restricted access Identity Politics: Conservative Style
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Identity Politics:
Conservative Style

Stephen Harper is not the first, and he will not be the last prime minister to manipulate the symbols of Canadian history and alter political institutions in order to reshape Canadian political identity. Chrétien was accused of just such a manipulation during the sponsorship scandal of the 1990s and, before Chrétien, Trudeau fundamentally altered our institutions and identities through the Constitution Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. After 1982, gone were historic pillars of Canadian political identity such as the supremacy of parliament and British-style “implicit” rights protections. Canadians became the bearers of codified individual rights, and provinces, including Québec, became bound by the policy-based decisions of a philosophically-minded Supreme Court. So profound were the changes brought about by Trudeau’s efforts that subsequent attempts to alter his constitutional reforms by reclaiming some of the provincial powers lost in 1982 failed, perhaps less because of the substance than the style of the revisions proposed in the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. Canadians became attached to “their” constitution and cynical about their political élites. Their new political identity became a juggernaut which no political party or leader has dared to challenge since.

Whereas there is nothing new about prime ministers or, for that matter, premiers, attempting to redefine and reorient Canadian identity to reflect their vision of the country, Harper’s efforts over the past decade are different from those of past prime ministers, not because of the extent of this reshaping, nor because he shapes us from a Conservative rather than Liberal direction, but because, as several commentators have suggested, he shapes us without a vision of Canada or an ideal of citizenship worthy of allegiance at all. On some accounts, changes to Canada’s symbolic identity – reflected in the images found in our new passports, in recent attempts to insert the monarchy back into our military and to use military heroism to punctuate our historical narrative – portray Canada nostalgically, simplified and united around images and events that speak more clearly to the roles of men than women, and to the roles of the dominant white settlers and explorers rather than the struggles of Indigenous people or ethnocultural minority immigrants. As Yasmeen Abu-Laban points out, the reality of Canadian diversity, represented so well by Bill Reid’s famous sculpture, Spirit of Haida Gwaii, which graced our now-retired $20 bill, is flattened and rendered homogenous. And, with respect to Québec, Harper’s seemingly contradictory policies, as described by Reg Whitaker, [End Page 231] have consistency perhaps only when viewed as strategies meant to isolate the French fact of Canada from the whole, thereby leaving to Québec the task of sorting out its place in Canada unimpeded by concerns Ottawa once had for national unity.

Some commentators suspect that the only vision informing Harper’s legacy is one meant to make Canadians and Canadian institutions easier to govern by the pmo. In this regard, three key changes introduced by the Harper government to the way in which Canadians are governed seem designed to silence dissent. First, by eliminating the long-form census, the Conservatives have weakened the capacity of public interest organizations to defend the interests of vulnerable and marginalized people. Second, by de-funding and under-utilizing scholarly expertise, the project of governance is disconnected from the requirement that public decision-making be based on good evidence and argument rather than party ideology or current prejudice. And, third, by manipulating the rules and conventions of parliamentary governance, the government undermines democratic norms of transparency and accountability, furthering weakening the voice of opposition and the norms of accountability in Parliament.

Perhaps the clearest message emerging from these commentaries is that Canadians are increasingly powerless in the face of these recent changes. But are these changes any more fundamental than those made by previous governments? I think they are not and that it’s worth considering the ways in which Canadian governance is not monolithic or so easily manipulated. External sources of power and influence such as the judiciary, provincial governments, the international community, and even the Senate, have the capacities to...