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Sean Speer: What is Canadian conservatism?

Commentary

On April 26, The Hub’s editor at large, Sean Speer, participated in a panel discussion at the Civitas conference on basic ideas of the Canadian conservative tradition. Below is a reproduced version of his opening statement. 

I’ve chosen to interpret our panel topic as defining Canadian conservatism. Defining conservatism—especially in a handful of minutes—is a rather presumptuous task. 

It’s a bit apocryphal but apparently William F. Buckley Jr., who I’d argue is the most important conservative public intellectual in the twentieth century, started on a book to define conservatism but never finished it. 

He used to speak regularly on college campuses and whenever he was pestered to provide a succinct definition of conservatism, he would define it as “a paradigm of essences toward which the phenomenology of the world is in continuing approximation.” That usually shut down the exchange with an overconfident student or faculty member. 

As a young person, I was consumed by the search for what one might describe as an indigenous Canadian conservatism distinct from American conservatism. The search was inspired in large part by Samuel Huntington’s famous observation that conservatism isn’t a universal ideology. It’s contingent and particularistic. It’s committed to conserving a set of ideas, institutions, and values that are unique to a particular jurisdiction or group. A Saudi Arabian conservative is different from a French conservative because he or she is aiming to conserve something different. It stood to reason therefore that there must be something that made Canadian conservatism inherently distinctive. 

I must say that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less motivated by the search for a unique Canadian conservatism. That’s because I’ve come to the view that English Canadian conservatism is essentially part of a North American project—its purpose, by and large, is to conserve a liberal (by which I mean classically liberal) inheritance. It follows therefore that, at least in broad terms, we’re trying to conserve the same ideas and values—if not the same institutions—as U.S. conservatives. 

I see the centre of gravity of English Canadian conservatism as “ordered liberty” or what modern American conservatives call “fusionism.” It represents a basic synthesis of Burkean traditionalism and new world dynamism. It involves a conception of liberty, personal freedom, and individual autonomy that’s rooted in an understanding of institutions, traditions, and norms that impose non-coercive yet powerful constraints on base human instincts and channels them in constructive directions. 

As Stephen Harper said to this conference in 2003: “The truth is that strong economic and social conservatives are more often the same people—and with reason. Except at the extremes…the philosophical fusion is deep and widespread.”

The more interesting question for me, then, is less about what’s distinct about Canadian conservatism per se and more about the differences between English Canadian conservatism and Quebec conservatism. 

But if I may leave that question aside perhaps for our discussion, I thought that I’d spend my remaining minutes reflecting on my own intellectual journey and how I’ve ended up here to the extent that it resonates with others. 

My personal worldview has become somewhat dichotomous. It reminds me of Jonah Goldberg’s frequent point that conservatism might be best defined as “comfort with contradiction.”

As a father, I’ve become more conservative in my life and outlook. Yet, as a matter of government and politics, I’ve become more libertarian or liberal. 

There are two main reasons for these developments. First, I’ve become so highly skeptical of state action in the face of such a string of government failures that I have to be careful at times not to succumb to anarchistic thinking. Second, reaching mid-life, which invariably comes with the reflection of one’s mistakes, wrong choices, and inherent fallibility, has caused me to be a bit humbler about politics. 

It’s an interesting consequence of hard-earned wisdom. At the precise moment that I’ve become confident in my own views about virtue and the good life, a reckoning with my own failings makes me skeptical of imposing them on others. My conservatism, in other words, is increasingly rooted in a crooked timber view of humanity. 

A statue of former Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald is pictured on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

In this sense, I think of Canadian conservatism (and indeed North American conservatism) as fundamentally pluralistic. It’s about preserving a large swath of space for as many of us as possible to seek virtue, live out our conception of the good life, and pursue individual prosperity and stability as members of a liberal democratic polity. 

But I’m not quite a Buftonian libertarian. I’m happy to make some accommodations within this framework that nod to normative judgements about the common good including: 

  • A broadly liberal political economy ought to have limits concerning trade and commerce with hostile states. 
  • A broadly liberal view of personal autonomy ought to accommodate constraints on individual freedom like age verification for online pornography, the criminalization of illicit drugs, or other instances where prudence causes us to intervene on behalf of children and the vulnerable. 
  • We ought to push back against the growing non-neutrality of public institutions as we’ve seen play out on university and college campuses across the country. 
  • A pluralistic public square doesn’t necessarily mean a relativistic one—there’s plenty of scope to argue that certain ideas are better than others and in some cases, this may even require legislating against illiberal actions or cultural practices. 
  • And, of course, I don’t believe that private institutions themselves need to be pluralistic. 

