Dec 2, 2011
If someone had predicted a few years ago that Canada would fall into the embrace of right-wing nationalism, they would have been sent off to the nearest home for the mentally encumbered.
A nationalism of the left, maybe. We had some of that, at least as conservatives saw it, in the Trudeau years with the National Energy Program, the Committee for an Independent Canada and the like.
Pierre Trudeau was part of a political culture that was always to the left of the Americans. At one point, the State Department labelled him a pot-smoking leftist. Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan’s defence secretary, mocked our armed forces, saying you could put our entire military on a football field and still have room for the game. In his pre prime-ministerial days Stephen Harper himself lamented how Canada had a European-styled socialist bent.
To look now however is to see the dramatic degree to which the political culture is being reshaped. Patriotism pivots on pride in a resurrected military and morality-based missions. Pride in country is now linked to our refurbished armed forces and what Harper sees as moral crusades. National security, law and order, tighter immigration standards and bumper-sticker sports populism are among the features of a new right-wing nationalism. It is an accelerating trend and many Canadians worry that Harper, the anti-Trudeau, is taking it too far.
Because there are moderate elements to his Conservative government’s policy-making, such as its work on the economy, the big shift isn’t always apparent. But the changes, as enumerated below, reveal a shakedown that sees the ideology and methodology of our governing party closely aligned with those of American Republicans.
The Glorification of the Military. This is the new cornerstone of Harper nationalism. He boasts proudly that Canada is now a warrior nation and uses every opportunity to salute the armed forces. A recent report by the National Defence Department, in contrast to other years, says the Canadian identity should be shaped in good part by the military. It is 200 years since Canada was last invaded, but safeguarding Canada, says the prime minister, is his and foremost priority.
A Strict Law and Order Regime. The government’s omnibus crime bill and jail-building program, and its hard line on drugs have pushed our criminal justice system further to the right than anyone can recall. Draconian sentencing standards that have failed in the U.S. are being instituted here. Civil liberties are down and state surveillance is up. Legislation will compel internet service providers to disclose customer information.
Message Control. Central to right-wing nationalism is information control and it is one of this government’s major priorities. A vetting system of unprecedented scope requires all communications to be filtered through central command. Much is done to limit access to information in a government often criticized for its secrecy. Fifteen hundred communications officers are at work massaging the message to fit the governing agenda. Bureaucrats, including those at the Privy Council Office are pressured into becoming propagandists.
Flag-Waving Populism. The Conservatives are melding war and sport to appeal — Don Cherry style — to the masses. They raised eyebrows by using the opening ceremonies of the Grey Cup as a chest-beating tribute to their contribution to NATO’s Libya campaign.
Anti-Democratic Instincts. Harper’s government has shown no hesitation to bully its way through democratic barriers. It has padlocked parliament, been the first government ever to be found in contempt of parliament and, more recently, imposed closure and time limits on parliamentary debate at a record-breaking clip.
Less Tolerance. The Harperites, while not xenophobic, are less inclined toward multiculturalism and inclusivity than previous governments. They have imposed tighter immigration requirements, narrowed the definition of citizenship and blocked entry to war resisters and other unsavoury types. Their less than favourable take on the United Nations resulted in their being denied a seat on the Security Council.
Anti-Intellectualism. In appealing to their populist base, the Conservatives boast of going by gut instead of erudition. They reject and sometimes suppress research and empirical data. Moves against the long-form census and the Justice Department’s handling of crime legislation and the muzzling of government scientists are foremost examples.
The Smearing of Opponents. A favourite Republican Party tactic, Harper Conservatives make frequent use of it with manslayer attack ads and demonization of critics, the latest example being their accusing NDPer Megan Leslie of treachery for opposing, on a Washington visit, the Keystone XL Pipeline. Demagogery is a favoured tactic of right-wing nationalists. Harperites impugn critics of the military as being unpatriotic.
Anti-Labour Bent. Union-bashing, particularly since the NDP has become the official opposition, is a mainstay of the Tory way. The government has used heavy-handed tactics to prevent strikes by postal workers and Air Canada flight attendants. It is considering changing the Labour Code so as to define the economy as an essential service, a move which would give the government extraordinary anti-labour powers.
Cult of the Leader. Right wing nationalism requires the elevation of the leader’s status. The Conservatives have ordered civil servants to change the nomenclature from Government of Canada to the “Harper government.” They initially denied this, only to be caught out by leaked documents.
While this is a democracy, right-wing nationalism is still a frightening prospect to many of soft-centre Canadian traditions. The change to the brash ideological style, one which has worked politically for Harper, contributes to fears of his being a dangerous reactionary. That notion is rejected by his former top strategist, Tom Flanagan. “The prime minister,” he said “has adopted the Liberal shibboleths of bilingualism and multiculturalism. He has no plans to introduce capital punishment, criminalize abortion, repeal gay marriage or repeal the Charter. He swears allegiance to the Canada Health Act. He has enriched equalization for the provinces and pogey for individuals.”
Harper is a self-defined incrementalist. While his policy-making, as Flanagan suggests, is not overly radical in many policy domains, it is his mode of operating, his command style, that has brought the system to heel and, most importantly, opened the door to bigger policy changes down the line. Having just embarked on a majority term, he has many years to build on what he has begun. With time, incrementalism defies the smallness implicit in the term.
In foreign policy, he has already moved Canada, for the first time in its history many would argue, to the right of the United States. You won’t hear anyone from the Pentagon or the State Department belittling Canada’s military any more. On domestic policy he is still handcuffed in many areas by entrenched Canadian traditions.
It will take much work to reform those. But his determination cannot be underestimated. Harper, who at root is still a Reform Party ideologue of old, is out to change the entire concept of the Canadian identity as defined by the prime minister, Trudeau, whose policies he detested.
Thus far he’s made remarkable progress. It is a long way from the politics of peacenik Pierre to today’s Harperian state.