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Critical Voices

Canada is sometimes envisaged as a land of pristine lakes, majestic mountains and tall, handsome and above all upright and honest Mounties. But as a social and political entity Canada has been the subject of criticism from any number of ideological, political and historical viewpoints. In fact the legacy of liberal political philosophy in general to Canada has long been debated as to its costs and benefits. Canada has been criticized from the Left as being a society where business interests and the wealthy have an inordinate amount of power and privilege and the interests of the middle class and certain minorities and “marginalized” groups have been underserved. On the Right, Canada has been criticized as a semi-socialized state where the broad interests of the population have been sacrificed to certain powerful interest groups who manage to have a voice disproportionately loud for their actual size and weight they deserve in the assessment of the demands of the public good. These disagreements are characteristic of all modern liberal democracies to be sure. And as with other liberal democracies, they are given a particular caste by the country’s history, geography, constitutional structures, economic development and other considerations.

One recent critic is Frederick Vaughan who entitles the last chapter of his book The Canadian Federalist Experiment “Clinging to the Wreckage.” His suggestion is that the original Canadian project has been sunk by a variety of causes such that what remains is only fragments of a lost culture. William D. Gairdner entitles his book The Trouble with Canada wherein he argues that since the 1960s Canada has sacrificed much of its past legacy by adopting policies that have ultimately undermined the country’s historical and moral character. For his part William Watson argues that that economic policies which Canada has pursued to bring her into closer economic relations with the United States have not had the effect of lessening or diminishing Canada’s sovereignty and independence as has been repeatedly argued by some elements of the Canadian political spectrum. F.L. Morton and Rainer Knopf have long argued that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has led to the transference of political power to an unelected and unconfirmed judicial branch of the Canadian government. They argue that many of the issues decided upon by the Supreme Court of Canada properly belong in Parliament and that the rise of an “American style” Supreme Court has been detrimental to the quality of Canadian democratic life.

There is also in Canada a “western” school of thought associated with the University of Calgary and with which current Prime Minister Stephen Harper has had some past association. This school of thought has often made vigorous criticism of the Canadian status quo as being fundamentally unfair to the western part of the country and ideologically mistaken as tending to undemocratic and illiberal policies. The emblematic symbolic political demand of this particular school has been a “Tripe E” Senate by which they mean reform of the federal upper house such that it becomes “Elected, Equal and Effective.” This school of thought has been ably represented for many years by Professors Barry Cooper and Thomas Flanagan. Professor Cooper has written on a wide range of topics but the grievances of western Canada have always been close to his heart. He has given voice to the view that the west has historically been left out of the Canadian discussion, so powerful are the eastern interests which have dominated the Canadian political process over the decades. Professor Flanagan has also written on a wide array of topics but he has made an especial study of the situation with Canada’s First Nations and has made some concrete recommendations for the improvement of their condition. The Calgary “School is Thought,” if it may be called such, is sometimes described as “American conservative” in orientation even as political thought in Quebec is sometimes described as “Euro-Left.”

On the Left there is a vigorous critique of Canadian society as is to be seen in the books of author and journalist Linda McQuaig. McQuaig’s general complaint is that the super-wealthy are much too powerful and have avoided their fair share of taxation. McQuaig attacks the Chicago School of economic thought and the rejection of progressive taxation as the key to national prosperity.

Another Canadian name recognized around the world and whose career was deeply embedded in the Canadian context is that of Jane Jacobs. Jacobs moved to Toronto 1968 and lived there until her death becoming a Canadian citizen in 1974. She was selected to be an officer of the Order of Canada in 1996. In addition to her famous works on urban life she also wrote on the question of Quebec's sovereignty in her book The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Separation. In 1997 the Jane Jacobs Prize was inaugurated involving an annual stipend of $5,000 for three years to be given to citizens who have contributed to the life of Toronto.

A rival for Jane Jacobs’ world-wide level of recognition is the is the journalist Naomi Klein. Klein’s first book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies was also an international bestseller, translated into over 25 languages with more than a million copies in print. Her more recent Shock Doctrine:The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) been widely reviewed. The book has been adapted into a feature length documentary released in 2010. Klein’s work has been published in The Nation, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, The Globe and Mail, The New Statesman and other venues.

Irshad Manji (1968-) is another well-known Canadian author whose focus is the need for a liberal interpretation of Islam. Manji's book, Trouble with Islam has been published in more than many languages, including Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Malay and Indonesian. Manji’s most recent book, Allah, Liberty and Love was released in 2011 and continues her discussion of the ways in which faith might be reconciled with freedom. She is a frequent contributor to televised debates and has appeared Al Jazeera, the CBC, BBC, MSNBC, C-SPAN, CNN, PBS, the Fox News Channel, CBS, and HBO.

Maude Barlow (1947-) is is the National Chairperson of The Council of Canadians and has adopted as one of her major concerns the availability and distribution of water across the world. She is also the co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, which works internationally for this cause. She was the Senior Advisor on Water to the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly. She has authored and co-authored 16 books.

The criticism of liberal democracy takes on an added dimension in Canada because it tends to influence the Canadian assessment of the neighboring American experiment. To illustrate this point, it is only necessary to recall that the Old Left in Canada as represented by a figure such as the distinguished historian Frank Underhill was very much “Pro American.” “Where are our Hamiltons and Jeffersons?” he would ask with a feeling of envy for American Enlightenment thought and “rationalism in politics.” The Old Right by contrast hearkened back to the Loyalist experience and harbored a deep feeling of resentment against the United States for its breach with the Empire and rejection of “Burkeanism” with its emphasis on tradition and precedent. Canada’s George Washington, Sir John A. Macdonald was not above playing the anti-American “card” in post-Confederation electoral politics and of portraying the United States as a temptress who would lure young Canada away from her obligations to the Empire. But all this has drastically changed since World War II. The New Left with its deeply felt objections to liberal capitalism on the grounds of equality, alienation and imperialism is decidedly anti-American in its sentiments while the New Right has become the pro-American faction arguing that Canadian “small l” liberalism should do for Canada what American “small l” liberalism has done for the United States. In straight political terms, we saw the Left in the 1980s standing in opposition to the passage of NAFTA and the Right all for it while in the 19th Century it was the “Left” that sought “Reciprocity” with the United States and the “Right” which pushed the “National Policy” of protective tariffs against U.S. economic pressures.

So in Canada as in other countries Marxists and Neo-Marxists will argue that liberal capitalism is guilty of oppressing and exploiting the Canadian population as it has the populations of other countries. Feminist critics will point to Canada’s history of sexism and second class status for women while conservative critics will insist that liberal cosmopolitanism breaks down local loyalties and traditions and undermines national and community life. In Canada, as elsewhere, there is no widespread consensus amongst the intellectual classes on the most desirable goals for liberal democracy except that the basic liberal democratic procedures of free debate, free elections and the rule of law should be preserved.