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Canada’s New Partisanship

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The dust has finally begun to settle on the great democratic ritual that culminated on the night of May 2nd. In the end, the results of the 2011 federal election were as much of a surprise to media commentators as they were to ordinary citizens. On the morning after Election Day, supporters of the Conservative party were able to breathe a sigh of relief that their troops were not defeated and replaced by a Liberal-NDP coalition. Conversely, the news that Stephen Harper would be heading-up a majority government came as a cold shower to those hoping that a progressive coalition would lead the country into a new day. For Canadians with broadly leftist sensibilities, the upshot of the campaign was that Jack Layton’s New Democratic Party would form the official opposition for the first time in Canadian history.

One thing about the new political reality that no studious observer is likely to miss is that civic debate will now clearly be split between two distinct visions of Canada’s future. Some commentators have expressed concern about this, bemoaning the loss of the centrist vision traditionally upheld by both Liberals and Conservatives. Yet there is another view which promotes the idea that the current “polarization” between left and right could help prompt a shift toward greater solidarity and strengthened national unity. While this argument may at first seem obscure, it is worth unpacking. Ultimately, we’ll see that while greater solidarity is welcome, the prospect of a more unified country will also require another kind of shift, this one involving a straightforward change of attitude among English Canadians toward their Quebecois compatriots.

The significance of the polarization between Harper’s Conservatives, on the one hand, and Layton’s NDP on the other, is that Canadians now have to come clear on their deepest held beliefs about the kind of society they want to live in. These two parties are no longer content with hugging the safe middle ground in the name of a supposedly unifying centrist politics. Canadian men and women are thus now in a position in which they must look at themselves in the mirror and “choose sides”. No longer is a vote for this or that political colour simply a matter of local candidate preference. What we have today, rather, is a chance to engage in a politics that speaks to our highest hopes and beliefs. Whether one identifies with the values of one end of the spectrum or the other, Canadian politics now holds the potential of authentic citizen engagement.

Back in the 1960s, sociologist John Porter coined the phrase “creative politics” to emphasize the creativity-value of polarized democratic conflict. For Porter, the democratic clash of convictions is a precondition of innovative policy reform. This is of course highly valuable. But an argument can also be made about the participation-value of the new partisanship. With the impassioned duelling of national visions, ordinary citizens are more likely to be drawn into helping build the country’s future, motivated in part by the fearful prospect that the alternative vision might win the day. In the long run, a clearer opposition of Canadians’ deepest held convictions should spurn them toward more committed participation in a political party or other civic group.

Yet perhaps the most interesting argument in favour of principle-based partisanship is the claim about its being linked to greater solidarity and strengthened national unity. How is this supposed to work? One way of answering this question requires accepting a general definition of how the new polarization maps out in terms of political forces. This definition holds that political forces are roughly divided between 1) a right-wing viewpoint which, by focusing on reducing the role of government, basically accepts that wealth and power should steadily accrue to those best able to secure it under free market conditions and 2) a leftist vision which holds that government intervention and public services are crucial means of steering society toward more democratic, egalitarian and environmentally sustainable outcomes.

Accepting this definition, solidarity can in turn be understood as a matter of grassroots initiatives coming together to defeat the right-wing agenda on the grounds that it ultimately works to the advantage of well-off, privileged and elite groups. Whether this popular mobilization involves joining a party to fight for efficient and affordable public services, or helping an environmental group to save an endangered green space, the relation of solidarity remains roughly the same. It is a form of cooperative mutuality where each person’s contribution is appreciated or perhaps even admired by the rest. Solidarity is of special importance in the context of leftist politics, where defeating the right means counting on the contribution of each and all: Quebecois and First Nations, Easterners and Westerners, old Canadians and new Canadians, rural folk and city-dwellers, etc. The prospect of victory means that people from across the country can share in the pride of cooperating together to best serve the interests of the “non-elite”, that is, of ordinary men and women wanting to live in a just and compassionate society.

