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Opinion: More than a political opportunist, Canada’s most important prime minister was a distinctly Canadian conservative


The following article is an excerpt from an essay, entitled “Canadian conservatism and national developmentalism: Sir John A. Macdonald’s Hamiltonian persuasion”, that was published as part of an essay compilation on Canadian conservative political thought earlier this year. You can find the book, edited by Lee Trepanier and Richard Avramenko, here

Modern historiography still paints a picture of Sir John Alexander Macdonald, Canada’s first and most significant prime minister, as the consummate pragmatist who was driven more by partisan politics than a coherent ideological vision. He was indeed the ultimate coalition builder, the ultimate deal maker, the master compromiser. But this political savvy and skillful statecraft, which made him a successful and dominant political force, was, according to the standard historiographical narrative, not matched by any serious underlying worldview or ideology. While scholars may accept that he had instinctual loyalties and political leanings, the prevailing story is that Macdonald’s concerns were ultimately practical and prudential, not philosophical or ideological, and it was this lack of coherent political worldview that ultimately made him an effective political operative.

His legacy has also at times been diminished by modern conservatives who have both accepted the academic historians’ characterization of Macdonald as an unrooted political opportunist and criticized his use of the levers of state power (including preferential tariffs and business subsidies) to actively shape certain market outcomes as out of step with contemporary libertarian economics. It is not uncommon, for instance, particularly among young conservatives, to instead elevate Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier (who was known for rhetorical flourishes such as “Canada is free and freedom is its nationality”) as the real antecedent to modern conservatism’s emphasis on economic freedom in general and liberal economics in particular.

These interpretations of Macdonald are superficial and unfair. They are predicated on a narrow conception of political values that belies a more sophisticated reading of the intellectual foundation of his enduring accomplishments. They, in short, reflect a misunderstanding of the Canadian conservative tradition.

We argue that Macdonald possessed a political worldview that situates him into a distinct conservative tradition that fits the Canadian context much better than other abstract and decontextualized accounts of what conservatism is about. Macdonald actually leaves a rich ideological tradition that we call (borrowed from Tyler Cowen) “state-capacity conservatism.” 

Although Macdonald’s worldview was fundamentally rooted in Enlightenment liberalism, it was tempered by his dispositional conservatism reflective of the unique particularities of nineteenth-century Canada. This amalgam of liberalism and conservatism manifested itself in a political programme that envisioned a limited yet energetic role for the state in supporting national development.

Our understanding of Macdonald and his worldview is premised on an important assumption about conservatism itself. Drawing on the ideas of conservative historian Samuel Huntington, we argue that conservatism, properly understood, cannot be understood absent of the specific situational and historical contexts in which it is found. There is no purely abstract perspective or ideal form of conservatism that looks the exact same in every place or context. The inherent nature of conservatism necessarily makes it context dependent. Macdonald’s political worldview cannot therefore be properly understood divorced of the geographic, historical, and political context in which it found expression.

Macdonald is, in other words, a keenly and inescapably Canadian conservative. His form of state-capacity conservatism—including the creation of the Canadian state and the building of a national economy and political union—are tied up in the practicalities of British North America. The country’s unique political geography in particular fundamentally shaped Macdonald’s own conservatism. 

Confederation produced a large, sparsely populated nation that quickly became a continental federation. Market forces alone were not going to bind the country together as an economic and social union. Building a new nation with a such low population density was necessarily going to require a unique political economy model that saw a role for the state that went beyond enabling certain market activity and instead was prepared to guide and shape the market in the realms of agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, and so forth. Canada, in short, needed a national developmentalist strategy that enabled it to overcome geographic and demographic obstacles to its nation-building ambitions.

Seeking to build a new nation in the shadow of a dynamic and rapidly growing America was also a significant contextual consideration. Confederation was in large part a union that was forged to ensure that the various colonies of British North America could resist absorption into a growing United States. Resisting the powerful pull of continentalism and building a new, distinct nation was going to require rapid economic and social development—particularly in the face of a real and perceived threat of U.S. expansionary ambitions. A durable union could only be realized and preserved through a dynamic combination of growth and progress.

