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Rahim Mohamed: The time is now for a Conservative and CAQ alliance

Commentary

Conservative partisans will doubtlessly be flying high this week after the party executed a near-flawless biennial convention in Québec City over the weekend.

The boisterous three-day affair showcased an energized party that’s the most united it’s been since the departure of its founding leader Stephen Harper. Virtually every detail, right down to the choice of host city, evinced a Conservative party that’s brimming with confidence and eager to take the fight to the governing Liberal party—even in parts of the country that have historically been the Liberals’ turf.  

Party leader Pierre Poilievre naturally had his share of kind words for the convention’s host province in Friday night’s keynote address:

“This business of deleting our past must end,” Poilievre said in one of the speech’s most widely shared moments. “And this is a matter on which English Canada must learn from Québec.” 

“Quebecers—I’m saying this in English deliberately—do not apologize for their culture, language, or history. They celebrate it. And all Canadians should do the same,” finished Poilievre to rapturous applause.  

Yet for all his outward confidence, Poilievre is no doubt acutely aware that he’ll need more than platitudes to lead his party to a long-awaited electoral breakthrough in Québec; the one part of the country that’s thus far resisted the Conservative wave sweeping Canada. While the Poilievre-led Conservatives have shown some signs of life in the province, polls indicate the party remains stuck in third place, behind both the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois.

What’s even worse for Poilievre is that the populist sloganeering that’s been his bread-and-butter elsewhere in Canada can only hurt him in la belle province. Take, for instance, the tried-and-true applause-getter “axe the (carbon) tax.” (Polls show that Quebecers are more likely than other Canadians to describe climate change as a “major crisis”). Poilievre’s populist-tinged attacks on the CBC also play poorly in Québec, where the public stands firmly behind taxpayer-funded cultural industries. (Some pundits have speculated that Stephen Harper’s dismissive comments about the arts cost him seats in Québec and, consequently, a majority government in 2008). 

There’s no easy way out of this conundrum for Poilievre as the rise of social media means that he can’t simply run separate campaigns, emphasizing separate issues, in Québec and the Rest of Canada (as NDP leader Jack Layton was able to do successfully in 2011).

The irony of the situation is that, within Québec, conservatism is as ascendant as it’s been at any time since before the Quiet Revolution. Right-leaning parties took home a combined fifty-two percent of the popular vote in last year’s provincial election as the centre-Right Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) won its second consecutive majority government in convincing fashion. Meanwhile, the Liberals and Parti Québécois, once the province’s two strongest parties, each limped to historically bad finishes. 

How can one square the rise of Québec’s Right with the Conservative Party’s continued struggle to make inroads into the province? Unfortunately for Poilievre and co., this impasse is unlikely to be resolved with a simple change in messaging.

In a recent interview with The Hub’s Sean Speer, Montréal-based public intellectual Mathieu Bock-Côté had the following to say on the irreconcilable differences between the Anglo-Canadian and Québécois strains of conservatism:

I do not believe their marriage is compatible today. Because Anglo-Canadian conservatism, to me, seems detached from any defense of a substantial cultural identity to the extent it does not fit into the Anglo-Canadian reference.

Bock-Côté gave a middling assessment of Conservative party leader Pierre Poilievre, whom he accused of omitting “certain fundamental themes”, (e.g.: multiculturalism, immigration), “that would allow him to engage in real ideological confrontation with the Liberal Party of Canada.”

While pessimistic on their face, Bock-Côté’s comments hint at a new way forward for conservatism in Canada. Rather than fruitlessly trying to reconcile two irreconcilable visions of conservatism under the banner of a single party, conservatives in Québec and the Rest of Canada should branch out into two separate but affiliated parties: the Conservative Party and the CAQ. 

