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The Disruptive ConservativeThe Disruptive Conservative

The Disruptive Conservative

Reviewer Russell Kuykendall delves into William Gairdner’s selected essays to take the author’s measure as the premier public intellectual within Canadian movement conservatism.

Russ Kuykendall
4 minute read

About a year ago, Daniel W. Drezner contributed an essay to The Washington Post on “The five most important public intellectuals in America today.”

Drezner posed the question as to how in a meritocracy one determines that who is a public intellectual, not by virtue of their wealth or institutional position as a university academic or columnist with a newspaper of record, but as follows:

If we live in a meritocracy, then ostensibly these individuals acquired their place through skill and will. Still, to answer Smith’s question, I tried to puzzle out the following counterfactual: which intellectuals command the most influence regardless of their institutional attachments? In other words, if all these intellectuals were doing was posting on Medium, would you still care what they said?

By that measure, William D. Gairdner qualifies as a leading Canadian public intellectual of the past 30 years, and as arguably Canadian movement conservativism’s premier public intellectual – or at least its primus inter pares (“first among equals”).

A past Canadian Olympian, holding a PhD in English literature, and a former professor at Toronto’s York University, Gairdner left academe to lead his family business. After retiring from that business in 1988, Gairdner launched himself in 1990 as a public intellectual with a telling critique of all that was wrong with his home and native land:  The Trouble with Canada: A Citizen Speaks Out. “Trouble” identified and documented as few had before the insidious influence of the Laurentian elite on Canada’s political culture. Gairdner called out their misguided approach to addressing Quebec separatism, Western Canadian ascendancy and alienation, the compromise to Canada’s fiscal health brought on by the overweening growth of the Canadian welfare and redistributive state, and the dangers of the rights culture promoted by Trudeau the Elder’s Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As a member of “the Calgary School,” retired Professor Tom Flanagan, points out in his preface, Gairdner exercised a seminal influence on many of the key political actors of the past thirty years on the conservative end of the political spectrum. As well as Flanagan, among them are former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, former Minister of the Crown Monte Solberg and the man who may soon be Premier of Alberta as I write this, Jason Kenney.

Trouble was followed by The War Against the Family (1992), Constitutional Crack-up (1994), On Higher Ground (1996) and (perhaps taking a cue from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue) After Liberalism (1998). Each of these took on central issues of the day, asking key questions and framing the ensuing public debate.

Arguably his best book challenged the assumptions of a couple of generations of political historiographers and constitutional theorists about the philosophical foundations of the Canadian polity: Canada’s Founding Debates (1999/2003). With Janet Ajzenstat, Paul Romney and Ian Gentle, Gairdner ran at long-held presuppositions about the intellectual underpinnings and world view of Confederation’s founders. Canada’s Founding Debates curated a selection and telling analysis of confederation debates in the various colonial legislatures leading up to the British Parliament’s ratification and Queen Victoria’s proclamation on March 29th 1867 that on July 1st 1867 the made-in-Canada constitution, the British North America Act would come into force and effect, creating “One Dominion, under the name of CANADA.” If Gairdner had done nothing else, this alone could stand as his (and his editorial collaborators’) enduring, public intellectual legacy. But his influence as a public intellectual doesn’t end there nor with the works that followed Debates.

As with his philosophical forebear, the 18th-century Irish philosopher and parliamentarian Edmund Burke, Gairdner understood the importance of institutions. And so, following the Winds of Change conference of 1994 organized by David Frum that sought a political ceasefire and meeting of the minds among Preston Manning’s Reform Party populists, Mulroneyites, “Clarkies” and Red Tories, and Ontario’s populist, Mike Harris common sense revolutionaries, Gairdner led in the creation of Civitas. Initially a by-invitation-only affair that deliberately and intentionally excluded political staffers and organizers while including academics, “think tankers,” opinion columnists and elected officials, Civitas sought to bring together sometimes disparate and isolated actors in Canada’s conservative movement.

When I first inveigled my way into an invitation in 1998 or 1999 and attended, I wondered what the big deal was. By that time, I had several campaigns under my belt and had worked as a staffer in Ottawa. The proceedings operating by Chatham House rules seemed a little, well, “precious.” But I quickly realized that what was most important and significant was its pulling together these actors in the same room to make common cause on behalf of principles in common, and to turn it into a movement. Among the fruit of this gathering was Debates and what became the Stephen Harper exploratory committee for his first leadership bid for the Canadian Alliance in 2001-2002.

Disruptive Essays is a primer of Gairdner’s best, designed as more than a vanity project dedicated to his children and grandchildren. With Canada’s Founding Debates, it should be required reading for the generation of would be movement conservative Millennials now seeking to put their stamp on Canada’s public life. As that erstwhile parliamentarian and philosopher Burke urged in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), and as with the Dutch “anti-revolutionaries” of the nineteenth century, be careful to understand what you try to reform or demolish . . . before you reform or demolish it! First, disrupt yourself.

William D. Gairdner, Disruptive Essays: A Selection from Works, Past & Present. Georgetown, Ontario: Kinetics Design, 2018. xiii pages and 350 pages. Paperback. 

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