Our geographic and demographic challenges, including proximity to the United States, form the basic conditions and context in which Macdonald’s conservatism has to be understood. In order to preserve and grow the new national union forged in 1867 in the face of the country’s harsh geography and sparse settlement, early Canadian governments could not succumb to dogmatism about market economics. The market alone was not going to connect the embryonic country due to its vast size and clustering of population in a small number of cities. Market forces, for instance, would not have produced a nationwide network of railway infrastructure or cultivated a domestic manufacturing capacity.

The Macdonaldian tradition is, by no means, statist.

Only a national development strategy—involving a combination of public and private investments—could realize these ambitious goals. This is where the need for a limited yet energetic state became crucial in incentivizing, de-risking, and even coordinating private investment and, in so doing, solving the market failures caused by such a massive political geography. The National Policy became the framework for the mix of public policies that formed the basis of such a nation-building agenda.

It is wrong to think that the National Policy in particular and Macdonald’s national developmentalism in general were somehow un-conservative. His state-capacity conservatism may have represented a different conception of the role of government than contemporary libertarian ideas but it has an analogue in America’s own history of national development and frontier political economy.

In a 2004 New York Times column, Canadian-born, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote the following about the evolution of American political ideologies:

Today we have one political tradition, now housed in the Democratic Party, which believes in using government in the name of equality and social justice. We have another tradition, recently housed in the Republican Party, which believes, or says it believes, in restricting the size of government in the name of freedom and personal responsibility. But through much of American history there has always been a third tradition, now dormant, which believes in limited but energetic government in the name of social mobility and national union. 

This third tradition—which Brooks and others would describe as “Hamiltonian” and we’d call “Macdonaldism”—is key to understanding the Canadian conservative tradition. It is neither statist nor egalitarian, neither Burkean nor Lockean. It is a composite ideology that, undoubtedly British influenced, is resolutely North American. It was fundamentally market oriented but saw a role for the state to solve for market failures and incentivize and support certain commercial activities such as railroad expansion and the rise of a manufacturing sector in the name of national development.

This point is worth emphasizing—particularly for readers steeped in contemporary conservative thinking about markets, government, and the limits of state intervention: the Macdonaldian tradition is, by no means, statist. Brian Lee Crowley, for instance, has shown that public expenditures in nineteenth-century Canada were lower, on a per capita basis, than in the United States. Macdonald’s public spending was principally dedicated to major public infrastructure (including subsidizing the building of transportation networks in a low-population-density country) and cultivating a manufacturing capacity due to its economic spillovers. This was not dirigisme. It was an ambitious yet pragmatic political economy programme focused on economic development and national progress. 

Macdonald’s state-capacity conservatism therefore should be viewed as a part of a well-rooted Canadian conservative tradition that was not merely about political exigencies. It reflected a mix of liberal and conservative ideas that came together in the British North American context and found expression in Macdonald’s audacious nation-building ambitions and the political economy programme that ultimately helped to fulfill them. 

Joanna Baron: The Canadian Charter explicitly permits affirmative action. That doesn’t make all discriminatory admissions ok


Last month, after the U.S. Supreme Court denied the constitutionality of race-based affirmative action in Students for Fair Admissions, hysterical speculation about whether such a result might obtain in Canadian courts was swift. So was the predictable Canadian gloating: Bob Rae tweeted out that he was “proud that Canada’s Charter of Rights specifically permits affirmative action.”

Rae is correct. Section 15 of the Charter, which guarantees equality rights, reads as follows:

15 (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

(2) Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

The second clause is understood to grant a sort of constitutionalized exception from s. 15(1)’s guarantee of equal treatment under the law: in 2009’s R v Kapp, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the aim of s. 15(2) is “enabling governments to pro-actively combat discrimination by developing programs aimed at helping disadvantaged groups improve their situation.”

This seems to make good sense. And yet, in that same seminal case the SCC clarified that “Section 15(1) and s. 15(2) work together to promote the vision of substantive equality that underlies s. 15 as a whole.” (Emphasis mine). In other words, s. 15(2)’s countenance of affirmative action must be read in context. It was not intended and cannot act as a total shield from the overall right all persons enjoy against discrimination on enumerated and analogous grounds.

The next question to consider, then, is how far arms of the state—including governments, public schools boards, and, somewhat more ambiguously, universities and colleges—may go in advancing the interests of one group above that of another before they violate our general societal commitment that every citizen has a natural right to equal treatment under the law. Affirmative action is undeniably a zero-sum game, advancing the interests of one group above those of another. Sometimes, it tips over into outright discrimination against certain groups, most notoriously Asians. In those cases, section 15 has arguably been violated.

