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The fall of Canadian politics

No one’s studying Canadian politics anymore, or not the way they used to. Should we care?


In early December, as the Canadian government teetered on the brink of defeat and the Liberal party slipped further into disarray, the nation sat riveted to the political machinations going on in Ottawa. In offices and coffee shops, everyone wanted to talk politics. And Canadian political scientists could be seen and heard day after day on major media outlets, analyzing and interpreting the quickly moving events as they unfolded. The situation, however, belied a trend taking place in political science departments across the country. While some subfields of the discipline, such as international relations and comparative politics, have grown in popularity, one area in particular has seen a disconcerting slide in interest: Canadian politics.

Young scholars today are not attracted to domestic politics, or so it would seem. Enrolments are on the wane. Fewer PhD theses are written on Canadian politics. Faculty members specializing in the field are in short supply. And some courses that were once the staple of the Canadian political science syllabus, such as provincial politics or legislatures, are going untaught. At other campuses, full-year courses have been reduced to a semester or moved from first to second year, to entice students to enrol.

So what gives? The topic has been debated frequently in the hallways of political science departments. It comes up regularly at gatherings of the Canadian Political Science Association. And it’s the subject of a recently published book, The Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science, a collected work edited by several political scientists at the University of Toronto.

“The introspective and sometimes insular style that informed Canadian political science for most of its history has given way to a deeper engagement with, and integration into, the theory and practice of comparative politics,” the editors write (See “Hot new Canadiana” below).

Yet, not all Canadian political scientists – or Canadianists as they are known – see reason to cheer the field’s so-called “comparative turn.” Some worry that the trend could have adverse consequences for the future of the discipline and the nation. Still others say they haven’t witnessed a decline in interest in the field, that teaching and learning Canadian political science are as healthy today as ever, but just promoted differently.

In an attempt to shed light on this debate, University Affairs talked to a handful of esteemed Canadian political scientists: Cristine de Clercy at the University of Western Ontario, Miriam Smith at York University (and president of the Canadian Political Science Association), Graham White at the University of Toronto Mississauga, Jean Crête at Université Laval, and Lynda Erickson at Simon Fraser University. Here’s what they had to say.

University Affairs: Is interest in Canadian politics on the decline?

de Clercy: Over at least the last 15 years, we’ve noticed at the undergraduate level a slow but steady decline in students taking the traditional Canadian politics classes and of course the concomitant increase in interest in other fields, such as comparative politics and international relations. And now that has trickled through to graduate-level studies. It’s harder to interest MA and particularly doctoral students in Canadian politics in terms of studying Parliament or public policy or political parties.

Erickson: In our department, one of the problems with enrolments at the undergraduate level is that we don’t have many courses to offer. You kind of wonder if this is a chicken and egg problem. We don’t have as many people teaching Canadian courses as we used to so we don’t get enrolments. … When we advertise for [faculty] positions in Canadian, the number of applicants that we get is considerably less than what we usually got 10, 15 years ago.

White: It depends a lot on how you look at it. When you apply [to U of T’s PhD political science program], you tick off on your form the area you want to do your degree in. And the choices are: Canadian politics, international relations, political theory and comparative politics. For many years the number of people applying to the Canadian field has been clearly the smallest of those. In one sense, it’s not surprising because we attract candidates from all over the world. … However, it’s not quite that simple. We get a lot of people who come in and tick off comparative politics and in important ways advertise themselves as comparativists, but in fact a lot of what they do is Canadian.

Crête: There is no decline… [At Laval] at the graduate level, we don’t have Canadian politics; we don’t have area studies. But Canadian politics is in all fields. People who are doing political philosophy, they are doing part of it in Canadian. Those who are studying public policy, almost all… [are doing] Canadian politics. We have international relations and most of it is Canadian politics. In that sense there is no decline. … So I would agree with Graham White

University Affairs: For those who see a change, why is it occurring?

