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Are the culture wars over in Canada?


The Canadian federal election that took place on October 19th was historic in ways that go beyond the popular account. Forgoing the wisdom of avoiding sweeping statements about history, something my church history professor warned me against forty years ago, it seems to me the election marked the end of at least one era in Canadian politics, an era that is sometimes called the culture wars.

The beginning of the era in the culture wars that I am referring to, in so far as it has a legislative beginning, can be traced back to Bill C150, the omnibus bill of amendments to the Canadian criminal code that was passed in May of 1969, when John Turner was Minister of Justice in the new government of then recently elected Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. But the omnibus bill had its origins in the previous Parliament when Trudeau presented a similar bill in 1967 as Prime Minister Pearson’s Minister of Justice.

True to its omnibus nature, Bill C150 contained many amendments. Two areas where it made substantial changes were with regard to the laws pertaining to abortion and homosexuality. Bill C150 decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults. Indeed it was in the context of the debate around this amendment that Trudeau made his famous statement about the there being ”no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation". Thus began a long and mostly successful fight, but nevertheless short by some expectations, against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It was a fight that took place step by step in the legislatures and Parliament of Canada, and in the courts. It was a fight that ultimately culminated in Parliament formally recognizing same-sex marriage in 2005,  after it had been progressively legalized on a province by province basis through provincial court judgements, and the decision of Prime Minister Jean Chretien to not appeal an Ontario court judgement in 2003.

What Pierre Trudeau had started in 1969 with Bill-C150 was finished years later. Though many of the relevant legislative and judicial events took place after his time in office, they were nonetheless influenced by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that is strongly associated with him. This is particularly true of the decision by the Supreme Court of Canada to read Section 15 of the Charter in a way that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Bill C150 also decriminalized abortion, or “therapeutic abortions” that could be approved by a committee of three physicians at a hospital on the basis that the life or health of the mother was endangered. At the same time, a separate bill was introduced and passed, also having to do with reproductive issues, that decriminalized the sale of contraceptives in Canada. In both cases, the main opposition to the changes at that time came from the Roman Catholic Church, whose teachings on abortion and contraception were at odds with the government’s view. The evangelical Christian community would become more involved in the abortion debate some years later as the focus on abortion by the evangelical religious and political right in the United States that started in the late 1970’eventually influenced the Canadian debate.

The 1969 law on abortion,was regarded by many as too liberal, and in need of repeal. Others regarded it as not having gone far enough in decriminalizing abortion. The debate was transformed in 1988 when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the 1969 law was unconstitutional, and invited Parliament to craft a law that complied with the Charter. The government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tried to bring in a law that met the Court’s assessment of the proper balance between the rights of women and the rights of the fetus, but it was attacked from both the pro-choice and pro-life sides of the debate, and ultimately failed because not enough pro-life parliamentarians could be persuaded that a compromise was in order.  

Ironically, this led to a pro-choice policy by default, because of a persistent and understandable reluctance on the part of any future governments to try to legislate again, a reluctance based not just on difficult past experience but also ongoing evidence that the Canadian public tended to support the status quo. The result is that Canada is one of very few countries without any law pertaining to abortions. 

In terms of partisan political participation in the debates about homosexuality and abortion, it is fair to say that for a long time a diversity of opinion was tolerated within all the established political parties, with each party having its own unique brand of diversity. Opposition to or ambiguity about the advancement of gay rights and choice for women was strongest on the political right, and weakest on the political left, with the Liberal Party of Canada maintaining for many years a big tent on these issues, particularly with respect to abortion. As time wore, and the paradigm shift continued on both issues,  diversity and ambiguity became less acceptable as a strategy, and people and parties were more pressured to take sides.

On the political right, some elements within the old Progressive Conservative Party would run hard at the constituency level on an anti-abortion platform, but there was no national effort to make it an issue, because too many prominent Progressive Conservatives took a different view. This would change as the alliance between the political and the Christian right in the United States over abortion developed in the late seventies and eighties, and spilled over into Canada into the bosom of the Reform Party of Canada formed in 1987, and its successor the Canadian Alliance Party.

The creation of the Conservative Party of Canada through the merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative parties in 2004 might be seen as the end of an era in the culture wars, but only in retrospect. In spite of the fact that the new Conservative Party continued to seek votes in 2004 and 2006 on the basis of opposition to same sex marriage and abortion, it’s time in government from 2006 to 2015 would prove disappointing to those who cast their ballots on that basis.

Early on in its first mandate, the Conservative government brought forward a motion to test Parliament’s will to revisit the issue of same sex marriage. The idea of revisiting the issue was defeated, and the idea of revisiting whether the issue should be revisited never came up again, even after the Conservatives obtained a majority in 2011. This, despite fears in certain quarters that a Conservative majority would activate a hidden agenda to do so. Likewise with abortion, former Prime Minister Harper made it clear that there would be no revisiting of the issue on his watch, and there wasn’t, despite numerous government backbench efforts to make it happen. The story of just why this was so remains to be told.

In the meantime the long held big tent strategy of the Liberals when it came to abortion came to an end when Justin Trudeau, after having been elected Liberal leader, made it clear that in the future Liberal MPs would be expected to support the pro-choice position. This was either a bold move on his part, or a recognition that a big tent is only necessary when issues are not settled and there is no desire to lead or advocate on such issues. For its part, the NDP did lead on these issues, and in conjunction with policies adopted at national conventions, created an ethos in which its candidates were expected to be supportive of both choice and, later, same-sex marriage.  

In any event, Justin Trudeau is now Prime Minister and the issues his father addressed as Prime Minister in 1969 appear to be settled for the most part. This is not to suggest that debate about abortion will not continue in one form or another, particularly around the inappropriate lack of equal access to abortion in all parts of Canada. Legislative battles remain to be concluded with respect to discrimination against trans-gendered and other LGBTQ identifying Canadians. There will also be other fronts in the culture wars, but perhaps none that will so easily assign roles to the left and right of the political spectrum as the era now passing.

The political right may have benefited from the culture wars for a time in gathering votes from Canadians who might not have supported their economic policies. In the end they have nothing to show for it, either to their temporary supporters or to their base. This reality, in combination with other factors such as the expanding political consciousness of many young evangelicals to include issues like climate change and poverty reduction, and Pope Francis encouraging Catholics to do likewise, constitutes the beginning of a new era in Canadian politics that has yet to fully reveal itself.

Bill Blaikie is a United Church Minister. He is currently an adjunct professor at the United Centre for Theological Studies at the University of Winnipeg and is a Broadbent Fellow.  He was a Member of Parliament from 1979 to 2008, and an MLA and Minister of Conservation in Manitoba from 2009 to 2011.