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From the archives

Our Violent National Game

The great hockey debate continues

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

Right Stuff

Essays on conservative thought

Bruce K. Ward

Canadian Conservative Political Thought

Edited by Lee Trepanier and Richard Avramenko


290 pages, hardcover, softcover, and ebook

One of the most remarkable political events of the strange period that was the COVID‑19 global health emergency was surely the month-long protest that played out in our capital city in January and February 2022. I was particularly absorbed in it for personal reasons, as I had close family living in the downtown and because I had lived in Ottawa during the October Crisis of 1970. I still remember the sight of soldiers on and around Parliament Hill when the War Measures Act was invoked by Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Now, with somewhat more distance from the trucks that blockaded Wellington Street, we can see that incident as an eruption of symptoms pointing to a deeper, underlying malaise. Indeed, this is merely to state the obvious. The precise nature of the malaise will, one hopes, continue to occupy the more serious among our political and cultural analysts. Certainly, one symptom deserving of attention is apparent in the very self-designation of the protest as a Freedom Convoy — or Convoi de la liberté. “Freedom” for one strident voice was, of course, “occupation” for another. The fact that the convoy and the government that enacted emergency legislation to end it could both invoke the same sentiment — and (one has to think) do so in all sincerity — points to an incoherence in the language we have available for explaining and evaluating political events.

Overuse, misuse, and abuse in the overheated rhetoric of politicians and journalists alike have emptied the word “freedom” of any worthwhile meaning. The same can be said of other basic terms of the political lexicon, for instance “left” and “right” or, for that matter, “liberal” and “conservative,” except in the latter pair as names for several political parties in this country. Both liberals and conservatives are being betrayed by the very language they use, usually without being aware of it. Yet since that language remains indispensable to any constructive political dialogue, the best hope is to restore some meaningful content to the conversation.

Sparking a recovery of conservative thinking is the stated aim of Canadian Conservative Political Thought, a collection of essays edited by Lee Trepanier and Richard Avramenko, both political scientists at American universities. In addition to their own contributions, they have brought together numerous Canadian academics addressing the question of what “conservative” means in the Canadian context. Trepanier notes in his introductory essay that, given the cultural hegemony of the liberal left in contemporary Canada, “there is not much available” when it comes to a literature of informed commentary on Canadian conservative political thought. This book is intended to correct that imbalance.

Do we have sufficient language to explain the Freedom Convoy or the government’s response?

Valentino Visentini; Alamy

The range of essay topics is wide indeed, moving from Bishop John Strachan, of the Family Compact of nineteenth-century Upper Canada, all the way to Dan and Eugene Levy, creators of the sitcom Schitt’s Creek. In between, the sources of conservative thought include some of Canada’s most important thinkers (George Grant, Marshall McLuhan, Charles Taylor) and prominent political figures (Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Sir John A. Macdonald) as well as Eugene Forsey, once the go‑to expert on constitutional questions. One glaring omission is any representation from the rich tradition of Québécois conservative thought, which extended from Bishop Ignace Bourget, a contemporary of Strachan, to Pierre Vadeboncoeur, the intellectual maître of the sovereigntist movement. Vadeboncoeur’s 1970 book, La dernière heure et la première (The last hour and the first), remains the most significant Québécois response to Pierre Trudeau’s Federalism and the French Canadians, from 1968. At the same time, the inclusion of Taylor as well as the author of The Once and Future Canadian Democracy, Janet Ajzenstat, not to mention Schitt’s Creek, strains the conventional boundaries between “liberal” and “conservative.” This could be salutary if it is conventional images that need to be transcended. To this end, for example, the book’s first essay, by Brian Thorn, argues that strong support for Indigenous rights, far from being the preserve of those who identify themselves as “liberals” or “leftists,” is actually quite compatible with conservatism, properly understood. He points out that the language of ancestry, custom, and tradition used by Indigenous activists has more in common with Edmund Burke’s defence of traditional wisdom than with abstract universal rights language.

For those seeking a glimpse into the mind of conservatism that bears some direct relation to the politics of the federal Conservative Party of Canada, and especially of Alberta’s current United Conservative Party government, the essay of most interest will be Richard Avramenko’s “Of Homesteaders and Orangemen,” which he subtitles “An Archeology of Western Canadian Political Identity.” Here we seem to have a highly imaginative exercise in mythmaking, in the service of the notion that Western Canada constitutes a “distinct society,” presumably with as much justification for the designation as has Quebec. Avramenko’s narrative of unapologetic anger, directed against the Laurentian elite of Central Canada, is provoked by what he calls the “anti-Albertanism” of (mainly) Ontarians, which he sees as part and parcel of an anti-Americanism that has always characterized the Loyalist consciousness. In his words: “Americans, after all, are gun-toting, money-grubbing, selfish, religious nuts, are they not? Just like those Albertans.”