Erickson: I think it’s the increasing awareness of the international, global community and the extent to which Canada is inextricably linked to the world, and especially to the United States, which is a global player. And sort of the appeal of the exotic – what’s at home is prosaic and what’s somewhere else sounds exciting.

Smith: I think the crisis in the Canadian field is in part a reflection of the breakdown of the boundary between domestic and global politics. I think it is a bit of an issue for the future of Canada because we do need to have people who actually know something about Canadian politics and Canadian political history and Canadian political institutions.

de Clercy: First, it’s very clear that in political science in Canada there has been a large change in student interest. There’s much more interest in international relations, in studying countries outside of Canada than in studying Canada per se.

Second, I think the subfield of Canadian political science has changed. It has responded to new paradigms such as the feminist paradigm and the post-modernist paradigm, and so the traditional offerings in the field of Canadian politics have diminished. We have far fewer classes about Parliament and far more classes about things like Social Movement and Women’s Rights. I’m certainly not against change in the discipline. But I think that has put downward pressure on the interest to study the traditional institutions of Canadian politics.

University Affairs: Why are researchers more interested in studying Canadian politics from a comparative perspective?

White: More and more people are coming to realize that this is really a more effective way of coming to grips with our own system, to understand it in a comparative context. And intellectually some of the more interesting stuff is happening in comparative.

Crête: People, at the graduate level at least, are more interested in theory and generalization as opposed to journalism. … People are doing [theory] instead of just doing description and commenting on a situation, which would be Canadian politics. The discipline has changed.

University Affairs: Has the field itself contributed to this decline in interest?

Smith: I think that a lot of people would see the Canadian field traditionally as dry, as traditionally atheoretical and disconnected from broader debates in the literatures on comparative politics [and] international relations. … Why do you go into graduate school in the social sciences? Because you are captivated by the big questions and you’re interested in the different theoretical traditions that speak to those big questions. And I think the Canadian field really didn’t anchor itself in the questions about politics that have really been interesting to grad students. So grad students have been gravitating to the fields that are asking those big questions, like “Does the state still matter?”

University Affairs: Is this shift something to be concerned about?

de Clercy: When we get to the point where no doctoral students are writing dissertations in Canadian politics, I think that’s a problem. It’s going to be a large problem because, as university professors, we don’t teach just political scientists. We teach citizens and we help to educate citizens about what it means to participate in government and to have democratic rights in government. The less that we teach that, I think, the larger are the negative implications overall for democracy.

Crête: I think it depends on how you see the role of political science. In political science there are those people who argue that political science should teach people to be good citizens. … But not [students] in the sciences or in medicine? They don’t have to be good citizens? So why should students in political science have to be good citizens and not all students? … I’m not among those who worry.

Erickson: I think it’s a good thing that the discipline of political science likes to look at Canada and Canadian politics in a comparative and international context. But I am concerned that we also appear to see less interest in adding a Canadian focus to that.

De Clercy: Many provinces – Saskatchewan and New Brunswick are examples – are very understudied. We know little about their political systems and even less about the parties that populate the legislatures. Dalton McGuinty, for five years has governed a province contributing 40 percent of Canada’s GDP annually and yet the subject of his government awaits serious treatment.

White: I have no doubt this shift is a good thing. This is an intellectually better way to appreciate and understand Canadian politics. … I, and I think many of my colleagues, would say you really can’t understand your own system studying it in isolation. You really have to get a comparativist perspective.

University Affairs: As the well-known scholars in the field retire and there’s no one there to take their place, is that a concern?

White: I don’t think I accept that. It’s certainly fair to say that the old-timers like me who were more interested in what people conventionally think about Canadian politics – yes, we’re retiring. And the people who are replacing us, it’s not that they don’t know or care about those things because they do and indeed they need to teach them in their courses. But they’ll be more interested in things like the notion of citizenship or how immigrants are adapting. They won’t necessarily be the person you want as a talking head on election night. They don’t know all the inside dope on the parties. But in some ways they are looking at issues that are more interesting, certainly to our students.

