Canada’s Culture War

When Stephen Harper spoke to the recent Conservative convention he asserted that conservative values are Canadian values. A majority government affords him and his followers a unique opportunity to establish those values in law and practice. While government decisions are made at the margins, if one party is in power long enough it can move the margins and bring about significant change.

But what does Harper mean by conservative values? In this post, I will try to outline those values, based on what I’ve observed of the actions of the Harper government in Ottawa, the Ford administration in Toronto, the platform of the Ontario conservatives, and the discourse of the conservative commentariat, for example Sun News, and Globe and Mail columnists Neil Reynolds and (occasionally) Preston Manning.

1.Privileging families with children. One can argue that a high birthrate will help offset the demographic challenge of the retirement of the baby boomers. The financial supports provided by the federal Conservatives (Universal Child Care Benefit, Canada Child Tax Benefit, Child fitness tax credit) are not sufficient to affect people’s decisions about whether or not to have children, but they are carefully crafted to win the support of families with children. These payments or tax expenditures prevent an overall reduction in tax rates for those who don’t choose to start families.

2.Ignoring Gays. While conservatives do not propose to reverse the gains that gays have achieved, they will not extend them. Mayor Ford’s snub of Pride Week is indicative of the conservative attitude towards gays: not benign neglect, simply neglect. Ironically, Conservatives are quite willing to embrace ethnic diversity, but sexual diversity is another matter.

3.Choosing Jobs over the Environment. Resource extraction is often polluting, and Conservatives always choose jobs in resource extraction (recent examples tar sands oil and asbestos) over environmental protection. Similarly, Mayor Ford’s edict that the war on the auto is over (see my post of June 3) chooses a life-style that increases urban pollution over alternatives favoring public transit (for example road pricing).

4.Glorifying the Military. Symbolically, the federal government takes every opportunity to glorify the military, for example providing a military presence at citizenship ceremonies. Going beyond symbolism, the government will opt for major hardware expenditures (the F-35) over less expensive alternatives.

5.Suppressing Strikes. Conservatives will declare all public sector workers essential services (for example transit workers in Toronto) and legislate a quick end to many private sector strikes (Air Canada). The irony regarding the latter is that Conservative governments have privatized some public services so as to increase competition.

6.Jettisoning high-brow culture. Conservative governments love mainstream culture that the market will support and will increasingly reduce public funding for alternative or high-brow culture, particularly if that culture is critical of the government or conservative values. The attack on Michael Ignatieff’s intellectualism and cosmopolitanism can be interpreted as an attack on high-brow culture.

7.Favouring “useful” research. In the area of research, conservatives prefer research in the sciences or business to research in the social sciences and humanities, particularly because the latter two tend to be critical of government policy (for example, criminologists showing that crime rates are not increasing and hence questioning the “get tough on crime” policy).

I’ve sketched what I see as some of the essential conservative values. I’m sure there are others I haven’t touched on. Parliamentary page Brigitte DePape’s protest “Stop Harper” was eloquent but missed the point. It’s not just Harper but an entire movement. Conservatives are working hard in their commentary, in decisions regarding societal symbols, and in budgetary decisions to enshrine a particular set of values. They’re fighting a culture war and, it appears, winning. The question is what those who embrace a different set of values will do to articulate and preserve theirs.

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