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Political culture of Canada

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Title: Political culture of Canada  
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Political culture of Canada

This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of

The political culture of Canada is in some ways part of a greater North American and European political culture, which emphasizes constitutional law, freedom of religion, personal liberty, and regional autonomy; these ideas stemming in various degrees from the British common law and French civil law traditions, North American aboriginal government, and English civic traditions, among others.

Peace, order, and good government are the stated goals of the Canadian government. These words reveal much about the history of Canadian political culture. There is a strong tradition of loyalty, compromise and tolerance in Canadian political culture. In general, Canadian politics have not operated through revolutionary, swift changes. Instead, change is typically slow and worked out through compromise between interest groups, regional consultations, and the government of the day.

Canada also has a tradition of liberalism. Individual rights have risen to the forefront of political and legal importance for most Canadians, as demonstrated through support for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a relatively free economy, and social liberal attitudes toward homosexuality, women's rights, and other egalitarian movements. However, there is also a sense of collective responsibility in Canadian political culture, as is demonstrated in general support for universal health care, gun control, foreign aid, and other social programs.


  • Political cleavages 1
  • Relationship with the United States 2
  • Further reading 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5

Political cleavages

When analyzing Canadian political parties and leaders, federal-provincial, French-English, and Canada-US relations are important, therefore, a simple Left-Right spectrum based on only one criterion can be misleading. Also of increasing importance in recent polls is concern for the environment. In the main, only the parties that have consistently elected MPs can be discussed in detail, although the increasing strength of the Green Party of Canada, which won its first seat in the 2011 federal election, bears mentioning.

In terms of economic policy, the Conservatives are the least interventionist of the major parties, the Liberals slightly more so, and the New Democrats substantially more interventionist. However, in the 19th Century, the Liberal Party stood for British classical liberalism and free trade, and the Conservatives, especially the Red Tories, for protectionism. In the 20th century, however, the Liberal Party adopted more elements of European reform liberalism and co-opted elements of the social-democratic Progressive Party of Canada, and Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.

In the 1990s, the Liberals shifted back to a more neoliberal position on the economy and trade, but as the other parties moved as well, this did not result in a change in position on the spectrum. Within the Reform Party of Canada there was an element of anti-market populism but this faded as the Reform Party became more associated with US-style conservatism. The NDP have retained many of the socialist tendencies of the former CCF and remain to the left of some other social democratic parties in the Western world, such as Britain’s Labour Party.

The Bloc Québécois do not place a strong emphasis on economic policy, as the party's sole purpose has to do with issues of Quebec's place in Canada, but it is broadly social democratic.

In term of the pace of change, the Conservatives are, as their name implies, conservative, the Liberals and NDP tend towards the more progressive, and the BQ are radical, favouring Quebec's withdrawal from the Canadian state and society.

In regard to federal-provincial relations it can said that BQ are separatist, the Conservatives decentralist, the Liberals status-quo, and the NDP supporters of asymmetric federalism.[1] The NDP and BQ are allies on economic matters but completely opposite in terms of issues of federalism. Historically, the Liberals were the party of provincial rights, and the Conservatives for centralization, but that switched in the 20th century.

With regards to issues of diversity (bilingualism and multiculturalism), the Conservatives tend to be more majoritarian, favouring a reduced scope for official bilingualism and a more assimilationist approach to immigrants and Native peoples. The Liberals and NDP are more pluralistic including generous government support for minority cultures, while the BQ favour viewing Canada as two separate societies (English Canada and Quebec), and advocate strong protections for French language and culture in Quebec while remaining unconcerned about issues with other minorities or in other parts of the country.

As pertains to relations with the United States, currently the Conservative Party advocates close relations, the NDP is more skeptical of American power, and the Liberals in between. The BQ hopes to create an independent Quebec state that will set its own policy on foreign relations, separate from those of Canada. The policies of the two main parties are exactly the reverse of 19th century, when the Conservatives were a party of protectionism and the Liberals favoured free trade with the US.

The historical position of the parties on those issues is closely related to two other historical cleavages in Canada, religion and empire. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, English Canada remained strongly committed to the British Empire and Protestantism. French Canada was more anti-imperialist and strongly Catholic. Attempting to form stable parties that could win seats in both areas was a daunting task and led to political deadlock in the Province of Canada before Confederation.

During the era of Confederation, British-style Whig liberals from Canada West, the Clear Grits and Reformers, attempted to work with the anti-clerical minority in Canada East, the Parti rouge, and liberals in the Maritimes to form the Liberal Party. The avowedly anti-democratic Tories of the English colonies attempted to create a coalition with conservative Catholics in Canada East, the Parti bleu.

