- In Search of Canadian Political Culture
Nelson Wiseman is one of the most familiar faces of political scientists on television who squeeze an issue of the day into a thirty-second [End Page 161] historical context. If some of his television commentaries are necessarily glib, his scholarly work has been more sophisticated and has focused on debunking mythologies that Canadians have developed about themselves. One of the more persistent mythologies is that we have a national political culture. In fact, as Wiseman suggests, our political cultures are best seen as regional, and indeed provincial. Despite the title of the book, Wiseman's focus in this work is on a search for each of these provincial cultures, though, along the way, he certainly has a few things to say about the myths that Canadians create about themselves collectively.
Wiseman's book is an ambitious effort to present in a condensed, readable form the political history of the regions and provinces in ways that explain current configurations of voting patterns in federal and provincial elections. He is well aware of the present-mindedness of his enterprise and warns that Canadian political culture 'is constantly shifting, dependent on the seeker's imagination and what she is looking for' (263). Furthermore, because he is attempting to provide broad generalizations about how Canadians in different geographical areas have learned to think about politics, he has eschewed hyper-detailed studies of political phenomena. 'The historian may frown on the lack of archival materials, and the behavioural political scientist may find it short on systematic analysis, quantification, and theory building' (2).
Indeed, this historian found much to praise and to frown upon in Wiseman's generalizations about how our political cultures have come to be. His materials on most regions and provinces seem well-considered, and he does an excellent job of bursting the bubble of Canadians fostering a multicultural mosaic in contrast with the alleged American insistence on assimilation of immigrants into the dominant culture. Though he studied with Gad Horowitz and subscribes in part to Horowitz's embrace of Louis Hartz's largely ahistorical notions of the congealing of political thought at particular moments in the development of nations, Wiseman nuances such notions by positing the importance of 'quakes' in the development of political cultures. He notes that the Quiet Revolution in Quebec and the election of Social Credit in British Columbia in 1952 were among such quakes that upset longstanding political structures and ushered in changes that earlier formative events in the political culture could not have anticipated.
That leaves Wiseman with the delicate problem of balancing the importance of formative events and quakes in explaining political developments at various times. He may occasionally put too much [End Page 162] emphasis on the former and give too little thought to explaining the latter. Much of his discussion of the politics of Alberta and Saskatchewan, for example, places far too much emphasis on the different origins of the settlers in the two provinces. Alberta, notes Wiseman, had a very large American farmer immigrant influence on its early politics, and he claims that these immigrants produced an anti-socialist political culture. By contrast, the British farmers who settled in Saskatchewan often brought with them socialist ideas. In fact, both provinces attracted large numbers of farmers from both the US and Britain, and though the proportion of Americans was higher in Alberta, they were certainly significant in Saskatchewan as well. As for the socialist leanings or otherwise of immigrants, anyone examining the relative strength of socialism in the politics of the two provinces in 1930 would have concluded that it was Alberta that had a socialist future. The province had elected socialists both federally and provincially, while Saskatchewan had never elected any. It was no accident that the meeting to create the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in 1932 occurred in Calgary, since the majority of the MPs who subscribed to socialist views were United Farmers of Alberta representatives. Ultimately, however, the craven performance of the UFA government in the province, backed by the...