Northern Right: George Grant Was the Original Red Tory-Even If He Eschewed the Label

Article excerpt

"THE IMPOSSIBILITY of conservatism in our era is the impossibility of Canada." George Parkin Grant (19181988), the author of this provocative statement, lived a near impossible life. As a Canadian, he was born in a fragile nation at the crossroads of two English-speaking empires dedicated to progress at the expense of tradition. As a Tory political philosopher, he adhered to a tradition that was largely obsolete by the mid-20th century. As a Christian, he was comforted in the faith that God transcended the political things of the world, no matter how tragic.

Grant's most famous work, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965), is an elegy for both Canada and conservatism. It is also, in part, an autobiography of a man who remembers a country that once offered an alternative to the United States: "To be a Canadian was to be a unique species of North American. We were grounded in the wisdom of Sir John A. Macdonald, who saw plainly a hundred years ago that the only threat to nationalism was from the South, not from across the sea. To be a Canadian was to build, along with the French, a more ordered and stable society than the liberal experiment in the United States." Yet by the mid-1960s, Grant wrote, his "unimportant nation" had "disappeared."

Grant did not arrive at these tragic conclusions overnight. Indeed, for most of his adult life he had uneasily shared the liberal progressivism of his ancestors. He was born in Toronto two days after the signing of the armistice that ended World War I, the grandson of two prominent Victorian gentlemen who exuded a typical 19th-century optimism about Canada. Sir George Parkin, his maternal grandfather and onetime headmaster of tony Upper Canada College in Toronto, called himself "a wandering evangelist of Empire" who vigorously defended the cause of enlightenment and civilization that he identified with British imperialism. George Monro Grant, Grant's paternal grandfather and president of Queen's University, similarly conflated the progress of humanity with Anglo-Saxon hegemony.

Growing up in Toronto in the 1920s and 1930s, Grant got used to the regularity of his ancestors' insistence that Christianity itself was identical with the civilizing effects of the British Empire. Having studied at cradles of English liberalism like Queen's and Oxford, it was not difficult for him to conclude that his ancestors' generation had modernized faith for their own political purposes. Grant even once admitted that his mother, Maude Parkin, was fairly typical of a now lost Victorian Canadian tradition, a "secularized Protestant who didn't believe a word of Christianity" yet was fervently devoted to progress.

In later life, Grant would write harshly of the liberal Protestant ruling class that, he believed, eventually gave up the sovereignty of Canada to the forces of progress and Americanism. Whereas his Loyalist ancestors had been driven out of the United States and struggled hard to forge a new nation in a howling wilderness, their 20th-century descendants had meekly surrendered to the siren song of continental integration with America. The Republic had replaced the Empire, which had been shattered by world war, as the new seat of progress in the English-speaking world for many Canadians by 1945.

Grant's eventual repudiation of the liberalism of his ancestors amounted to a scathing indictment of a modern Protestant tradition that was a mere shadow of its past greatness. Long before James Kurth coined the term "Protestant Deformation," Grant contrasted in Lament the early Protestant capitalism "that was full of moral restraints" with the new capitalism that "can allow all passions to flourish along with greed." In English-Speaking Justice (1974), he elaborated upon the defective nature of modern Protestantism, which he dubbed a "secularized Calvinism" dedicated to the recreation of the world through sheer will. Having witnessed the accelerated postwar industrialization of Canada as a professor of religion at McMaster University in southwestern Ontario, Grant feared that technological progress would sweep aside the Christian tradition whence it sprang. …