Conservatism in a Liberal Regime


To Americans it may be surprising to know that conservative thought exists in Canada. It has, however, no political power, it is found among some academics, and in small towns and some churches. That was not always the case. Canada’s founding constitution, the British North America Act of 1867, was a conservative document. It reflected the long experience of Parliament in England and was not as experimental as the republican constitution of the United States. Drafted while America tore itself apart in the Civil War, the idea of an American-style republic did not look attractive. The Fathers of Confederation in Canada united the stability of a constitutional monarchy, with its legacy of common law and parliamentary sovereignty, to a federal and representative system of government. They had no desire to draw upon the new science of republican politics, as Alexander Hamilton termed it.

Nonetheless, the commonplace view of Canada among Americans today is that it is a very liberal country, more liberal than the United States. Against this too easy pigeon-holing, the essays in Canadian Conservative Political Thought, edited by Lee Trepanier and Richard Avramenko, identify and draw out strands within historic and contemporary conservative thought in Canada, which may be of general interest to conservative political theorists. Conservativism is presented as a collection of ideas, some of which do not sit well together, yet which are germane to discussions of conservatism in any English-speaking country today. For that reason, they fit into the great conversation now taking place within the Western world about the roots of conservatism and where it is situated in relation to liberalism, globalization, and localism.

As many of the authors note, we use the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ in a great variety of ways, and this is not surprising given the complex cultural and theoretical legacy which has produced modern societies. These essays unite history, philosophy, and social commentary to say something about the ebb and flow of ideas which shape post-modern accounts of who we are and where we came from. Small-c conservatism (as distinct from whatever pragmatic policies make up the platforms of Conservative parties in Canada) is, one learns from this book, a theoretical endeavor. There are articles on historical figures whose ideas shaped British North America and philosophical articles about how globalization today threatens Canada’s fate; some articles are descriptive, others prescriptive. Some authors use Tocqueville, Edmund Burke, and Alexander Hamilton to help categorize how conservatives have thought, or might still think today, and other essays introduce American readers to influential Canadian theorists such as Janet Ajzenstat, Marshall McLuhan, and George Parkin Grant.

The first part of the book opens with an article on how Edmund Burke’s anti-imperial and anti-colonial speeches may help Canadians think rightly about indigenous peoples. The second article treats Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations, made in a series of letters, about how Quebecers maintained liberty through associations. Jeremy Geddert introduces readers to the loyalist John Strachan, first Anglican bishop of Toronto prior to Confederation, to illustrate the presence of Tory ideas. Strachan argued that British North America should maintain an hierarchical society, ordered and explicitly Christian. A further article shows the influence of Edmund Burke upon the once Irish nationalist, D’Arcy McGee, who upon immigrating to Canada became a loyal monarchist and Father of Confederation.

The second and third parts of the book deal, in a variety of ways, with important interlocutors and disputes which shaped twentieth-century Canadian political thought. Here are found discussions of Janet Ajzenstat, Marshall McLuhan, Eugene Forsey, and George Parkin Grant. The book concludes with an analysis of conservatism and localism by way of a popular show called Schitt’s Creek, and in the second to last essay, Richard Avramenko, asks whether or not all culture in Canada is simply local, because there is no agreed upon national identity—at the very least, he insists, Western and Eastern Canada had different founding moments and so entirely different political cultures.

On the more philosophical side, Chris Morrisey’s article on Marshall McLuhan’s philosophy of technology and globalization, via a discussion of Aristotle’s Physics, is dense and interesting, and contrasts with a quite different picture of McLuhan and historicism, given by Grant Havers. The article on Charles Taylor is refreshing, and it is probably good for American conservatives to be presented with a different side of the philosopher, who engaged in Quebec politics on the side of political liberalism and effectively worked to ‘disenchant’ Quebec’s polity.

What is missing from the book, at least from an American standpoint, is any discussion of the British North America Act of 1867, of the Canadian Founding as it were. Yes, mention is made of the first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald (oddly depicted as a loyalist when he was a Scots immigrant with no loyalist ancestry), and D’Arcy McGee, and Eugene Forsey the mid-twentieth century constitutional historian, but there are no essays in this book about the meaning of the constitutional founding or the theory behind the BNA Act—when discussions of the American constitution abound in American conservative thought. Why? It is because that constitution, the BNA Act, is no longer relevant to Canadian law or politics.

Perhaps I need to develop for American readers some background to Canadian constitutional history. Burke’s ‘classical liberalism’ fits differently into the two North American regimes. The British North America Act of 1867 made Canada a constitutional monarchy with a sovereign Parliament. The Fathers of Confederation explicitly rejected popular sovereignty. Parliamentary sovereignty means ‘responsible government’: the legislators are elected to do what is sober and prudent, follow established Parliamentary and legal traditions, not simply reflect the will of constituents. The national parliament was to be the highest law in the land because its responsibility was to uphold the legacy of Parliamentary law and custom, the legacy of the common law. The BNA Act is an expression of that responsibility. The principle is Burkean, the maintenance of the established principles of justice. There is no separation of powers as found in republican theory; no separated ‘executive’ because the Governor-General, the chief representative of the executive power of the Queen, has very limited powers, and follows the lead of the Prime Minister, and the highest court of the land at least for matters of constitutional interpretation was, for decades, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the highest court connected to the UK Parliament. There was no American-style Bill of Rights. Rights were inherited from the common law and legislatively affirmed by acts of provincial governments. The government was legislative and federal, and without a rights-based constitution, individualism did not have the same hold on the Canadian political imagination.

