In a recent letter to university presidents, the head of the Canada Research Chairs program sent out a distress signal to warn that plans to make top-level campus hiring more “diverse” are failing. Ted Hewitt, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, a federally funded body with a representative on the research chairs program, wrote of how he “was very concerned.”

“We are calling on you and your colleagues to sustain and intensify your efforts [to address] the underrepresentation of individuals from the four designated groups within the program,” wrote Hewitt. The groups include women, visible minorities, people with disabilities, and natives.

Hewitt’s letter demonstrates the absurdity of the modern academic approach to so-called diversity.

For one thing, as president of the research chairs program, if gender diversity for its own sake is your thing, Hewitt could step down and recommend a woman take his place. Leadership starts at the top and not with a memorandum.

For another, the focus on superficial human characteristics (race, gender, et al.) shows how far the modern university has strayed from the merit principle: we should all care about what’s inside your head, and not what your head, or the rest of your body, looks like. (That was, after all, what old-fashioned liberals fought for until somehow, inexplicably, the culture cult and identity cult adherents invaded liberalism and turned it inside out.)

The surface diversity worship in academia is a problem for another reason: it exacerbates the scarcity of an actual important diversity, the intellectual kind, which has long been rare in Canadian academia.

In fact, one of its last bastions – the “Calgary School” at the Political Science department at the University of Calgary – is on the brink of extinction.

For those unaware, the Calgary School refers to a small group of small-c conservative or classically liberal professors who not only swam against the progressive current that has dominated Canadian academia for many years, but also had a significant impact on the country’s conservative movement. The core group, which includes Tom Flanagan, Barry Cooper, Rainer Knopff, Ted Morton, and David Bercuson (and perhaps an honorary mention to Leslie Pal who once taught at the University of Calgary but was not a decades-long affiliate) , have either retired (or are shortly scheduled to), or moved on to other settings.

The Calgary School members were intellectually diverse in their own right, but they were united in their opposition to overwhelming belief among Canadian political scientists that interventionist government and/or interventionist agencies connected with the state—human rights tribunals, regulatory bodies, courts and others in increasing amounts—are almost always necessary and benign.

Their contrarian views made them unwelcome in some academic circles, but it also made them newsworthy and in demand as authors and pundits. Some of them played active roles in Alberta politics or the federal Reform Party, but their more important, and enduring, contribution to Canadian political thought was to provide an alternative view of the country’s conventional political, economic and cultural assumptions – what Barry Cooper labeled the “Laurentian consensus”.

Born in the 1960s among the academic, media and political classes in the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa axis (hence the Laurentian moniker), the consensus held that Canada had always been a mainly “modern” liberal and not a classically liberal country. It ignored or subverted the classic liberalism of Canada’s founders including Conservative John A. MacDonald and Liberal Wilfrid Laurier. But the consensus held sway in central and eastern Canada because it appealed to the thoroughly modernist francophone sovereignty movement in Quebec and supported the increasingly state-dependent economies of the Maritimes, while consolidating national economic and political power in southern Ontario.

It gained little traction in Western Canada because the anti-Americanism foundational to the Laurentian myth competed with another, older and deeper Western narrative: “Eastern” bankers, businesses and politicians, not Americans, were the primary menace to the West’s economic and political aspirations.

Practically, the Laurentian vision – mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most 1960s progressive of them all? – led to freedom-limiting actions in the thought and actions of Parliament and courts, generally with the complicity of central Canadian media. Organic change in Canadian life was supplanted by top-down social engineering. The self-appointed Platonic guardians in those three professions always knew best. Legislatures and the courts were effectively licenced to impose currently fashionable values on society including families, and to stifle dissent when others contended that such interference was neither attuned to human realities nor respectful of actual freedom and diversity in thought, word and action. The Laurentian imposition was evident in everything from the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly to the National Energy Program to creative court judgments on family and cultural matters. In the latter, any notion of allowing Canadians to debate and change organically at their leisure via Parliament and the legislatures was an affront to the guardian class’ self-assumed superior knowledge; it has thus has been disallowed by the same justices and from low to high courts. (Anyone who doubts that should read Supreme Court of Canada judgments on everything from Aboriginal matters to assisted suicide.)