University Affairs: To what extent is this cyclical?

White: One of the reasons in the ’90s [why] enrolment in political science courses was falling off… was that everybody in the country was sick to death of constitutional stuff. What was the best way to send them screaming for the exits? “Well, today we are going to talk about Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord.” So there are cycles to these things. Will we go back to people who study Canada pretty much exclusively? I really don’t think so.

University Affairs: What about the recent political crisis – do you think it could spark renewed interest in the field of Canadian politics as it has traditionally been taught?

de Clercy: There’s no doubt that recent events have focused and will focus the attention of academics on the question of minority and coalition governments. [But] I seriously doubt that this crisis will completely revitalize the study of Canadian institutions. If anything, it underscores my point about the decline of undergraduate teaching and the implications of that trend for democracy.

This crisis demonstrates the lack of knowledge people have about how their governmental system works. That people actually question whether the formation of a coalition within the House of Commons is democratically legitimate demonstrates that most people don’t understand the system. I think that’s problematic because ultimately that lack of knowledge undermines people’s belief in the system.

How can we remedy the obvious lack of knowledge about how Parliament works? To my mind, with more education, not just in university but in the community and in secondary educational institutions. I think there’s ample room in the high-school curriculum to lay the foundation for citizens’ knowledge. Most high school students do not go on to university careers. That’s all the more reason why a basic grounding in how the political system works is necessary for high school students, because that’s where they get the knowledge that provides them with the tools to be democratic citizens for the rest of their lives.

Hot new Canadiana

The Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science
(UBC Press 2008) argues that Canadian politics has gone through a profound change in recent years, with fewer scholars studying Canadian politics the way it was traditionally taught.

The book, edited by Linda White, Richard Simeon, Robert Vipond and Jennifer Wallner, says today’s scholars are more likely to study Canadian politics through a comparativist lens – either by applying theories of comparative politics to the study of Canadian political science or by comparing domestic political issues with those of other countries. It takes a very favourable view of this turn in Canadian political science.

The editors argue that the field has shrugged off what they see as an old-style, parochial approach to the discipline (one editor calls it “Canadian political science created by Canadians, for Canadians, about Canadians”) in favour of an approach that is more relevant to today’s globalized world and Canada’s multicultural student body. Canadian politics isn’t being studied less, but just in a different, more interesting way.

Rosanna Tamburri
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  1. Don Wilson / January 19, 2009 at 19:04

    I am a lot older than university students but I and many like me are also disenchanted with all the senior political parties in Canada . The Greens are a one issue party – so that doesn’t work for us . We see the sea change happening in the USA and would love to see Canadians get involved – both young and older- and work together to start up a new party that is built from the grass roots up – one that is pretty well a ” center ” party . Hard right and hard left is not what we believe . To this end I am beginning a blog , a facebook page , and a Google group site and ask for the help of all readers. ” Together we can “. OK I borrowed that but it applies .

  2. Peter Woolstencroft / February 11, 2009 at 15:44

    As I listen to my students in a second-year course on Canadian politics, most do not think that there is much in the subject that is worthy of their attention. Politics is seen as a low-grade activity in which the idea is to gain advantage over one’s opponents. I have seen clear evidence that many are grossly ill-informed (despite being enrolled in a Canadian politics course)about baseline matters. Many do not read anything about Canadian politics despite the easy availability of materials, print and electronic. They do not belong to political parties or participate in elections, except for voting. We have a problem of superficial engagement.

  3. Dawn E. Penney / November 18, 2009 at 22:56

    “Canadian political science created by Canadians, for Canadians, about Canadians”

    Now that is what I want! I’m going to be a politician and I do find that in my university there isn’t a lot for me to take that will help me there.

    I take a lot of Canadian history courses and that has taught me more about the system than some of my Poli Sci classes have.

    But at the same time I am loving every minute of my education and the more I am taught about Canadian politics, the more I want to know!

    I do agree that civics needs to be taught in high school. Legislation table here I come!

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