Last year Stephen Woodworth, a member of Canada’s Parliament, introduced a motion to create an expert panel that would reexamine how Canada’s criminal laws define the beginning of human life. The point was clear: He wanted to open a debate over abortion, currently handled as a purely medical matter in Canada, and consider whether it might be redefined as a crime.
Woodworth is a member of the Conservative Party, and his motion drew a strong response. The four liberal opposition parties, not surprisingly, immediately condemned it. But so did many of his fellow Conservatives. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, an evangelical Christian and arguably the most right-wing Canadian leader in history, declared the motion “unfortunate” and made clear he would be voting against it. The Conservative responsible for maintaining government discipline in the House, Gordon O’Connor, went further, declaring, “This should never happen in a civilized society....I cannot understand why those who are adamantly opposed to abortion want to impose their beliefs on others by way of the Criminal Code.”
Much as Americans may joke about it as an outpost of Europe to our north, Canada is the nation most similar to the United States in the world—not just culturally, but in its politics. Its Conservative Party, in power since 2006, has been steadfastly pro-Israel, ended diplomatic relations with Iran, rolled back gun control, reduced the size of the federal bureaucracy, minimized environmental regulations to encourage resource development, and offloaded responsibilities for the welfare state to the provinces. A mainstream Republican who ended up north of the border would find Canadian conservatism, in many respects, a perfectly congenial political home.
But not in every respect. As the response to Woodworth’s motion indicates, a striking difference has arisen between the conservative movement in the two countries on social issues. Though Canada has seen some argument over same-sex marriage and abortion, it almost totally lacks America’s charged partisan debates over social issues such as school prayer, the teaching of evolution in schools (even as many religious schools receive government financial support), or religious exemptions to our publicly funded health care system. There are groups concerned with these issues, but they aren’t seen as bread-and-butter conservative principles.
Why this divergence? Why are social issues so much less contentious in Canada than in the United States? A comparison of conservative parties in the two countries illustrates how the modern slate of conservative issues came together in each country—and how easily it might have gone a different way. And at a time when many are suggesting the American GOP needs to find a new consensus to prevent the kind of national defeat it just suffered, their story suggests how much “conservative” principles can shift as coalitions change—and that conservative positions may look very different in a decade.
In the United States today, it seems automatic that one party would be on one side of a whole menu of social issues—abortion, gay rights, sex education in schools, divorce, and the role of women—and that these would sit cheek-by-jowl with the other bedrock conservative issues of military strength and pro-business economic policies. The Republican Party has embraced its social agenda so fervently over the past several decades that it’s easy to forget a point that some of the party’s more libertarian members make: that a political interest in people’s morality doesn’t fit particularly well with a belief in limiting the power and reach of the government.
Canadian conservatives tend to agree with American conservatives when it comes to economic and foreign policy, so why the difference on social issues? While many factors make politics in the two countries different, a crucial one is the historical evolution of conservative ideology—particularly in the late 1960s, when social issues like abortion, homosexuality, the public display of religion, no-fault divorce, and the role of women became contentious in both countries.
Initially, it was policy makers, judges, and political elites who struggled with how to adapt laws and public policy to quickly changing social mores. But, by the early 1970s, these were becoming political issues: Both progressives and conservatives were mobilizing powerful grass-roots organizations that made social issues the centerpieces of their political appeal.
At the time, however, exactly how positions on these issues would fit into existing ideologies was not obvious. Was being “pro-life” giving voice to the disenfranchised and voiceless, and so a progressive cause, like welfare for children? Or, was it a defense of traditional notions of the family, and thus a conservative position? Was homosexuality a moral failing, or was it perhaps a disease like alcoholism that ought to be treated therapeutically (a stock progressive argument at the time against sodomy laws)? Continued...