While coalition parties are virtually unheard of in Canada (the misleadingly named “Canadian Alliance” notwithstanding), they’re commonplace in many of our peer countries. Notably, the Liberal-National coalition has been the dominant player on Australia’s Right since the end of World War II. (The practice of preferential voting allows the two allied parties to compete in “three-cornered contests” against the centre-Left Labor party). 

Canada’s conservative movement can perhaps learn the most from the arrangement between Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU). The CSU runs candidates in the culturally distinct state of Bavaria while the CDU is active in Germany’s other fifteen states. The two parties are organizationally independent but campaign together in federal elections, regularly signing coalition treaties beforehand. Historically, the CSU has been successful at leveraging its relationship with the CDU to exert substantial control over social and cultural matters, for instance, frustrating the efforts of centrists to liberalize the country’s abortion laws. (When in government, CSU representatives often receive portfolios overseeing family and cultural policy.) 

A CDU/CSU arrangement would have an obvious appeal to conservatives in Québec, giving them a seat at the table while, at the same time, untethering them from Conservative Party positions that are likely to be unpopular in their home province. A coalition structure would also free the Québec wing from the strictures of party discipline, allowing it to place a check on the Conservative Party on matters relating to culture, the environment, and other issues of central importance to Quebecers. 

This is, admittedly, not a new idea, but it’s one whose time has finally come. Now closing out its fifth year in power, the CAQ has masterfully mobilized the latent cultural conservatism of Québec’s electorate (particularly outside of the Island of Montréal). The party’s avuncular leader François Legault is arguably Canada’s single most powerful political figure today. 

Yet contrary to his party’s name (pronounced “kaak”), Legault himself is no spring chicken; he’ll be close to 70 by the time his current term in office comes to an end. Legault may soon come to realize that he’s accomplished as much as he can at the provincial level and look to make his mark on Ottawa’s political landscape. Québec’s recent political history is replete with examples of politicians who’ve oscillated between provincial and federal politics, among them Lucien Bouchard and Jean Charest. Poilievre could well find, in Legault, a receptive partner to a CAQ/CPC union. 

Of course, the Harper years show that Poilievre can win, and perhaps even eke out a slim majority, without making much of a dent in Québec. However, he should be thinking on a grander scale as he may well be facing a historically unpopular incumbent government when the next election rolls around. A CAQ-assisted breakthrough in Québec could be his path to a Mulroney-esque supermajority, giving him a free hand to pursue an ambitious policy agenda. Now’s the time for Poilievre to swing for the fences. 

A CPC/CAQ alliance may sound like a political pipe dream, but it can be engineered with relative ease and could, in fact, permanently bridge the gap between the Québécois and Anglo-Canadian traditions of conservatism. The time is now to seize this possibly transformative idea.

Go big or go home. 

Brian Dijkema: Who left the barbarians in charge of our books?

Commentary

Today, the CBC broke a story that showed how the Peel District School Board is culling books that fail to meet “equity-based” criteria for books in school libraries. Among the books that are thrown away, according to reporter Natasha Fatah, is Anne Frank’s diary. While they are not quite going so far as to host a bonfire to burn the books in school parking lots, the end result is pretty much the same. The board is not giving the books away, they are literally throwing them into the landfill to moulder. What an absolute abomination.

This practice is not just some random “woke” librarian on a rampage either. It is being done in response to a directive from the Ministry of Education, whose current minister is Stephen Lecce, a conservative. It comes from straight from the top.

The policy is the mirror image of the “anti-woke” book policy of the conservative governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. A list of books removed from Florida public school libraries shows plenty of books that are terrible and that really shouldn’t be on the shelves, but also plenty that are not just okay, but genuinely endearing and in line with the tradition of living books. Why should a sweet, rhythmic, story about a Thai mom trying to quiet the animals so her baby can sleep be put out of a school library? I can’t tell you. Arguably, the Peel Board’s practice is even worse, as it simply removed any book published before 2008.

