It is one of the enduring conceits of Canadian Liberals to allege, from time to time, that Canadian Conservatives are thirsting to impose American-style conservatism on this country. Actually, the Liberals are on to something when they use those attack lines, because most Canadians (including quite a few Canadian Conservatives) generally align themselves more closely with US Democrats than with the GOP. These attacks may make for effective partisan discourse on the part of the Liberals, but they miss the essential differences in the development of political ideology and practice of the two countries.

So how is it that conservatives on the two sides of the border could be so different in perspective? And why and how did these differences come to be? This is the central question Hugh Segal sets out to answer in The Right Balance: Canada’s Conservative Tradition.

Segal brings to the enterprise a thorough understanding of the historical events that shaped both Canada and the United States, and in the early chapters of his book, he describes how the experiences of the two countries diverged right from the outset.

After the fall of Quebec in 1759, the major question was how the British would accommodate the language, culture and religion of Quebec. Segal quite rightly pays tribute to the role of the Quebec Act of 1774 in respecting the particularity of Lower Canada, and in setting the stage for democratic development and attitudes toward government in the two countries: “Not only did the act embrace the Roman Catholic faith and clergy and their land reserves, it went on to legitimize and protect the French civil law.”

Here we come to the central thesis of Segal’s book, namely that the United States and Canada evolved from ideological and historical roots that are distinctly different, but whose imprints and influence we see in the modern countries of today:

In America, the route from the pre- and post-revolutionary days led inexorably to an individualist, arms-bearing, antigovernment and self-centred “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” vision of governance. The Canadian conservatism of accommodation, of dealing respectfully with what people believed in and cared about and the institutions that protected those beliefs, led naturally to a constitutional process structured around the remarkably more conservative notion of “peace, order and good government.”

What is so useful about Segal’s historical analysis of how political thought and discourse developed in the two countries is that it reminds us of the impact of the upheavals that happened in North America in the last half of the 18th century, something we tend to forget. The American experience was ultimately forged in armed revolt, whereas the long, slow route toward responsible government in Canada was informed by Tory values of compromise, accommodation and incrementalism, which were essential responses to our geography and demographics. He reminds us of the seminal influence of the United Empire Loyalists in building the emerging Canada and effectively creating two new colonies, Upper Canada and New Brunswick.

They also brought with them a suspicion of American populism and a respect for the Crown that would help define the Canadian Tory tradition:

The Americans had chosen one route to sovereignty, independence, and the mercantile liberalism of pioneer expansionism; then Canadians had chosen another. And that choice would be inoculated with a blend of British Tory, French ultramontane conservative and American loyalist sensibilities that would make the Canadian conservative brand as unique as the Canadian identity itself.

Segal’s chapter on the 19th century face-off between Lord Durham and Lord Elgin is beautifully done; the arguments of the protagonists jump off the page and are still relevant today. When it comes to the differences between Liberals and Conservatives over the core issue of English and French duality, he says, “The past is truly a powerful telescope to the future on the Quebec-Canada subject.”

“Radical Jack” Durham served as governor general in 1838-39. His mandate was to settle the “local unrest” known in our history books as the 1837 Rebellions. The famous Durham Report applied the classical liberal approach to “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state,” and recommended the assimilation of francophone Quebec into the English-speaking mainstream of one country. Segal describes this as “crushing identities to achieve a universalist purpose,” and then lauds Lord Elgin’s stout defence of French Canada’s particularities.

Elgin served as governor-general from 1847 to 1854. He rejected Durham’s view that French Canadians needed to join the North American mainstream in order to enjoy liberal rights and freedoms. He also played a pivotal role in nurturing the emergence of Canadian responsible government: “He reduced the role of governor-general from ‘decider and arbiter’ to one of certifier of the decisions, laws and directions chosen by the elected governments…that had the popular support of the elected members of the assembly,” writes Segal.

Segal brings to the enterprise a thorough understanding of the historical events that shaped both Canada and the United States, and in the early chapters of his book, he describes how the experiences of the two countries diverged right from the outset.

Toward the end of the book, Segal returns to the divergent conservatisms of Canada and the United States, and provides some very direct comparisons:

Canadian conservatism is about freedom and responsibility. American conservatism embraces only freedom, and in its most selfish extreme. Canadian conservatism believes in moderate but fair taxation. American conservatives believe in none. Canadian conservatism is based on a balance of nation and enterprise. American conservatism has no interest in that balance.

Given these tough words, it’s a bit jarring to come to the final chapter and find Segal advancing the idea of creating a North American community (with a North American assembly) with the US and Mexico “as an attempt to create a larger society that reflects our values and priorities.” After he has just spent more than 200 pages telling us that Canadians and Americans look at themselves and the world through sharply different lenses, and that many of our values and priorities are significantly at odds with each other, this idea seems to be a reach.

Canada and the US have just signed on to the processes leading toward a North American security perimeter. While that agreement is still likely a year or more away, it is interesting to see many of the usual concerns about getting too close to the elephant emerging: fears about loss of sovereignty and standards being dragged down to a lower level, and so on.

There is an interesting irony in all of this. Canadians may not know the historical and philosophical fine points that Segal so brilliantly describes in this book, but they do get the differences between our two societies. When they look south of the border they find many of the defining features of American society and politics both disturbing and disquieting. In large measure Canadians are wary of the US because of the very divergences Segal describes so well in this book.

Quibbles aside, this is a beautifully researched and passionately argued treatise. Political junkies on all sides will find much with which they will agree, and the odd point of lively disagreement as well. All in all, The Right Balance is a great read, and an important contribution to Canadian political literature.

Photo: Shutterstock

Geoff Norquay est directeur chez Earnscliffe Strategies Ă  Ottawa. Il a Ă©tĂ© conseiller principal en politique sociale au cabinet du premier ministre de 1984 Ă  1988 et directeur des communications de Stephen Harper lorsque ce dernier Ă©tait chef de l’opposition officielle. 

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