Populism seems to be on the rise everywhere you look, from India and Hungary to the U.K. and the U.S. Everywhere, that is, except Canada. The Canadian federal election taking place in just a few days looks set to confirm this immunity, with the closest thing that Canada has to a populist party seemingly on course for an abysmal showing. Canada, the story goes, is a highly multicultural and diverse society, with a history of integrating new arrivals and the most highly educated population in the OECD. Its economy is heavily dependent on trade, has a relatively equal wealth distribution that supports a relatively strong middle class—all of which supposedly keeps the dark forces of nationalism and xenophobia at bay.
One way of understanding those forces is as a manifestation of cultural “particularism”—movements that stand against the universalizing tendencies of liberalism. They are built on a shared sense of distinctiveness, and on the boundaries that enable them to make distinctions. Canada’s seeming immunity to such movements is often taken as proof that, as Justin Trudeau told the New York Times Magazine in 2015, Canada is the world’s first “post-national state,” with “no core identity” or “mainstream.” It is hard to imagine another western leader, even a self-proclaimed liberal champion like Emmanuel Macron, making such claims about their country, and yet Trudeau faced almost no blowback. Nor did Marshall McLuhan, the great Canadian philosopher, when he said that Canada is “the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.”
What, then, makes Canada Canadian?
The political philosopher George Grant famously struggled with this question. In his Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965), Grant argued that Canada’s relationship with the United States has always been the defining fact of its national identity. Modern-day Ontario was heavily settled by loyalist refugees that fled north after the American Revolution. These loyalists shaped the political culture of English Canada, and their rejection of the Revolution and the liberalism that undergirded it helped distinguish British North America from its colonial neighbor. One of the impetuses for the Revolution was the Quebec Act in 1774, which guaranteed religious freedom for French Catholics and restored civil law in Quebec, greatly angering anti-Catholic American colonists, who both feared and despised the existence of a French speaking Catholic colony in their backyard. A failed invasion of Quebec in 1775 ensured that the animus of anti-Catholic America also helped shape French Canadian political culture. The loyalists that fled and the French that repelled the American Revolutionaries provided the foundations for what would become a distinctively British North American, and eventually Canadian, identity.
As Grant suggests, this attempt to distinguish British North America from the United States also meant an attempt to distinguish it from Lockean liberalism. While not denying that Anglo liberalism was Lockean on both sides of the Atlantic, Grant made clear Canada’s attempt to distinguish itself from America elevated pre-liberal and non-liberal traditions in Canada’s identity:
If Lockean liberalism is the conservatism of the English-speaking peoples, what was there in British conservatism that was not present in the bourgeois thought of Hamilton and Madison? If there was nothing, then the acts of the Loyalists are deprived of all moral substance. Many of the American Tories were Anglicans and knew well that in opposing the revolution they were opposing Locke. They appealed to the older political philosophy of Richard Hooker. They were not, as liberal Canadian historians have often described them, a mixture of selfish and unfortunate men who chose the wrong side. If there was nothing valuable in the founders of English-speaking Canada, what makes it valuable for Canadians to continue as a nation today?
Both English and French Canada, despite their differences, agreed that they were not, and did not want to become, Americans. Around this opposition formed a not quite liberal identity that became distinctly Canadian. Scholars have debated whether this influence was Tory, repbulican, communitarian, or something else, but the key is that Canada’s origins and founding myths were not solely liberal.
Grant’s “lament” was that this distinctive identity was being eroded, in part because of the decline of Canadian Protestantism. The death of these foundations destroyed whatever it was that allowed Canada to distinguish itself from the United States, which would lead to Canada being absorbed into the American liberal regime, not just culturally but politically. For all intents and purposes, it would cease to exist.
