Courtesy Reuters

Massive Alternation in Canadian Politics

FOR the second time within a year the results of Canadian elections have occasioned general astonishment. In 1957 the victory of the Progressive Conservatives came as a surprise. And although in the election of last March a Conservative triumph had been forecast, it was wholly unexpected that the Diefenbaker administration would be returned to office with a landslide sweep of 208 of the 265 seats in the Canadian House of Commons. Moreover, the election of March 31 extinguished the Social Credit party in the federal parliament and pared the representation of the Coöperative Commonwealth Federation (C.C.F.) from 25 to eight. One obvious conclusion is that two-party politics in Canada has been revived

But it is not primarily the shattering of the two minority parties which heralds the return of two-party politics. The most significant result of the election is that for the first time since 1917 a party other than the Liberal party has received a genuine national mandate from the Canadian people. The emergence in federal politics of an effective, viable alternative to the dominance of the Liberal party is of the first importance.

Regret already has been voiced in several quarters at the size of the Conservative sweep, which leaves the Liberals with only 49 seats. It is said that Canada has gained nothing in trading the domination of one party for the even more massive domination of another. Unquestionably, serious problems do develop for parliamentary government when one party holds so overwhelming a majority as is now the case in Ottawa. But the emphatic and prolonged dominance of one of the two major parties has been the rule rather than the exception in Canadian politics. Canada's history since Confederation is usually summarized in terms of three great eras, each characterized by the reign of one party: the Conservative era under Sir John A. Macdonald, which lasted from 1867 to 1896; the Liberal era under Sir Wilfrid Laurier, which lasted from 1896 until 1911; and the second Liberal era, which began in 1921 and has now ended. Thus the results of the recent election are true to the tradition of Canadian politics in maintaining a two-party system on the basis of what may be termed massive alternation. The shift from a commanding Liberal majority to an overwhelming Conservative majority is characteristically Canadian. But it is a surprise and a relief that the shift took place at all, because history appeared to have tilted the balance permanently to the Liberal side.

II

For over 90 years, Canadians have been proving that a house divided against itself can stand. Although the number of Canadians whose origin is neither British nor French is increasing --it is now perhaps 20 percent of the total population--the great barrier that divides more than 7,000,000 Canadians of British extraction from almost 5,000,000 Canadians of French descent has not yet been eroded. This is a barrier of more than national origin. It is one also of religion, of language, of culture, of the old and bitter knowledge that French Canadians became part of British North America as the result of a French defeat in a war with Britain. The divided house has continued to stand partly because outside pressures were even greater than internal ones. It has stood also because the division has been bridged by one or the other of the political parties.

Political and economic nationalism has been the great unifying force in Canada's history as a Dominion. More than anything else, the stubborn will to forge a Canadian nationality held a divided people together. As one looks back to 1867, the odds against success were staggering. A tiny population, internally divided, began to string itself out along the southern fringe of a huge territory whose enormous northern bulk appeared to defy the mastery of man. Self-government was demanded, even though the path away from British sovereignty threatened always to become the road toward integration with the United States. To surmount a challenge of these dimensions could and did become a national obsession. Once Confederation had created the constitutional framework for national autonomy, the greatest need was to mobilize the entire resources of the would-be community for the creation of an autonomous economy. The Canadian party system became the means to effect such mobilization.

"The difficulty is that there is no great party interested in fighting the battle of the Dominion," Macdonald complained in 1868. But even as he wrote this he was building just such a party. His Conservative party formed across the nationality barrier that divided the Canadian people. It entered into partnership with what there was of Canadian capital and industrial-commercial enterprise. To the point of corruption, Macdonald smothered sectional interests with money and with patronage. His Conservative party deliberately included the widest variety of diverse viewpoints, in order to subordinate them to the paramount national purpose. Thus Macdonald developed the model of a party which gave practical expression to the one purpose on which consensus existed among Canadians. This party lacked an ideology almost completely. But in representing the goal of national autonomy it furnished that vital central ground on which all Canadians found it possible to meet.

