True North Patriotism and a Distinctly Canadian Conservatism

Conservatives sometimes seem like they don’t really like Canada all that much. This anti-nationalism is a serious roadblock to building a viable national conservatism. But there's an alternative.

This is a long newsletter, I decided to just release it as one and not two separate ones but perhaps read it in parts. I’ve been planning on writing this for a while, but I’ve never had a good opportunity to actually sit down and write it. The argument I’m making here is perfect for a newsletter, because it’s something I’m still working on and fleshing out, so at times it’s going to feel somewhat unfinished and that’s because it is. 

During thanksgiving I found myself, unexpectedly, on a train and in a hospital for much of the weekend, which gave me the opportunity to finally read a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while but have never gotten around to doing so. This book, I’m sure familiar to many of you, is The Patriot Game, by Peter Brimelow.

It’s a fascinating book, and one of the most influential political books on the Canadian right in the last 50 years. But the reason reading it was the impetus for finally writing this piece was because it crystallizes what I think are some of the unique challenges facing conservatism in Canada. 

Canadian conservatism often suffers from a unique form of self-loathing. While this is at times understandable, it too often becomes an anti-nationalist ideology of self-loathing that is deeply unappealing to many Canadians. But if we look at why Canadian conservatism has this self-loathing streak, it offers some important insights into our national identity and how it might be reimagined. In short, conservatism needs to embrace a new kind of Canadianism.

Peter Brimelow and The Patriot Game 

Published in 1986, The Patriot Game captures the ideas and sentiment of an entire generation of Canadian conservatism. One quick note on Brimelow. He’s a controversial figure and has been called a “leader within the alt-right.” He’s also the founder of VDARE, an American anti-immigration website. I’m not getting into a back and forth with anyone about how best to describe his views, I’ll just say that none of this means his older work like The Patriot Game should be discounted or ignored, especially given the influence it’s had. 

The game Brimelow is describing is the manufacturing of a new national identity that was undertaken by what he terms “Canada's New Class.” This is a term he borrows from Irving Kristol. It refers to Canada's politicians, civil servants, academics, business elites, writers, and journalists, who have a disproportionate influence shaping public discourse and national consciousness.

The manufacturing of a new national identity by this class, centred on the Liberal Party, was one that both rejected our heritage and replaced it with a self-serving and contradictory ideology that serves the interests of this New Class. The strategy of the Canadian New Class throughout Canada’s history has been “to concentrate rents from a resource-based economy in Central Canadian hands.” 

The nationalism they manufactured to do this was an entirely artificial one, built around multiculturalism, bilingualism, anti-Americanism and heavy federal government involvement in the economy. At its core Brimelow's argument is that 20th-century Canada is the creation of the Liberal party, but ultimately that it is fake and built to serve the interests of the New Class. This was done especially by placating Quebec at the expense of the West, and attempting to construct a new national identity that could unite English and French Canada.

This game played by Canada's elite to enrich them and their bases of support in places like Quebec not only took money from the West and transferred it elsewhere, it dragged down the Canadian economy by crippling it in overbearing and burdensome regulation and the heavy hand of government involvement. 

The most interesting, and clarifying part of the book to me is Brimelow’s description of the identity and nationalism that he thinks the Liberals consciously destroyed and then replaced with their own. Brimelow thinks that the New Class are consciously and actively anti-British, not just anti-American, and that this new identity was built as both a rejection of British heritage and the cultural affinities English Canada has with “North American identity.” 

According to Brimelow “All of Anglophone Canada is essentially part of a greater English-speaking North American nation...Canada is a sectional variation within this super nation.” Our British heritage is at the core of who we are along with our common Anglo affinities with Americans, and this new national project is doomed to failure. Brimelow suggests that "Canada's fundamental contradictions cannot be resolved in the present Confederation" and while English Canada is currently in a strange period of identity agnosticism, it will eventually recover and “assert its North American identity.” This process will only be accelerated by regional tensions within Canada that expose the futility of this new Liberal national identity. Modern Canada, in short, is a fraud and doomed to failure. 

The Influence of The Patriot Game

If you float in Canadian conservative circles and discourse the book should seem extremely familiar. It’s the narrative and script that has defined a generation of conservatives here in one form or another, and the success of the book was at least partially because it expressed sentiments already felt in places like Western Canada. It’s influence on none other than Stephen Harper himself is quite well known. Here’s a clip from a Maclean’s piece

“Among the young conservatives who fastened on The Patriot Game was Stephen Harper, who had quit the Tories the year the book appeared to join Preston Manning’s Reformers. In Stephen Harper and The Future of Canada, William Johnson quotes Harper’s friend John Weissenberger on how the two of them persuaded a book store in Calgary to sell them ten copies at a discount so they could give extras to friends. No other book seems to have grabbed the future Prime Minister quite the same way...It seemed to give shape to the thinking of Canadian conservatives who would, with Harper, rise to run the country.”

