CANADA’S SOCIAL CONSCIENCE © David Watts 13/03/2004

Canada’s social conscience is a result of three influences: aboriginal practice, religious initiatives and political parties that made social issues a centrepiece.

To speak of a first nations’ “social conscience” is artificial. Their lives were social. They did not distinguish between what was personal and what was shared. They cared for each other because they did not differentiate the Other from the Self.

We used to call this thinking “primitive”—we are now coming to see it as Enlightened. Their acts were not moved by charity but by a consciousness of inter-connectedness.

New France became a home rather than an outpost due to the work of several women: North America’s first hospital, Hôtel Dieu, was founded by Jeanne Mance as the focus of a spiritual community that became Montreal.

Marguerite Bourgeoys created a community that founded schools—beginning with one in a Montreal stable—and services to integrate women into the society.

Two other wealthy French women established a network of social services under the umbrella of Québec’s Ursuline Order.

As one of the three pillars of New France, the Catholic Church provided the social services that would later by assumed by secular agencies.

In Ontario and farther west groups such as Mennonites built an infrastructure that served those in need. Their attitudes helped to shape the outlook of provincial governments.

The province of Saskatchewan gave the Western Hemisphere its first democratically elected socialist government, the CCF, led by Baptist minister Tommy Douglas.

Douglas’ party was modelled not on the Marxist movements of mainland Europe but on the socialism that developed in Britain, where modern capitalism arose.

But unlike in Britain where they make up one of the two main national parties, Canada’s social democrats have never formed a federal government.

Their influence on government has been considerable, however. After establishing North America’s first Medicare Plan in Saskatchewan Douglas went to Ottawa as the leader of the NDP and pressured the Lester Pearson’s Liberal minority to adopt national Medicare.

Earlier federal governments Liberal and Conservative adopted programs such as old age security and employments insurance under pressure from the Progressive Party.

The men and women who led and supported these measures did not think of them as particularly Canadian but as humanitarian—many other countries adopted them too.

But Canada’s location beside a superpower between Europe and Asia, and a mixture of market and state-led economy made what is happening here strategic for the planet:

Inter-connected, we speak not with just a Canadian voice but a global one: Canada’s social conscience becoming a new consciousness for the world.