Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism
Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2005
One of the oddities we find in the history of political philosophy is that the foundational text of Canadian nationalism is a work lamenting the end of Canada. The 1965 work of philosopher and theologian George Grant, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, set off a wave of nationalism throughout the country. Grant soon went from obscure academic religious philosopher to public intellectual. After his appearances on television promoting the book, his words would inspire strong nationalistic and anti-American sentiments among the students involved in the Canadian New Left. Once these students actually read the contents of the book, however, they were surprised to find a text that was deeply reactionary. The book takes an event in Canadian political history as a springboard for an analysis of the inevitable disappearance of Canada as a unique and sovereign nation. This investigation would prove to be correct with remarkable accuracy and foresight, not just for Canada but for the world. There are important insights to be gained from returning to this foundational text and reflecting on the political crisis we face today.
In Grant’s own words, this work was written from a place of anger. His anger came from Canada’s 1963 national election, which saw Conservative John Diefenbaker running against Liberal leader Lester B. Pearson after a dispute that pitted Diefenbaker’s government against John F. Kennedy’s escalated into a vote of non-confidence by the Canadian Parliament. This election was brought on by a specific incident: America’s interference in Canadian sovereignty during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The sequence of events went like this: Diefenbaker’s government requested two squadrons of Bomarc anti-aircraft missiles from the US, because the line of America’s anti-aircraft defenses was deployed along its border. If a nuclear war had broken out, it would thus have inevitably affected Canada as well. Upon granting the request, the Kennedy administration left out one major detail: these missiles would be armed with nuclear warheads and they would be manned by American soldiers, which meant stationing American troops with nuclear weapons on Canadian territory. This imposition of an American conflict onto Canadian land sparked a debate as to whether or not Canada should become a nuclear power. The core of the debate was not the idea of being a nuclear power per se so much as whether or not Canadians wanted America’s foreign policy interests to define their own policies. And after spending millions of dollars on the weapons systems, Canada ultimately rejected the nuclear warheads, which rendered the missiles largely useless.
Tensions between the Kennedy and Diefenbaker governments grew when Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba after the CIA reported that the Soviets were about to move nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba capable of reaching the United States. Uncertain as to whether the Soviets would try to break through the blockade or not, Kennedy ordered the US military to “DEFCON 3” status, which meant that preparations for a possible nuclear conflict were implemented. Diefenbaker did not immediately order Canada’s forces to the same alert level, but instead held an internal debate as to the veracity of the CIA’s report. By the time the matter had been debated to Diefenbaker’s satisfaction and he decided to order the alert, the Soviet ships had turned around.
The Kennedy administration saw this as gross indecisiveness by Diefenbaker, and US General Lauris Norstad condemned his government for this at a press conference in Ottawa. The Diefenbaker government saw this as an attack on Canadian sovereignty, and withdrew their ambassador from Washington. With the Canadian ruling and media classes split on the issue, the non-confidence vote occurred and the election pitting Diefenbaker against Pearson’s Liberals kicked off. And so opens the first chapter of Grant’s work:
Never has such a torrent of abuse been poured on any Canadian figure as that during the years from 1960 to 1965. Never have the wealthy and the clever been so united as they were on their joint attack as Mr. John Diefenbaker. It has made life pleasant for the literate classes to know that they were on the winning side. Emancipated journalists were encouraged to express their dislike of the small-town Protestant politician, and they knew they would be paid well by the powerful for their efforts. Suburban matrons and professors knew that there was an open season on Diefenbaker, and that jokes against him at cocktail parties would guarantee the medal of sophistication. (3)
Does this description not align perfectly with our own experiences as members of a new generation of Dissident Right activists? We have all experienced this alignment of the powerful across networks that paradoxically assert themselves as free agents in an open, classically liberal system. They disavow the notion that they have power in a direct sense but assert it in a more subtle, yet effective way – a testament to the insidiousness of the so-called mechanisms of democratic society. Grant goes on to further describe the elite class comprising Diefenbaker’s opposition, including in his own Parish, which offered up the Holy Eucharist to stable government. Diefenbaker’s critics describe him as a man driven by egomania – but was this accurate? Grant suggests that in order to have an adequate understanding of why the whole of the ruling class turned viciously against him, we cannot accept his ego as the explanation given that egotistic career politicians simply do not behave in a way that is so counterproductive to their wallets. Diefenbaker’s stand against American imposition was genuine – but it failed. Pearson’s Liberals won a minority government, and Canada finally accepted the nuclear warheads.
