There come times in the history of nations when institutions and dominant elites fail, when they can’t accommodate change, or become severely detached from the lives of average citizens. In Canada, such detachment has been the rule rather than the exception over the last 50 years, and the Laurentian Elite is largely to blame.
The Laurentian Elite, self-declared (though until recently unlabelled) arbiters of Canadian society and politics are, to paraphrase Voltaire, neither Laurentian nor elite. The 18th century French philosopher was talking about the Holy Roman Empire, another musty, antiquated political relic.
But what is, and who are the Laurentian Elite? How can they be so important if they don’t even have a Wikipedia page? The existence of a dominant social and political elite in Canada is like the air we breathe or the proverbial water around fish; it seems so natural as to be unnoticeable.
Journalist and author John Ibbitson coined the term in a seminal 2011article, later expanded into a book, The Big Shift. He defined the “Laurentians” as “the political, academic, cultural, media and business elites” of central Canada. Ibbitson and co-author Darrell Bricker argued that the 2011 federal election, in which the Conservatives achieved a majority via the alignment of Western Canada and ex-urban Ontario, represented a major rearrangement in our electoral landscape. The 2015 and 2019 elections suggest that, if a shift is happening, it will take a long time and occur in fits and starts. Demographics are changing, but what if our politics and institutions are lagging?
In his analysis, Ibbitson does cite and credit the historical accomplishments of central Canada’s elites, from the National Policy to the St. Lawrence Seaway and what he terms the “national social security system”. He is unduly kind.
Beginning in 1968, coincident with the election of Pierre Trudeau, our elites adopted contemporary left-leaning economic and social policies. Federal government spending mushroomed from 16 percent of the economy in 1967 to 25 percent of a much larger economy by 1984 when Trudeau Sr. left office – a vast increase in dollar terms. The spirit of the times favoured enthusiastic expansion of government agencies, provincial and municipal governments, resulting in a Canadian public sector comprising almost 50 percent of the economy. The programs implemented and institutions created during those years are too numerous to mention, which itself makes the point. A robust civil society and private-sector economy were being supplanted by an expanding state.
All came to a head in the 1990s. Canada’s debt to GDP ratio was approaching 72 percent and, in 1995, the Wall Street Journal called us “an honorary Third World country”. After two credit rating downgrades, and with prodding from the decidedly non-Laurentian Reform Party, the Liberals acted. Laurentian patriarchs Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien are credited with righting Canada’s finances. But who cast us into the pit in the first place?
Throughout this period and almost to the end of the century, the Laurentian Elite grappled with the, for them, existential crisis: Quebec separatism. Confederation was, in their view, a compact between “two founding peoples” and would be blown apart by Quebec’s departure. Laurentian Canada’s brokerage parties had no visceral understanding of the true believing separatists, who saw each federalist concession as another step toward independence. So it was that Canada had its near-death experience in 1995, allegedly saved only by “money and the ethnic vote”, to quote Parti Québécois leader Jacques Parizeau.
The overconfident federalist leaders – Laurentians all – had fairly sleepwalked through the campaign, until it dawned on them at the 11th hour that Quebeckers really might vote to leave. A shaken Chrétien gave a pleading, somewhat pathetic address five days before the vote. Interviewed years later about the referendum, senior Liberal cabinet ministers still resembled deer in the headlights, revealing their complete unpreparedness for the “unthinkable”. Needless to say, Parizeau’s people had a detailed implementation plan ready to launch upon a favourable result.
Judged by the twin yardsticks of fiscal management and national unity, then, the Laurentian Elite’s tenure over the last 50 years has ranged from poor to passable. As the Laurentians presided, their worldview – what Ibbitson calls the “Laurentian Consensus” – ruled. The lack of competition from a rival elite or elites (with the exception of the Separatists, and we saw how that turned out) increased their intellectual torpor and complacency. This, coupled with an increasingly arrogant detachment from many ordinary Canadians, particularly those outside central Canada, created social and political rifts.
Despite pressures and challenges, Canada’s Laurentian elite remains alive and certainly strong enough to damage regions it sees as alien, unworthy or threatening. For non-Laurentians – be you westerners, easterners or central Canadians – it is surely worth knowing what you are dealing with. Elites commonly define themselves by class or ideology but, for Canada – blessed with “too much geography” – there is a strong regional overprint as well.
