Training the conservatives of tomorrow (National Post January 31, 2007)

In a change of pace from my usual curmudgeonly grumbling about academia, I bring news of an innovative university course -- it's trickle-down effect, I predict, will in the course of the next decade enrich the quality of political discourse in Canada.

Under the auspices of its Institute for the Study of Canada, McGill University has introduced an inter-disciplinary seminar, The Conservative Movement in Canada (CMIC). The title is prosaic; the course content and the students it has attracted are anything but.

CMIC's first 11 sessions of historical background examine U.S. and British influences on the growth of conservatism in Canada. As well, according to CMIC sessional lecturer Tasha Kheiriddin, this segment will emphasize the dominance of the national-unity issue in our politics in shaping a uniquely Canadian conservative brand.

"For most of their history Canadian Conservatives have espoused a version of British 'One Nation Conservatism,' a class-based vision of society which prizes order over social mobility, and in which the rich owe a duty of care to the poor," Ms. Kheiriddin explains. "Starting in the 1940s, Canada's Red Tories were thus primed to embrace the welfare state, which replaced 'the rich' as the guarantor of the poor's well-being. While American and British conservatives also warmed to the welfare state, they later repudiated it under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Canadian conservatives never really got that chance, however, as we were obsessed with the national unity debate."

In short, Canadian conservatism is very different from its more ideological, religiously inspired American counterpart. And so one of the unintended benefits of the McGill course will be to help students debunk left-wing pols who equate any rightward shift with an embrace of Bush-inspired theo-conservatism. A Canadian can be conservative without being American.

Ms. Kheiriddin, who co-authored (with Adam Daifallah) Rescuing Canada's Right: Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution in 2005, is immersed in her subject, but is not an academic, an unusual feature in a political history course. What she brings to the table, along with youth -- she is 36 -- and personal vitality, is a love of teaching and an eclectic background in law, media and contemporary policy debates.

There is nothing musty or abstract about this course's reading list. Apart from John A. Macdonald, every author on the reading list is alive and brainy -- several will guest lecture, a big draw for students -- and currently (or recently) fully engaged in Canada's public policy, academic or media life. Amongst them: Michael Bliss, Peter Brimelow, Andrew Cohen, Barry Cooper, Andrew Coyne, Tom Flanagan, David Frum, Mike Harris, William Johnson, Ezra Levant, L. Ian MacDonald, Christopher Manfredi, Preston Manning, Lawrence Martin, Leslie A. Pal, Bob Plamondon, Hugh Segal, Jeffrey Simpson, William Watson, Paul Wells and Ken Whyte.

Part I, "Conservative Party Politics," informs: "The Rise of Red Toryism," "The Mulroney Years," "Conservatives in the Wilderness, 1993-2003" and so forth. But Part II -- the last 12 sessions -- "Extra-Political Actors and Their Impact on Conservatism," is a political animal's idea of sport. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for: "Interest Groups and the Entrenchment of Liberalism," "Conservatives, the Courts and the Charter," "The Media: Conservative Friend or Foe?" "Scaling the Towers of Academe," "Faith and Politics," "Foreign Policy [from Mulroney in South Africa to Harper in Afghanistan]," "National Unity and Fiscal Federalism," and -- really up to the minute -- "The Environment."

Student feedback from CMIC so far is enthusiastic (I interviewed four of the 11 students -- the course was capped for intimacy): "unique," "very exciting," "I could not find a course like this in poli sci." McGill's strong Canadian studies reputation was the cake, and Montreal's unique history and biculturalism the icing for several of them. While the class is ethnically and geographically diverse in origin, there is only one liberal, although he admits to being "as far to the right as a Canadian liberal can be."

If I were a documentary filmmaker, I'd tape a few of these classes as archival footage for future political retrospectives. I'm betting CMIC 2007's class of young turks (10 guys, one gal, that's a whole other theme ? ) will figure large in Canada's next generation of conservative mandarins.

© National Post 2007