Canadian Political Science: Missing in Action? A Practitioner Wonders Why the Progressive Side of the Discipline Has Gone Mute

By Bashevkin, Sylvia | Literary Review of Canada, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Canadian Political Science: Missing in Action? A Practitioner Wonders Why the Progressive Side of the Discipline Has Gone Mute


Bashevkin, Sylvia, Literary Review of Canada


PERMIT ME TO POSE A provocative question, deliberately directed toward the progressive stream of Canadian political science: Is the discipline missing in action? Where are the centre-left voices?

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What about the other side of the spectrum? you might ask. Simply stated, there is no doubt conservative colleagues have wielded considerable influence through direct as well as indirect ties since January 2006 to the Prime Minister's Office, sustained partisan and governmental engagement at the provincial level (Alberta finance minister Ted Morton, for example, is on leave from his position at the University of Calgary) and impact via these channels on both Canadian public opinion and public policy.

Progressive political science, on the other hand, only appears to be alive and well if we focus on conference programs, scholarly publications as well as individual professors' blogs and Facebook postings. What rests beneath this seemingly healthy veneer? In my view, a relatively narrow, shrunken conduit linking left-of-centre elements of the discipline with the wider general community. In fact, the public influence of progressive political science is arguably weaker than at any time in living memory.

By invoking comparisons with the past, we risk recreating an era--whether burnished in gold or shadowed in darkness--that never existed. In this instance, conservative scholars and their patrons in elected office have propagated a myth to the effect that left-of-centre ideas ruled and, eventually, nearly ruined the country during the Liberal years. I present no such case, since to the extent that a leftish social science perspective has registered in parliamentary debates during recent years, it has primarily done so from the far reaches of the opposition--notably in the interventions of federal NDP leaders (before they became members of Parliament, Ed Broadbent taught political science at York University and lack Layton at Ryerson).

I will propose instead the far more compelling argument that during earlier decades, Canadian governments of all stripes drew expertise from multiple ideological sources. Ours was once a more consensus-based, less polarized political culture governed by norms of civility and balance that seem quaint, indeed antiquated, from the perspective of 2010. Contemporary political science students express shock when they learn that the federal Liberals appointed a former Ontario Conservative premier, John Robarts, to co-chair a commission on national unity in 1977. They find it even harder to believe that the key free trade recommendation of the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, appointed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1982, was adopted by Brian Mulroney's government of the later 1980s.

Similarly, 20 and more years ago our political spectrum, as refracted through media outlets, pivoted on a fulcrum that was distinctly more progressive. Peter Gzowski's popular CBC radio program Morningside, featured through 1993 a weekly political panel that current Mother Corp executives must shudder to recall because all three guests would now be tagged as pink or, more probable, downright red. At the time, Dalton Camp, Eric Kierans and Stephen Lewis represented the right, centre and left, respectively. They debated crucial issues of the day with a degree of interpersonal respect, commitment to core democratic values and interest in understanding other points of view that seems out of sync with the rise of quick-bite, "gotcha" journalism.

Universities were also different places back then. Social science professors were encouraged to engage as public intellectuals, since the prominence of individual scholars was seen as institutionally beneficial and, in the case of political scientists, integral to expectations that we would actively contribute to debates then unfolding in civil society. Academic leaders worried less if the funders of post-secondary education--then primarily governments and now, more ominously, individual students and their families, research partners in the public and private sectors, plus individual and corporate donors--actually agreed with what we said. …

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