Despite Canada’s lack of extreme social stratification, the Laurentian elite is a definable class, dominating the upper strata of politics, the larger corporate sector (particularly banking/finance and manufacturing), the bureaucracy, Crown corporations and other semi-independent agencies, academia, the news media, philanthropy and society at large. The private-sector membership tends toward large legacy industries, often dominated by multi-generational families and Bay Street (formerly St. James Street in Montreal). The media, particularly the CBC, project the “consensus” across the country.
Historically, as Ibbitson observes, membership was largely of British Protestant origin. It’s noteworthy that diversity in the elite does not really meet the level it expects of others. Education in the “right” schools is not mandatory, but preferred. Quebec elites strove for more autonomy, but artfully used the grand bargain that would allow them to elect one of their own as prime minister for 58 of the last 120 years. If you include Ontario, the Laurentians have filled the Prime Minister’s Office for roughly 85 of 120, compared to 21 years for the West and nine for Atlantic Canada. And, as journalist Diane Francis has observed, the elite’s members have shown remarkable mobility among the upper levels of Canada’s government, business and the bureaucracy.
While fundamentally central Canadian, reflecting its originals in the watershed of the St. Lawrence River, the Laurentian Elite has cultural outposts across the country, mostly in the large cities. The result is the Glebe or Annex talking to Glenora or Kitsilano. Omitted is a vast Canadian fly-over country, larger even than that in the United States. Historically, up-and-comers in the periphery would regularly move to central Canada, or at least seek affirmation from the centre’s elites. Canadian Red Toryism, particularly in the West, was partly a manifestation of this phenomenon, with climbers emulating the politics of the centre.
Still, things are changing. Today’s Laurentian Elite is arguably our local franchise of the mobile, international (or transnational) professional class – the “Anywheres” as discussed by Stephen Harper in his 2018 book, Right Here, Right Now. These are, according to Harper, urban and university-educated professionals who “have become genuinely globally-oriented in their careers and personal lives”. International postings – particularly appointments at the UN, or senior roles at a major British bank – are particularly sought-after and lauded. The burgeoning of Canada’s globalists may be diluting the distinctive Laurentian character of this class.
Reading a résumé, could you spot the Laurentian? Take, for example, these pre-political profiles of three former politicians:
A Born: Ottawa Educated: Ottawa and Ottawa Worked: Toronto and Ottawa
B Born: Alberta Educated: Alberta and Nova Scotia Worked: Ottawa
C Born: Toronto Educated: Toronto and Alberta Worked: Alberta and Ottawa
Mystery pol “A” might be the easiest to finger as a Laurentian, given the geographical data. “A” stands for Allan, Rock in this instance. Laurentian-born and bred, as a Liberal cabinet minister Rock typified the superficially erudite, bilingual, cosmopolitan self-image of his class, despite his pre-political radius of life appearing to have been about 200 miles.
Mystery man “B” is Joe Clark, who could be described as a Laurentian trapped in an Albertan’s body. Clark was the standard-bearer for a generation of Red Tories, whose greatest ambition – as one wag put it – was to lead the “Liberal B-team”. As such, he met the Laurentian Elite’s main requirement for an acceptable conservative, one who could be counted on to lose gracefully. And, should he buck the odds and happen to stumble into power, at worst he would briefly slow the elite’s agenda (as his minority government did in 1979-1980). Ultimately, Clark’s 2004 endorsement of Paul Martin over Stephen Harper was, for many, all that need be said about him: he was at home with the Laurentians.
Lastly, Mr. “C” could be called the anti-Laurentian. It is Stephen Harper.
The most succinct description of the Laurentian Elite, from Bricker and Ibbitson, is this: “The people who matter”. It’s fair to say they didn’t matter that much to Harper. He would almost certainly endorse a Canadian version of late American conservative William F. Buckley’s famous declaration that he would “sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University”. Translated into Canadian, Harper is infuriatingly Tim Hortons.
The establishment’s sweeping, varied and seemingly unlimited distaste for Harper can hardly be done justice even in the generous space allowed here. Ibbitson quotes one incendiary example, from the late academic (and ex-husband of the former Governor-General) Stephen Clarkson. He described the Harper government as “a proto-fascist security state”. This surpassed even journalist and acidic Harper critic Michael Harris’ estimation that the former Prime Minister “did his absolute best to rebrand Canada as a northern Republican outpost”.
