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Opinion: Vancouver’s centrist pivot puts city halls across Canada on notice

Commentary

Frank Sinatra once famously crooned “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”. Of course, Ol’ Blue Eyes was referring to the Big Apple, but any Canadian politician who leans to the right of Leon Trotsky could say the same exact words about Vancouver, British Columbia.

Among Canadian cities, Vancouver has always been something of an anomaly; more closely resembling the hippy-dippy locales along America’s Left Coast than our other major urban centres. VanCity, a city we’ve both grown to love despite our own conservative dispositions, is a strange little place; a bohemian enclave dotted with clothing-optional beaches, green juice, and hip vegan eateries (we highly recommend South Granville’s Heirloom). The city is also renowned for its other famous green offerings—”BC bud” is a preferred strain of cannabis among celebrity connoisseurs like Snoop Dogg and Seth Rogan (himself a Vancouver native).  

This alternative ethos has long been reflected in the city’s municipal politics, a landscape dominated by left-wing groups like the openly socialist Committee of Progressive Electors (COPE) and the “green liberal” Vision Vancouver, formerly an electoral vehicle for ex-NDP MLA Gregor Robertson (Vancouver’s mayor from 2008 to 2018).

It’s a city where there is precious little real estate on the Right (or, frankly, anywhere else in town). Politicians of every municipal stripe make appearances at drag brunches, do yoga in public, and ride their bicycles to city hall. Vancouver’s politics skew so far to the left that a modest proposal to remove one bike lane for every new bike lane created earned mayoral candidate Wai Young the sort of press coverage usually reserved for puppy killers back in 2018.

So what explains the outcome of this month’s municipal election, which saw police union-endorsed businessman Ken Sim put an end to 14 years of uninterrupted left-of-centre leadership at Vancouver’s city hall; winning an outright majority of the popular vote in a five-candidate mayor’s race? Sim’s ABC Vancouver slate won seven of 10 seats on Vancouver’s city council and will enjoy a strong mandate to govern when the council reconvenes. Outgoing mayor Kennedy Stewart (formerly an NDP MP for Burnaby) will now have the dubious distinction of being the city’s first incumbent mayor in over 40 years to be ousted in an election.  

The headline from Vancouver’s municipal election is that even one of Canada’s most progressive electorates has finally grown impatient with the failed left-wing orthodoxy on urban challenges like crime, homelessness, and drug addiction. A cursory glance at the raw data makes one wonder what took them so long to do so.

Fatalities linked to illicit drug use have grown each year of Stewart’s term and are on pace to hit another all-time high this year. Each day, four Vancouverites are violently attacked by strangers (serious assaults are up by more than a third since the late 2010s). Catch-and-release policing has kept even the city’s most prolific offenders on the streets.

A recent government report even admits that official crime statistics don’t tell the full story when it comes to increasing crime rates in the province. A failure to report crime or arrest and charge those responsible does not mean that actual crime is not increasing. Even before the recent announcement from the federal and BC governments that they would effectively decriminalize the possession of hard drugs for three years, it was widely known that law enforcement of drug-related offences in the province was lax for decades. Irrespective of what one thinks about drug policy, it’s hard to argue that these choices don’t have consequences for the crime rate.

Politicians have ignored these worrying trends at their peril, but new Mayor Ken Sim looks poised to change course. Sim, who ran on a platform of improved public safety, has promised to immediately hire 100 new police officers to patrol Vancouver’s streets.

Vancouver’s centrist pivot mirrors a realignment that is now playing out in some of the United States’ most progressive cities. Just under a year ago, New York City’s electorate soundly rejected the grassroots “defund the police” movement by making ex-police captain Eric Adams the city’s new mayor. In June, San Franciscans voted to remove reformist district attorney Chesa Boudin from office. Boudin, a vocal proponent of alternatives to criminal prosecution, was blamed for an uptick in multiple crimes, including muggings and car break-ins, and criticized for his failure to rein in drug-related deaths.

The result also hints that new Conservative Party of Canada leader Pierre Poilievre’s messaging is having a downstream effect on municipal politics. During his leadership campaign, Poilievre placed an innovative focus on issues that have historically been the domain of city halls, notably promising to make federal infrastructure spending contingent on the approval of high-density zoning (Vancouver is one of the world’s least affordable housing markets). His incursions onto municipal turf appeared to play well in key urban centres like Vancouver; Poilievre swept B.C. in the Conservative leadership vote. His campaign exceeded internal targets for membership sales and saw thousands of new Conservative members attend his meet & greets in East Vancouver, hardly a right-of-centre stronghold. 

Not missing a beat, Poilievre referenced Vancouver’s municipal election in last Monday’s Question Period, calling the result a repudiation of the “radical policies” of Justin Trudeau and the city’s NDP-affiliated mayor Kennedy Stewart. He went on to laud Vancouverites for voting to “bring in commonsense laws to restore safe streets.” These remarks indicate that Poilievre will continue to speak on municipal issues as opposition leader, potentially generating a rising tide for centrist and right-leaning municipal politicians across Canada.