In a situation of principled partisanship, a second form of solidarity arises in the small acts of civic persuasion engaged in by one side or the other of the partisan divide. Let us assume that among the 60% of voters that did not cast their ballot for the Harper Conservatives, many of them were aghast at the fact that a large portion of their fellow citizens voted for a vision of Canada that promotes “jets, jails and corporate tax cuts”. Faced with this fact, the genuine democratic response is not simply to demonize Harper. Rather, it is to argue and discuss with the very voters who put him into power. The point here is to share in impressing one’s reasoning and motivation upon others. Solidarity is manifest in this will to persuade, while also being open to reconsidering one’s own views, always for the greater good.

So, contrary to the view of centrist politicians, it would seem that the new partisanship might actually be good for the Canadian body politic. Whether or not ordinary citizens become engaged enough for popular solidarity to triumph, a more passionate politics could in itself help to bring the country closer together, as long as partisans on each side are willing to talk to one another. Still, as pertinent as this argument may be, a clear opposition between left and right will not resolve the most serious threat to Canadian unity, that is, the rift separating English Canada from Quebec.

Although Quebecers may have abandoned the Bloc Québécois on May 2nd, this doesn’t change the fact that the rejections they have been dealt in their attempts to renew the foundation of their partnership with English Canada has left them with a bitter and lasting sense of frustration. It’s important to remember that the campaign Quebecers have been engaged in since the Quiet Revolution is itself the culmination of a longer struggle that goes as far back as Confederation (and earlier). Fortunately, Quebecers and French-Canadians before them have on occasion found a receptive ear among English Canadians. This shows something of what makes Canada the unique and distinctive country it is today. Perhaps it is partly for this reason that a majority of Quebecers remain willing to suspend their desire for a state all to their own. They are not, however, willing to do so at any price.

Indeed, the willingness to exist in a minority situation depends on a commitment from the majority group to provide the necessary counterbalance. Quebecers want this counterbalance to come in the form of special status and legislative powers which will enable them to heighten their political freedom, while remaining part of Canada. For several decades now, Quebecois men and women have been asking English Canadians to accept and enshrine this definition of the Canadian “bicultural” partnership. Insofar as they have preferred this route to separation and political independence, they have shown a willingness to try something new and noble: two distinct cultures peacefully cooperating in an original form of “multinational” democracy.

Despite the groundbreaking nature and worldly importance of this enterprise, English Canadians have for the most part been hesitant to take this next step in the country’s evolution. It is estimated that since the 1980s, support for the idea of granting special status and powers to Quebec has fluctuated between 30-40%. Unless this support spreads, opening the way toward a new political foundation, the country will continue to suffer from a lack of legitimacy in the eyes of Quebecers. For the NDP, a majority of whose caucus is from Quebec, it will be crucial to build bridges between Quebecers and other Canadians in an effort to defeat the right-wing agenda of the Conservatives. But in itself, this will not be enough to dissipate the estrangement felt by Quebecers.

It is a positive sign, in this regard, that there are noises coming from the NDP about getting Quebec’s signature on the repatriated Constitution of 1982. As a step in this direction, Layton speaks of creating “winning conditions” for Canada within Quebec. It is important that the work of creating such conditions be understood as something broader than defending Quebec-friendly positions in the House of Commons. For what is also needed is a ground level campaign aimed at persuading English Canadians of the wrongheadedness of denying Quebecers the status and powers needed for them to fulfill their identity as a “distinct society” within Canada. The greater appeal here should be to an historic view in which Canada’s grandeur as a country passes through the achievement of this unique form of democratic citizenship.

If the NDP is able to help stimulate a change of attitude among English Canadians, it will have played a crucial role in ensuring the success of an eventual new round of Constitutional negotiations. A renewed sense of national unity depends upon such an eventuality. But the NDP must also focus on building a strong alternative to the ruling Conservatives. Layton has spoken of appealing to the court of public opinion as a way of keeping Harper’s majority government in check. In a sense, this provides the party with a good opportunity to build a base of popular solidarity. This will require tapping into the different talents and capabilities of ordinary citizens from across the country. Front and centre of this process will be the stimulation of innovative ideas, so as to create an ambitious yet credible “green egalitarian” vision to help lead the country into a new day.

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