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The Culture Wars Heat Up in Canada—and Kids are Caught in the Middle
Instead of talking about economics and class, members of the right are going all-in on demonizing sexual, social, and cultural groups. Nothing good can come of it.
The culture wars in Canada aren’t new. To say they’ve arrived, by way of the United States or otherwise, is incorrect. Insofar as culture war is a struggle over whose values and beliefs get to exist—when, where, and how—the fight is an old one. One can see the struggles in Quebec for recognition as a distinct society and political separation as culture war, though not exclusively so. The mainstreaming of British, later American, orthodoxy in the country is a form of cultural struggle, too. The fact that a culture is dominant doesn’t mean that there isn’t a struggle to install and preserve it. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. Where there is a mainstream, there is a struggle to preserve it, even if you don’t notice it.
Still, the culture wars have certainly heated up in recent years in Canada. Driven by resistance to group demands for rights and recognition, growing reactionary pressure from the extreme right in the United States, and capacities for networking, coordination, and amplification afforded by digital technologies, the uptick in cultural struggle has become particularly nasty, pervasive, and dangerous here.
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Today, the culture wars often centre on LGBTQ2S+ rights, particularly trans rights. And lest anyone miss who the aggressor is, it’s not those seeking basic rights and recognition. Indeed, this “war” has two parties: one which wants to exist, and the other, which wants to deny them that right. You can deduce, no doubt, which is which.
The Conservative Party of Canada—way up in the polls and dominating the discourse on economic issues—has decided to double down on culture war. Why? Ostensibly because they care about “freedom.” But the situation reads more like they just can’t help themselves, which is to say that their conception of freedom is rooted in a moral panic and exclusionary politics that demonize social groups that fall outside their accepted mainstream. Where their hatred comes from—fear, resentment, unfamiliarity, irrational prejudice—is important to understand, but secondary to the given that in a pluralist democracy, we ought to extend and protect maximal rights to exist and conditions to flourish to those who make up the textured reality of our world.
In September, the Conservative Party will hold its conference in Quebec City. It plans to debate trans rights and identity, drug policy, anti-vaxxer rights, equity and diversity training, and forced treatment for substance users who are addicted. The resolutions on these topics are driven by delegates and not party leadership, at least as far as we know. The brass may or may not endorse and make policy from what their members come up with. But they will be pressured to listen to their base either way.
Earlier this summer, New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative government changed its gender identity in schools policy to require students under sixteen to get parental consent before changing the name or pronouns they use at school—a policy that violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Last week, Saskatchewan’s conservative government led by Premier Scott Moe adopted the same policy. These moves are in-line with Florida governor, and presidential hopeful pre-failure, Ron DeSantis’ anti-trans crusade, not to mention the anti-gay panic of decades past. Moe. claims he has opinion polling on his side, but since when did liberal democracies think human-rights-by-polling was a good idea? Shall we revisit the history of polling on minority rights? On women’s rights? Gay rights? Racial equality? Sometimes, government needs to lead the public.
In Saskatchewan, the province’s Advocate for Children and Youth said, as CTV reports, “I am deeply troubled by the impact this policy will have on the rights of children in Saskatchewan.” New Brunswick’s child and youth advocate made similar comments. Now, the Progressive Conservative government in Ontario—which is under multiple investigations for corruption—is following New Brunswick and Saskatchewan’s lead.
There’s plenty of opposition to the policy in the prairies, and these measures will meet with prolonged resistance, and almost certain court challenges. They ought to. If a child is uncomfortable discussing their name, preferred pronouns, and identity with their parents, the problem is with the parents, not the child.
For his part, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has mostly focused on economic issues lately. But he’s not shy on cultural issues, even if he tries to walk a fine line between the fringe and the mainstream. Asked recently about the Million Man March—a right-wing movement claiming to be about children’s rights—Poilievre claimed to know little about it, but said “parents should be the final authority on the values and the lessons that are taught to children. I believe in parental rights, and parental rights come before the government’s rights.”
As Press Progress reports, the Million Man March/“Save the Children” convoy is being organized and plans to descend on Toronto. It’s reminiscent of the convoy movement that occupied Ottawa in 2022 and it’s gaining traction in far-right circles. Poilievre supported the so-called “Freedom Convoy” and will now be pressed by his base to support the latest iteration of that clown show. He will, no doubt, at least hedge his bets. He’s already doing just that, as the above quotation indicates. But these extremists will be unpalatable to mainstream Canadians, putting Poilievre in a tricky spot. The more he tips towards the far-right-driven culture wars, the more distracted he’ll become from core economic issues that are driving his party in the polls. Moreover, the more he tips towards these culture wars, the more harm he will do to people who just want to get through the day.
Culture war battles over basic rights and recognition are dangerous because they tend to take what should be taken as granted and open them to debate—a vicious, demeaning, dehumanizing “debate” at that. This is tyranny of the majority and an assault on minority rights, something conservatives have historically at least pretended to oppose. One’s right to peacefully exist and associate shouldn’t be a topic of debate. That way lies marginalization and violence. The issues “up for debate” are rarely even about what their initiators pretend they’re about. For instance, drawing on engineered moral panics, anti-trans crusaders torque issues such as bathroom use or pronoun choice to get at their broader goal: eliminating ways of being and the people associated with them.
Beyond being dangerous, the culture war also divides individuals and groups along cultural lines when they ought to be united along class lines. When the far right and its allies closer to the political mainstream demonize and fight groups along social, cultural, sexual, or gendered lines, they give cover to class elites who do real damage to their lives, exploiting and undervaluing their labour and disempowering them. It’s not only wrong and dangerous, it’s a massive own-goal.
If the right cared about freedom and not just fanning the flames of their prejudice, they would focus first and foremost on class and economic power; they would see themselves as allies of the groups they seek to marginalize or even eliminate. Instead, they mount their efforts against those who they ought to see as class allies while those who exploit them laugh all the way to the bank. What a sad, hurtful, hateful, and dangerous waste.