Timely Reminder: Stephen Harper was no Tory

by Terry Glavin

A longer version of the article originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, 2 February 2006

Stephen Leacock was the founding father of the Canadian sense of humour, but he was also the chairman of the political-science department at McGill University. His Arcadian Adventures With the Idle Rich was a bestseller in Moscow in the heady days following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

Just a few steps from the plot where Leacock is buried, at Sibbald Point, Ontario, is the grave of Mazo de la Roche, who was once Canada's best-loved novelist. She authored the internationally acclaimed Jalna series, which was a sort of multivolume, epic Brideshead Revisited.

Then there was Eugene Forsey, proud Newfoundlander, socialist, Rhodes scholar, and constitutional expert. He was a founder of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner of the New Democratic Party.

Apart from being dead, the thing these people have in common is that they were all Tories.

Here's another Tory: Ron Dart, a prolific, polymathic, and very-alive political-science professor at the University College of the Fraser Valley. Dart, 55, is a bit of an expert on the beat poets and is a reliable go-to guy for arcana about the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton. Dart voted NDP in the January 23 election.

More importantly, for our purposes here, Dart is an authority on the "Red Tory" tradition in Canadian literature and politics. Two of his 14 books are about that very subject: The Red Tory Tradition: Ancient Roots, New Routes (1999), and The Canadian High Tory Tradition: Raids on the Unspeakable (2004).

Because of these things, Dart has a special understanding of where Stephen Harper's Conservatives fit in Canada's political culture and how they got there. That's why I spent some time in conversation with him the other day, and we got straight to the reason why most people would be surprised that a radical like Milton Acorn shared a common, bedrock political philosophy with a bluestocking like Mazo de la Roche. And that a famously funny, card-carrying Canadian Conservative was the toast of Soviet revolutionaries. And that a founder of the socialist CCF could happily call himself "an unrevised, unrepented Sir John A. Macdonald conservative".

"It's language," Dart said. "Language gets into our bones and marrow, but our language has been taken away from us. A political lobotomy has taken place here."

Here's how that happened.

After the 1963 defeat of the progressive and nationalist regime of Conservative John Diefenbaker, Canada suddenly found itself spinning in an ever-tightening orbit around the United States. Television had a lot to do with it, and so did popular music, movies, literature, and art.

We'd always shared a language with the Americans, but our words often meant different things. To an American, for instance, to be "conservative" is to be right-wing, strongly suspicious of the state, and most likely some kind of Christian fundamentalist. But in Canada, conservative meant almost the opposite.

By the late 1960s, our political language was changing. It was becoming American.

Canada's distinct "Red Tory" conservatives had always been wary of American empire, firmly federalist, politically centrist, and as suspicious of antiestablishment socialists on the left as they were of the individualists and free-market advocates on the right, in the Liberal party. To be a Tory in Canada was to cleave to the principles of universality and the common good, and to welcome the progressive role of the state in nation-building.

But by the 1980s, the fog lay so thick on the ground of Canada's political language that our country's venerable old Conservative party fell into the hands of the antinationalist and neoconservative Brian Mulroney. By the early 1990s, he'd destroyed the party, leaving it with only two seats in the House of Commons.

Then, from their base in the Albertan enclave of American Christian-fundamentalist sects and American-style conservatism, the neoconservatives regrouped. By 2004, they'd reconstituted the Conservative party under economist Stephen Harper, who is, essentially, a republican - which is the antithesis of a "conservative" in the traditional Canadian meaning of the word.

After Saskatchewan prairie farmer David Orchard failed in his Conservative party leadership bid in 2003, the Red Tories were scattered. A few stayed on. Some abandoned politics altogether. Some turned to the Green party or the Liberal party (Orchard openly supported the Liberals in the recent federal election), and many turned to the NDP. Dart said he was left a "political orphan" by it all, although he voted NDP on the January 23 ballot.

But there was a warning Dart wanted me to pass on to readers of this column.

Beware the "antistate" left, he said. It may be Harper's loudest and most vociferous opposition, but listen carefully. It speaks the same language that Harper does. It cleaves to "liberal" ideas, but in the American meaning of the word. It is a "subtler imperialism" that threatens to render Canada incapable of articulating an effective, homegrown defence against neoconservatism.

Beware, in other words, else we end up with our own versions of Fox News shouting matches, and our own Al Frankens pitted against their Bill O'Reillys in the same degenerate American arguments, carried on in the same American language, and the same hoarse and hate-filled stalemate that has so horribly paralyzed and disfigured American politics.

There's a way out, Dart said, but it involves the hard work of rediscovering our own history and remembering that the very basis of Canada's distinct political culture is its remarkable capacity to integrate politics that run the gamut of Canadian liberalism, Canadian conservatism, and democratic socialism.

To rediscover these things, we have to reclaim our language, Dart said.

"That's what George Orwell understood so well, When they control your language, they control your memory."