Western protest movements inevitably get absorbed by mainstream parties
J.L GRANATSTEIN,H. GRAHAM RAWLINSONMarch182002
Doomed to failure
Western protest movements inevitably get absorbed by mainstream parties
H. GRAHAM RAWLINSON
What does the West want? Puzzled federal politicians and citizens in the rest of Canada have scratched
their heads for years as they watched Western protest rise—and collapse. Ontario has never needed a protest party to get its way, the Maritimes seem always mired in the old party ways, and Quebec plays its own game of threats. But in the West, the Métis, the Prairie farmers, the left, the right—all have taken a crack at the citadels of national power, and all have failed. The party system established by John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier and honed by Mackenzie King has always proved able to check, control, and eventually absorb protest. Lately, the current troubles of the Canadian Alliance make it seem as if the leaky vessel of Western protest again will come to grief on the rocks of national politics.
Western protest is as old as Canada— and in almost every instance, it has been wholly justified. Louis Riels rebellions in 1870 and 1885 were cries against inattention from Ottawa politicians and laments for a lost way of life. A generation later, Prairie farmers and their pressure group organizations were understandably furious that free trade initiatives with the Americans that would have resulted in cheaper manufactured goods had been turned down in 1911. Frustrated with the railways’ predatory practices and convinced that the traditional parties represented only the vested interests, they organized the Progressive Party at the end of the First World War.
Based on the farmers’ organizations, the agriculturists won effective control of the Prairie capitals (and Ontario, too!) in the immediate post-war period. In 1921, they took enough seats in Parliament to stand second to the governing Liberals. Albertan Henry Wise Wood, the United Farmers of Alberta leader and the populist thinker behind the movement, wrote that the farmers wanted “democratic organization’’
with the people able to “initiate, direct and control” their own lives. Tired of “top down, autocratic organization” by government and bankers, they demanded “bottom-up” government. In a West where people had a strong tradition of cooperating to survive, populism was the battle cry—
much like the Canadian Alliance’s mantra that its grassroots control the party.
But after their initial successes, the Progressives failed spectacularly. They declined to form the official opposition in 1921, because they feared the corrupting effect of politics and power. Well-meaning, they
proved hopelessly naive and passed the mantle to the Conservatives led by the unpopular Arthur Meighen. The farmers’ parliamentary leaders despaired at organizing an unruly caucus. Every time one of them met with Prime Minister Mackenzie King, their MPs charged them with political treason. King, for his part, fatally fractured the unity of the farmer MPs by introducing small tariff and railway rate concessions. By 1926, this protest party was no longer a factor.
The Great Depression gave the West another reason to feel that the national government had failed it, as economic turmoil caused unimagined hardships. Crops failed, dust storms swept the Prairies and government aid was minimal. On the left, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation preached social democracy, but until the party won power in Saskatchewan under Tommy Douglas in 1944, socialism had few western adherents outside that province. Then the wartime desire to prevent another depression and to create a better life for returning soldiers led to a rise in support for social welfare across Canada. At one point, the CCF actually led the opinion polls. King, however, stole the socialists’ program by introducing unemployment insurance, family allowances, and a host of other attractive social policies. The CCF never again was a serious electoral threat. Protest on the left was largely a spent force.
On the right, “Bible Bill” Aberhart and Social Credit also seemed poised to seize the nation’s attention. A teacher and mesmerizing radio evangelist, Aberhart attacked the big money interests and international Jewry that, he claimed, controlled finance. By promising everyone $25 a month, enough for food and shelter, Aberhart swept to power in Alberta in 1935. His followers also swept the province in the federal election later that year. While Bible Bill decried the “slimy octopus” of international finance with its “blood-sucking tentacles around every man, woman and child,” his government made little headway against the British North America Act which limited Alberta’s power to change the banking system. The financiers, Aberhart’s supporters claimed, blocked real reform. In Ottawa, Socred MPs spouting the same line made no impact at all, but hung on into the 1960s. The provincial Alberta Social Credit party, however, continued to thrive under the shrewder, moderate
stewardship of Ernest Manning, premier after Aberhart’s death.
Manning was the father of Preston Manning who later combined the evangelicalism of Social Credit and the populism of Progressivism to establish the Reform party as a fundamentally western movement: “The West Wants In” was the battle-cry of Reform’s 1987 first convention in Vancouver.
Reform, like its predecessors, had difficulty achieving success as a national party. But give Manning credit for knowing his history: unlike the Progressive and Social Credit leaders, he knew Reform had to broaden its base and soften its edges. To his shock, however, Manning found the Alliance stolen from him by Stockwell Day, a federal neophyte who out-social conservatived Manning and seized control of those vital grassroots. Day’s Alliance party was a prototypical protest movement, and in the 2000 election it is not surprising he failed to achieve a national breakthrough. The new leader’s social conservatism didn’t sell outside of the West, and in Quebec, Day’s relatively understandable French notwithstanding, he made no impact whatsoever.
Just like his Progressive and Social Credit predecessors, the politically inept Day found the House of Commons a tough stage. The grassroots had to be heard, his caucus members had their own ambitions, and new issues demanded attention. In the Alliance’s case, the situation was exacerbated by an open revolt against Day that split the party, forced the coming vote on the leadership, and still threatens the party’s very existence.
The odds now favour a big wedding, an eventual Conservative-Alliance marriage that will keep the Conservative Party what it has always been—a national party that plays a slightly right-of-centre game. Especially if Day wins, diehard Alliance MPs will probably hang on for a time but, like the Progressives before them, they will have neither influence nor power.
Once again, populism has come undone and the strength of the old party system is being proven. The traditional parties have always tried to offer something for everyone. They are centrist, pragmatic, and reject ideological orthodoxy of any kind. They take the best ideas of the Western movements and make them their own. Very simply, they play the political game better and, inevitably, they swallow protest whole. EE
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.