By JOHN A. STEVENSON
THE political situation in Canada has now reached a state of fluidity, but such currents of public opinion as the year now ending has disclosed have not been favourable to the Liberal Ministry of Mr. Mackenzie King. Under his leadership Liberalism, while it was languishing in other countries as an effective political force, enjoyed during the years between the two world wars a prolonged ascendency in Canada, but it was a curious political paradox that it owed this ascendency to the massed support of the most funda- mentally Conservative element in the country—the Roman Catholic voters of French-Canada. The consequence has been a complete disturbance of the old equilibrium of Canadian politics, which rested upon the premise that each of the two historic parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, would have in its parliamentary representation a substantial French-Canadian minority, and that each would there- fore be compelled to pursue policies which would not create any serious fissure between the two basic racial stocks, the British and the French.
But during the first world war the issue of Canada's participation in a foreign struggle and of military conscription for this purpose produced the dreaded racial fissure and, just when a healing process seemed to have begun, developments in the second struggle with Germany revived it and gave it a sharper edge than ever. Its seriousness was shown in high relief in 1941, when the King Ministry submitted to a national plebiscite the question of its release from the pledge of its leaders not to enforce military conscription for overseas service. There was a huge majority in favour of the release, but it was contributed mainly by the English-speaking voters, and the French-Canadian vote was cast almost solidly against it. The Government, however, afraid of intensifying the racial fissure, de- clined for many months to accept the mandate of the majority, but towards the close of the war was compelled by the pressure of its military advisers and of public opinion in the English-speaking provinces to send overseas a number of conscripts who had refused to volunteer for active service.
Undoubtedly this partial departure from its pledge, which a number of its French-Canadian supporters resisted vigorously, weakened the popularity of the King Ministry in French Canada and today one of the crucial questions in Canadian politics is whether, now that domestic, social and economic issues have come into the foreground, the French-Canadians will cease to vote as an almost solid bloc in favour of the Liberal Party and divide on normal lines of political divergence. A most encouraging sign of a new disposition on the pan of the French-Canadian voters to give a sympathetic hearing to the claims of other parties and programmes than the Liberal came through a by-election held in September in the Pontiac division of Quebec, a predominantly rural seat, whose voting record entitled it to be rated a Liberal stronghold. But when the votes were counted the Liberal candidate was found to have polled less than one-third of the popular vote in a four-cornered contest and to have lost the seat to a youthful independent, who was backed by a local organisa- tion called " Les Electeurs du Pontiac," who advocated a rather radical programme of reform with a flavour of Social-Credit doctrines in it. The loss of this seat came as a sharp shock to the managers of the Liberal Party, because it revealed that it had incurred the displeasure of a large body of French-Canadian voters, and they are wondering how far the revolt has spread.
But the Progressive-Conservative Party, as the Rightist Party of Canada now styles itself, did not derive much satisfaction from this by-election, because its candidate ran a poor third, well behind the Liberal. Since the departure of Lord Bennett for Britain its for- tunes have sunk to a very low ebb, and during the war years its performances as a parliamentary opposition under second-rate leaders were exceedingly feeble and inspired no confidence in its ability to provide a competent alternative administration—a fact which accounted for the decisive Liberal victories in the general elections of 1940 and 1945. However, the second of these contests did produce for the Progressive-Conservative Party some reinforcement both in the numbers and the quality of its parliamentary representation in the House of Commons, and at the end of the last session it could record some slight progress in the recovery of public confidence.
It is now under the leadership of Mr. John Bracken, who made his political reputation as a Liberal-Progressive Premier of Manitoba. Since his whole previous record was distinctly Leftist, he was an extraordinary choice for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and the motive behind it was a belief that the reputation as an expert upon farming problems, which as the former Principal of Manitoba's Agricultural College and as a champion of the interests of the western farmers he enjoyed, would allure into the Progressive- Conservative camp a multitude of agrarian voters, whose support would compensate for the steady drift of the industrial workers into the ranks of Canada's Socialist Party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.
