Pro-Family Politics and Fringe Parties in Canada
November 4, 2013
Review By John Dyck
One of the most contentious aspects of politics is the legislation of morals. How much should governments be beholden to any one set of religious beliefs held by influential minorities or a major ity? Chris MacKenzie’s book examines “Christian faith and politics” in Canada. It charts the course and evaluates the attempt of a small group of largely Roman Catholic pro-family activists in British Columbia “to create a political path down which they could march in an effort to influence an otherwise unresponsive Canadian state” (6). The emergence and success of the Family Coalition Party/Movement (FCP) of BC is the primary focus of the book. Beginning as a small Christian profamily activist movement comprised of former Social Credit Party loyalists during the leadership of Bill Vander Zalm, the members sought in vain to have their “family values” platform debated in the public arena. When their efforts to have their “sanctity of life” program adopted by the Social Credit Party failed in 1990, Bill and Heather Stillwell joined Mark and Kathleen Toth, along with close friends, and formed the Family Coalition Party to generate political discussion of their platform.
In studying the effect that the fcp had on provincial politics, from its inception in 1991 until its merger with the Reform Party of BC and a number of other minor right-wing parties to form the Unity Party in late 2000, MacKenzie has three objectives: to document the history of the Family Coalition Party; to trace the ideological roots of the pro-family movement; and to “understand the fcp’s dual character as social movement and political party, and the unique challenges that face a party/movement in Canada’s contemporary political climate” (9). How well does MacKenzie succeed in achieving these objectives? The history of the FCP is well covered. Through interviews with over 100 of its less than 1,000 members during its height of popularity, MacKenzie presents a very clear picture of why the original leaders set up the party, what they hoped to achieve, and why they believed their political support and impact was limited. The real question that needs to be asked is why study this small group of discontents? Their political attraction was always marginal, even among those evangelical Christians who accepted their unconditional principles of supporting “a definition of human life as beginning from the moment of conception and ending at the point of natural death” and espousing “support for defining family as that of a legally married man and woman with natural or adopted children” (11). Much to their chagrin, the FCP leadership found that their most naturally aligned supporters voted en masse for other parties at election time, showing that voter behaviour is affected by many influences and that most individual voters are not inclined to support noncontending parties. One important issue never pursued by MacKenzie is what impact the predominantly Roman Catholic composition of the party had on its attractiveness to other Christians who supported much of its core party platform. Studies by John C. Green and others on the lack of success of the New Right in the United States to attract substantial numbers of Roman Catholics to their movement indicate that there are very important differences between the two conservative Christian constituencies.
On the second objective, tracing the ideological roots of the pro-family movement, MacKenzie ranges far and wide in the North American political arena, identifying the roots of the fcp in the emergence of neoconservatism and the New Right in the late 1970s and early 1980s, particularly in the United States with the election of Ronald Reagan. The New Right, a collection of general purpose political organizations like the “Moral Majority” and later the “New Christian Right,” coalesced around specific socio-moral problems (75-81). The 1980s political infatuation with small-c conservative governments like Margaret Thatcher’s in England and Ronald Reagan’s in the United States, the emergence of the Reform Party in Canada, and the election of Mike Harris’s conservative government in Ontario in 1995 are all shown to have been influential in bringing socially conservative Christians into the public arena. For many members of these disparate groups, the time had come to bring morality back into the public realm, and they believed their cause was just. MacKenzie does a good job of building his case for finding the roots of the FCP both in this New Right movement and in the history of western protest parties in Canada.
In addressing his third objective, understanding the FCP’s dual character as a social movement and as a political party (Chapters 3-5 ), MacKenzie introduces a number of categories and social science models to show the broad range of diagnostic tools available in describing and evaluating Book Reviews 101 the fcp. While the plethora of models used by social scientists to categorize social groups is impressive, the usefulness of applying them to the study of the Family Coalition Party is dubious. As mentioned earlier, as both a movement and a party, the fcp is so small that MacKenzie becomes guilty of exaggerating differences between “new counter movements” and traditional counter-movements (130). To compare the fcp with previous party/movements like the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the Social Credit Party, the Green Party, or the Reform Party is to accord too much significance to the FCP.1 Never once in a provincial election did their popular vote reach 3 percent in any BC riding. Not only was the FCP ineffective as a political movement but its impact as a political party was negligible. Even its re-formation as the Unity Party in 2000 has not endeared it to the BC electorate. The Family Coalition Party is a good example of how a narrowly focused program will not attract electoral support.
Chris MacKenzie has performed a valuable service, documenting the struggles that political movement/ parties have in gaining electoral credibility. Much of his larger analysis is worth reading since it updates social science categories used to explain the rise of New Right fringe par ties in western Canada. However, the Family Coalition Party is too small to be the appropriate case study if such an analysis is to have comparative value.
1 David Laycock, in The New Right and Democracy in Canada: Understanding Reform and the Canadian Alliance (Oxford University Press, 2001), is more complete in his discussion of the New Right, its evangelical roots, and its appeal in British Columbia.