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Losing Control: Canada’s Social Conservatives in the Age of Rights by Tom Warner (review)
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Tom Warner provides us a tremendously useful survey of religiously conservative political organizing in Canada. Its detailed treatment of mobilization over several important policy areas—reproduction, pornography, prostitution, schooling, hate speech, and sexual diversity—fills a yawning gap. Its overall story and its many specific accounts will sound eerily familiar to readers familiar with the US Religious Right, and this in a country that most observers would not identify with such politics. The Religious Right in Canada is far less prominent a player than its American counterpart, but it is still important enough that the paucity of serious writing on it is striking.

Warner, a champion of sexual liberation and gender equality, has a strong point of view that has been shaped by decades of advocating LGBT rights primarily through the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario (CLGRO). In fact, Losing Control is his second book and a natural follow-up to his Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada—also an extremely useful contribution to our knowledge of social movement politics.1 The strength of Warner’s advocacy detracts not at all from the value of his telling the stories he draws from across Canada. He also displays real balance in dissecting the complexities of some of the legal cases he speaks to, particularly those involving hate speech.

Warner’s argument is that successful challenges to traditionalist underpinnings of moral regulation in the second half and particularly the last quarter of the twentieth century resulted in substantial religious mobilization in Canada, led principally by evangelical Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders. In most of the book, he emphasizes the strength of these forces and their power in the now-governing Conservative Party of Canada. He acknowledges that “the modern social conservative movement has experienced more defeats than victories,” a point that seems to underscore the book’s main title, but the preponderant thrust of the stories and analysis is that the movement is in fact very powerful and that the Conservative Party is committed to pursuing policies, however incrementally, that reflect moral traditionalist values (220). As Warner puts it, “Canada is now indeed witnessing the persistent building of an organizational infrastructure that will support and sustain a social conservative resurgence” (242).

This book is built primarily on an extraordinary collection of media stories and public statements by Religious Right groups. It also draws from published analytical work, but the real strength is the development of an historical account that spans the country and includes many little-chronicled stories at the national, regional, and local levels. One important message in the accounts it provides is the persistent use of extremist language by the Religious Right in Canada, even if not at the same level as south of the border.

There are limitations to Warner’s book, even if they do not substantially compromise my admiration for it. One is that it often overstates the political weight of Canada’s Religious Right (explicitly or by implication). I say “often” because (as I have already indicated) Warner acknowledges the failures of moral traditionalists to roll back gains, particularly on abortion and gay rights. However, much of the account is framed in language that suggests a flushly resourced and well-organized social movement that now has direct pipelines to the senior levels of the current federal government. Like some other social movement analysis, this book often seems to conflate making noise (for example, by marshaling petitions and letters to politicians) with shaping policy.

To sharpen the analytical edge of this book, I would have wanted more of what I realize is difficult to do, namely, to provide more information on just how substantial various groups are: what kinds of membership (or readership) they can tap, how many volunteers they have, what kind of paid staff they have, what their annual budgets are. This is challenging, of course, since most groups in Canada do not publish such information and have a vested interest in overstatement, but we know that some Canadian conservative groups are basically one-person shops, or “shoe-box-size” outfits. We also would have benefited from more analysis of those noise-making political moments, which really resonated...

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