Steven Fletcher, the Byfields, and the Failure of Canada's New Right
A little over twenty years ago, Dr. Samuel T. Francis, the American paleoconservative columnist who departed from this world far too soon ten years ago this month, saw a collection of several of his best essays and articles published by the University of Missouri Press under a title borrowed from Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers. The subtitle of the book was “Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism.” This was an interesting choice that raised many an eyebrow considering that the book saw print in the early 1990s, immediately after the period that mainstream American conservatism regarded as its moment of triumph, the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Dr. Francis looked beyond the superficiality of American conservatism’s seeming triumph and made the uncomfortable observation that the movement had failed to achieve a single one of its objectives – the restoration of their old republic, the rollback of the welfare state that was eroding America’s middle class, or victory in the war against the ongoing social, moral, and cultural revolution.
A recent conflux of occurrences could not help but bring to my mind certain parallels between this and the present state of Canadian conservatism. The February edition of the curiously titled monthly evangelical publication Christian Week features a cover story by Craig Macartney about a bill that had gone before the Senate for debate that would legalize assisted suicide. The focus of the article is upon how legalization has been gathering support among Christians. Steven Fletcher, the Winnipeg MP who authored the bill, is interviewed and pretty much the first thing he is cited as saying is that polls indicate “strong support for assisted suicide, even among professed Christians”. Perhaps Mr. Fletcher thinks that questions of what is true and right are matters to be settled by opinion polls.
Later in the article Fletcher comes off somewhat better as he predicts last Friday’s decision by the dotty old dolts, dingbats, and dipsticks on the Supreme Court to strike the laws against assisted suicide from the Criminal Code and indicates that it was in partial anticipation of this decision that he had authored the bill so that the question would not become a “free-for-all, with no restrictions”. Perhaps that is the best we can expect in this day and age in which case Mr. Fletcher doesn’t really deserve to be made the butt of a joke, inspired by the quadriplegic politician’s sharing a last name with the character played by Dame Angela Lansbury in her most celebrated role, and to have his bill dubbed “Murder He Wrote”. Whether Fletcher’s motives are noble or base, however, is not really the question or the point here. He is a member, not only of Parliament, but of the present Conservative Party which currently forms the majority government in Parliament, and a professing Christian to boot. That he would initiate a bill for the legalization of assisted suicide shows just how far that party has come from its roots.
The present Conservative Party claims two sets of roots for itself – those of the old Conservative Party, which had been around since before Confederation having been formed in Canada as a local version of the same party in Britain, and those of the Reform Party of Canada. In the late 1990s the “Unite the Right” movement led most of the old Conservative Party to join the Reform Party in what then became the Canadian Alliance. The full merger between the two parties into the present party was completed in the fall of 2003.
This merger has been alternately interpreted as both the triumph and the defeat of the Reform Party, the movement that gave birth to it, and the principles of that movement which we shall call the Canadian “New Right” for reasons that we will look at momentarily. These interpretations would seem to be mutually exclusive and the polar opposite of each other yet, paradoxically, they are both true. If success for a political movement is understood strictly in terms of the attainment of power then the New Right has succeeded, for the party it founded managed, first of all, to take over the old Conservative Party’s place as the main alternative to the Liberals, then to absorb that party into itself and take over its name, next to form a minority government in Parliament, and finally to win a majority in a federal election.
Yet, if we consider what the principles and objectives of the New Right movement actually were, the merger that led to the present government of Stephen Harper can hardly be viewed as a smashing success.
I have called this movement the Canadian “New Right” for two reasons. The first is its contrast with the Old Right. The Canadian Old Right, of which the original Conservative Party was the organized political expression, was a Canadian adaptation of British classical conservatism or Toryism. The essence of Canadian Toryism was loyalty to and defence of the traditions, and political, social, and cultural institutions, of Canada, especially her British heritage. It was fundamentally patriotic. The New Right, by contrast, had taken up the cause of Western regional dissatisfaction with Ottawa which it frequently expressed in anti-patriotic and anti-Canadian tones, with some of its leaders openly expressing or at least doing little to conceal their preference for American history, heritage, tradition and institutions over that of Canada. This antipatriotism was the ugliest aspect of the New Right and it was this that initially hindered the New Right from gaining strength outside of the West and becoming a national movement. Unfortunately, as we shall see, the leaders of the party the movement produced, chose to listen to their liberal and progressive critics who told them that it was the movement’s positions on social, moral, and cultural issues that was holding it back.
The second reason for calling the movement the Canadian New Right is the fact that it arose at the same time and in response to similar phenomena as parallel movements in the United States and Europe which were also known as the “New Right”.
