Remaining Loyal: Social Democracy in Quebec and Saskatchewan, by David McGrane, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, 373p.
David McGrane has written an ambitious book about social democracy in Saskatchewan and Quebec. His thesis is that the CCF-NDP and PQ governments were social democratic in a traditional sense under premiers such as Tommy Douglas and Allan Blakeney in Saskatchewan, as well as René Levesque and Jacques Parizeau in Quebec. McGrane believes that later governments evolved into third way social democracy under other premiers, including Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert in Saskatchewan and Bernard Landry and Pauline Marois in Quebec.
An associate professor of political studies at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan, McGrane creates a complex template in order to build his thesis. He defines the ideologies that comprise traditional social democracy and the third way and compares them to his definition of neo-liberalism. McGrane says that social democracy in both of its guises is primarily concerned with the economic inequality inherent in unfettered capitalism, while neo-liberalism frets about the welfare state and excessive public intervention in the economy. Ontario’s Mike Harris, for example, fit into a neo-liberal mould when he cut taxes, privatized public organizations, introduced workfare and cut welfare rates upon his election as premier.
McGrane says that traditional social democrats focused on universal social programs and used progressive income taxes and royalty revenue from resources to help pay for them. Universal public health care in Canada, for example, was pioneered by the CCF in Saskatchewan in 1962. The Douglas government also set up Crown corporations for automobile insurance, telephones, electricity and gas distribution. Premier Allan Blakeney moved the public sector aggressively into resource development, mainly through joint ventures involving Crown corporations and private business partners. Blakeney consciously used revenues from Crown corporations, as well as increased resource rents, to pay for programs such as a provincial pharmacare plan and a children’s dental program in schools.
The PQ under Lévesque created several new public enterprises and had the Caisse de dépôt, which manages public pension plans in Quebec, buy shares in francophone businesses to help them expand and consolidate their operations. Quebec’s universal day care program, easily the most generous in Canada, was launched in 1997 by Pauline Marois, then a PQ cabinet minister.
McGrane says that in the 1990s and beyond NDP and PQ governments were forced by developments such as globalization and free trade agreements to shift toward the right, narrowing the political spectrum. He says that these third way social democrats were more comfortable with market capitalism and the private sector than their predecessors. They also reduced taxes, regulation and oversight, and targeted some social programs rather than adhering to universality. He argues, however, that NDP and PQ leaders remained champions of the core tenets of social democracy. McGrane says that when those politicians are compared to premiers such as Ralph Klein and Mike Harris, the differences outweigh the overlaps.
It seems a stretch, however, to include people such as Lucien Bouchard in the social democratic tent. Bouchard had served in Brian Mulroney’s government prior to launching the Bloc Québécois and later moving home to become the premier. McGrane argues, rather weakly I think, that Bouchard “was forced to cooperate with a critical mass of social democratic ministers left over from the Parizeau era.” In fact, one must also ask if the PQ throughout its history has been primarily a separatist or a social democratic party. McGrane says the PQ has been both but I believe that separatism usually trumped social democracy.
I salute McGrane’s scholarly reach but he does use a complex structure which makes for a dense book. There is also a lot of repetition including identical phrases reoccurring in various chapters. These weaknesses could have been overcome by good editing but they were missed. Still, McGrane gives us much to think about and he shows that social democracy has contributed much to the body politic and the public good in Saskatchewan, Quebec and Canada.
Ottawa-based author, blogger and former Member of Parliament from Saskatchewan