The Patriot Game captures a unique characteristic, and problem, with Canadian conservatism. Lots of Canadian conservatives really don’t like Canada all that much. Brimelow is right to suggest that the contemporary Canadian identity is very much a creation of the Liberals and the New Class, and this isn’t one that conservatives feel all that comfortable with. What this has done is create a powerful anti-Canadian impulse in portions of the conservative movement.

Because the Liberals were so successful in creating this new identity, conservatives, especially Western conservatives (understandably) felt alienated in this new Canada. Brimelow gave some intellectual heft and crafted a coherent theory around why conservatives felt this way. 

The broader narrative Brimelow, and others, put forward is that Canada’s British heritage was central to our identity and sense of who we are, but that this identity was destroyed by the Liberals who then built a new one in their own image. In the 1960s, Canadian Liberalism became self-consciously post-British, and the 1960s really do represent an approximate decade in which the “old Canada” died and a “new Canada” was born. The 1960s weren’t just a time of social change, they marked the end of the British Empire, the start of the Quiet Revolution, and of course most symbolically saw the replacement of the Red Ensign with the Maple Leaf flag. The battles between Diefenbaker and Pearson (and Pierre Trudeau) work as a stand in for the divide between old British Canada and new Liberal Canada. 

But while contemporary Canadian nationalism did displace the Britishness of the old Dominion, the full story of what happened is complicated (more on this another time). This narrative in which the old Canada died and the Liberals replaced it with their own nation is one that is accepted by both sides. Liberals of course love to tell this story. They created a new Canada built around things like multiculturalism and bilingualism, they repatriated the Constitution and entrenched a Charter both securing our sovereignty and our rights and freedoms. Of course the Liberals are happy with this myth, it makes them the founders and owners of Canada. And politically it makes them the natural governing party. 

But the people who are dissatisfied with this new Canada also implicitly accept this narrative. The context in which The Patriot Game was written matters. Back then, when the old Progressive Conservatives were still dominant and Reform was a nascent party, it seemed as if there was no alternative to this new regime. The old PC’s contained elements of old Dominion hold outs, but by and large it had come to accept the tenets of the new identity established by the Liberals. The Patriot Game was published in 1986, the Reform Party was founded in 1987. The book wasn’t responsible for Reform, but the timing isn’t coincidental. 

The split between Reform and the PCs imperfectly maps on to the split within conservatism more broadly. The Reform side rejects and is skeptical of large parts of the new regime, crystallized after 1982, and the PCs were broadly supportive of it and accepted it. Another book review captures this divide: 

“Brimelow is particularly troubled by the absence of an alternative to the dominant Liberal perspective in Canada because, to him, the Progressive Conservative Party is nothing but a pale imitation of the Liberals. For example, Mulroney’s preoccupation with the English-French dispute, and the huge political weight he granted to Quebec, was the purest expression of Liberal hegemony. Mulroney, claims Brimelow, was “trying to steal Trudeau’s formula and govern Canada from a Quebec base in alliance with the Anglophone centre-left.”

It would be wrong to read the emergence of Reform as a counter-revolutionary movement attempting to resurrect the old Canada. Implicit in Reform’s emergence and ideological growth wasn’t just an acceptance of the new regime (by defining itself in opposition to it), it was also an acceptance that the old Canada was gone. And in this new Canada the West especially was still unjustly treated as a peripheral colony, not an equal partner. There isn’t space to detail the constitutional developments and debates that took place around Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord, but as Reform gradually became the dominant force within Canadian conservatism and the centre of conservative gravity shifted westward this implicitly anti-national conservatism became stronger. 

Anti-Nationalist Conservatism 

This anti-national conservatism wasn’t non-ideological. A rejection of the new Canada, especially the largesse and overreach of the federal government into economic matters, was the perfect match for importing the new kind of libertarian-infused conservatism that became dominant in the 1980s with figures like Reagan and Thatcher. “Small government” conservatism provided a solid ideological foundation on which to build a new kind of conservatism to oppose aspects of the new regime, and it was also one that didn’t require nostalgizing for the old Dominion. 

This small government conservatism wasn’t a homegrown ideology, it was adopted and imported from elsewhere. America especially. The dominant paradigm in postwar American conservatism became the fusionism that was associated with publications like National Review, and eventually became a dominant political force in Ronald Reagan. The success of this fusionism also made it appealing, and ready-made, to be imported to Canada and fused with this rejection of big government Liberal nationalism. In the process, Canadian conservatism begins to sound more American.

