I’m writing this on the morning of Canada Day 2022, thinking about all the fascinating things I’ve read and the people I’ve met.
Looking south of the border, and the upheavals in the United States over everything from the overturning of Roe V. Wade and the debates over abortion to school shootings and gun rights, I’m struck by the reaction of many Canadian conservatives to these things. Most of the candidates in the federal Conservative leadership race, have said they won’t reopen the abortion debate in Canada, with the only dissenter being careful to say that she’d only restrict coerced or sex-selective abortions. While there’s criticism about the Trudeau Liberals’ new efforts to limit handgun sales and buy back existing assault rifles, they haven’t caused the same levels of outrage and opposition we’ve seen in the United States.
In fact, I think that speaks to some of the deep differences between Canadian and American conservatism. It’s a difference that reflects itself in everything from constitutional rights to the general role of government in society, and it’s had an immense impact on the history of both countries.
Some of the first signs go as far back as just after Confederation with many of John A. Macdonald’s policies as Prime Minister. His government raised heavy tariffs on American imports to help Canadian manufacturers grow, built the Canadian Pacific Railway with vast sums of government money, legalized trade unions and opposed provincial restrictions on the French language outside Quebec. These sorts of policies would make many modern conservatives break out in hives, being interferences in the free market, Crown Corporations and Canada-wide bilingualism, but Macdonald made them all part of Canadian conservatism.
His 20th century successors followed this path. The Canadian Wheat Board, the CBC and the Bank of Canada were all created by Calgary Conservative R.B. Bennett. John Diefenbaker helped establish universal health care by co-financing it with provinces that started it. During the free trade debates of the late 1980s, Brian Mulroney repeatedly insisted that free trade would not endanger the Canadian social safety net. In the 21st century, Stephen Harper kept a firm lid on any attempts by his caucus to re-open Canada’s debates on gay marriage or abortion, and suffered no consequences on election day.
Things weren’t much different at the provincial level, including in my own province of Alberta. Alberta’s the only province to create a distinct land base for the Metis. Ernest Manning, our 25-year Premier and the father of Preston, wrote that society was obliged to help citizens provide a decent living for themselves and their families, collectively pay for an acceptable standard of social services and secure “every man, woman and child complete and permanent freedom from fear and worry and from social and economic insecurity,” words that could just as easily come out of NDP icon Tommy Douglas’s mouth.
Alberta’s more recent history continued to bear this out. Peter Lougheed spent lavishly on schools, roads and hospitals during the 1970s oil boom. Ralph Klein’s defence of traditional marriage being defined as between a man and a woman was half-hearted, as he allowed Alberta’s use of the notwithstanding clause opposing the court ruling that changed it to lapse. He also refused to use the notwithstanding clause in the Vriend case when the Supreme Court ordered Alberta to include gay rights in its provincial human rights code. Like Harper, he never suffered any consequences on election day for his refusals.
When Klein tried to start privatizing Alberta’s health care system, he attempted to justify it as a “third way” between private and public care that would take pressure off the public system. He couldn’t convince his caucus or the public, many of whom saw it as a concession to some of his corporate friends. I’ve never met a single conservative Albertan who didn’t support socialized health care. When they support some privatization, it’s because they think that it’ll relieve pressure on the public system.
Albertans were the loudest critics of the Chretien Liberals’ long gun registry, but nobody here seems to care about the handgun registry that’s been in place for decades. Just as every Alberta conservative I’ve met supports socialized medicine, every Alberta long gun owner I’ve ever asked has been cool with the handgun registry. In general, Albertans who have long guns use them for hunting or for protecting livestock, not as a symbol of defending against tyranny. Conservative criticism of Trudeau’s gun control efforts has focused on their not addressing the real problem, which the Conservatives say is guns being illegally smuggled from the U.S.
In the United States, debates over abortion and gun control have become existential issues for many conservatives. Anti-abortion advocates have been fighting to overturn Roe V. Wade for decades, and now there’s talk of Republicans trying ban abortion federally. Joe Biden’s recent gun control bill only came after tragedies like the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and even then many Republicans fiercely opposed it.
The social safety net has often been a much harder sell to American Republicans than to Canadian Conservatives. Ronald Reagan famously said that the most terrifying English words were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Barack Obama’s attempts to create a public health insurance system in the United States were like pulling teeth, and he barely succeeded. Hospital bills continue to drive many Americans into the poorhouse.
Historically, Canadian conservatives have always been more willing to support government spending and programs for society as a whole than their American counterparts. Social conservatism has also had a lot less traction in Canada than in the United States in recent years, even among conservatives. These differences have had a huge impact on both the histories and the politics of our countries, and the very deep differences between them.
Vive le Canada uni!