When Avramenko’s essay moves from the realm of mythmaking to the political thinking that underpins it, we find the admission that, actually, “Alberta is like America”— in its sense of liberty as “rugged individualism.” Individual liberty, whether rugged or not, is certainly at the heart of the American political project, expressed in its founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence. And it has its ultimate philosophical basis in the political thought of John Locke. If, then, one looks at contemporary conservative thought in Alberta through the prism of historical political philosophy, one finds that its inspiration is actually classical English liberalism.

Is a present-day Canadian conservative really an old-fashioned liberal? This is indeed the case, according to some of the volume’s contributors. Tyler Chamberlain, near the beginning of his discussion of Eugene Forsey, helpfully outlines three principal varieties of Canadian conservatives, one of which is “classical liberals.” The two others are “populists” (much more prominent south of the border than here) and those of the “Red, or High Tory” tradition (a uniquely Canadian phenomenon). Although one hears a lot about “social conservatives,” at least whenever there is a Conservative Party convention, the term doesn’t feature here or in other essays. I can only surmise that it comes under the rubric of populism — or that the term is too vague to be useful, since it depends on which aspect of our social life one wishes to “conserve.”

Despite the tendency of mainstream liberal media to paint all conservatives with the populist brush, populism is barely discussed in the book, let alone promoted. Perhaps it is absent because collective resentment, incited and channelled by demagoguery, is not a subject for political thought, nor, it can be argued, are such movements the exclusive property of the right.

The classical liberals within the conservative camp — so‑called Blue Tories — are those who place their hopes in free-market enterprise, smaller government, deregulation, and tax cuts, expressing what Ben Woodfinden and Sean Speer call “a form of anti-statism.” Insofar as Blue Tory thinking is dominant within Canadian conservatism, one could fairly regard our conservatives as cousins of Republicans in the United States — at least as they were before Trumpism took over that party. The close relationship, in thought anyway, has a clear historical pedigree in the history of ideas. According to Janet Ajzenstat, whose work is discussed in two essays, the Fathers of Confederation and even such members of the Family Compact as John Beverley Robinson spoke the language of Locke’s Enlightenment liberalism, the language of “natural equality, equal obligation, and equal rights,” as much as the founders of our neighbouring republic did.

George Grant, whose Lament for a Nation inspired a generation of Canadian nationalists, as well as the Red Tory label itself, also described the Loyalist thought of pre-Confederation Canada as that “extraordinary concoction, straight Locke with a dash of Anglicanism.” This Anglican dash — which, for Grant, was above all the pre-Enlightenment thought of Richard Hooker, the major English critic of Calvinism — brings us to the third Conservative variety, those increasingly scarce Red Tories. As against the “rugged individualism” of the Blue Tory classical liberals, the Red Tories are not anti-statist, at least insofar as the state exists to defend and promote the common good.

In their essay on the first Conservative prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, Woodfinden and Speer argue that the National Policy, which saw an energetic state involving itself in the economy in order to address the challenges of a daunting political geography, could be interpreted as a synthesis of classical liberalism and Toryism. This “state-capacity conservatism,” which intervenes in the economy to promote the common good of all, might, in theory, be anathema to Blue Tories — but in practice? One need only consider the billions of dollars of production incentives the conservative provincial government in Ontario recently offered electric vehicle battery manufacturers. If the notion of the common good still has any traction among conservatives, offsetting the individualist emphasis, it might well testify to the staying power of that Tory dash evoked by Grant.

Grant’s own Red Toryism was articulated within the larger context of his lament over the gradual disappearance of sovereignty, in all but name, as successive Liberal governments presided over the country’s relegation to satellite status within the American empire. We see little of the same concern with Canadian independence in Trepanier and Avramenko’s collection. The one essay devoted to this seminal figure of Canadian conservatism, Colin Cordner’s “George Grant, Time, and Eternity,” focuses primarily on a lucid exposition of Grant’s religious-philosophical thought — his more profound lament over the “oblivion of eternity” at the heart of modern technological society.

This book’s review of the wellsprings of conservatism offers no clear, programmatic statement of what Canadian conservative thought is now. To employ another much-abused word, there is no conservative “ideology” to be found here. Indeed, according to Woodfinden and Speer, conservative thought is, if anything, anti-ideological; it is “by its very nature idiosyncratic and non-systematic.” This will be something of a relief to those of us who have come to regard political ideology as, ultimately, the deadly enemy of thought.

Yet weaving its way through the varieties of conservative thought, whether Red or Blue Tory, is a distinctive common thread or, perhaps better put, a common worry. It is evident in the frequent references — especially in Ian Dowbiggin’s analysis of Canadian globalist thought — to Grant’s warning about the tyrannical potential of the liberal “universal and homogenous state.” The concern is evident also in the numerous references throughout the essays to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, first published in 1835, after the French political philosopher’s extended visit to the United States and what was then Lower Canada.

Democracy in America established Tocqueville as one of the great analysts of democracy. The problem, as he saw it, was that the passion for equality, which is the real driving force of modern democracy, was so strong that if equality in freedom were unobtainable, the mass of people would opt for equality in slavery. Such a choice would make democracy just as compatible with tyranny as with liberty. Although himself a supporter of the American and French revolutions, Tocqueville worried that modern democracies were prone to sliding into a new form of despotism, that of society tyrannizing over itself, to the extent that even holding an opinion on an important matter contrary to that of the majority would become extremely rare if not impossible.