But while Grant was right about the death of this part-liberal, part-Toryist identity, his prediction of Canada’s complete absorption into the United States has proved less accurate. Though a distinctive Canadian identity may have disappeared, Canadian insistence on not being American remains a powerful and unifying force. But in this effort to distinguish itself from America, what it means to be “not American” has changed. In the same interview where he lauded Canada’s post-national character, Trudeau also claimed that, while there is no core identity, “there are shared values—openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice.” Here, the Prime Minister was echoing his father, Pierre Trudeau, who said in his Memoirs that “with the charter [Canada’s constitutionally enshrined bill of rights] in place, we can now say that Canada is a society where all people are equal and where they share some fundamental values based on freedom. The search for this Canadian identity, as much as my philosophical views, had led me to insist on the charter.”
Pierre Trudeau’s search for a Canadian identity shows how by the late 20th century Canada’s previous identity had been extinguished. But in its place Trudeau sought to create new, fundamentally liberal identity. What made this liberal, universalistic identity different from American liberalism was not that it was less liberal than America, but rather more. In its effort to remain distinct, Canadian nationalism became wholly intertwined with liberalism, and the homogenizing universalism that undergirds it. Paradoxically, to be Canadian was to consciously embrace a complete lack of distinctiveness as its own form of distinctiveness.
This is what distinguishes Canada from “backwards”, less enlightened America today. To be Canadian now is to utterly reject whatever is understood as American illiberalism, which means embracing things like public heathcare, peacekeeping, abortion, and multiculturalism. The values that undergird this liberal identity are buzzwords such as openness, equality, and justice.
The contemporary Canadian political order, and the one that has entrenched this hollow universalism at the heart of Canada’s modern identity, did not evolve by accident. It was consciously constructed by Pierre Trudeau in an attempt to remake Canada in a wholly liberal image. The charter instantly became more than a written crystallization of Canadian liberalism; it shredded the old Canadian political order that was built as a replica of the Westminster system, with its emphasis on parliamentary supremacy. Upon its enshrinement the charter rapidly defenestrated parliament and supplanted it with an aggressive form of judicial supremacy in which important and contentious issues were removed from democratic debate and transferred to the courts. This judicial usurpation has helped de-politicize Canada through a rapidly expanding empire of rights that now holds near-hegemonic status over political discourse. Canada’s judicial (and political) class are for the most part wholly committed to this project. The empire of rights has expanded beyond those initially set out in the charter and towards a form of judicial interpretation based on “charter values,” in which judicial philosopher kings deem as rights an ever-larger list of liberal orthodoxies.
This depoliticized regime nicely complements Canada’s attempt to disguise an indistinct liberalism as nationalism. The things that make Canada “Canadian” are things that make it indistinguishable from other liberal polities; the only distinctive aspect of this new universalist identity is that it embraces universalism as its central, defining tenet. But the anti-American flavor of the real-world manifestations of this universalism still allows it to operate like a functioning form of nationalism, even if it lacks true distinctiveness. This helps explain why Canada has seen no real particularist backlash. Because Canada’s purported particularism is a form of universalism, there is no clear particularist force around which a backlash can build. To react against liberal universalism is to react against Canada itself.
But this does not mean a backlash of some sort is not possible. At the national level, Canada has evolved into a post-national, post-political country, but this is not true at the local and regional level. While most non-Canadians generally think of Canada as being divided into English Canada and French Canada, with English Canada being a homogeneous group, this does not reflect the realities of local and regional identities within Canada. Quebec is the most obvious of these, and in fact Canada’s constitutional debates in the late 20th century were often centred around whether or not Quebec should be formally and explicitly recognized as a “distinct society” within Canada. Historically, Quebec’s distinctiveness was rooted not just in its French, but also its Catholic identity. After the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, the Catholic core of this identity began to change, but did not disappear, and Quebec’s contemporary identity is centred not only on language and culture, but also an attempt to imitate French-style secularism while at the same time preserving Quebec’s Catholic culture as a dead but important part of its heritage.