That changed in 1982 when the Liberal party, under then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (the father of the current Prime Minister in Canada), repatriated the BNA Act with the intention of adding to it a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In fact, the Charter became the highest law in the land. The new Charter was passed with majority approval among the provinces (but not unanimous) and the agreement of the UK House of Commons and Queen. The government of the province of Quebec feared that a Charter of Rights would limit provincial legislative acts, thus upending the power of the Quebec legislature to defend the French language and the unique culture of Quebec. Opposition also came from a few Tory politicians in English-speaking provinces, who argued (as had Alexander Hamilton and James Wilson among American founders) that common law rights are quite sufficient for the protection of citizens, not unlike the argument of Edmund Burke against the abstract rights of the French Revolutionaries. Their reservations were well-founded. A new Charter of abstract rights is a chancy thing, abstract rights are powerful and unpredictable; lists of rights without context or historical legal precedent are entirely theoretical; one knows not how they will play out, and indeed they have played a role in Canada antithetical to liberty insofar as the rights of certain groups protected under the Charter have undermined historic common law protections.

The few who objected to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms suspected it of being too theoretical—but Pierre Trudeau was a theoretician in the French style, and it was his intent to democratize and centralize the nation and weaken provincial power, to make a new social contract based upon a putative Rousseauian General Will. Parliamentary sovereignty was weakened, and provincial legislatures were limited ever after by the rule of Ottawa mandarins, courts, and administrative agencies; the national government is indeed a great ‘tutor’ over a multitude of weak individuals, as Tocqueville would put it. Needless to say, the newly empowered Supreme Court of Canada looked to the Supreme Court of the United States for legal precedents, whose rights regime it now more closely resembled.

That is why Conservatives active in Canadian politics have found themselves in an odd position. They cannot defend the originating vision of the constitution or the vision of the nation in 1867 because it is neither important nor relevant to contemporary debate, except as a matter of reminiscence, nor can they critique the dominating ethos of individualism and liberalism which is the sole paradigm of thought. Conservative politicians are left compiling a set of complaints about the national government based on Charter rights, and the language of the Charter is the sole language of politics. The new constitution introduced a theory of government which was fundamentally revolutionary, and the Prime Minister is the chief administrator and interpreter of the Charter, and he rules Parliament without responsibility to Parliament (as seen in the last few years). Conservative reaction to this has, unsurprisingly, tended to populism: consider former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Right Here, Right Now. This is just like the arguments of the right wing one hears in the USA. There is no escape, no return to the language of ‘responsible’ government, a government responsible to traditions of justice and procedure established in the past. That died with the old constitution.

That said, this book is witness to the fact that there is a rich legacy of conservative intellectual thought connected to Canada, and the life of the mind goes on. Canadians have lost representative government to an administrative state, yet they still attempt to work out their freedom in local communities, they are aware of the dangers of globalization, and so this book adds to a larger body of conservative thought about the fate of the liberal west which is still emerging in light of current events.


For further reading, see: H. Donald Forbes’ Canadian Political Thought, published by Oxford University Press in 1987. This book is composed of excerpts from primary sources, a history of political thought which shows the breadth of the political thinking in Canada since before Confederation There is also Andre Siegfried’s The Race Question in Canada (race here refers to the French-English tension, not black vs white as in the USA). Siegfried has been called the Alexis de Tocqueville of Canada.

Image credit: “Canadian Rockies (Lake Louise)” via Wikimedia


  1. America has profound problems, but thankfully none of our politicians are able to do the sorts of things that Fidel Jr. was able to do in Canada. I’d say it should be universally accepted that a country that can forbid its citizens from travelling domestically, prevent them from leaving the country, freeze their financial assets by decree, etc., is not a “free” country by any definition, but of course approximately half of Americans would think that all that stuff was totally A-OK, as long as it was the “wrong” sort of people who were being targeted, those who totally deserve it. Thankfully we still have a few means of protecting our rights, for the time being at least.

  2. The article on Charles Taylor is refreshing, and it is probably good for American conservatives to be presented with a different side of the philosopher, who engaged in Quebec politics on the side of political liberalism and effectively worked to ‘disenchant’ Quebec’s polity.

    I’ll have to track down this volume, Roberta, and give this chapter a close read, because to say that Taylor’s involvement in Quebec politics was “on the side of political liberalism” strikes me as either wrong or at least a significant and potentially misleading over-simplification. It’s been years since I did my work on Taylor, so perhaps I’m misremembering, but his strong defense of “survivance” in regards to the French language and culture in a changing Canada was hardly the stuff of liberal individualism. And articulation of what he called (in the Bouchard-Taylor Commission report) “interculturalism” wasn’t any kind of sneaky liberal imposition either–and to the extent some took it in that direction, it’s worth noting that he’s regretted and pushed back against some of the ways various secular factions with Quebec have, in view, misused the report. Anyway, my thanks for calling the volume to my attention; I’m going to have to find a copy, if only to read this chapter!

  3. Not a Canadian, not a lawyer, sure glad our constitution doesn’t start out with “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
    So before they bother to lay out the “rights and freedoms” they explicitly say that they can be revoked at any time that the government feels like it. At least in America that notion has to be made up by lawyers and judges, and isn’t right there in black and white in the founding document. Words like “reasonable” and “equality” and “fairness” in legal documents are massive red flags, “shall make no law” and “shall not be infringed” are much better, though still not impervious to frauds wearing robes.

  4. Thanks for this, Roberta. I know next to nothing about Canadian conservatism other than that which is related to George Grant, of whom I’m a great fan.

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