Keeping these diverse coalitions united remained difficult when interests cut across party lines, and instead inflamed sectional feeling. The first such issues were the two Riel Rebellions of 1869 and 1885 which hardened Catholic–Protestant animosity. The Tory government of Sir John A. Macdonald, himself an Orangeman, eventually oversaw the execution of Metis leader Louis Riel (a devout Catholic) for treason. The Tory party was decimated in Quebec, and the Liberal party everywhere else.

Eventually, Sir Wilfrid Laurier was able to lead the Liberals back to a competitive position in English Canada, but by the time of the First World War, and the Conscription Crisis of 1917, Laurier again found himself in charge of a Liberal Party limited to Quebec and a few other pockets. In part because of the memories of these eras, the Tory party gained a reputation as being anti-Catholic and anti-French and remained substantially weaker than the Liberals in Quebec from the 1890s to the 1980s, with the lone exception of 1958. Meanwhile, Laurier’s Liberals were accused of not supporting Britain forcefully enough during the Boer War and with the creation of the Canadian Navy, widely disparaged as a Tin Pot Navy, which hurt his party in Anglo-Saxon Ontario.

Since that time, sectarianism has faded substantially as an issue in Canada, and relations with Britain are no longer of nearly the same importance. Instead, the debate over the future of Quebec and relations with the United States are powerful issues.

Relationship with the United States

Canada and the United States are both nations with their own unique heritages and cultures stemming back for centuries, but the two countries also share many similarities which have generally strengthened relations. Canada's relationship with the U.S. has usually been a dominant focus of Canada's foreign affairs. Various Prime Ministers such as Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Robert Borden, John Diefenbaker, and Pierre Trudeau have attempted to reasonably distance Canada from the United States to focus on self-sufficiency while maintaining good relations, while other Prime Ministers such as Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Louis St. Laurent, and Brian Mulroney attempted to integrate with the Americans on an economic level and strived for close political relations hoping to enlarge markets. Both courses have had their benefits and downfalls and the Canadian people have usually been cautious of too much integration with the United States, and on the other hand equally as cautious of creating poor relations.

The goal for most successful governments has been to try to preserve Canadian independence and some level of self-sufficiency, while working on maintaining friendly relations and mutually beneficial trade.

Trade has generally stood as being one of the most controversial and difficult of all of the issues between Canada and the United States. There have been three major trading policies aimed at the United States which have been implemented by Canadian governments. The National Policy of Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald placed high tariffs on US goods and was very successful in building Canada's manufacturing industry. The National Policy remained in effect to one degree or another for over a century, and saw Canada transformed from a poor colony prior to 1867 into one of the world's wealthiest nations by the 20th century. The National Policy enjoyed strong support among Canadian nationalists who wanted to ensure that Canada would never become "subservient" to the United States, and originally it was supported by big businesses who feared US competition. However much later big business would begin seeking larger markets and would become opposed to economic nationalism and would come out supporting free trade, leaving support for economic protectionism mainly made up of small businesses, trade unions and nationalists.

The National Policy was followed by a policy of "freer trade" which was slowly implemented by Liberal Party Prime Ministers, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent and Lester Pearson. "Freer trade" was not free trade in any way, shape or form. Instead it meant the reduction of taxation on US goods. In 1988 Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney broke with his party's economic nationalist tradition and negotiated the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States, which led to North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. This new agreement allowed the US complete access to the Canadian market while at the same time retaining the right to block Canadian access to the US markets at any time. There were benefits, but also problems. Many Canadian manufacturers claimed that it was difficult to compete with larger US companies which were able to charge less for their products.

Many Canadians were and still are worried about the threats which certain sections of NAFTA are believed to pose to Canada's environment and cultural institutions. A short example would be the provisions which make it impossible to stop selling a product once a nation has begun selling it, if the Canadian government gives in to demands by US companies to sell water from the Great Lakes or lumber from protected crown lands, then the government according to the agreement will not be able to stop those companies from purchasing as much water from the Great Lakes (or other lakes and rivers) or trees from protected lands as they please.

There are many pros and cons to the agreement, and the debate over it highlights some of the insecurities and fears surrounding Canada-U.S. relations. On the other hand supporters claim that the agreement has created hundreds of thousands of jobs in Canada, while opponents point to a weaker Canadian dollar and a stronger U.S. dollar being behind job creation. Regardless of whether it is beneficial or harmful Canada can back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement at any time it wishes to do so with 6 months' notice.

Trade with the US is not the only issue which has created controversy. Differing opinions on US wars such as the Vietnam war or the war in Iraq, as well as US opposition to past wars in which Canada has been involved such as World War I and World War II, both of which the U.S. originally opposed itself have also created difficulties. As well, there is the perennially recurring issue of Ballistic Missile Defence, a controversial American system which most Canadians do not want to see Canada involved with.

Further reading

  • Stewart, Gordon T. The Origins of Canadian Politics : a Comparative Approach. Vancouver : University of British Columbia Press, 1986. ISBN 0-7748-0260-X.
  • Dyck, Rand. Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches.

See also


  1. ^
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