Grant admired French Canada’s sense of distinctiveness, even as it was changing and secularizing, and once referred to French-Canadian nationalism as a “last-ditch stand” against the inevitable Anglo-American absorption of both English and French Canada. Similarly, despite his serious Catholicism and his admiration for the disappearing conservative and Catholic Quebec, McLuhan saw the Quiet Revolution and the changes it brought as a reaction against the industrialism and individualism of the print age, and an embrace of the re-tribalization of the world that would be brought about in the digital age, saying that “the desire to break away from the industrial community . . . has been felt by all our young people today. . . . French Canada is going through something like that on a big scale.”
But Quebec isn’t the only part of Canada that has a distinct sense of itself. Partly as a response to the liberal nation-building project that Pierre Trudeau embarked on, Western Canada began to develop its own identity, one that was built on a deep sense of frustration with and alienation from the perceived domination of Canada by Ontario and Quebec. Alberta has begun to develop its own bizarre form of “petro-nationalism,” closely connected to its oil resources and fuelled by political grievances over stalled and failed attempts to build new pipelines and energy infrastructure. Newfoundland, which only joined Canada in 1949, has a long and rich cultural history connected primarily to Irish, not English, culture and history. Most of the contemporary inhabitants of the island are descended from Irish immigrants, and this unique Newfoundland identity and culture has only gotten stronger since 1949. While traditional, Irish-influenced culture is deeply embedded across Newfoundland, the sense of a unified Newfoundland identity is a more recent development, one aided both by a broader cultural renaissance and the relative economic weakness of Newfoundland when compared to the rest of Canada. Just as Newfoundland’s sense of its own distinctiveness is a relatively new phenomena, other forms of local particularism are coalescing as well.
It isn’t a coincidence that these identities have grown in tandem with the emergence of Canada’s hollow and universalistic national identity. As the national community ceases to be a source of rich and distinctive attachments, local attachments will naturally become more important. Particularist backlashes in Canada, then, won’t be national movements. They will manifest instead as local backlashes against liberal universalism—which is to say, against Canada’s national culture.
These local identities are not necessarily incompatible with a thin nationalism that leaves room for diverse communities to flourish. Canada’s constitutional structure has produced a relatively decentralized federal system in which Canadian provinces are given a relatively high degree of autonomy, but that does not mean there is no conflict on the horizon.
While Canadian federalism on its own might allow for a relatively cohesive, decentralized system, the charter regime that has been imposed on top of this structure is an expansive force. As the empire of rights has grown, many of the charter’s basic principles have been reinterpreted so as to legitimate and impose progressive orthodoxy. While the charter regime includes explicit recognition of Canada’s linguistic and cultural diversity by protecting things like language rights, the judiciary has shown itself to be incapable of tolerating diversity that deviates from liberal norms, and conflict along these fault lines has already begun.
In 2018 Quebec elected the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) for the first time in its history, breaking the dominance of the Quebec Liberal Party and the Parti Quebecois. The CAQ has passed a secularism law that bans some public servants from wearing religious symbols, plans to cut immigration numbers, and wants to impose a values test on new migrants. Premier François Legault has explicitly said that he wants more immigrants to come from Europe. The government has also said it plans to transfer the control of some anglophone schools over to francophone boards—all moves very popular with French-speakers outside of Montreal. The secularism bill is already being challenged in the courts, but Legault has threatened to invoke the “notwithstanding clause,” a section of the charter that allows governments to overturn a court ruling for a limited period of time. (The clause was included theoretically to preserve parliamentary supremacy, but it is rarely used and only applies to certain sections of the charter.) While federal politicians and defenders of the charter regime like Trudeau have been rather muted in their reaction to the law, the return of particularist nationalism to Quebec politics does not appear to be a temporary aberration. The federal election has seen a sudden revival of the separatist Bloc Quebecois party, that seemed until recently to be in terminal decline, but this revival makes sense when understood as a manifestation of this localistic particularism. CAQ is not a separatist party, but it is explicitly committed to defending Quebec’s autonomy and heritage. While the charter regime protects language rights, it remains to be seen whether this will cover more overtly illiberal attempts to preserve distinctiveness.