Several public programs currently operating in Canada appear to strain s. 15(2)’s premise of promoting substantive equality by allowing targeted measures for disadvantaged groups.

First, in 2022 the Toronto District School Board replaced a merit-based system with a lottery for its highly competitive specialized programs, which offer opportunities for enriched study in many subjects including the International Baccalaureate, math, computer science, and the arts. The programs’ stated aim is to enable high-achieving students to thrive and reach their potential. Under the new lottery system, 20 percent of seats in specialized programs are reserved for self-identified Black, Indigenous, and Latino students. While this mirrors Toronto’s demographics, it does not mirror the rates of application to the specialized programs, where Asian students apply at disproportionately large rates and all other groups (White, Black, Indigenous, Latino, Middle Eastern) apply at smaller rates than their demographic share. A University of Toronto economist concluded that the policy had the result that BILM students were four times more likely than any other group to be admitted.

Preferring Black or Latino students may make these specialized programs look more like a Benneton ad, but it’s not clear how the lottery promotes substantive equality. Asian Canadians get punished despite being historically disadvantaged, targeted by racism, and, in many cases, facing greater economic disadvantage.

Asian students, at least those whose parents immigrated in the past decade or so, are more likely to come from low-income families. Since 2010, Statistics Canada has tracked the income progress of immigrants from 30 countries. The numbers show that Asian immigrants tend to earn much less on average than immigrants from Africa and Latin America. In 2020, Asian immigrants who had arrived in Canada in 2010 were earning just $35,000 per year on average, with Afghans at the very bottom ($19,400), followed by Vietnamese ($20,200), Iraqis ($21,600), South Koreans ($24,900), and Chinese ($26,500). Africans were earning $40,200 on average—more than immigrants from any Asian country on the list. Nigerians were earning $46,000. Cameroonians were at the very top of the list, raking in $57,200 on average.   

Asian Canadians have suffered painful racism too. Japanese Canadians had their property stolen and were interned in government camps during the Second World War. Chinese immigrants were forced to pay a special head tax from 1885 to 1923. Now, many Asians face contemporary pressure to act as “model minorities” (somewhat ironically, as it seems to be the cause of their current marginalization). Hampering their ability to apply and thrive in enrichment programs requires, at the very least, a clear and publicly articulated rationale. 

Oddly, a shift from merit to lottery-based admissions to the TDSB’s special programs would seem to undermine the basis for the program in the first place: to allow students of extraordinary academic aptitude to be challenged and to flourish.

The University of Calgary also raised eyebrows when it announced its cluster hiring initiative, which would see the university designate 45 academic hiring positions over the next three years only to specified underrepresented groups: women, Indigenous peoples, racialized minorities, persons with disabilities, and LGBTQ2S persons. White males, even those who may have overcome significant hardship, whether from poverty or other individual circumstances, who are neither LGBTQ2S nor disabled, are clearly excluded from even being considered.

Given the scope of this initiative, excluding such a significant portion of the population from even applying to a public university funded by their tax dollars seems on its face, at the very least, to merit specific and compelling evidence from the university that such an intervention is both necessary and will further the end of substantive equality. 

The legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin connects the obligation to treat citizens equally with political legitimacy: “Government must treat each and every person over whom it claims dominion with an equal concern and an equal respect.” Equal concern means that “social policy must take the fate of each individual to be equally important with the fate of any other.” When deciding on a policy, public bodies cannot dismiss its effect on some citizens. 

Nor does Dworkin propose that equality of outcomes is necessarily just. Unequal distribution of resources is considered fair, to Dworkin, when it results from the decisions and intentional actions of those concerned. In the TDSB example, where overrepresentation (relative to share of population) of Asian students in specialized programs is demonstrably not due to bias in favour of Asians but rather a greater propensity to apply and apparently superior academic merit, Dworkin would likely conclude that it represented a just distribution of social resources.

Ultimately, while s. 15(2) clarifies that differential treatment may sometimes be justified, it is not a trump card, doesn’t pre-empt the guarantee of equal treatment under the law that s. 15(1) provides, and certainly does not excuse public bodies from their requirement to furnish specific, compelling, and rigorous evidence of its necessity.