Why did Diefenbaker fail in his quest to preserve Canadian sovereignty? Diefenbaker’s nationalism combined several elements: prairie populism, a “one nation” approach to Quebec, a belief in free enterprise, and a loyalty to Britain and the Tory tradition. While Diefenbaker was able to earn the support of many common and rural folk, he lost Quebec’s support. The Quebecois were rightly suspicious of any attempt to downplay their unique identity within Canada. And while Diefenbaker tried to channel the spirit of free enterprise, he lost the support of the financial elites. In his prairie populist mind, free enterprise was bound up in the framework of Protestantism and local community. He failed to understand the hegemonic effect of global liberal capitalism, which is itself a product of the American empire, situated right below Canada. Canada’s growing dependency on the American empire would be called continentalism – the perfect description for the gradual displacement of Canadian sovereignty by the United States. We can see this in the gradual opening up of free trade between the two nations under the Liberal governments, with the Auto Pact agreement being a major milestone, which was itself gradually displaced until it was replaced altogether by NAFTA.
The fear of annexation by the States among Canadian conservatives has a history going back to our first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald. Canadian conservatism has always been of the protectionist variety, rightly suspicious of unfettered free trade. Grant summarizes it thus: “It was an inchoate desire to build, in these cold and forbidding regions, a society with a greater sense of order and restraint than freedom-loving republicanism would allow” (69). Grant gives this description after he discusses the difficulty of firmly grasping the British conservatism on which Canada was built, the desire to maintain an independence from the liberal tradition developed below. They had rightly recognized, as Grant describes it, that no small nation can depend on its capitalist class for loyalty, and patriotism is too often sacrificed to international interests. Canadian conservatism, historically speaking, is thus bound to an earlier conservative tradition that is now alien to how it is commonly understood in North America as a whole. Canadian conservatives would seek to preserve their loyalty to the Crown, the importance of religious values, the preservation of ethnic identity, and the interests of the common good over the fetishization of the individual. The Liberal Party, after all, has been the party of free trade in Canada. But by the time of Diefenbaker’s fateful time in office, the goals of Canadian conservatism had already been gradually eroded. After the Second World War, the British Empire had fallen and Canada could no longer rely on its progenitor nation for its exports, dooming them to turn to the new empire to the south.
It is in this context that Diefenbaker’s goals – although they were good ones – were doomed to failure and confusion. We can now clearly see that it was neither a matter of bad policy, strategy, or character flaws, but rather heralded the inevitable disappearance of the unique Canadian identity within the emerging global market led by the American empire. It is here that Grant turns to the more essential core of his argument in his last chapter, which is a diagnosis of liberalism and the progressive, linear view of history, and he draws a distinction between what is necessary and what is good. The proponents of universalism would be cheering on the gradual process of economic, cultural, and political integration. To Grant, the promise of an enlightened universalism is identical with the spread of liberalism. Liberalism is the ideological means through which indigenous cultures are homogenized. Industrial culture, having first arisen in Protestant societies and which forms America’s foundation, would be the means by which the spread of liberalism and the dissolving of national particularity comes to fulfillment. By becoming bound up with the American empire, the fears of Canada’s disappearance as a unique nation would come to fruition. What was lauded as necessary, would not also therefore be good.
In his later works, Grant would draw on the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacques Ellul, and Martin Heidegger to describe in greater detail the influence that technological society – more accurately termed technique – would have on the world as a whole in its homogenizing process. As science began to see the world as an object, this viewpoint came to see the world as being the same in one place as another. Technique, as arrived at through modern science, would come to determine the relation of man to man and man to nature by shaping man’s means of engagement with the world. It is of no coincidence that liberalism, with its attendant homogenization of humanity into interchangeable economic units, would arise along with technique. Grant would describe the correspondence between political events and metaphysical enframing more directly: “In this century, many men have known that the choice between internationalism and nationalism is the same choice as that between liberalism and conservatism. In a Canadian setting, internationalism means continentalism” (84).