But the most palpable fragmentation today is in Western Canada, not Quebec. Pierre Trudeau’s post-national project led to a widespread feeling in the west that Trudeau had attempted to appease Quebec at their expense. Federal transfer programs and energy policy moved wealth from west to east, bilingualism felt like an imposition in places where francophones were a tiny minority, and incessant constitutional debates about Quebec as a distinct society turned Quebec into a favorite and spoiled child. This alienation produced a political party, the Reform Party, that destroyed the old Progressive Conservative Party and eventually brought forth a new Conservative Party that empowered the west. But now alienation has reappeared once more, motivated by much the same issues.
The election of another Trudeau has rekindled old tensions, and even led to whispers and more than a few newspaper columns openly talking about Western separatism. While this is not a serious proposal at the moment, long-term trends do not suggest the movement will disappear. A recent Environics Institute survey found that the proportion of Canadians who said their province or region is important to their identity rose from 69 percent to 77 percent between 2003 and 2018. The survey also found that, for the first time in Alberta and Saskatchewan, a majority now agree with the proposition that “Western Canada gets so few benefits from being part of Canada that they might as well go it on their own.” Alberta’s new Conservative Premier, Jason Kenney, won a big majority this year by wedding conventional Albertan conservatism with an appeal to “petro-patriotism,” promising to hold a referendum on Canada’s system of federal transfers if there is no major progress on pipeline expansion by 2021. This referendum would have no legal power, given that the transfers are constitutionally guaranteed, but it would stoke tensions between Alberta and Canada over issues that have been removed from the political realm.
In New Brunswick, the populist People’s Alliance Party won 13 percent of the popular vote and three seats in the provincial legislature in 2018, giving them the balance of power in a hung parliament. While the party has campaigned on a variety of idiosyncratic issues, its real appeal has been its attacks on the province’s language policies. New Brunswick is Canada’s only officially bilingual province, with roughly one-third of its population being francophones. This has caused tensions over the years with New Brunswick’s anglophone majority, primarily over the bilingual requirements for public service jobs and the cost of having separate services in both English and French. The People’s Alliance promised what they called “common sense” language policies, which would include scrapping the province’s official language commissioner, ending the bilingual requirement for paramedics, and getting rid of separate school buses for English and French students.
Although New Brunswick voted to become officially bilingual, people disagree about what this means. Some see bilingualism as requiring “duality,” whereby services and programs are duplicated across the board regardless of actual demographics, while skeptics would prefer a model that provides French services only in French-speaking areas. Official bilingualism is constitutionally protected, and very few people are opposed to bilingualism itself, even if anti-bilingual politics are often built upon anti-francophone sentiment. The contentious issue is where the boundaries should be drawn. New Brunswickers have a constitutional right to be served by the government in English or French, and the charter guarantees separate educational institutions for French and English, resulting in two separate school boards. But does that extend to areas like school buses? Here as elsewhere, the courts will get to decide what are ultimately political questions—thus the “common sense” backlash that undergirds parties like the People’s Alliance.
Weak national attachments, strong regional ties, and growing inter-regional resentments all point to a future in which fragmentation is a real possibility. The merging of liberal principles with national values has inoculated Canada against the sort of nationalist populism springing up across the West. But it has also created an opening for local attachments to grow more politically salient. If citizens are forced to choose between them and (liberal) nationalism, chances are they will choose the former.
While Grant feared the disappearance of Canada via absorption, his fears have not yet come to pass. Canadian anti-Americanism is still an important part of national identity, even if this anti-Americanism is now tied to a hyper-liberal understanding of what makes Canada different. But that difference is essentially the absence of distinctiveness—which means Canadian nationalism is no match for its sub-national challengers. Fragmentation and balkanization loom large on the horizon, and Grant’s prediction of Canada’s disappearance may yet come to pass, just not in the form he expected.