As an opposition emerged, it developed in the image of the governing party. It, too, cut across the nationality barrier and deëmphasized ideology. It opposed not the ends to which the majority party was dedicated but the means proposed to achieve those ends. The opposition had not yet matured when Macdonald's Conservatives were briefly driven from office in 1874. But when the vigor of the Conservative administration had spent itself, the Liberals under Laurier took over in 1896. They adopted virtually the same national policy which Macdonald had pursued, and they rallied to their banner a national majority almost as large and inclusive as the Conservatives had commanded. The rhythm of massive alternation had come into being.

In his recent Godkin Lectures at Harvard, Chester Bowles discussed American politics "in terms of a few relatively long periods, each dominated by a fairly stable coalition of . . . interests--a semi-permanent majority with a rough consensus on immediate public questions."[i] A more radical version of this formula correctly describes Canadian politics. The size and diversity of American politics put a premium on the achievement of a stable national consensus, but several versions of it have succeeded one another in American history. It has been above all the more drastic lack of social homogeneity of the Canadian people which has imposed on their politics the need for a single, continuing consensus. This must be represented by the ruling party, and the rhythm of massive alternation provides that when one party has lost its vitality the other will take up a similar course in pursuit of an expanded autonomy.

III

It is improbable that Canada could survive as a nation if the major parties were based on linguistic and religious differences. Yet just when a party system avoiding this danger had come to life, disruption threatened. A series of events so alienated French Canadians from the Conservative party that it appeared unlikely the Conservatives would ever again attain a national majority. Only two choices still seemed open: a permanent Liberal hegemony, or a partisan majority, excluding French Canadians, which would endanger national unity. Canadian politics emerged from this dilemma only in the last election.

When Laurier's Liberal administration had become moribund in 1911, Sir Robert Borden attempted to achieve a majority under Conservative auspices. But at this time Canada's national purpose was obscured in controversy regarding the rôle the Dominion was to play in the mobilization of the British Empire for world war. Such controversy could not help but accentuate the differences between British and French Canadians. Borden's Conservative party governed only with an uneasy coalition of French and British Canadians, who now doubted that a common national purpose existed for them to cling to. The stage was set for the traumatic events of 1917.

In that tragic year, the Borden government felt itself compelled to impose compulsory military service, despite the adamant objections of the French Canadians. To accomplish this, Borden joined forces with most of the Liberals of British descent. In the conscription election of 1917 the Liberal party was deserted by the bulk of its supporters of British origin and was reduced to little more than a French Canadian sectional party. A legacy of bitterness beyond the comprehension of most non-Canadians emanates from this controversy. For a terrible moment the political bridge across the social barrier was blocked, and the party cleavage reinforced nationality differences.

The worst of the inherent threat to Canadian unity seemed past when a national political majority was reborn in 1921. Enough supporters of British origin returned to the Liberal fold to give that party primacy again in federal politics. A new era of Liberal leadership opened and a national consensus was restored. The difficulty was that the acid memory of conscription seemed to demand that this era last forever. Except for a few uncertain days in 1926 and the parliamentary election in the confused despair of the depression in 1930, the Liberal party dominated federal politics from 1921 onward. Ironically, the imposition of conscription for overseas military service by the Liberal government late in World War II only confirmed the bitterness between French Canadians and the Conservative party. Under Mackenzie King's leadership, the Liberal administration delayed this step so long that when at last it was taken a majority of French Canadians were convinced of its genuine necessity. The Conservative opposition, on the other hand, had begun to advocate all-out conscription almost at once after the outbreak of war and had thereby revived virtually the full measure of bitterness of 1917.

Massive alternation was stymied for want of an alternative. The Liberal party aged in office. For a time the war effort furnished a new vitality. The leadership of the party was rejuvenated when Mackenzie King was succeeded by Louis St. Laurent. Yet, inevitably, habitual and apparently certain tenure in office began to breed arrogance. The danger grew that, though French Canadians might not consider an alternative to the Liberal party, the rest of Canada might finally agree on such an alternative as a desperate necessity. Then the Liberal party might be reduced once more to a French Canadian rump, and the party system would again threaten to become a divisive factor. With each year of Liberal hegemony the possibility of this development increased. The approach of a crisis was heralded in 1956 by the pipeline debate in the Canadian parliament.