To counter the increasing power of the modern centralized state and the accompanying risk of drifting into what he called a “soft despotism,” Tocqueville emphasized the value of local associations of all kinds, including the counties and townships in the young republic and the Catholic parishes in Lower Canada. The latter are the subject of an interesting essay by Avramenko and Noah Stengl, in which they point to the local Catholic parish of the nineteenth century as a form of “Congregational Life,” providing concrete cultural protection against the centralizing power of the Anglo-Protestant-dominated state.

Invocations of Tocquevillian “associations” or Burkean “traditional localism,” whether of Quebec Catholic parishes, Indigenous connections to ancestral land, or even the fictional town of Schitt’s Creek, stem from a common concern, voiced succinctly in Ajzenstat’s words and quoted in the essay by Travis Smith: “We must limit politics.” More precisely, we must limit our expectations of what can be achieved through the agency of the modern state. For Ajzenstat, such agency includes any attempt to regulate or formalize definitions of collective culture, values, and identity, including a pan-Canadian identity, whether “multicultural” or otherwise. Sovereignty doesn’t depend on some list of shared virtues that purport to constitute what it is to be “truly Canadian.” As Smith insists, again quoting Ajzenstat, “‘Canadians are collectively a sovereign people because we are a national electorate and have a national legislature and other national institutions.’ That suffices to unite us; asking for more is asking for trouble.”

The free-enterprising, smaller-government Blue Tories would doubtless nod in agreement with Smith’s cease-and-desist declaration against the “overreach” of the centralized state. But how about Red Tories? From what I can gather, especially from the essays on Macdonald and Forsey, they would make an exception for the state as promoter of the common good. How large an exception? It could be large indeed, but it seems that the “state-capacity conservatism” many might support is primarily concerned with the common good or the “national interest” as an economic matter, not a matter of identity or values. One could expect, therefore, that within the conservative political camp, the main debates would focus on what the role of the state should be as promoter and distributor of economic well-being in a free‑market economy.

To refer once again to the history of ideas, contemporary conservatives, whether classical liberals or Red Tories, appear to at least be united in being guilty — willingly so — of the charge levelled by another great Enlightenment liberal thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who observed, “The politicians of the ancient world were always talking of morals and virtue; ours speak of nothing but commerce and money.” Perhaps there’s not very much high idealism here, but do we really want politicians in positions of power — any more than, say, athletes or celebrities — making pronouncements on moral values? The Canadian High Tories who believed that classic liberal individualism had to be balanced against the common good assumed that the moral formation necessary to support this balance was the purview not of the state but of other types of human association, whether religious, familial, or communal.

Rousseau’s own attempt to reintroduce “morals and virtue” to modern political discourse inaugurated what the political philosopher Leo Strauss called the “second wave” of liberal modernity: the progressivist wave inspired by the notion that the secular state ought to become the instrument of human perfectibility. The insight that a state concerned with legislating universal values of moral justice might be especially open to the risk of “soft despotism,” where holding an opinion contrary to that of the majority could be a perilous thing, doesn’t need belabouring. It was Rousseau himself who acknowledged that in the liberal state he envisaged, based on the rightness of the general will, the recalcitrant would be “forced to be free.” In its extreme Communist form, this apotheosis of the state was to include the attempt, in the words of the Czech Canadian novelist Josef Skvorecky, to “engineer human souls.”

Turning from the history of ideas to the mundane world of contemporary Canadian politics, it seems that Conservatives, whether Red or Blue, are especially irritated by what they call the “virtue signalling” of our current Liberal prime minister. Is Justin Trudeau’s signalling, if that’s what it is, merely a rhetorical idiosyncrasy? Or does it say something about his understanding of the proper limits of the state? Conservative critics might do better to reflect on this latter question, rather than merely pointing out examples of contradictions between his preaching and his practice.

This political landscape leaves us with an obvious puzzle: If the now-dominant voice within the conservative camp can be understood as that of classical liberals, then what have Canadian liberals become? Their progressivism seems to have left far behind the thought of Frank Underhill, whom Grant identified in his day as the key intellectual figure of Canadian liberalism, or of Pierre Trudeau, whose invocations of John Stuart Mill made him closer to Locke than to Rousseau. To what extent have they moved toward the concept of the secular state as the vehicle for the moral transformation of its citizens? Perhaps it is not the responsibility of a book on Canadian conservative political thought to answer such questions about Canadian liberalism. The relatively modest goal, which this volume does succeed in fulfilling, is to remind us that there is such a thing as Canadian conservative thought capable of speaking to the present situation. After all, as Trepanier observes in his concluding essay, if we believe that “society can only improve itself through debate, civil disagreement, and compromise,” then we need alternative visions of the best social order.

Bruce K. Ward is the author of Redeeming the Enlightenment: Christianity and the Liberal Virtues.