The election results from Vancouver, arguably Canada’s most reliably left-leaning major city, should put every city hall in the country on notice. Vancouverites have communicated, in the strongest possible terms, that they will no longer tolerate a new-age progressive dogma that places the rights of criminals above public safety; an approach to urban governance that has demonstrably failed. Municipal governments that fail to give their residents a restored sense of security may see their days numbered.

A seismic shift may indeed be on the horizon for cities across Canada. If change can happen in Vancouver, as the song goes, it can happen anywhere. 

Howard Anglin: Country, Province, and Nation: What makes the Québécois a nation?

Commentary

Part II:

Part I began to explore the distinction between a nation and a province in response to Saskatchewan’s recent white paper “Drawing the Line.” This Part II provides an answer to why the Québécois are a nation, and why Saskatchewan isn’t. Part III will explain why the distinction shouldn’t matter for the proper working of Canadian federalism.

“Drawing the Line,” the recently-published white paper by the Government of Saskatchewan that advocates a more aggressive assertion of provincial autonomy, repeats Premier Scott Moe’s statement last year that “Saskatchewan needs to be a nation within a nation.” It’s a curious inclusion. Why is it not enough to demand more power for the province qua province? Why introduce the sticky subject of nationality and nationhood? It must be because a nation is something more than a province (or a country), and the government thinks that whatever this is adds to its constitutional claim. It is right on the first point, but not on the second. 

The claim that Saskatchewan needs to be “a nation within a nation” asks implicitly why we recognize the Québécois (or Quebec) as a nation and not Saskatchewan. It is an important question, though not a particularly difficult one. The answer is that there is something about the way the Québécois are different from other Canadians that transcends the ways in which the people of the other provinces are different from each other. In the case of Quebec, those ways are clear. You don’t even have to accept the continuing relevance of the idea of Two Founding PeoplesOr “two founding races,” to use the old and now unfashionable term. See, eg, Mr Pearson’s 1963 Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which was to “inquire and report upon the existing state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada and to recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races, taking into account the contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada.” to recognize that the Québécois (and, for that matter, Quebec) are uniquely distinct within Canada. 

The claim that the Québécois have a qualitatively distinct culture (or that Quebec forms a distinct society) worthy of “national” status is inextricable from the fact of the French language. Charles Taylor has written extensively about how, in our post-Romantic world, the need for identity (and, importantly, recognition of one’s identity) is also a project of emancipation.See, eg Charles Taylor, Why Do Nations Have to Become States?, in Stanley French (ed), Philosophers Look at Canadian Confederation (1979). Writing about Quebec specifically, he has explained that “the singling out of linguistic nationality as the paradigm pole of self-identity is part of this modern drive to emancipation.”id. There is simply no comparable drive for generative self-creation in any other province.

But if the most obvious difference is linguistic, the differences aren’t only linguistic.At least since the 1960s, the Government of Quebec has claimed to be the political expression of a Québécois nation but it doesn’t seek to include Franco-Ontarians or New Brunswick Acadians within the definition of “Québécois” or to expand the borders of Quebec to include these contiguous people, which would be logical if the identity were purely linguistic. This is a consequence of the separatist movement’s recognition that the French language and a distinct culture were best defended by a political entity that was majority French Canadian. Hence the definition of the Québécois in geographic terms as well as along cultural (and, usually, linguistic) lines. René Lévesque even went so far as to label French Canadians outside the province “dead ducks.” By contrast, Pierre Trudeau insisted that “the Quebec Legislature has no authority to speak on behalf of ‘French Canada’” because of the reality of non-Quebec French-Canada, though even he accepted that “because of historical circumstances Quebec has had to, and must still, assume responsibility for the French language and culture.” While the French language is the central feature of Québécois nationalism, the fact that some provincial residents included among “the Québécois” speak French imperfectly and others not all, while other people just across the Ottawa and Restigouche rivers who speak fluent French are not included within the nation, means that there must be a component of national identity beyond language. For want of a more precise term, this extra-linguistic component of identity is culture, and specifically “culture” in a deep sense that goes beyond what we mean when we talk about the culture of Calgary being different from the culture of Edmonton. 

For culture to be a definitive component of national identity, it must be rooted in and reinforced by factors that are separate not just in degree but in kind from anything experienced in other parts of the country. Where, then, does Québécois culture come from? Once again, linguistic difference matters. The idea that the language we speak influences the way we think is not new. It is likely that simply by dint of speaking (and thinking in) another language, a people develop a distinct culture. The predominantly French-speaking parts of Canada can be said then to have a separate culture in a way that no predominantly English-speaking region can. 