Similarly bizarre instances included the “reclining Harper” nude portrait by Margaret Sutherland and novelist Yann Martel’s attempt to “instruct” the Prime Minister via a recommended reading list. The latter was particularly odd given the former-PM’s clearly formidable intellect and well-known study of history, economics and philosophy, among subjects.
The very preposterousness of the attacks is revelatory, however. It was generally not genuine criticism regarding differences over policy or governing style. It was venomous loathing of an outsider with the temerity not to want to become an insider. The fact that Harper, by birth and geography a Laurentian, chose to be an ideological and social apostate explains much of the bile and invective. It comes down not just to having the right pedigree, but to thinking the right thoughts.
The outlook of these “people who matter” is Ibbitson’s “Laurentian Consensus”, a shared view of politics, society and the world. It seems odd, however, that Canada’s ruling elite should need an ideological consensus. Even small European countries have long featured two or more competing, ideologically-distinct parties. By contrast, the Laurentians have for decades promoted what is now an unadmitted axiom of the Left, diversity in nearly all things except thought.
Prior to 1968 the Laurentian Elite outside Quebec was broadly Anglophilic, practitioners of fairly small government and clinging, as some might say, to traditional values and religion. A passive-aggressive, Upper Canadian hostility to the United States was noticeable, fed perhaps by an inferiority complex, resentment at the Yankees’ risk-taking courage in winning their own independence, and vestigial memories of the United Empire Loyalists and the War of 1812.
As a class of “Anywheres”, the Laurentians have come largely to reflect the universal, broadly-leftist monoculture marinated in internationalist radical chic. Their personal ethos is typically secular and expansively socially “progressive”. Today this includes much of the post-modern canon: intersectionality, quantifying “privilege” and frequent if not incessant signalling of virtue (recently described as the adoption and presentation of “luxury values”). Economically they range from socialist to corporatist, business leaders who actively seek accommodation and advantage from deals with government while typically helping promote the progressive social agenda.
The 1970s to mid-1980s were a high-water-mark of the “consensus”, a maddening time for those on the outside looking in. This was nowhere better reflected in the media than in three-headed pundit panels like CBC Radio’s. Ostensibly drawn from different parties, Stephen Lewis, Eric Kierans and Dalton Camp were all crowding the left side. Lewis is a self-described member of the “Socialist International”, Kierans believed the Liberal Party was in “the service of corporatism” and Camp called credit “the root of all evil”.
To paraphrase Sidney Hook, the NDP of the 1970s were “Trudeau Liberals in a hurry” and the Progressive Conservatives were like anxious schoolboys trying to fit in with the cool crowd. As for the Laurentians, their chosen political vehicle was clear. One of their consistent failings, in fact, has been equating the interests of the Liberal Party with the interests of Canada. Worse is their belief that specific Liberal Party policies – dating back as far as the late 1960s – are synonymous with “Canadian identity”.
Pierre Trudeau’s Ottawa promoted the rather confusing view of Canada as “multi-culturalism in a bi-lingual framework”. In practice, this has meant an ever-more decidedly French Quebec and an increasingly multicultural remainder. Trudeau’s son reflected the prevalent confusion over (if not outright contempt for) Canadian identity when he told the New York Times “there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada”. This was seemingly a riff on Paul Martin’s “country of minorities” or (again) Yann Martel’s Canada as “the greatest hotel on Earth”. It is certainly in keeping with the transnational elite’s disdain for national character or patriotism and supports the hypothesis that the Laurentian character of Canada’s elite is waning.
It was understandable that, when much of Canada was wilderness and when, as the song goes, “the green dark forest was too silent to be real”, vast regions could be viewed as a hinterland to be managed. Gaining only a rudimentary understanding of and limited empathy for the scattered denizens of the periphery might even be somewhat excusable, in retrospect. To maintain even a vestige of that view 200 years later, however, is a problem.
The West’s population now comprises almost a third of Canada compared to less than 23 percent for Quebec, and the West is by far the most demographically dynamic region. The annual west-east fiscal transfers have run for decades and have totalled hundreds of billions of dollars. While Toronto finance is still formidable, and central Canada has more jobs in that sector (about 66 percent) than its share of the population, corporate clout has shifted west, if slowed by the oil crash of 2014.