The genius of Grant’s work was not to locate technique – as Nietzsche, Ellul, and Heidegger had done before him – but rather to diagnosis it within the context of what it means for Canada. Grant astutely describes how this process has offered up democracy as a moral good in the eyes of the universalists: the dream of equality and contractual relations open to all, regardless of race or creed; the horrors of the World Wars, allowing liberals to paint nationalism and loyalty to one’s own as something to be overcome; and finally, the American empire as a product of this mass democracy (as Grant points to this being self-proclaimed in the sermons of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.). This identification of progressive politics with the moral good is rightly criticized here as moral nonsense. And it is here that we come to the meaning of Grant’s title. To lament for Canada is to lament the loss of its unique traditions, its connection to the homeland that it wished to preserve, and the inevitable triumph of global liberalism.
Today, we are in a position to look back on Grant’s Lament for a Nation. Justin Trudeau, our current Prime Minister, has declared Canada to be a post-national state. This proclamation and a Prime Minister who could say such a thing would have shocked Grant if he were alive today, especially given Grant’s disgust with the senior Trudeau, in whose trajectory Justin follows. What we call Canadian nationalism today is, oddly enough, characterized by a moral permissiveness more American than America itself (an insight Andrew Potter, introducing the fortieth anniversary edition of the text, ascribes to Patrick Buchanan, although I could not find where Buchanan said this). What we have today are tensions between Alberta and Ontario, economic dependence on America, multiculturalism as state policy, the complete removal of the hierarchical conservatism in which the nation was founded, and the redefinition of nationalism from an identity with an ethnic-religious basis to an allegiance to a progressive idea or experiment. The conservative parties themselves would soon be tarred with a history of confusion, fraught with tension between the blue and red Tories, and the Liberal Party ended up doing exactly what Grant anticipated: namely, making the transition to the loss of identity as smooth and sweet as possible.
Even now, we see the same dynamic playing itself out yet again. Maxime Bernier’s new People’s Party of Canada (PPC) exemplifies this tendency. Bernier, after losing the Conservative Party’s leadership race, left it and formed a new conservative party meant to embody the true spirit of conservatism and preserve the Canadian identity. The contradictions arise from Bernier’s libertarian policies and his rhetoric concerning Canadian nationalism. His party’s supporters include classical liberals, libertarians, and ethnonationalists alike who all resonate with Bernier’s plans. The tension between the upwardly mobile immigrant population from places like China, who have vested interests such as in the Canadian real estate market, and those Euro-Canadians who wish to preserve their identity against what is becoming a global work camp and shopping mall, exposes the futility of a populist nationalism that does not explicitly assert its ethnic allegiance, even though many of the Euro-Canadian members of the party do not phrase it as such. In a weak attempt at countering those critics who accuse the PPC of bigotry, Bernier declared Canada to have always been a “nation of immigrants” bound together by shared values. Predictably, those shared values are liberalism, given that the ones cheering the loudest for his proclamation also proudly support Trump and MAGA. One wonders what exactly they are talking about, as we have seen that this American style of liberal conservatism has no precedence in the Canadian tradition whatsoever. The PPC is thus doomed to fail in their mission, even if they succeed in winning the election.
We can now see that Grant’s prediction of what Canada would become was correct. It now falls to us to find a new way to be at home in the world – a world that has been subsumed by technique and reduced to a collection of interchangeable objects, be they humans viewed as economic units or the environment as a standing reserve. We now face a capitalist empire, ruling by an enticing tyranny of consumerism which promises us personal fulfillment in what we buy. Marxist solutions in the end are no different, being another modern attempt to conquer the world through technique. Yet what Grant called necessity was a necessity only within the metaphysical prison we have created for ourselves. From Karl Marx to Francis Fukuyama, the philosophers of modernity set themselves against the Classical philosophers by juxtaposing their progressive view of history to it and calling it historical necessity. They declared themselves opponents of the Classical view that events in the world are of a contingent nature, occurring within the realm of the eternal order. “This implies a definition of human freedom quite different from the modern view that freedom is man’s essence. It implies a science different from that which aims at the conquest of nature” (94).
As global capitalism shifts to post-human capitalism, we lament those traditions we have lost in its wake. But lament is not hopelessness. This process of homogenization has led to tyranny and the dismantling of our identity, but in that same process we have begun to remember who we are. If we assert our freedom in the eternal order by making use of this memory, we may be able to recreate in the contingent what was essential in a new form. The crisis of transition to the post-human lingers on, and we must take advantage of this to bring ourselves home again. We can then build what remains in the ashes of what we lost into a new nationalism for our time.