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  • Losing Control: Canada's Social Conservatives in an Age of Rights
  • Arthur Sheps
Losing Control: Canada's Social Conservatives in an Age of Rights. Tom Warner. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2010. Pp. viii, 292, $29.95

Losing Control is an account of the struggle between those who see themselves as the guardians of traditional, religiously based social values and the forces of a new secular morality based on doctrines of human rights and equality of treatment as it has played itself out in Canada over the last fifty years. The author looks at a number of areas of contention: abortion, regulation of 'indecent behaviour,' pornography, prostitution, the age of consent, inclusion of sexual orientation in anti-discrimination and human rights legislation, same-sex marriage and adoptions, and education policy as it touches on these matters. He then concludes with a chapter on how these issues have shaped the political complexion of the country.

The advance of newly recognized rights got underway in the late 1960s with the beginnings of provincial and federal anti-discrimination policies and legislation and the creation of human rights commissions. The partial decriminalization of abortion and homosexuality by the Trudeau government in 1969 marked a turning point and was followed by agitation to augment and ensure these reforms. And then came, along with the patriation of the constitution in 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights (not fully implemented until 1985) and all the judicial decisions, public policies, and human rights legislation that have since flowed from it. Canada was now living in an age of rights, as Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said, and no longer had to [End Page 373] turn to theology for the moral principles that guided it. This development was precisely what disturbed the social conservatives about whom Warner writes in this book.

Warner's examination of the evangelical Protestant churches and militant Roman Catholic hierarchy and organizations that comprise the foundation of the social conservative movement makes telling use of archival, print, website, and broadcast media sources to chart their activity. He shows, for example, that the opposition to abortion, especially from the evangelical Protestants, was not just about the life of the foetus but was also a crusade against what the conservatives saw as the excesses of feminism, secularism, and the rise of sexual permissiveness. The people who opposed the availability of legal abortions were also often opposed to employment equity for women, universal day care, and reproductive choices generally. And they objected strongly to anything that would lead to public legitimation of homosexuality, hence their opposition to extending human rights protection to gay people and their concern with stricter censorship of public expressions of sexuality and the way sexuality, particularly homosexuality, was presented in schools. They feared that such softening of attitudes about homosexuality would lead to what they regarded as the ultimate horror, the recognition of same-sex marriage. Some of them, such as the Roman Catholic bishop of Calgary, said the proper public policy was to make homosexual behaviour criminal again.

When religion-based social activists had backed progressive social and economic reforms in Canada earlier in the twentieth century, they were of considerable influence. But now, in the face of growing secularism and changing moral perspectives, many of them feared that true religion was losing its place as a shaper of public policies. Warner shows, however, that the social conservatives were actually quite successful in keeping these issues a matter of public debate and slowing down or compromising the advance of human rights. Liberal and ndp governments, as well as Conservative ones, often backtracked or engaged in pusillanimous tinkering rather than effective reform.

Generally, however, the NDP and Bloc/PQ were the most sympathetic to the new morality of rights, the Liberal Party the most divided, and the Conservatives in their various manifestations the most willing to listen to the views of those opposed to change. There were, though, some interesting exceptions. In Alberta successive Progressive Conservative governments would not amend human rights legislation to include homosexuals. But in 1998, in a case involving a gay instructor at a self-proclaimed Christian college, the Supreme Court 'read into' the provincial legislation sexual orientation as a...


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