I’m not using this pejoratively and I don’t see this so much as a form of cultural imperialism. The adoption of this kind of conservatism made sense in response to the new Liberal nationalism. But it does present some serious problems for Canadian conservatism. This anti-nationalism and small government conservatism will appeal to some, especially in the West, but it’s not something that a national movement could be forged around.

This is what I mean when I say lots of conservatives don’t like Canada all that much. In adopting small government American conservatism, this kind of conservatism sounds like an American critique of Canada. Canadian healthcare looks “socialist” to American conservatives, and small government ideologues in America look at Canada and see big government “Soviet Canuckistan.” This is what Canadian conservatives adopting this kind of ideology sometimes sound like, and you can see why this has limited electoral appeal. 

In 1997 Stephen Harper gave a speech in Montreal to a conference of the right-wing U.S. Council for National Policy when he was vice president of the National Citizens Coalition in which he said “Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it.” It’s just one little passage from a big speech that’s got lots of interesting thoughts and ideas, but it perfectly epitomizes the way that this new kind of conservatism sounds like American conservatism imported here. This one line dogged Harper and would frequently get used a sort of gotcha attack after Harper’s return to parliament and during his tenure as prime minister. Silly as this was, the Liberals for a long time owned the flag and became the national party by attacking stuff like this.

The Patriotic Harper Blueprint

The merger of Reform and the old PC rump made Reform-style conservatism the dominant force within Canadian conservatism. Recall that for Brimelow the Liberal national project was doomed to failure because it attempted to graft a national identity onto a nation that didn’t really exist. It would eventually collapse under its own contradictions, and English Canada would discover its natural “North American” affinities.

If you interpret and view English Canada this way, having an American-style conservatism wouldn’t be an issue because of the common cultural identities in English Canadians and Americans. This is also how Brimelow is able to offer a sort of unified theory. Yes he rejects the Canadian nation as a coherent or unifying concept, and while he laments our suppressed Britishness, he doesn’t think the solution is to go back so much as it should be to embrace our North American identity. Canada isn’t the future, North America is. 

The problem is that as much as Canadian nationalism is a muddled and confused nationalism and at times incoherent identity, it’s still a powerful political force. Canadians may be unsure of who they are, but they know that they aren’t American. Yes we share similarities with America, but most Canadians absolutely do not want to just become, or be seen as Americans. Canadian patriotism and nationalism may just be largely about what we are not, but it’s still an extremely potent and active political force and shows no signs of waning. 

And herein is the challenge that I think lies at the heart of what holds conservatism back nationally in Canada. Even as regional alienation and divides grow stronger, I don’t believe this alternative North American identity is (or could be) an alternative for anything beyond a tiny number of Canadians. Anti-Americanism in Canada is often crass and vulgar, but it’s powerful. A conservatism that sounds like it’s rejecting Canada and imports American-style conservatism is always going to sound foreign and unappealing to most Canadians. 

I happen to think that Harper, perhaps the shrewdest political mind of his generation, realized this. The influence of The Patriot Game on Harper is well documented, but if you pay close attention to Harper’s own development, you can see how Harper actively attempts to become a national leader and embraces a certain idea of Canada. Harper gained a reputation for dressing in Canada garb, he’d end speeches with “God Bless Canada,” and the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver represented a kind of crowning moment for Harper’s confident patriotism. In a speech given to the BC legislature on the eve of the Winter Olympics the Globe and Mail claimed that “the subtext of his speech was that Canada is a confident country now, and ready to "stand on guard for itself."

This wasn’t just rhetorical, Harper’s conservatism made a serious effort to begin reclaiming our national identity. This was about actively championing a different version and story of Canada, one that went beyond the mythologizing of the Liberal national project. Harper wasn’t the only mind behind this, two of the most important champions of this in the Harper government were Jason Kenney and senior adviser Chris Champion. 

The Conservatives emphasized our historic symbols and institutions like the monarchy, take a look for example at the changes they made to the citizenship guide. They restored the “Royal” prefix to the Navy and Air Force. They put serious effort and resources into celebrating Canadian history such as during the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812. This was a conscious effort to challenge the monopolistic control the Liberals have had over our national identity. More importantly, it was an active effort to not just to reject this narrative but to offer a distinctly Canadian alternative as well. I think this gets at why Canada’s Laurentian class hates Harper so much. 