Nor should we underestimate the effects of the closed media environment that this linguistic separateness requires. More than any other region, Quebec speaks to itself. Most Québécois consume news of the rest of the country second-hand, only after it has been translated both literally and culturally by the province’s media. This linguistic isolation appears to be self-reinforcing: small differences are exaggerated, while large differences are entrenched as cultural and political dogma.

But language is only part of the story. The other source of Quebec’s cultural difference is religious. This was clear for the first half of Canadian history when the province stood out as a distinct Catholic society within an increasingly-Protestant Canada. The revolutionary rejection of the province’s Catholic identity in the last three generations means that the weight of cultural identity that once rested on three pillars—language, culture, and religion—is now borne by language and culture alone, which increases concern about linguistic survival and awareness of cultural differences.

More importantly, it means that Quebec’s attitude towards religion is, uniquely within Canada, defined by a conscious rejection of religion. In a relatively short time, a profoundly Catholic society became radically anti-clerical. Nothing like that happened in any other province. As Marshall McLuhan described it (in his strange review of Pierre Trudeau’s 1967 collection of essays Federalism and the French Canadians for the New York Times), “French Canada leapt into the 20th century without having had a 19th century.” This is an exaggeration, but only a slight one, and the legacy of this sudden leap can be puzzling to non-Quebeckers.The speed of the Quiet Revolution is captured in a poignant scene from Denys Arcand’s Les Invasions Barbares in which a priest showing an auction-house rep around a warehouse of surplus Catholic statuary explains how one day in 1966 everyone stopped coming to church and never came back. 

To an outsider, Quebec’s insistence on militant laïcité as a distinct cultural value is more than a little ironic. Secularism emphatically is not a traditional Quebec value, as the illuminated cross on Mount Royal shining down a forest of silver spires across the city of Montreal attests.The cross, which is a reminder of the original cross erected by Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve in 1643, was installed in 1924 by the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste. It is lit in purple to mark the death of a Pope. Within the lifetime of the current premier, the province’s hospitals, schools, and houses of charity were still staffed in part by priests and nuns, whose prominent religious symbols and head coverings were an obvious example of Quebec’s distinct society. And the province remains dappled with the memory of its first four centuries. From riversThe St Lawrence river. and lakes,Lac Saint-Jean. townsSaint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. and mountains,The Notre Dame Mountains. hospitals,In Quebec City alone, there are hospitals named: Hôpital Saint-François d’Assise; Hôpital de l’Enfant-Jésus; Hôpital du Saint-Sacrement; and Hôtel-Dieu de Québec. universities,Université Laval (the successor to the Séminaire de Québec, now named after the first bishop of New France). and metro stations,Metro Pie IX; Metro Lionel-Groulx. the province’s traditional identity suffuses the landscape.

Pointing this out, however, invites the accusation that, as a non-Quebecker, you simply can’t understand the continuing legacy of La Grande Noirceur. This is of course true, but it also illustrates how quickly even a recent mythopoeic change can assume mythic cultural status. Until the 1950s, the Government of Quebec unofficially regarded the post-revolutionary government of France as a usurping regime. Then, in the space of a decade, the province’s leadership traded a historic domestic identity for one based on the secularist ideology of a foreign country.For an English perspective on this process, see Charles Taylor, “Nationalism and the Political Intelligentsia: A Case Study,” Queen’s Quarterly (Spring 1965). One has to admit that the transplant has been successful: imported by a small class of Quebec intellectuals, the fashions of post-war Parisian philosophy have been adopted so completely in Quebec that it is now hard to tell the graft from the rootstock.One can imagine an alternative history in which Quebec remained Catholic and defended its traditional religious-cultural identity against claims by competing religions instead of policing them as a violation of a newly-adopted secular cultural identity (with possible exceptions for religious symbols and references magically denuded of their religious content and existing now as purely “historical” objects and customs). It could be argued that this reactionary path would have been more consistent and coherent. However, Charles Taylor was probably right when he wrote that “the context of a federal Canada would never permit a Quebec leader” to repress democracy enough to allow Quebec to follow the contemporary example of Salazar’s Portugal. See Charles Taylor, “Nationalism and the Political Intelligentsia: A Case Study”, Queen’s Quarterly (Spring 1965).  

These distinct features of Quebec society—linguistic (by birth) and cultural (by adoption)—are real. Together they make the Québécois, by any normal definition, a nation. The belated recognition of this by the federal parliament in 2006 was just an acceptance of reality. By the same token, Saskatchewan is not a nation. Saskatchewan is certainly different from, say, Ontario, and both are different in their own ways from British Columbia and Newfoundland.Years ago, Charles Taylor wrote that “for all people east of the Rocky Mountains, British Columbia is a strange place, not quite believable,” and yet even he didn’t believe this grounded a claim for nationhood. Charles Taylor, “A Canadian Future?”, in The Pattern of Politics (1970). Nobody would deny that. But they are each different within the normal parameters of difference for a vast and diffuse country. It makes no more sense to say that Saskatchewan is a nation than to imagine that Wyoming is a nation within the United States of America.