I was six months shy of being able to vote in the Canadian federal election of October 1993. Nevertheless, I followed the election closely having had an interest in politics for as long as I can remember. The results did not please me. The Liberal Party, for which I have never had anything but the deepest loathing received a large majority of 177 seats. The party that came in second and thus, ironically, became Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, was the Bloc Québécois, a separatist party. The socialist New Democrats were reduced to 9 seats but it was difficult to rejoice over this when the Conservatives had been reduced to 2 seats.
Although I was not old enough to vote for them I had always thought of the Conservatives as my party. Undoubtedly part of the reason for this was that my parents had supported them in 1984 and 1988. I had deeper reasons than this, however. The Conservatives were the party of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald and they were the party of John G. Diefenbaker. Then as now, I thought of Diefenbaker as the statesman who embodied all the political principles I believed in. He was a Canadian nationalist, who believed in a united Canada whose place was with the United States and the free world in the fight against Communism but not at the expense of her own identity and sovereignty, a Tory who supported our parliamentary tradition, our monarchy, and our ties to the rest of the British family of nations in the Commonwealth, and a Western, rural populist who hated the way the companies and politicians of the big Ontario and Quebec metropolises tended to think they could walk all over the other provinces and the rural communities of Canada.
Yet, despite my instinctual Toryism, when the next general election came in 1997, it was the Reform Party for which I voted and in which I had actually taken out a membership. The Reform Party had been the other big winner in 1993, after the Liberals and Bloc Québécois, having won 52 seats, just two short of tying with the Bloc. This was the part of the outcome of the 1993 election with which I was most satisfied. This was not an indication of a change in my political principles, although the title of the Reform Party would suggest a spirit of impatience for change that is the very antithesis of conservatism. It was due, rather, to the conviction that on a number of important issues the Conservative Party was no longer interested in standing for conservative principles and presenting Canadians with a real alternative to the positions of the Liberal and NDP parties. The Reform Party, on the other hand, seemed to be that alternative.
It had been founded in 1987 at a conference here in Winnipeg, but the movement that gave birth to it had been years in the making. The arrogance of the Trudeau Liberals towards Western Canada (not just to the Alberta oil industry) had generated a lot of resentment towards Ottawa in the West. The Mulroney Conservatives had not helped things when, in their efforts to solve the constitutional crisis that Trudeau had dumped in their laps, they gave every appearance of wishing to appease Quebec at the expense of the Western provinces. The Reform Party was founded as a vehicle to take to Ottawa the message that the West had had enough. This was a message that I firmly believed Ottawa needed to hear and was long overdue to receive.
What I did not realize at the time was that the grievances that had given birth to the movement that gave Western populism its own party had also transformed Western populism into something that was quite different from the Western populism I admired in Diefenbaker. In Diefenbaker, as you can read on almost every page of his three volume memoirs One Canada
or his These Things We Treasure
(the best short expression of traditional Canadian Toryism out there) his refusal to stand by and allow the urban elites of Ontario, Quebec, and Ottawa to trample over the rest of the country, especially the rural, West where he had grown up, was inseparably joined to a deep Tory love and reverence for the traditions and institutions of his country, Canada. In the Reform Party, however, Western populism was frequently wed to a thinly veiled, if veiled at all, contempt for Canada, her history, traditions, and institutions, and a desire to replace these with ones more resembling those of our republican neighbours to the south. Had I fully realized this twenty years ago, I would not have touched the Reform Party with a ten-foot pole.
I did not realize it at the time, however, and the Reform Party, under the leadership of Preston Manning, an evangelical Christian, was taking all sorts of stands that I agreed with. It was opposed to abortion, to easy divorce, to same-sex marriage (although this was barely on the radar twenty years ago) and to the basic replacement of what had been the social and moral norms throughout most of Canadian history with the values of Hollywood. It was opposed to the approach to criminal sentencing that elevates fairness to the perpetrator of a crime over justice to his victim. It opposed the long-gun registry which was an expensive and obnoxious way of appeasing feminists by harassing farmers. It rejected the absurd idea that robbing Peter to pay Paul through high taxes and ever-expanding social programs was a form of Christian charity, compassion and generosity rather than the bribing of people with their own money. It wanted lower taxes, more fiscal responsibility on the part of government, and a friendlier general atmosphere towards business and job creation.
This is what drew me to the Reform Party and I am still fundamentally in agreement with all of this today. Liberals, NDP socialists, and left-of-centre Conservatives, have all suggested that these ideas were products of the American Right, alien to traditional Canadian conservatism and imported by the Reform Party. Unfortunately, many within the Reform Party shared this idea and joined it with their obnoxious anti-Canadian, anti-patriotism. The idea is pure nonsense. There is a world of difference between the Disraelian social safety net traditionally supported by the Conservative Party in Canada and the bloated welfare state that is, ironically, itself largely an American import built up by the Canadian government following the lead of the American Democrats in the 1930s and 1960s. The idea that the Reform Party’s positions on abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and other social and moral issues were foreign to traditional Canadian conservatism is even more worthy of ridicule. Until very recently support for these positions could be found even in the centre (Liberal) and left (NDP) parties.
