The culture wars in Canada

By in Opinions

Opinions Writer

When Barack Obama took office in early 2009, many pundits spoke optimistically about the new post-racial, post-partisan, post-everything utopia that America would become.

The nation would drop decades-long fights over guns, abortion and the like and come together under the new president. This “end of the culture wars” that writers like Peter Beinart predicted not only failed to materialize, but it looks like a full-blown culture war may be taking shape in Canada as well.

Canada has long avoided the sort of polarized right-versus-left debate that is so common south of the border. However, when the Progressive Conservatives and Reform Party merged into the current Conservatives, winning a minority government in 2006, many conservative Canadians finally had a single point upon which to focus their attentions and votes.

Voters on the left, meanwhile, continue to split votes between the Liberals, NDP, Greens and — in Quebec — the Bloc Quebecois. But the one thing they all seem to agree on is that they despise the Conservatives.

The split between conservative and progressive Canadians came to the fore during the so-called “coalition crisis” of 2008 in which the prime minister tried to kneecap his opponents by cutting off important party funding. That, in turn, provoked an attempt to form a coalition between the Liberals and NDP and led to the first time many of us heard the word “prorogation.”

It was a rare instance of Canadians giving enough of a crap to attend formal protests and mail their Members of Parliament — which, by the way, would make a great porn title. It also highlighted an increasingly polarized public.

In recent months, the culture war has seemingly escalated in Canada. Prime Minister Harper made women’s health in the developing world a key priority for his government but refused to fund programs that provided access to safe abortions, thus denying poor women elsewhere the same rights Canadian women enjoy at home.

Conservatives also targeted the CBC for its apparent bias when one of the network’s commentators, Frank Graves, suggested the Liberal party could benefit from starting a “culture war” to highlight differences between themselves and the prime minister’s party.

“Cosmopolitanism versus parochialism,” said Graves, “secularism versus moralism, Obama versus Palin, tolerance versus racism and homophobia, democracy versus autocracy. If the cranky old men in Alberta don’t like it, too bad. Go south and vote for Palin.”

Although Graves’s advice to the Liberals was undoubtedly a divisive strategy, it was also suggested somewhat hypothetically — or at least one hopes. Canada simply doesn’t need the liberal-versus-conservative, Democrat-versus-Republican style of debate that everything in American politics is filtered through.

Indeed, one of the benefits of a multi-party system in Canada is that important issues often get more than just two perspectives since the NDP, the Green Party and, yes, even the Bloc Quebecois add significantly to the public discourse even if their respective chances of winning office are slim.

Seemingly within hours of Frank Graves’s poorly chosen words, prominent Conservatives jumped at the chance to excoriate the CBC for bias and wasting taxpayer money. This effort was led by Kory Teneycke, Stephen Harper’s former communications director, who was himself a commentator at the CBC. And if it comes down to who’s shilling for whom, surely a former aide to the prime minister is more likely to give biased analyses than a pollster whose job requires at least a veneer of objectivity.

Teneycke is no longer with the CBC since the ambitious 35-year-old was hired by Quebecor Media to oversee the creation of a 24-hour news channel called Sun TV News that would mimic the subjectivity of American cable news. People are already calling this endeavor “Fox News North” and the channel is set to hit cable boxes on Jan. 1, 2011. At the announcement for Sun TV News, Teneycke trotted out tired old talking points that should be familiar to anyone who watches Fox News.

“We’re taking on the mainstream media,” Teneycke said, probably straining not to call it the “lame-stream media” like Sarah Palin does. “We’re taking on smug, condescending, often irrelevant journalism. We’re taking on political correctness. We will not be a state broadcaster offering boring news by bureaucrats, for elites, and paid for by taxpayers. We’ll be unapologetically patriotic.”

The implication would seem to be that fair, dispassionate journalism is somehow unpatriotic and, even worse, boring. Bring on the explosions and the waving Canadian flags.

The introduction of another news outlet should be good news, by all accounts. There are many voices both on the left and the right that routinely get shut out of the political debate in Canada. Any advance in free speech is a good one. But for those who care about maintaining a pluralistic Canada and avoiding the culture wars of the United States — with the tired old fights about guns, God, abortion, etc. — the arrival of a style of journalism that specifically sets out to mislead and divide people should be alarming.