This newsletter will not be a running commentary on the news, Rather, it will be an ongoing series of commentaries on the subjects I research. Of course, my research focuses upon ongoing issues, so the news is going to touch on them, and in addition to that, new primary documents such as reports or new work from other scholars frequently appear, and I will review them. But before leaping into any of that, I want to lay out the issues I watch most closely, and that I will comment about most frequently. It’s like a “throne speech” (Canadian politics followers will get it) for the newsletter.
There will be several subsections to this part. I have been thinking and writing about Canada for decades, and I work on several dimensions of Canadian politics.
Quebec: Canadian politics is structured the way it is because Quebec is there. Quebec’s existence matters for the rest of the country foremost because unlike the nine other English-speaking provinces, it has a French-speaking majority. It goes deeper, however. Quebec can trade a distinct history to the first French explorers and settlers, the role of French law and the Roman Catholic Church, and distinctive cultural patterns and social mores that have developed over four hundred years. Quebec is, to risk using a politically volatile phrase, a distinct society, and basically has the characteristics of a nation. This nation could be politically sovereign, but history has worked out otherwise, and that nation has been a French colony, a British possession, and a Canadian province. It is controversial in the rest of Canada but an unquestioned article of faith in Quebec that French-speakers are one of the two (nowadays three as we pay more attention to Canada’s indigenous peoples) founding nations of Canada.
If Quebec is a distinct society, a political aim of Quebec is to preserve its distinctness, It has tried to do so through legislation to promote the French language, through attempts to amend the Canadian constitution to make it more explicitly dualist (together with two failed referendums asking for popular mandates to leave Canada and become independent), and through other avenues such as education and immigration policy Ongoing issues in Quebec politics include the implementation of a new secularism law that bans public servants from wearing religious dress or symbols, a new draft language law that makes numerous changes to the Charter of the French Language, and a provincial election in 2022 in which the incumbent government sponsoring these changes is likely to win a second term.
Alberta and the West: English-speaking Canada has had to react to Quebec’s claims for more autonomy, and its response has generally been to accommodate it. But the impulse to accommodate has not been nationwide. It has generally been the elites of Ontario that have been the most open to dualism. In Western Canada, Quebec and the French language are far less of a daily presence, and the region has its own issues with Canadian federalism, including feeling frozen out of federal politics as Quebec’s concerns have taken center stage. In addition, several Western provinces, Alberta in the lead, argue that Canada’s financial arrangements leave them subsidizing the rest of the country due to their energy wealth. This led the West to play an important role in the constitutional negotiations from the 1970s to the 1990s, often resisting Quebec’s dualist thesis. The founding of the Reform Party, now part of the federal Conservative Party, brought Western concerns more broadly into federal politics, and has helped to move Canadian political discourse somewhat to the right.
Over the past few years, however, conservative political discourse in Alberta and Saskatchewan has taken on a nativist populist tone, and has embraced the natural resource industry on cultural grounds, asserting that Central Canadian resistance to the West has its roots in social liberalism, especially the environmental movement and arguments against climate change, although, as we just saw in the recent Alberta referendum on “equalization payments,” the fiscal arguments remain relevant.
Institutional decay: Over the past decade, generally since the 2008 financial crisis, political institutions throughout the West have visibly decayed. This decay has roots that go back decades, and reflect trends that have existed since the end of the Second World War. Canada has not been exempt from this, and one of the greatest shortcomings of the Trudeau government has been how obvious this decay has been since it took office. By decay, we mean the tendency of governments to conduct public relations rather than make policy, and more broadly the inability to make policy and implement it. This has become very stark as governments have stood frozen in indecision in the face of the COVID pandemic, unable to set consistent policy on masking, lockdowns, school openings, border procedures, and the like. Institutional dysfunction has gone beyond being a quain phenomenon for political scientists to study and is now a crisis that is a drag on economies and on daily life.
Foreign policy: Canadian institutional decay is having a strong impact on foreign policy, but there is the more general question of defining Canada’s national interest in the 21st century and pursuing it. Two manifestations of this have been the instability at Global Affairs Canada and the revolving door of ministers under the Trudeau government, and Canada’s inability to come up with a strategy for dealing with the United States, not just in the Trump and post-Trump eras, but since the end of the Cold War more broadly.
The United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is another example of fluidity in national identity causing political instability. It seems that the driving force in Brexit, the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, was less about the operation of the Union than about British reluctance to be attached to any larger European project. And that reluctance was not so much British and specifically English. The rise of English nationalism as a political force has been rewriting the rules of British politics since the 1970s. Alongside it has been the rise of nationalist (and sovereigntist) sentiment in Scotland, which argues that the United Kingdom’s majoritarian political system prevents the nations of the United Kingdom from having much say over what happens at the center. We will look at the interplay among Brexit and Britain’s domestic institutional problems, and what they tell us about the relative merits of majoritarian and consociational systems and which is the most appropriate for Britain.
Australia has its own identity issues. Much of Australian history has been lived under the shadow of larger powers, be it the larger powers that dominate Asia-Pacific politics, or the British Empire under which Australian society (at least the non-Aboriginal part) formed. Australia’s response has often been to separate itself, perhaps in proposals to be a regional power, to replace the British crown with a republic, or simply to take advantage of physical isolation. During the pandemic, it has been the latter, with Australia closing its borders to permit a policy of eradicating the novel coronavirus completely. We will be looking at how Australia’s history very much led to a “hermit nation” policy during the pandemic.
Latin America, especially South America, should be much richer and more prominent on the world stage than it is. It has immense physical resources and a diverse and talented population. Its culture has worldwide appeal. Yet Latin America is associated with dictatorships and economic basket cases. The explanation to this goes back to the first Spanish and Portuguese explorers, together with the geography of the South American continent that hampers the development of areas away from the coasts. As in other regions we will be looking at, institutions are a problem, and Latin American dysfunction dates to the colonial era. On top of this, 2022 will feature a Brazilian presidential election, as conservative populist President Jair Bolsonaro seeks a second term against a collection of opponents that will include former president (and leader in the polls) Lula da Silva. Chile will also have the second round of its presidential election during the coming month. The election is consequential because the country seems to have chosen to leave the immediate post-Pinochet era behind in the choice of two extreme candidates as finalists in the election.
But before that, some epistemology
Before we turn to these issues, the next newsletter will feature a consideration of who political discourse has become so unmoored from fact and established truth. We will look at how that has arisen from postmodern thought, and its postulate that objective knowledge is impossible because humans are subjective beings who form opinions about facts. Power relations mean that some opinions are more important than others, and that the most powerful are able to manipulate facts in a way that makes them ultimately less important than opinions and self-interest.
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