In this debate the Liberal government treated parliament with obvious contempt. The issue was a government proposal to create a Crown corporation empowered to build a natural gas pipeline from the Manitoba-Ontario border east across Ontario, at a cost of about $118,000,000, and to lend to Trans-Canada Pipe Line 90 percent of the cost of building another line from the Alberta-Saskatchewan border to Winnipeg. This was an important proposal, and a controversial one. Critics contended that the whole trans-Canada line ought to be publicly owned, that Trans-Canada was controlled by American companies, that the government had negotiated the proposal without adequately informing parliament, and so on. Despite the importance of the proposal and the known degree of opposition, the Liberal government determined to rush this measure through parliament so that immediate construction could begin. To accomplish its purpose, the government carried its bill through all stages in parliament--resolution, second reading, committee, and third reading--under closure. This had never occurred before in Canadian parliamentary history. It outraged the opposition and provoked it to obstruction. The government ruthlessly used its control of the Speaker in the Canadian House of Commons to over-ride the obstruction. Of course the pipeline legislation passed. But the Liberal administration appeared to Canadians as an arrogant violator of the prerogatives of parliament. The moment had come when a great many people seemed to realize that an indefinite extension of the Liberal control might be intolerable.

The danger of ending Liberal domination without a massive alternative materialized in the election of 1957. The vote brought the Conservatives to power, but their total of 113 seats denied them a workable majority. Their capture of only eight of the 75 seats from the province of Quebec made it clear that they lacked significant French Canadian support. The election plainly revealed the degree of disillusionment with the Liberals but it failed to produce a national consensus. This was achieved, however, ten months later. The landslide majority accorded the Conservatives last March includes 50 seats from the French Canadian heartland of Quebec. The immediate crisis is over.

However, the election returns reveal the gravity of the crisis which has been averted. The fact is that the Diefenbaker administration would now have a solid majority of 158 even if all its Quebec seats were subtracted. Had a sizable segment of French Canadian opinion failed to rise above the memory of conscription, Canada might today have a Conservative government leagued against an almost purely French Canadian Liberal party. It is hard to overestimate the bitter consequences that would have followed. And it is difficult, from this standpoint, to be despondent about the extent of the Progressive Conservative dominance.

IV

The election of March 31 also appears to have ended a series of experiments to provide an alternative to Liberal hegemony through the introduction of new parties into federal politics. Political remedies based on new parties might have taken two forms--either a third force, in which the national consensus might have been represented by a coalition government; or the replacement of one of the traditional parties by a new party. It seems unlikely that the first would have provided the political bridge which Canada so badly needs in its party system. The success of the second possibility appeared more likely in principle, but great practical difficulties stood in the way. As we have seen, the Liberal party represented agreement only on the broad objective of greater autonomy, while the Conservatives opposed not the goal but only the means for attaining it. Third parties therefore saw a need to offer something different--to attract support by basing their program on ideological foundations. This gave them individuality but made it singularly difficult to attract a national majority. A strong basic ideology and a consensus proved to be incompatible. In fact, experiments with both forms of new-party cures for the imbalance of Canadian politics were made and turned out to be abortive.

The attempt to introduce a third force into Canadian federal politics originated in the prairie provinces after World War I. The settlement of the Canadian prairies had begun in earnest in the early years of this century. Economic conflict soon developed between the agrarian interests of the growing prairie population and the commercial interests that dominated eastern Canada. An agrarian political movement erupted. It made its appearance in national politics at the end of the war when the Liberals had been weakened by the conscription issue and the Conservative coalition had lost its wartime raisons d'être. In the election of 1921 the Liberals regained a plurality, but 64 members of the new agrarian movements were elected to the parliament at Ottawa and constituted the Progressive party.

No logical way was found to ameliorate tensions between Canadians of British and French origin by institutionalizing tensions between the agrarian and commercial sections of Canada. Under the guidance of Mackenzie King the Liberal party revived the traditional and inclusive consensus. Accordingly the party became the champion of national economic expansion, agrarian interests came to terms with it, and in a short time the Liberal party absorbed the bulk of what had been the agrarian protest movement. Before the end of the 1920s the Progressive party had disappeared from federal politics.

