separatism for a time, before opting for a third alternative: to try to reform the federal political landscape entirely.  But because the Province had so de-emphasized social progressivism, and likewise failed to understand the French-Canadian and Aboriginal cultures with whom they’d been politically married, Reform (complete with a party that bore the name) was a flawed concept from the beginning.  Led by Preston Manning, a social conservative and son of the evangelist and former Premier Ernest, social progressivism became buried in the quest for fiscal and political change.

In some ways, the idea of the state staying out of the bedroom almost became an anathema in the midwest purely because of the person who had said it.  Instead, Reform smouldered as a silent grassroots movement, then ignited in a prairie fire that turned into new right-wing party… one in which Evangelical and far right extremists found an opportune home.  The drive for economic survival drove progressives into the closet about their social thinking, allowing far right politicians like Manning, Alliance leader Stockwell Day, (contender for Alberta Premier) Ted Morton and Canada’s current Prime Minster Stephen Harper to find financial and voter backing.

The Emergence of the New Conservatives

When the Progressive Conservatives and Canadian Alliance (formerly Reform Party) merged to form the current Conservative party in 2003, it appears the scripture about being unequally yoked doesn’t apply when it gives one an unfair advantage.  Harper exploited this to the fullest, knowing that the disfavour Canadians had for the former Mulroney government gave him the opportunity to virtually banish progressive “red tory” opponents as he took the leadership and nearly branded the new party with the unfortunate acronym of CCRAP.  Since then, at the helm of the emergent no longer Progressive Conservatives, he’s managed a kind of tight-fisted top-down management that keeps any remaining disparate elements reined in tightly.

Forging careful alliances — sometimes even bringing together disparate groups like Jewish and Islamic organizations, Christians and white supremacists — the Harper government was able to foster an enigma by pandering to its socially conservative base, but being mindful of a need to do so under the radar so that it could remain “safe” for centrists, libertarians and fiscal-minded progressives to support.  Not having formed a majority government which would allow it to govern without the need for allies, it has been aware of the open-minded nature of Canadian society and has been careful not to awake the giant.  A splintered and vote-splitting political centre-left and Canada’s characteristic voter apathy has also helped the far right, which has been far more able to use faith to mobilize its troops under a new vision than other segments of Canadian society.  And as politicians discovered in the US, fear is a more effective motivating tool than hope — especially considering how dishearteningly badly altruism tends to fare in the real world of politics.

Two Options to Govern

I’ve glossed over a lot, including decades of Liberal, Progressive Conservative and Conservative scandals, of leadership hopefuls sabotaging other leaders and hopefuls, of the advent of social programs and the rising New Democratic Party (NDP), and more.  You’ll have to bear with me, since this is meant to be a quick backgrounder.

Because of its cultural divides, Canada can only advance as an intact nation under one of two scenarios.  In one, the errors of multiculturalism need to be addressed by finding a way to defuse — on an ongoing 24/7 basis — the colonial impulse for any one culture to impose its characteristics, will and vision on the others, and to find a collaborative direction forward.  Which will obviously not be an easy task — a truly decolonial vision is frustratingly elusive anywhere.  The major political party that is likely closest to embodying this vision (NDP) is one that has yet to parse it into a form that it can clearly articulate to voters (or indicate that it wants to), and to assuage the public’s perception that positive social progress would be economically imbalanced and fiscally punitive — although a second possible party has appeared on the political landscape in recent years (the Greens).

The other scenario is to disempower, subvert, misdirect and use subterfuge to rule, control but otherwise lull the population (and opposition) into complacency.  Increasingly, political parties on either side of the spectrum have discovered this and gravitated toward this kind of behaviour (although the Liberal party still has elements who still cleave strongly to their multicultural vision).  But the Stephen Harper government has polished its craft and done so more strategically and consciously.  And because Christian Nationalism brings with it a congregation of voters submitted to what they perceive to be the will of God, it has provided a useful template and political base from which to form this kind of government.

This is why the Harper Conservatives are compelled to take the direction that they are, and why it is effective for them.

But in lieu of the emergence of a political vision that inspires Canadians, or else a Harper success at disempowerment and control, Canada remains an uneasy alliance bound by several bits of paper, a little piece of rope, and not a lot of vision.  Yay.

Tightroping

Navigating political alliances has been crucial to the Harper government.  Canada’s religious far right (again, not to be confused with all Christians) became political in two stages — first after the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the ban on non-medically urgent abortion, and then in response to the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005.  Energized by their common social issues, the varying religious factions have been able to overlook their many theological differences along the way.  Pivotal figures have been able to broker bonds (no, not a conspiracy, but often collaborations and common purposes) between Evangelicals, Catholic Fundamentalists, Christian Zionists and (perhaps oddly) Libertarians.  Catholic and Evangelical factions that historically have been at odds have instead worked collaboratively to generate the wave that swept the Conservatives to power — and since then, they have been rewarded by being welcomed into positions of influence, albeit usually under the political radar.  Of them, the Evangelicals have taken up a conviction that it is their preordained destiny and duty to rule according to Biblical principles, and have often openly declared an intent to shape Canada into a theocratic nation.

In recent years, these alliances have also tried to woo the First Nations.  Some of these faith groups have decided it’s time to atone for treaty betrayals and residential schools, which tore children from their families and did their best to eradicate Aboriginal customs.  While Albert McLeod was able to speak to a Truth and Reconciliation hearing to give voice to something as perceptively transgressive as wounded Two Spirit traditions, there are still cross purposes at play — and if Native spirituality is to be given due respect, then inevitably the faith groups attempting this alliance will need to decide between either validating Aboriginal peoples or using the opportunity to try to manipulate the First Nations to “get with their program.”  Tightroping the Stephen Harper way is never easy.

While Canada has historically tended to govern according to principles that separate church and state, there is no constitutional legislation that guarantees it.  Consequently, the Stephen Harper government has enabled Christian Nationalism to accelerate from a slow, fringe crawl, into a sprint directly into the bedrooms of the nation.

Next: A Roadmap to Canada’s Religious Right

And then: The Stephen Harper Government’s Record

Vote for this post on Progressive Bloggers

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