The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Mel Hurtig and Canadian Patriotism and Nationalism

I was sorry to read, a couple of days ago, about the death of Mel Hurtig. Hurtig, who was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, started out as a bookseller, then moved into the book publishing business. The Canadian Encyclopedia, which he originally published in three hardcover volumes in 1985, is undoubtedly the work for which he will be most remembered, although he went on to write several books himself after he sold his publishing company in 1992.

While Hurtig was a man with whose overall views – very progressive and left-wing – I largely and vehemently disagreed, I did agree with him on the issue which was most important to him, the theme that ran through all of his books and which was the basis of his electoral campaign in the 1993 federal election as the leader of the short-lived National Party. That was the election that saw the Progressive Conservatives, which had formed the government since winning a large majority in 1984, decimated, and the Liberals returned to power. The Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney, in betrayal of their own party’s traditional economic nationalism, had negotiated the US-Canada Free Trade deal with the American government in 1988, and Chretien’s Liberals, true to their own history as the party of continentalism and free trade, negotiated its expansion into NAFTA in 1994. Hurtig believed that this would lead inevitably to Canada’s economic, cultural, and political subjugation to and eventually absorption into the United States of America, a destiny he opposed with his whole heart and fought with the weapon in the use of which he was most skilled, that which is proverbially stronger than the sword, his pen.

On this matter – both that free trade would lead to Canada’s absorption into the United States, informally at least, if not formally – and that this is an outcome to be lamented and opposed – I fully agreed – and agree – with Hurtig. Having said that, I would like to make a comparison with an earlier generation of Canadian patriots who were concerned about the disappearance of the country they loved.

Hurtig’s fears that Canada was being pulled closer and closer into the American empire, expressed in such books as The Betrayal of Canada (1991) and The Vanishing Country (2002), were anticipated in 1965, by Lament For a Nation, by Canadian philosopher George Parkin Grant. The premise of Grant’s book was that the fall of the Diefenbaker government in 1963, in a Parliamentary confidence vote in which the Liberals, NDP, and Social Credit united against Diefenbaker on the matter of his refusal to allow Washington D. C. to dictate Canadian policy in the matter of the arming of the Bomarc missiles, spelled the end of a Canada that was sovereign and independent of American control. This, Grant argued, was to be lamented because the Canadian project – the establishment in North America of a country which, by retaining the British tradition that the United States had rejected in her Revolution as well as preserving the French Catholic tradition in Quebec, preserved links to the pre-modern heritage of Christendom and classical antiquity that the thoroughly modern, liberal, tradition of the United States did not – was a worthy project, something good to be treasured in itself.

The Canada that George Grant loved and lamented, in other words, was a different country from the Canada that Mel Hurtig loved and fought for. Grant, despite his irritating partial sympathy for ideas and movements that any intelligent person ought to be able to recognize as pure evil masquerading as naïve stupidity – socialism, pacifism, and feminism – was a conservative, and the Canada he loved was the Dominion of Canada, a Christian parliamentary monarchy, with a rural, small-town, society, and a Victorian morality.

John Diefenbaker, the Conservative Prime Minister whose defeat prompted the writing of Grant’s book, was also concerned about the future of the country he loved, which concerns were expressed both in These Things We Treasure (1972) and his three volume memoir One Canada, (1975) especially the third volume. In Diefenbaker’s case, the threat to Canada came not from the United States, but from Canadian Nationalists in the Liberal Party. These seemed determined to strip Canada of her heritage and replace it with one of their own manufacture, as when they replaced the Red Ensign, which had been baptized Canada’s flag in the blood of the soldiers who fought under it in World War II, against which move Diefenbaker led the Opposition in Parliament. It was more than just the replacement of symbols, however. Diefenbaker feared that the nationalists, in their contempt for the British heritage that is the source of our parliamentary monarchy and Common Law rights and freedoms, were undermining both the Crown and Parliament and moving Canada towards a dictatorship of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. These same concerns had been expressed about an earlier generation of Liberal nationalists, by John Farthing in his Freedom Wears a Crown, edited by Judith Robinson and published posthumously in 1957. History has proven these concerns to be well justified.

Mel Hurtig, who ran for the Liberals in Edmonton in the 1972 election, was a Trudeau Liberal. The Canada he loved was the New Canada, the result of the revolution-within-the-form carried out the by the Liberals under the leadership of Soviet dupes and traitors Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau in the 1960s and 1970s. The nationalists of the New Canada seem to think that by taking all the bad ideas of the American Hollywood Left to their absurd extremes and rebranding them as “Canadian values” they are somehow promoting a Canadian identity that is distinct and independent from the United States. To a Tory patriot like myself, it seems that the way to accomplish that goal is by rediscovering the heritage of the Old Canada, the Canada that appears in the novels of Mazo de la Roche and Robertson Davies, and which survives to a certain extent, mostly in our rural communities.

The goal itself, however, is one that both the patriots of the Old Canada and the nationalists of the New share against those who wish to see Canada further integrated into a new, America-dominated, global order, and for his faithfulness to that goal, Mel Hurtig well deserves to be honoured. May he rest in peace.

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