The New Right, in Canada as in the United States and Europe, was born in the 1970s in response to the tidal wave of changes that had swept Western Civilization since the end of the Second World War. These included social and moral changes as Christian countries became more secular, Christianity, the Bible, and prayer were driven from public schools, as was much discipline due to new-fangled psychological and educational theories, the development of effective contraceptive technology led to the relaxing of both legal and cultural restraints on sexual behaviour, divorce became easily obtainable, abortion was legalized, a revolution against distinct roles for the sexes took place, and in which a kind of Western self-loathing took over the hearts and minds of the youth and their teachers in institutions of higher learning who came to see everything Western and Christian as oppressive and to venerate everything that was neither Western nor Christian. The Canadian New Right, just like the American New Right and the European New Right, was born out of righteous anger at this wave of changes and the desire to regain what had been swept away by it.
In Canada, the New Right grew and gained its greatest strength in the Western provinces. It was in the West that the remarkable periodical that became the movement’s primary organ was published for thirty years. It started out as the St. John’s Edmonton Report in 1973 when it was founded by Ted Byfield, a seasoned journalist turned Christian educator, but by the end of the decade had become the Alberta Report, the title under which it is still remembered today, despite undergoing a couple more name changes before ceasing publication in 2003, a few months before the merger that produced the present Conservative Party. For the largest part of its three decades of publication, its editor-publisher was Ted Byfield’s son Link who was also a Sun Media columnist, the founder of foundation/lobby the Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy (1) as well as the co-founder of and a candidate for Alberta’s Wildrose Party. Link Byfield’s untimely death from cancer last month is the other in the conflux of occurrences that has brought about this reflection on the success and failure of the New Right which he and his father did so much to shape and form.
The Byfields were devout Christians. When my maternal grandmother introduced me to their magazine in the early 1990s she told me it was published by a family of “Christian fundamentalists”. More precisely, they were a family of conservative Anglicans who, having gotten fed up with liberal domination of the Anglican Church of Canada, had joined the Eastern Orthodox Church in the case of the father and the Roman Catholic Church in the case of the son. To each issue of their magazine, the elder Byfield contributed, in addition to his last page editorial, a column called “Orthodoxy” which he co-wrote with his wife Virginia, devoted to religious issues. In 2001 the magazine ran advertisements a two-week tour of Israel and Greece, “Where Christian civilization was born”, that was to be hosted by Link Byfield and his wife Joanne. After the Report, Ted Byfield’s next project was a multi-volume history of Christianity from the days of Christ to the present. Opposition, rooted in Christianity, to the rapid social, moral, and cultural decay that has been rotting Canada and the rest of the civilization that used to be Christendom, was the basis of their editorial perspective and since their magazine paved the way for the creation of the Reform Party of Canada in 1988, this social conservatism was clearly the foundation of the New Right movement.
This is why the present Conservative government is more truthfully to be regarded as the failure of the New Right rather than its success. As the Reform Party grew from a Western regional party to a party that could potentially form the government in Ottawa it was constantly being told that its social conservatism was the baggage holding it back, preventing it from gaining the support it would need to oust the Liberals from government. As leader of the united Conservative party, Stephen Harper has refused to re-open the debates on abortion and same-sex marriage, even after that vapid twit Justin Trudeau and that creep Thomas Mulcair provided him with the perfect window of opportunity to do so last year, by declaring that anyone who did not toe the progressive party line on these issues was no longer welcome in their parties. Now, one of his own members has initiated a bill that would open the door to euthanasia in this country.
The idea that its social conservatism would have perpetually kept the New Right localized in the West as a regional protest movement is nonsense. Are the majority of Canadians outside the Western provinces – or at least in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec – really happy with unlimited abortion-on-demand, the ensuing low birth and fertility rates, dependence upon large scale immigration with no effort to assimilate the newcomers to keep up the population, high rates of illegitimacy among those children who are born, high divorce rates, and all the other rot that social conservatism objected to? That seems extremely difficult to believe. Even if that turns out to be the case, the leaders of what used to be the New Right and the Reform Party need to ask themselves whether attaining a majority government in Ottawa was worth the price of sacrificing all of the goals they hoped to accomplish in order to do so. Which is another way of asking what Jesus Christ asked two thousand years ago:
What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
(1) The Byfields transferred ownership of the magazine from their United Western Communications company to this organization for the last few months of its run. Unfortunately, when they did so they changed the name of the magazine to Citizens Centre Report, by far the least attractive sounding of the many variations on “Report” under which it had been published.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca