Welcome to Canadian Historiography Part II – The Liberal Order Framework.

The Liberal-Order Framework is Ian McKay’s answer to fragmentation of Canadian history and an attempt to re-invigorate political, economic, and political-intellectual history.  The framework is built around the idea that from the 1840s to the 1940s liberalism, as seen in the importance placed on Liberty, Equality and Property, was the most influential ideology in political, economic and intellectual circles. Secondly, Mckay asserts Canada cannot only be fully understood as a process or project instead of as an event or geography.  The first part leads to heavy reliance on Gramscian ideas of governmentality and the second leads to a lot of ironic quotation marks around ‘Canada’.  The article clearly explains the variation of liberalism in question, identifies precise instances where the liberal ideologies of liberty, equality and property (especially property) appear in Canada’s political past, and presents an easy to follow structure for applying the Liberal-Order Framework to topics falling with the hundred year period specified.  The appearance of the article in the December 2000 issue of the CHR ignited healthy debate that became the basis of a 2006 conference at McGill and a collection of essays titled Liberalism and Hegemony: Debating the Canadian Liberal Revolution.  This response makes the liberal-order framework unignorable – even if you have a natural aversion to political-economic history and the mention of Gramscian hegemony makes you cringe.
The contributers to Liberalism and Hegemony do a better job of identifying the strengths and weaknesses, and illustrating the various applications of McKay’s framework than I ever could.  Jerry Bannister challenges the assertion the liberal-order began in 1840 by pointing to the strong liberalist politics of loyalists and other counter-revolutionaries in Canada post-1749, E. A. Heaman brings the conservative understanding of liberty, equality and property to bear on the formation of Canadian political culture, and Bruce Curtis points to the Marxism underlying McKay’s vision of liberalism while identifying the frameworks limitations in its privileging of Gramscian hegemony and near exclusion of Foucault (it is exactly the article I expected from the author of the Foucault and Latour laden The Politics of Population).  Castonquay and Kinsey prove the liberal-order framework is even applicable to better understanding the political place of non-human players, and Sandwell, Perry, and Brownlee use it to look at those excluded from the centre by liberal ideology – Aboriginals, women, and non-whites.
The responses to McKay’s original piece as well as his closing essay illustrate a wonderful mixing of minds and tweaking of ideas to create an effective theoretical lens for the early portion of Canada’s political life.  Yet, the strongest examples of effective application of the liberal-order framework come from the nineteenth century and weaken as you move closer to the 1940 end point.  This in conjunction with McKay’s characterization of Canada as a project or progress makes me wonder what happens post-1940.  Does this date in some way mark when Canada had a strong enough ideological base to be seen as a nation, albeit a nation still under construction?  What happened in the years immediately prior to 1940 that render the liberal order ineffective in understanding the politics and economics of the nation?  What are the implications of liberals ceasing to rally for change and reform and moving instead to support the status-quo?  Did the turmoil of the Second World War shift Canada from a liberal nation to a conservative or possibly even socialist nation?  And what are those studying topics after 1940 to do as McKay offers no indication of what direction political ideology shifts in 1940?  I have no answers for any of these questions, but they are fun to put out there and maybe someone who have been at this much longer than I will come up with a liberal-order equivalent for post-1940.
There are two things that make me hesitant about embracing the liberal-order framework whole heartedly.  The first is the reactionary stance it takes on fragmentation and post-cultural turn histories generally.  The framework is singularly focused on politics and where they intersect with economic and intellectual themes that it is rendered useless for topics outside these spheres – it helps to see political, economic and intellectual histories as a Venn diagram.  Sure it adds new depth to the political implications and conflicts around treaties and women’s enfranchisement, but outside those political spheres it does little to aid analysis – unless of course you frame the family as an economic unit.*  It works for stewardship and conservation in nineteenth century Quebec because of the role of government in those actions, but does it still work when looking at home residents of a designated wilderness photographed their place in nature?**  (Okay it probably works really well on that one and would have completely changed my masters thesis had I admitted that 2 years ago.)  Yet the question still remains, what about after 1940?  The other issue is with the liberal-order framework is how close it comes to advocating for a return to the whig interpretation of Canadian history.  This hinges on one of the aspects of the framework that I find most intriguing – ‘Canada’ the on going project.  The centrality of politics to McKay’s argument means he comes frighteningly close to advocating for a progress narrative where in Canada instead of moving clearly from colony to nation is seen as always in the process of becoming a nation, or in a perpetual state of progress towards an glorious end.  Maybe that is why he cuts liberalism off at 1940 while still asserting ‘Canada’ has yet to become a nation.  It got him out of the progress narrative bind – sort of.  I have a secondary and fairly semantic objection to the idea of ‘Canada’ as project not event or geography.  Canada and the various forms of Canadian culture found from coast to coast to coast is a product of its geography.  Is it not possible to acknowledge the role of the diverse ecosystems and geographies in shaping the way ‘Canada’ evolves?  I think so, but I also study mountains so might be bias towards privileging geography.
McKay’s liberal-order framework attempts and is generally successful in creating a theoretical structure that adequately addresses all off Canada in the political-economic context.  But like the Trans-Canada that physically connects the country from Atlantic to Pacific (and the CPR before that) the practical application of the framework is dependent on minor adjustments.  Sometimes you have to blow a hole in a mountain to build a road, sometimes you have to look outside the liberal-order to get the most out of the Liberal Order Framework.  That is a pretty weak metaphor but hopefully you get the gist, and in keeping with the Trans-Canada metaphor The Constantines.

*see the articles by Perry and Sandwell in Liberalism and Hegemony: Debating the Canadian Liberal Revolution 
** see Castonguay and Kinsey’s article in Liberalism and Hegemony: Debating the Canadian Liberal Revolution

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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