University of Calgary arc
                                                                                                    University of Calgary / Riley Brandt

The members of the Calgary School specialized in attacking various elements of the hubristic, artificial, self-referencing “consensus”. Tom Flanagan focused on the paternalistic and collectivist impulse entrenched in aboriginal policy. In numerous books and articles he relentlessly argued for desegregation and integration of native people into the mainstream of Canadian life through such tools as accountability and transparency in governance and property rights.

Rainer Knopff and Ted Morton zeroed in what they called the “Court Party”, the coterie of unelected jurists, academics and interest groups who engineered extraordinary legal and social changes through ever-more creative and often self-contradictory interpretations of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Leslie Pal, not at the University of Calgary in recent years but arguably part of this alternative approach when there, took aim at what he called the “embedded state” and its pernicious effect on government finances and politics. By this he meant bodies, agencies or arms of government, public sector unions the most obvious example, which by their collective strength in numbers, seek to grow their power and influence within government in pursuit of their own interests, even when—as it often does now in the 21st century—it overrides the  broad public interest.

One of the last Calgary School professors still at his desk in the Political Science department, Barry Cooper, has nicely tied together many aspects of the contrarian Calgary School in his work which has emphasized how narratives take on a life of their own. Thus Cooper has and still writes on the falsity of Laurentian consensus more than most and its errant elevation to the status of an assumed “Canadian” narrative. This of course ignores the Prairie narrative, the self-understanding of British Columbians, and the unique story that emanates from the Quebecois, and Newfoundlanders.

Regrettably, the University of Calgary, rather than building on the success of the Calgary School by recruiting ever-more contrarians into its political science faculty, has effectively abolished the Calgary School in Political Science by replacing the retirees with modernists and scattering the remaining classical liberals among other departments. There are some fine people in Political Science—I know them and respect their work—but to some, especially in the leadership of the university, and department leadership if actions are any guide, seem to be embarrassed by the past and present success of “the school.” So rather than continuing that cohort’s impact by renewing the only contrarian, effective—and diverse—political science faculty in the country, the University of Calgary seems intent on turning its Political Science department into a mostly generic version of what can be found elsewhere in Canada: Free market economics are treated with suspicion; the courts are never to be questioned except when they are not moving even faster on overturning (their own) precedent and parliamentary sovereignty; the dead hand of status quo Aboriginal policy is to be encouraged except with more money and more political regrets; and the West should be assumed to be on a trajectory to become more like the CBC in downtown Toronto rather than vice-versa.

The Calgary School indeed did influence debate, policy and much else in Canada political life over the last few decades. But it speaks volumes about the lack of intellectual diversity in Canadian universities that a handful of academics – classically liberal, Burkean conservative in some respects, and free-market friendly in a manner similar to most small entrepreneurs – were as noteworthy and influential as they were.

Still one should be an optimist here for some other ‘school” to arise however it might do so in the context of 21st century realities. Notwithstanding the determination of Canadian universities to discriminate against intellectual diversity in the name of superficial diversity, the Calgary School signified how a broad appetite among Canadians – including young university students – for classical liberal ideas and another view of Canada besides the Laurentian consensus, has long existed.

Back to Hewitt then and “diversity”: With an eye to actual diversity demonstrated for four decades by the Calgary School, perhaps high-level Canadian academics might pay more attention to a critical diversity—the intellectual kind, and less or preferably none to the fake, flavour-of-the-month surface “diversity” variety. The latter kind does nothing to inform or challenge the young, or to remind Canadians that most reality and much that is important lies below surface characteristics.


Mark Milke is a PhD graduate of the University of Calgary Department of Political Science – and chose Calgary precisely because of its current of classical liberalism.