I let my membership in the Reform Party, or the Canadian Alliance as it had become, lapse in 2003 prior to the merger that created the current Conservative Party. The merger could have blended the best of both parties, such as the old Conservative Party’s nationalism and support for our traditions and institutions with the Reform Party’s right-wing economic and social views. I suspected it would be far more likely to blend the worst of both parties, i.e., the Conservative Party’s willingness to capitulate to the centre and the left on economic and social issues and the Reform Party’s disgusting anti-patriotism.
Perhaps that says more about my tendency towards cynicism than anything else but I find myself reflecting on all of this after reading Warren Kinsella’s column in yesterday’s Sun
entitled “Reform fades into history”. (1) Kinsella’s argument was that today, twenty years after the Reform Party became a force to be reckoned with in Canadian national politics, it is Ottawa that has changed the Reformers and not the other way around. Kinsella pointed to several old Reform Party positions on which their heirs in the current Conservative Party appear to have flip-flopped. I will only comment on two of them.
The first thing Kinsella mentions is that the Reformers “arrived opposing gay rights” and today “are indifferent to, or supportive of, gay rights.” Kinsella’s choice of words does not quite do justice to the change he is referring to. The phrase “gay rights” could suggest the idea that homosexuals have the same legal protection of their lives and property and the same rights to legal counsel, a trial before a jury of their peers, etc. as heterosexuals. The Reform Party was never opposed to this, however. It could also mean something like the right to engage in consensual sexual intercourse with another adult member of one’s own sex in privacy behind closed doors. This too, doesn’t quite fit the discussion. Homosexuality had already been decriminalized by the time the Reform Party was founded and while one or two Reformers might have had the idea that it ought to be recriminalized this was never part of the party’s policy and platform. What the Reform Party did oppose, and presumably this is what Kinsella meant by “gay rights”, was the addition of “sexual orientation” to the prohibited bases of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act and changing the legal definition of marriage so that a man could “marry” a man, and a woman could “marry” a woman.
Twenty years ago, when the governing Liberal Party declared its support for adding sexual orientation to the CHRA and redefining marriage it assured us that the rights of other Canadians, particularly religious Canadians, would not be adversely affected because these rights were already recognized in Canadian law. These assurances were pure boloney. The courts, both the kangaroo “human rights” tribunals and the real courts, have taken the position that to protect homosexuals against discrimination Christians must either do things that violate the ancient teachings of their religion or face heavy fines and/or the loss of their businesses and livelihood. The Reform Party saw this coming twenty years ago. The fact that their successors seem to have backed down on the matter is not to their credit.
A few paragraphs into his column, Kinsella referred to the “Blue Book”, i.e., the Reform Party’s official policy book, and says that it “declared the Reformers opposed anything that would ‘alter the ethnic makeup of Canada.’” This, Kinsella told us, means that they “wanted to keep Canada as white as possible. It was indisputably racist.”
Indisputably? Not exactly. What the Blue Book actually declared the Reform Party to be opposed to was “any immigration based on race or creed or designed to radically or suddenly alter the ethnic makeup of Canada”. One does not have to dislike people of other races or even just the people of any particular race to see that massive, large scale, and quick demographic change is seldom if ever good for a country. Furthermore, immigration policy that is purposefully designed to bring about such change is indicative of a government that holds its own people in utter contempt.
The Liberal Party brought in just such an immigration policy early in the premiership of Pierre Trudeau. No subsequent government has reversed that policy – Mulroney’s Conservatives, if anything, made it worse – in part because the Liberals accused anybody who opposed the policy of being a bigot. They particularly liked to accuse rural Canadians and Western Canadians of being ignorant, uneducated, racists which helped fan the flames of resentment in the West against the arrogance of the Liberal Party and their support base in Ontario and Quebec. This, as we have seen, led to the creation of the Reform Party and the Reformers were right to declare their opposition to a policy that treated Canadians with such disrespect.
Kinsella claimed that this policy attracted “Nazi” support to the Reform Party and then gave himself a big verbal pat on the back for the help he gave Tom Flanagan and Stephen Harper in purging the party of these. Whatever amount of truth there may be to this story, and, no matter how many books on the subject he may write, I am not inclined to put any stock in Warren Kinsella’s accusations that so-and-so is a Nazi, he is certainly right that the current Conservative Party of Stephen Harper has jettisoned the Reform Party’s original position on immigration and adopted one virtually indistinguishable from that of the Liberal Party and NDP.
Judge for yourself, but I think that Kinsella has pretty much proven my cynical assessment, ten years ago, of what the outcome of the merger would be, to be justified.