I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that in 2011, the only time Conservatives have managed to win a federal majority in the last three plus decades, they ran one of the most effective campaigns in recent memory against Michael “just visiting” Ignatieff by waging a patriotic campaign against him. In Ignatieff the Conservatives had the perfect rival to attack; a patrician member of the Laurentian new class. But the campaign against Ignatieff wasn’t just effective because it successfully portrayed him as an elite, it was effective because in attacking the time Ignatieff had spent abroard and at Harvard especially, they actually managed to make the Conservatives the champions of Canada, and the Liberals the more American party.  

Reimagining our History and our Future 

The future of conservatism in Canada can build off Harper’s roadmap. An alternative is needed that embraces Canada, and doesn’t reject it. It cannot simply be about rejecting Liberal mythology, and it also equally cannot nostalgize for an old Canada that is gone. What is needed is something else. 

The book that has most influenced me on this and I highly recommend, is Chris Champion’s The Strange Demise of British Canada. Champion’s argument is that the new liberal nationalism manufactured by Pearson and others was itself a product of and ended up perpetuating Britishness, and didn’t just kill it. The book develops a complex and lucid account of what Britishness actually meant, and Champion shows how Canadian Britishness “has always been more fluid, a home-grown “cluster of identities” shaped by the intersection of factors like ethnicity, education, religion, and class.” There was undoubtedly an ethnic component to this Britishness in the early days of Confederation. But in the postwar era both defenders of the older form of nationalism and the newer Liberal version tried not to marginalize and to foster attachments of Canadians from other ethnic backgrounds. 

Britishness survives as civic nationalism. Old British Canada may be gone, but aspects of that Britishness live on. We should celebrate our history and our historic symbols, but this alternative shouldn’t set about restoring it all. A future oriented embrace of our history needs to be built around the active parts of this Britishness that have now become truly Canadian. For example, the Crown in Canada is not now just a British institution, it’s a Canadian institution. Same with our democratic institutions and parliamentary traditions, which we must work to strengthen and renew. 

Embracing this enables us to thread the needle on our relationship with America. Part of what makes us different historically, culturally, ideationally, and in disposition from America, is this history. Just as Canadian Britishness has survived to the present day in unique ways, our desire not to become Americans is alive and well. A homegrown Canadian Britishness enables us to continue this without falling into crass anti-Americanism, and without requiring us to embrace the new Liberal nationalism to reject America. We should see America as an amicable cousin, but one that we are distinct and different from. 

But most importantly, what this new kind of national identity needs to build around needs to be an evolution of the liberal nationalism that emphasizes and consciously builds around our regional pluralism. I’m going to do a newsletter on this soon but the kind of rationalistic liberalism that our modern national identity is built around, while sold as a way of dealing with diversity, suffers from some serious internal tensions. Liberalism, especially the Canadian variant of it, implicitly depends upon and encourages a degree of homogenization that flattens hard cultural differences. We need to become more pluralistic, and less liberal. 

I hinted at what I think the future of Canada looks like in this essay. Canada has always been a regional country, but those regional differences and distinctive identities are growing, not shrinking. I actually think this is a great thing. Canada is not just English Canada and French Canada. Canada is not just Eastern and Western Canada. Canada is also not just a collection of provinces. The regional and local identities that are growing in Canada are asymmetric and overlapping, and take place in distinct and different ways across the country. 

It’s not just provincial and regional identities that are growing, it’s localized identities that don’t necessarily fit traditional territorial boundaries as well. These identities are going to require an evolution in both our institutions, and our self-understanding. Indigenous identities and groups are a great example of this, and dealing with this requires new models and forms of self-governance beyond how we generally understand decentralization and the division of powers.

The flourishing and growth of these various groups and dynamics should be celebrated, but it’s also going to create tensions. Differences in values, cultural norms, legal customs, and so on, create tensions. The liberal and universalistic values that our modern identity is built around often come into tension with these particularistic values and identities, and as these particularistic identities grow these tensions will grow. 

I’m being somewhat vague about what I mean by this because I’m saving it for another essay. Let me just summarize by saying that Canada’s future identity should move away from an overarching liberal and homogenizing identity, and actively attempt to refashion itself around an active embrace of regional and local differences and distinctions.

What all this looks like is a future-oriented patriotism that builds on our traditions and cultural pluralism. A confederation of overlapping and distinct regions held together by a distinctive Canadianness that embraces instead of rewriting or ignoring our past. Canada is changing, and as regional dynamics and demographics change Canada is going to have to adapt if it is to survive. This is a challenge, but it’s also an immense opportunity to build and imagine a new kind of national identity and patriotism that builds on the realities and future of our country. A True North patriotism.