The first encouraging evidence of any success for this strategy was delayed until the Progressive-Conservatives captured from the Liberals in a by-election in November a rural division of Manitoba, but their victory was won by a minority vote in a three-cornered contest, and was not impressive. Mr. Bracken's reputation for political integrity cannot make up for his lack of colourful personality and his somewhat pedestrian gifts as a platform speaker and broadcaster ; and, now that he has become the leader of the high protectionist party of Canada, his earlier record as a persistent advocate of low tariffs is being constantly cast in his teeth by his opponents. His funda- mental difficulty is that a party which is now dominated by the pro- tectionist interests of Ontario cannot hope ever to make much head- way in the prairie or maritime provinces, whose interests lie in low tariffs, and that, until it can tap with success the great basic reservoir of Conservative sentiment in Canada, the Province of Quebec, which is now highly industrialised, it has little prospect of achieving a clear majority in the House of Commons. Mr. Bracken is handicapped in his courtship of Quebec by his inability to speak French, and it has so far been completely unfruitful.
The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, popularly called the C.C.F., has one valuable asset in its Federal leader, Mr. M. J. Coldwell, a native of Devonshire, who is the best parliamentarian in the House of Commons and one of the most attractive and highly respected figures in Canadian politics Until recently the chief strength of the C.C.F. has lain in the urban and mining communities, and its Socialist programme has made little appeal to the agrarian voters, in whom the pioneer traditions of rugged individualism re- mained a potent force. But two years ago the unpopularity of a corrupt local Liberal machine enabled it to capture Saskatchewan, the most predominantly rural province in Canada, and to its credit the Socialist Ministry which was installed under the leadership of an able Scottish-born ex-clergyman, Mr. T. C. Douglas, has passed a series of drastic measures which have gone far to bring Saskatche- wan under a Socialist regime. On the evidence of by-elections the calculation that these measures would alienate the small landholders, who form the majority of the voters, has proved illusory, as the Ministry has held its seats. So its Socialist experiments, which include a State medical service, woollen and footwear industries, lumber mills and fishery enterprises, are being watched with interest by the rest of Canada and with not a little anxiety in financial and industrial circles in the East. Their success or failure will have a decisive impact upon the future fortunes of the C.C.F., but it cannot hope to offer an effective challenge to the two historic parties as long as it has only its present meagre foothold in the provinces lying east of the Ottawa River, which between them return roughly two- thirds of the members of the Federal Parliament.
For the Leftist vote in Canada, the C.C.F. has to compete with two other parties, the Social-Crediters and the Communists, who now disguise themselves under the label Labour-Progressive. It is a strange political phenomenon that, while Saskatchewan is con- trolled by Socialists, the adjacent province of Alberta, with the same kind of population and almost identical economic interests, keeps in power a provincial ministry of Social-Crediters, and elects for most of its Federal seats representatives of the same stripe. The Social-Credit leaders attribute their failure tc inaugurate any system of Social Credit to the sinister machinations of their bites noires, the financial interests, who by their account have with the help of a pliant judiciary interposed constitutional obstacles to their reforms.
As for the Labour-Progressive Party, the proven complicity of some of its leaders, including the sole representative at Ottawa, Mr. Fred Rose, in the espionage system which the Russian Embassy in Ottawa was operating has for the moment brought the party into complete discredit. But its shrunken membership remains very vocal, and the bitter feuds which both it and the Social-Credit Party wage with the C.C.F. prevent effectively the consolidation of the Leftish forces of Canada into a really formidable party. At Ottawa the King Ministry is now doomed to live in constant peril of defeat by a combination of the opposition groups, because its precarious reliance on 527 reliable supporters in a House of Commons of 245 members, with which it began the present Parliament, has now been pared down by by-election losses to 124, a very slender margin. For the last dozen years the very multiplicity of Canada's
political parties, which Mr. Mackenzie King has lately been lament- ing, has profited greatly the Liberal party, because its assurance of the solid support of French Canada enabled it to convince many voters in other provinces that it alone could secure a working majority in Parliament. But if there is now to be a serious erosion of its French-Canadian support, its weakness in English-speaking Canada is so serious that the end of Liberalism's long well of ascendency is likely to coincide with the impending termination of the long public career of its master-architect, Mr. Mackenzie King. At the moment, however, political visibility about the new era which will be opened by these two events is very poor.