What Does It Mean to Be a (Canadian) Conservative?

In yesterday’s Canadian election, the new Conservative Party swept into power for the first time since 1993. Paul Martin and the Liberals, it turns out, were unsuccessful in their campaign to demonize—yet again—Canadian conservatives.

But what does it mean to be a Canadian conservative? Is it the same as being an American conservative? Do the same markers apply, such as one’s stance on abortion or gay marriage, lower taxes, free trade and smaller government, a strong military and vigilant national defense?

To a certain extent, yes. In many ways, Canadian society has historically been more conservative and less radicalized than the United States. For example, whereas abortion was legalized in the U.S. in 1973 under Roe v. Wade, abortion remained illegal in Canada. That law was finally deemed unconstitutional in a key Canadian Supreme Court case regarding abortion in 1988.

In the United States, the place of religion within the public schools is a source of much debate due to the “separation of church and state.” But the province of Ontario, for instance, funds a separate, Catholic, school board in accord with the Canadian Constitution. In addition, public school prayer, which was effectively banned in the early 1960s in the U.S. remained alive in Ontario until 1988.

Nevertheless, Canada today is more liberal (in the American sense) than the United States: with no laws regulating abortion, legal same-sex marriage, no death penalty, high income taxes and a federal sales tax, a financially-strapped military and a deep reverence for the United Nations.

But the problem with defining Canadian conservatism exclusively in the above terms is that it overlooks the fundamental issue plaguing Canada since the 1960s: the separation movement in the French-speaking province of Quebec.

How to deal with the “Quebec question” does not easily fit into the usual left/right framework. Nor does it have much to say about relations with the U.S. or foreign policy in general, the primary avenue by which Americans are exposed to Canadian policies. Yet, a distinctly liberal and conservative stance toward Quebec has emerged, the recognition of which has benefited the Conservative Party, under leader Stephen Harper.

The traditional liberal response to Quebec separatism was a call for greater centralization of power. There is no better example of this than the fetishism of socialized medicine. More than a mere health care system, socialized medicine acts as a symbol of Canadian unity and food for identity-starved Canadians. Policy choices—socialized medicine or not—soon morph into the “Canadian values” espoused by the Liberal Party—to be contrasted with the “American” values of their political opponents, the Conservatives. This is why the Liberal Party has run so many ads this election campaign using anti-American rhetoric: Liberal nationalism depends on it.

But Conservatives see this as a big mistake. Instead, the reason for Quebec’s continued disaffection is federal meddling in its affairs, a sentiment shared to a lesser extent by other provinces, such as Alberta. The Conservative response is a policy of “open federalism.” In this arrangement, the federal government will respect the constitutional limits of its power (health care and education are both under provincial jurisdiction) and strengthen its own areas of responsibility such as national defense, foreign affairs and trade.

In this way, provincial autonomy, not liberal paternalism, lies at the base of a strong, united Canada.