Two new parties came on the scene in the next decade, each ambitious to replace one of the traditional parties. In 1932, in the depths of the great depression, the Coöperative Commonwealth Federation was created. It also was spawned on the prairies, but it transcended the rôle of an agrarian movement by adopting a socialist ideology. When the Liberals returned to power after the mirage of 1930, Mackenzie King gradually edged the program of the party leftward, sponging up the great bulk of the potential electoral support of the C.C.F. Only a small socialist element continues to survive on the left flank of Canadian politics.

Later in the 1930s the Social Credit party entered the federal arena. It too grew up in the prairies and espoused an ideology, but unlike the C.C.F., its ideology was not even respectable. From a position on the right wing of Canadian politics, the Social Credit movement defied absorption by the Liberal party and attempted to replace the Conservative party as an alternative to the Liberals. There was some talk that Social Credit might make common cause with the Union Nationale, the ultra-conservative French Canadian party which dominates provincial politics in Quebec. Nothing came of this, and it does not seem likely that, even if such an alliance had been possible, it could have ever attracted a national majority. Now the Conservative party appears to have absorbed the remnants of Social Credit, at the federal level. For the present it must be concluded that new parties based on ideological foundations cannot attain that consensus which the circumstances of Canadian politics require.

V

The rhythm of massive alternation now seems to have been restored to Canada. The Conservative landslide accordingly appears to introduce the fourth major era of political consensus in the history of Canadian confederation. Of necessity, it must share with the three great eras of the past a fundamental nationalism. It will aim, as its predecessors did, at the maximum expansion of Canadian political and economic autonomy. Yet each of the eras of the past had its own unique character, which gave a particular direction to the nationalism it represented. The drift of Canada's new era is already evident and can be clarified by a comparison with its precursors.

The original Conservative régime was infused with Macdonald's fear of Canadian immersion in the United States. As Professor Donald Creighton's brilliant biography has recently reminded us, Macdonald disliked and distrusted Yankee ways, and he did not hesitate to say so. The heart of his national policy was a tariff, designed above all to protect nascent Canadian enterprise from American encroachment, and its great symbol was the Canadian Pacific Railway. The federal treasury was nearly bankrupted to forge this transcontinental link across a sea of mountains. But Macdonald succeeded in his prime goal: to build the railway entirely on Canadian soil and independently of American investment; and his last triumphant campaign in 1891 was based on a passionate denunciation of reciprocal trade with the United States.

A contemporary Canadian pun asserted: "Canada knows enough to keep out of the Hail Columbia; Canada doesn't know enough to keep out of the Reign Britannica." When the Liberals came to power in 1896 there was no pronounced desire to move closer to the United States. However, the most characteristic feature of the new Liberal consensus was Laurier's cool aloofness toward the imperialism then radiating from London. During the Laurier era the federal government made it a primary goal to populate the Canadian prairies; significantly, immigration from many countries was encouraged, not from Britain alone. And while Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces, while work progressed on a second transcontinental railway, Laurier negotiated to prevent Canadian entanglement in any scheme of Imperial federation. At a series of Imperial conferences, Canada's prime minister effectively dragged his feet. Canada's contribution to the Boer War was kept to a minimum, and the Laurier era ended in 1911 largely as a result of the prime minister's refusal to sponsor a major Canadian contribution to an Imperial fleet. His attempt to balance this policy at the last moment by advocating reciprocal trade with the United States proved disastrous.

Although Borden commanded no stable national consensus in peacetime, he spoke with brief authority as the representative of a win-the-war majority. Canada's energetic participation in the First World War permitted Borden to press her rights to consultation. Due deference to Canadian political autonomy was paid in return for the intensity of her war effort. The transformation from British Empire to Commonwealth was already apparent in the distinctive rôles played by the Dominions at Versailles. Eventually Mackenzie King was able to consolidate the position staked out by Borden. This position was formally embraced in the Statute of Westminster and was finally capped by Canadian acquisition of the full power of constitutional amendment, and by the appointment of a Canadian as Governor-General.

However, the Liberal era which Mackenzie King inaugurated in 1921 was less cool to Britain or America than any of its predecessors. Political and economic autonomy had been essentially achieved, though it had still to be digested. The task of civilizing the enormous area which Canadians could now call theirs without dispute had barely begun. Therefore Canada concentrated on internal consolidation, withdrawing as much as possible from concerns that lay beyond her territory, until World War II shattered the isolationism of the whole continent.