While the policy has since been countermanded by Lecce’s office, these types of policies—one aimed at removing “woke” books and another one aimed at “non-inclusive” books are, sadly, a metaphor for the state of public education these days. The words that best describe this policy are brutal and barbaric.

By this I don’t mean that school administrators are clothed in fur and looking for blood (though, judging from other goings-on in the Peel board, you can be forgiven for this assumption). They are a clear attempt to cut off students from a living tradition of reflection on the beauty and complications of human life, in favour of a simplistic, ideological vision. The dearly departed Australian poet Les Murray describes the situation better in three lines than I could in three pages:

Politics and Art

Brutal policy,
like inferior art, knows
whose fault it all is.

This is the mentality shaping both the Left’s and the Right’s vision for educating our kids. Is this what you want for your kids? It’s not what I want for mine.

This is not to say that libraries shouldn’t make choices about what to put on their shelves. Those choices are both a practical and pedagogical reality and will depend in part on the type of person you are trying to form. Perhaps it’s time to give up the pretense that forming our kids is something a system that self-articulately takes a pass on deeper questions of meaning and formation can do. Given the fact that two ostensibly “conservative” premiers have given North America two perfectly opposite, but equally brutal, policies on the literature that will shape our children’s imaginations, perhaps it’s time to find a new lens for evaluating education. 

And that lens, I should add, cannot simply be the technocratic one that our governments prefer. The culling of books based on ideological differences on sex or race or what have you is nothing compared to the culling of real, living, books that have been taking place in our libraries for years in the name of value-free technological “progress.” In many libraries—both public and school—books that would have once sparked flames of imagination in life in young children have been replaced by Chromebooks and electronic learning games or other bits of metal and silicon that are, literally, planned for obsolescence rather than for posterity. The beautiful, “eye on the object” look of children reading has been replaced by catatonic faces more often found in front of slot machines in a casino. 

The fact that the minister’s office issued a directive without offering clear criteria by which a book would be deemed to be “inclusive, culturally responsive, relevant, and reflective of students” (or even a definition of what it means by these extremely vague terms) is an abrogation of duty. A read of the audit reports produced by Peel indicates that this technocratic mindset is the greater concern for those of us concerned with education as something intended to shape humans, rather than technically proficient machines. It cloaks terms and actions that have significant import for the formation of children in administrative bureaucratese and is executed almost entirely by staff who are accountable to no one in particular, and certainly not Ontarian parents. 

Whether it’s ridding shelves of books like the Diary of Anne Frank in Ontario under Lecce, or Brother Eagle, Sister Sky under DeSantis, policies like this are another step in the alienation of children from the complexities of history and humanity. Even if this all is, as my friend Michael Demoor suggests, simply a case of bureaucratic stupidity brought on by the hugeness of the school boards (a view that is plausible, but which doesn’t deal with the very real and clearly articulated ideological nature of Ontario’s common school system, nor its increased centralization over the last few decades), it’s a stretch to say that this is a healthy way the system should be working. Overreach and bluntness of this sort are, as they say, a feature, not a bug, of systems where education is controlled by a bureaucratic state and massive, largely unaccountable, school boards.    

Perhaps this might give all of us—regardless of which colour you vote for in a given election—some pause, and a desire for something better.    

A month or so ago I was corresponding with the ever-so-gifted Mary Harrington about her recent book (reviewed here in The Hub) and mentioned that I appreciated how many of the concerns she raised in the book fit into an old-school “left-wing” model of politics. Her reply was enlightening. She said, “I don’t have a problem with being recognised as a leftist in some respects; it’s true, and besides I’m not sure the terms really apply anymore, as the split these days is more human vs posthuman.”

This, I think, is precisely where we need to be on education. Another word for brutal is inhumane. Both the Left and the Right are acting like barbarians and pushing a vision of education that is destroying our shared past and the reflections of human beings trying to make sense of the world. It has to stop. It’s time for a more humane, human-scale, vision of education. But to achieve that, humanists—of all political persuasions—will need to unite.