Montreal, August 15, 2011 • No 291


Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.


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When "Liberal" Meant Something: A Review of Christopher Pennington's The Destiny of Canada


by Bradley Doucet


          The Canadian federal election of 1891, fought 120 years ago, pitted two legendary Canadians against each other for the first and only time. In the Conservative corner was the incumbent, Sir John A. Macdonald, a Father of Confederation and Canada’s first Prime Minister, who had led the young country for all but five of its first 24 years. Hoping to wrest the title of Prime Minister from his grip was Liberal Wilfrid Laurier, who would eventually become just as much of an icon as his famous opponent.


          The story of this great contest—which turned on the issue of continental free trade but could just as easily have torn the country apart along linguistic and religious lines—is engagingly recounted by Christopher Pennington in The Destiny of Canada: Macdonald, Laurier, and the Election of 1891, published by Penguin as a part of its History of Canada Series. The young historian makes a good case in his Preface for why this largely neglected election is actually a pivotal episode in Canadian history that richly deserves a proper book-length treatment. In the 300 pages that follow, Pennington does a splendid job of providing one.

Macdonald the Conservative

          By 1891, Macdonald’s National Policy—a system of high tariffs on British and American imports—had been in effect for twelve years. Its ostensible purpose was to protect Canadian manufacturers from foreign competition in order to allow them to grow. It went hand in hand with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway all the way out to British Columbia in an effort to industrialize and unite the country and to assert its independence from the United States.

          But the National Policy had not succeeded in lifting Canada out of its “economic doldrums.” Manufacturers supported it, to be sure, as they were its direct beneficiaries. A million Canadians, though, had moved to the US to find work since the early 1860s, at a time when the total population of Canada was under five million. No wonder, then, that “many Canadians had lost faith in the wisdom of fighting a never-ending tariff war with their vastly larger and more prosperous southern neighbour.”

          Farmers, especially, disliked the protectionist measure, and longed for a return to “the blissful days of the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854, when natural products had crossed the border freely.” They wanted better access to the American market for their produce, and they also resented paying higher prices for Canadian manufactures than they would have paid if they could have freely imported cheaper American products. And in an age when three-quarters of the population still worked the land, what farmers wanted could not easily be ignored.

Laurier the Liberal

          Enter Wilfrid Laurier, who assumed the leadership of the Liberal Party from Edward Blake after the Liberals lost the 1887 election. Other prominent Liberals, notably Sir Richard Cartwright, were known to be ardent free traders, but Blake had not pushed for free trade when he led the party, and neither did Laurier at first. Just weeks after assuming the leadership of the party, though, Laurier was informed by Cartwright that Ontario farmers were taking it upon themselves to push the free trade agenda. Liberal newspapers like the Toronto Globe, which usually marched to a beat set by top Liberal politicians, “jumped on the bandwagon without getting permission from the federal party leaders.” The Toronto Mail, formerly a Conservative mouthpiece but now the country’s largest independent paper, also got behind the movement.

          Despite the pressure to declare a position, Laurier took his time making up his mind. Pennington tells us that he had “never cared very much about economics,” although he did have “a natural sympathy for free trade, and felt that some kind of deal with the United States would be good for Canada.” It took over half a year, but finally, Laurier and the Liberal Party declared for something they called “unrestricted reciprocity,” which meant “complete free trade with the United States, but with the retention of customs houses along the border and the continuing right of each country to set its own tariffs against other countries.”

"The young historian makes a good case in his Preface for why this largely neglected election is actually a pivotal episode in Canadian history that richly deserves a proper book-length treatment. In the 300 pages that follow, Pennington does a splendid job of providing one."

          Following this declaration, the Great Free Trade Debate of 1888 took place in the House of Commons, lasting a full three weeks. Though the ruling Conservatives predictably won the battle, the subject refused to go away, and it became the issue over which the 1891 election was fought. The Liberals argued that giving producers access to a market sixty million strong and to cheaper manufactured inputs—and giving everyone access to cheaper consumer goods—would be just the thing to spur the languishing Canadian economy. The Conservatives, unable to argue convincingly that their economic policies had delivered widespread prosperity, retaliated by waving the flag and accusing the Liberals of being in league with annexationists, if they weren’t annexationists themselves. Whatever Canadians thought of the trade issue on economic grounds, most could agree that they did not want to be pulled into the American orbit politically.

Elections Past, Present, and Future

          If you don’t remember which of these two men—Macdonald or Laurier—led his party to victory all those years ago, I won’t ruin the suspense for you. Pennington himself doesn’t give it away until the final chapter, the better to make us feel the drama that our forebears lived through.

          The author also gives readers a real sense of the other major issue of the day that could have played a decisive (and divisive) role in the 1891 election: language and religion. The province of Quebec was predominantly French and Catholic, while the rest of the country was mainly English and Protestant. Issues like the hanging of Louis Riel and the Jesuits’ Estates Act were still fresh in voters’ minds, but leading politicians from both parties made concerted efforts to quell rather than inflame such tensions. Especially with a French Canadian Roman Catholic, Wilfrid Laurier, at the head of a federal party for the first time, keeping the focus on the trade question (however bitterly contested) helped keep the young country from coming apart at the seams.

          Pennington’s book is a joy to read for its lively accounts of an important episode in the history of Canada. For a libertarian, it is furthermore refreshing to read about a time when Liberals actually fought for economic liberty. Wouldn’t it be nice if today’s Liberals, chastened by their dismal results in the 2011 federal election, became liberals once again in more than just name?

          Considering that along the traditional political spectrum, the Liberals today are being squeezed by the NDP on the left and the Conservatives on the right, the time is ripe for them to discover the Nolan Chart. That two-dimensional grid maps personal freedom along one axis and economic freedom along the other. In this conceptualization of the political scene, the NDP claims only the left corner of the diamond-shaped grid, with the Conservatives claiming the right corner. The upper corner, sparsely populated by a few libertarians, could be fertile ground for a revitalized, classically liberal Liberal Party, if only they would make a credible effort at staking their claim to it. Even laying claim to the upper centre could siphon off socially-liberal/fiscally-conservative votes from the authoritarian alternatives to the left and right.

          It may sound fanciful, but does the Liberal Party have a better idea of how to reverse their fortunes? The upshot, if we can convince them to adopt this strategy and apply it successfully, would be increased personal and economic freedom for all Canadians.