The Laurentian response to shifting population and money has been restrictive, envious and resentful – strangely reminiscent of its historical anti-Americanism. Ignorance and neglect have been replaced by targeted aggression, specifically toward the oil and natural gas industry. Under a cloak of green, the federal Liberals have written one, generally supportive rulebook for economic development in the East, and a decidedly unfriendly one – including the West-Coast oil tanker ban and Bill C-69, the “no more pipelines” bill – for the West.
The experience of Canadians in “the regions” is a lot like how most Canadians experience the United States – or how fans of teams other than the Toronto Maple Leafs experience hockey. Peripheral Canada cannot help knowing a lot about the centre. Its social and political presence is pervasive and, for the rest of us, not optional. But what does the centre know about the periphery? Not so much.
One great irony about the Laurentian Elite is that, while its members consider themselves sophisticated and cosmopolitan, they often are remarkably parochial. The view from Toronto’s CN Tower seems to be our own version of Saul Steinberg’s classic cartoon – the world seen from 9th Avenue in Manhattan. One imagines reasonable clarity up to roughly Weber’s hamburger stand (near Orillia, Ontario) beyond which come fuzzy images of moose, muskeg, wheat, mountains and then the Pacific. Looking east one might see bucolic villages amidst rolling hills, freighters, fish and fiddles.
Just as many Canadians have funny stories about “ignorant Americans” – e.g. hapless Yanks appearing at Niagara Falls with skis in the middle of July – peripheral Canadians have loads of stories about itinerant members of the Laurentian Elite. Visitors from the Golden Horseshoe would sometimes express surprise to see paved roads and multi-storey buildings in Calgary. A federal deputy minister was asked, during one of the constitutional conferences of the early 1990s, whether a recent government White Paper had undergone consultations in “the regions”. Yes, he said, “Just last week we were in Pembroke” (90 miles from Ottawa).
Lest one think this is ancient history, how to explain CBC TV’s Ian Hanomansing’s recent trip to Red Deer, Alberta? Seeking to understand the October election’s fallout, he showed up at a local donut shop dressed in an effusively-checked shirt, like he was coming to a hoedown. Howdy howdy.
This would all make for a good chuckle if it weren’t deadly serious. The profound Laurentian ignorance of all things Western, including where the energy they use comes from, has caused an avoidable, self-inflicted, made-in-Canada economic crisis (with help from U.S. activists and financiers). Also the, for the Laurentians, convenient coincidence of anti-hydrocarbon ideology with the Liberal Party’s short-term electoral interests has been too tempting to ignore. Laurentian environmental “luxury values” are their electoral gain, the West’s pain. In dealing with Alberta and Saskatchewan there is too much history and too much geography.
The larger question is whether the Laurentian Elite is confusing short-term tactical gain with strategic accomplishment. Is it really to the elite’s fundamental and long-term benefit to beggar the region that supplies such a vast proportion of the financial lubricant upon which the nation operates and that, when simply left alone to focus on prospering, doesn’t even threaten to separate? Perhaps the record of the past several years shows that, despite its electoral success, the Laurentian Elite simply does not possess the “life experience” to manage current regional tensions and basic national affairs.
Let’s start with respect. Westerners don’t need another round of condescension and contempt from the Laurentian Elite. Why should the highly educated professional class of Alberta and Saskatchewan need direction from central Canada? It is certainly growing beyond seeking its approval and affirmation. And what precisely does the Laurentian Elite think we need to be educated about?
Loose and facile comparisons are being made between Alberta and Quebec, based on the recent rise of separatist sentiment. A more appropriate comparison is with Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, a profound change in Quebec society beginning in the 1950s, brought on by widely-held support for reform and modernization. Prominent Quebeckers like Gerard Pelletier, Jean Marchand, Pierre Trudeau and Réné Levesque met regularly to debate their province’s future. Some became federalists, others separatists.
Right now, western Canada is also in a state of flux. People from all walks of life, from blue collar to the executive suites, are grappling with their region’s future. The Laurentian Elite probably does not know it, but its own future as well as that of the West’s is at stake.
John Weissenberger is a Calgary-based geologist and a Montreal native with degrees from Ontario, Quebec and Alberta universities.