Whither Canadian Liberalism?
Currently, though, as seen through the rose lenses of liberals all over the world, Canada is flying high. Notions of a country running on legal marijuana and free-flowing alcohol have fuelled an international image that is undeniably liberal. Canada is also progressing towards the legalization of gay marriage, placing it in the same league as countries such as Belgium and Denmark. Especially in the eyes of many college students, Canada, as a country, is close to ideal. It is no surprise, then, that Canada’s former Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, has won accolades from progressives across the globe. Within Canada itself, however, liberalism is facing severe challenges, mainly due to the past mistakes of Mr. Chretien himself. Pay attention to Canadian politics: what Canada represents may be about to change.
Jean Chretien’s political party, the Liberal Party of Canada, is currently under attack for what has become known as the “Sponsorship Scandal.” In 1995, one of Canada’s more “distinct” provinces, Quebec, thought it might like to leave the country. Though this did not ultimately happen, Chretien’s Liberal government felt it was important to promote Canada, and all its maple-leaf greatness, to Quebec through a massive advertising campaign. To this end, the government paid a number of advertising firms to advertise the wonders of Canada in the francophone province, by sponsoring events and by placing—seemingly randomly—conspicuous Canadian flags all over Quebec. The problem: most of the money for this pro-Canadian publicity blitz went to friends of the Liberal party. As a result, Québecois are today far from convinced that Canada is amazing, and many people from other provinces have begun to express similar doubts. Because the Liberals currently hold just a minority government in Canada’s House of Commons, they now risk losing their precarious grip on power should anger over the Sponsorship Scandal become too great. This is where the greatest threat to Canadian liberalism lies.
This internal turmoil has escaped notice outside of Canada’s borders. This weekend Chretien will be honored as an “International Role Model” by an American organization that works to educate against homophobia. Dan Wagner ’03-‘05, a Crimson editor who currently works for the Pennsylvania Equality Forum, which is to present the award to Chretien, praises the former leader for his “defining role in gay and lesbian civil rights.” Wagner says the Equality Forum chose Chretien to receive the award because he “reminded Canadians of the importance of individual rights under the Charter [Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms] as well as the separation of church and state.” In the eyes of the Equality Forum, Chretien and Canada truly are leaders in the realm of gay rights.
When asked about the current scandal surrounding Chretien and his party, Wagner replied that the decision of the Equality Forum to honor Chretien was “not political” but simply sought to commend “someone who’s done something good for our cause.”
What is scary, though, is that while Wagner feels that honoring Chretien is “not political,” gay marriage is a very political issue in Canada. Despite its seemingly progressive appearance, Canada seems about to slip into more Conservative tendencies. The Sponsorship Scandal, one of the legacies of our “International Role Model,” Chretien, seeks to threaten not only the Canadian Liberal Party, but also the idea of what it means to be Canadian. The scandal threatens to remove the Liberals from government and to replace them with the increasingly popular Conservative party. Its leader, Stephen Harper, states that he “supports the traditional definition of marriage.” Should the Conservatives come to power, marriage equality will be threatened, marijuana will remain illicit, and Canada’s liberal image will slowly dissolve.
To a Canadian, it is heartwarming that Canada, and what it represents, is embraced by many outside of the nation’s borders. The problem, though, is that Canada is not as unified as it may seem. Canadians are not universally liberal; there are, in fact, many ultra-right Canadians burgeoning in some of Canada’s more conservative provinces. Canada will not be the same if, because of Chretien’s cronyism, the Conservative Party is able to seize power. It will be incredibly ironic if the Canadian Liberal Party, which has worked to make Canada increasingly progressive, causes not only the destruction if itself but also of Canadian liberalism. The Sponsorship Scandal is unacceptable—but even worse is the reality that the international notion that Canada is a liberal country may have to be abandoned. If that happens, all those calling for the relocation of Harvard to Canada in the aftermath of the re-election of President Bush might consider moving Harvard to Belgium or Denmark instead.
Neesha M. Rao ’08, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Canaday Hall.