Ultimately, though, my conservatism—and I believe Canadian conservatism (or at least English Canadian conservatism)—is about conserving the principles of the country’s founding ideas and institutions which were liberal and pluralistic. 

We shouldn’t be disappointed by such a heritage. It’s one that had served us rather well for more than 150 years.

Kristopher Kinsinger: The Liberals still have no good justification for their thought crime law

Commentary

Bill C-63, the federal government’s so-called Online Harms Act, continues to be the subject of vigorous debate across the political and legal spectrum. Numerous civil liberty organizations and legal scholars have expressed alarm over what they describe as the bill’s draconian restrictions on expression that will discourage legitimate political speech. Critics contend that the law places unjustifiable limits on freedom of expression, which is constitutionally guaranteed by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

One of Bill C-63’s most problematic provisions would allow for the issuing of peace bonds (referred to in the Criminal Code as “recognizances”) against hate crime offences. When there are “reasonable grounds” to fear that someone is likely to commit such an offence, provincial court judges would be empowered to, among other things, place the offender under house arrest, or order that they refrain from communicating with certain people. 

Officials with the Department of Justice and spokespeople for the federal government have downplayed the risks to free expression posed by these peace bond provisions. In one op-ed, a senior advisor with the Prime Minister’s Office dismissed criticism of these provisions, framing it as “right-wing” fear-mongering to convince Canadians that “peace bonds are a novel concept created by the Liberal government to appease the woke overlords while punishing regular Canadians with pre-crime offences, like thinking the wrong thing.” 

These defenders of Bill C-63 contend that peace bonds against hate crime offences are justified because the Criminal Code already allows for similar peace bonds against terrorist offences, as well as sexual offences and offences involving serious personal injury. It’s a seemingly witty retort. After all, the Harper Government lowered the threshold to obtain a peace bond when it is feared that someone is likely to commit a terrorist offence. Doesn’t this expose the Conservatives as political hypocrites for now opposing similar legal tools in the Online Harms Act? 

On closer examination, this argument fails to withstand scrutiny. Simply put, the existing legal justification for issuing peace bonds against terrorist and other offences is actually much stronger than for hate crime offences—even though civil libertarians may credibly oppose both.

Establishing “reasonable grounds” that someone is likely to commit a terrorist offence or an offence involving serious personal injury is a largely objective analysis. For example, if someone has been gathering materials that could be used to assemble a bomb, and has been posting threatening messages online against a particular group or venue, it may be reasonable to conclude they intend to commit a terrorist offence in the near future. 

Notably, the Criminal Code prohibits not just terrorist acts, but also “conspirac[ies], attempt[s] or threat[s] to commit any such act or omission.” Thus, actively planning to commit a terrorist offence is itself a criminal act that our law already prohibits. In these cases, a judge issuing a peace bond will consider actions that may themselves prove to be criminal, even if law enforcement still needs to gather additional evidence before charges can be laid. In this regard, peace bonds against terrorist offences are broadly consistent with existing prohibitions on conspiracies or attempts to commit these kinds of offences. 

However, these same justifications can’t be given for the Trudeau government’s proposed peace bonds against hate crime offences. Merely intending to say or do something hateful does not, on its own, constitute a criminal act. Moreover, as I recently wrote for these pages, “The evidence that judges will consider when deciding whether to issue the peace bonds envisioned by Bill C-63 will, invariably, include the allegedly hateful content that the individual in question is expected to express.” In other words, assessing the likelihood that someone will commit a hate crime offence demands (contrary to what certain PMO advisors would suggest) an investigation into that person’s very thoughts. 

How else can a judge assess what someone will say before they say it? Where no actual expression has taken place, all that’s left is what it’s believed that person intends to say. This sort of assessment would necessarily require an investigation into the “internal forum” of someone’s thoughts. This raises the deeply troubling prospect that Bill C-63 not only imposes limits on freedom of expression but also on one of the forgotten freedoms also guaranteed by section 2(b) of the Charter: freedom of thought. 

Indeed, legal scholars like Brian Bird have suggested that limits on freedom of thought may never be constitutionally justified. Although conventional wisdom holds that no right or freedom is absolute, this is not what the Charter actually says; rather, section 1 states that limits may only be imposed on Charter rights and freedoms where they can be “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Against this rigorous standard, the question must be asked: under what circumstances could restrictions on a person’s very thoughts—before those thoughts have even been expressed—be justified in a society that purports to be free and democratic? 

The Trudeau Government has yet to offer a compelling answer to this unsettling question.