By Nelson Wiseman
University of Toronto Press, 2008
ISBN 9780774813884 (trade) $85
ISBN 9780774813891 (paper) $29.95
Nelson Wiseman’s view of Canadian politics rests on the conventional and the traditional. He searches for Canadian political culture by looking to the past in historical review, although he does add some more recent social survey data to strengthen the core of his thesis.
Wiseman sets out to prove is that if there is a specifically ‘Canadian’ political mode, it is expressed uniquely in each region, being formed from the interaction between the views of the existing local political élite and the social philosophy imported by each new wave of immigration.
While this may appear to be blindingly apparent to any observer, it would appear that Canada’s political historians have “not taken the trouble to compare Canada’s regional political cultures: they have been telling the story of Canada at large or that of a specific province,” Wiseman claims.
Well, duh…. What could those fellows have been thinking?
Two identifiable parts
The book falls into two parts, and would have benefitted by having them separated more clearly. The first five chapters deal with overarching theoretic concerns and is possibly more of interest to pol-sci students:
- frameworks and techniques of political science
- surveys and political culture
- constitutions and institutions as culture
- bi-culture, multi-culture, and aboriginal culture, and
- regional cultures.
In the last five chapters of the book, Wiseman gets down to regional politics, painting an historical tapestry showing how each wave of new immigrants impacted the political culture of the time. If you are looking for a socially-aware account of regional politics, here’s where Wiseman’s political insights become a useful guide for the fascinated but perplexed.
Five political regions
Wiseman divides Canada into five regional political cultures. These are:
- Atlantic — Maritime provinces: traditional
- Québéc — the politics of distinct society
- Ontario — archetypal English-Canadian
- Mid West — Manitoba, Saskatchewan: social democratic
- Far West — Alberta and BC: parvenu
Of these possible cultures, his Far West combo is the most unlikely. Do BC and Alberta really have much in common? Wiseman admits that they are an unlikely pair, being separated physically by the Rockies and differentiated by the ocean, the prairie, and immigration patterns.
The logic for harnessing (them) together lies in their common upstart character. These provinces brim with the possibility of advancement for their residents. This region, more than any other, has beckoned migrants from other parts of Canada with the prospect of entry into a charmed circle.
It’s a stretch, and he spends most of the chapter differentiating the two. But overall, the chapters on regional political cultures are possibly the most accessible and useful parts of the book for the lay reader.
Between two stools
Although his stated intent was to create a work understandable by both professional political scientists, students, and lay readers, Wiseman often seems to be addressing his attention towards his academic peers.
The book demands more than a passing knowledge of Canadian history, and Wiseman’s eclectic, somewhat stream-of-thought style doesn’t help matters. He tends to dive around between topics and periods, so much that often it’s difficult to remember exactly what he is addressing.
In attempting to satisfy two incompatible audiences, Wiseman’s book falls between two stools. It is not light reading; you have to be very interested in Canadian political history to get through it. But if you are fascinated by politics, Wiseman offers many useful political insights.
New political arena
For myself, the book disappoints in its focus on conventional party and electoral politics; its almost complete lack of recognition of the impact of neo-liberalism on all levels of government in all countries; and its failure to consider Canada’s place in the global struggle for democracy.
Political parties and electoral politics may be a public manifestation of political culture, but they are not its only aspect. The peace and then environment protest movements of the 1960s and ’70s gave birth to today’s proliferation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Millions of people world-wide have stepped away from party politics to focus on the public arena. Greenpeace didn’t just find a way of using media to force industry to heel; it invented a new political arena.
Misses the mark
On this count, to my mind Nelson Wiseman has failed to fully describe contemporary Canadian political culture. It’s an erudite and insightful analysis of Canadian political history, but it does not achieve its aim.
By ignoring the political chasm that separates this from previous generations, he fails to advise those struggling for social and ecological justice on a planet on which human political culture is out of control.
Politics as an academic spectator sport will protect neither fragile ecosystems nor our fragile democracy. Both are under attack at this time, and it looks as though political science will not help save them.
Will Canadian politics simply be a continuation of the past, or have we gone through a political sea change that will result in a radically transformed and more polarised political landscape?
from the personal to the political
By Judy Rebick
Penguin Canada 2009
ISBN 978-0-8020-2 (cloth) $75
ISBN 9780143169468 (paper) $24.00