Common problems of defense within the framework of the grand alliance produced a Canadian-American partnership much closer than any the two nations had shared before. The mobilization of North America seemed to ignore national borders. Like the United States, Canada experienced a tremendous war-driven spurt of productive capacity.

After war's end, the close coöperation with the United States continued. Canadians could look at the war-hardened muscles of their country and at last feel the autonomy which already belonged to them in law and fact. At the same time, the world which Canada now faced on her own seemed to make pure neutrality impossible. The Liberal administration survived the retirement of Mackenzie King and preserved the American partnership. Common problems of defense remained. Economies that had mobilized together expanded together into prosperity, which seemed to leap the border as easily as mobilization had done. Canada's close coöperation with America in the community of nations seemed natural and inevitable. And the era of consolidation, which had seen a mature national economy flower into continental prosperity, acquired after World War II a definitely pro-American flavor.

VI

Canada's current consensus seems to be based on a reaction to the closeness of Canadian-American coöperation in the recent past. Canadians have been wondering whether that closeness does not threaten their autonomy anew. Does continental prosperity mean a continental economy? Can Canada survive without an autonomous economy? After all, Canadians have been reflecting, the continental prosperity they have been enjoying might perhaps have been theirs much earlier had they been willing to sacrifice their autonomy in previous eras. As Canadians once struggled to develop their western provinces, so they look today to the northern territories, whose unmeasured riches, and the challenge to exploit them, are part of the Canadian birthright. What degree of American help can Canadians safely accept in meeting this challenge?

For some time these questions have been sharpened by a degree of disillusionment with American policies and attitudes. Canadians have been no happier than the rest of America's allies with what they feel is the growing rigidity of American foreign policy. Also, there was the Norman case and the American policy with regard to wheat and oil. There was the American recession, which proved to be continental no less than prosperity had been.

In this mood, the campaign oratory of John Diefenbaker became the rallying cry for a new expression of the national consensus. The focus is, inevitably, on the strengthening of autonomy and lessened dependence on the United States. Mr. Diefenbaker has been reminding Canadians of all the implications of the fact that Canada sends to the United States 60 percent of her exports and receives from this country 73 percent of her imports. "Canadians," he says, "do not wish to have their economic, any more than their political, affairs determined outside Canada." He has talked of positive Canadianism, of a Canada with a population of 40,000,000, of the economic development of the north, and he has at least suggested that the time has come for Canadian foreign policy to be more openly independent of the United States.

The future of the new Conservative era is beset with difficulties. The American reaction to the change under way in Canada will have far-reaching consequences. If the U.S. recession deepens, the new era may be shipwrecked before it has even set full sail. Canada's present leadership must still prove itself. Each of the three great eras of the past has been identified above all with a great prime minister. Will Mr. Diefenbaker fill this rôle? One handicap may be his age; he is now 62. When Macdonald became prime minister in 1867 he was 52; in 1896 Laurier was 54; Mackenzie King was only 47 in 1921. If a portion of Canada's trade is to be oriented away from the United States, new trading partners will have to be found. Mr. Diefenbaker has thought out loud about diverting as much as 15 percent of Canada's trade to Britain. The feasibility of this notion and the availability of other Canadian trading partners will be much clearer after the Commonwealth Trade and Economic Conference which will convene in Montreal in September.

A fascinating riddle is posed by the future rôle of Quebec. Were the Conservative votes cast in March auguries of genuine future coöperation or mere testimony to political opportunism? If the rapprochement of a large part of French Canadian opinion with the Conservative party is real, will it help to keep the Quebec vote severely split in future national elections? If so, this could do much to liberalize the internal politics of the province, and would contribute greatly to the erosion of Canada's nationality problem.

In any event, Quebec has at last been jarred loose from the politically sterile position to which bitterness had rooted it. The characteristically Canadian rhythm of massive alternation has reëmerged in the party system. The new government has an overwhelming mandate to lead on toward the new Canadianism which, though ill-defined, is warmly sought by the new consensus. And despite its reduced numbers, the Liberal opposition led by Lester Pearson will present the government with a challenge that should stimulate it to maximum constructive effort.

[i] "American Politics in a Revolutionary World" (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), p. 9.

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