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At a conference last week honouring former diplomat Allan Gotlieb, talk among the heavyweights, including former ministers of external affairs, got around to the branding of Canada. Curiously, they avoided – until they got out into the corridors – how the brand was being changed.

Changed? The better word might be transformed. Rarely, if ever, has the country's image been altered so much so quickly.

Under the Conservatives, Canada is a country that venerates the military, boasts a hardened law-and-order and penal system, is anti-union and less green. It's a government that extols, without qualms of colonial linkage, the monarchy, that has a more restrictive entry policy, that takes a narrower view of multiculturalism, that pursues an adversarial approach to the United Nations. In a historical first, Canada's foreign policy, its strident partisanship in the Middle East being a foremost example, can be said to be to the right of the United States.

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In a nutshell, the cliché about Canada's being a kinder, gentler nation is being turned on its head. In hockey parlance – the preferred Canadian way of communication – we're shifting, with voter approval, from a country of Ken Dryden values to one closer to those of Don Cherry.

Given the extent of the transformation, it's happened rather quietly. Stephen Harper has skillfully avoided hitting too many hot buttons at once. He has avoided the appearance of a radical right-winger by playing down social conservatism and taking a flexible, big-spending approach to the economy. He has been moderate in his approach in some other policy domains.

But while his work has the look of being incremental, there's no mistaking the ideological turn that has been made. The new kind of branding is not something traditional Canadian governments would have favoured. Throughout our history, the big centre as represented by Liberalism and Red Toryism was the dominant political force, fostering a national character rooted in compromise and accommodation. Harder left- and right-wing elements operated on the fringes. Now, with the NDP having surged, the Liberals prostrate, Red Toryism weakened, those fringe elements are the main players. Although there are signs the political centre is holding in the provinces, we're in uncharted territory at the more imposing federal level, with a recipe for American-styled polarization. A culture war, someone called it.

Judging by the last federal election, the rebranding of Canada has a broad enough degree of public acceptance. Either that or the Harper Conservatives have done great work in pulling the wool over a lot of eyes. It's hard to conceive that a country inured since its birth to centrist precepts could move off those moorings as passively as it has.

We wouldn't want to call the Conservatives the Don Cherry Party; they're not as pre-Cambrian as that. But a good deal of their appeal lies in their proximity to character traits exhibited by the bombastic hockey icon. The Cherry brand sells. The Dryden spirit – the tolerance, inclusiveness, modesty, quiet striving for excellence – are values less heard.

The rebranding of Canada has come, in part, as a result of the Liberals' non-virility. They got lost in their middleness, laying out no penetrating alternative vision. With the NDP as the Official Opposition, there will be more resistance. The New Democrats need to learn the lesson the Liberals didn't. Against Mr. Harper, nice guys go the way of the Dodo bird.

The political left has much to work with, not the least of which is the burgeoning global protest movement against governments' catering to the rich. In this country, the growing gap between rich and poor, an issue that's been dormant for years, could resonate and detonate. Living standards have flatlined for three decades, and the evidence that trickle-down economics doesn't work is accumulating.

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An advantage of the new political dynamic – party of the right, party of the left, not much in between – is that the respective visions can be set out in bold, contrasting colours. The NDP challenge is to show that the new Canadian brand is not Canadian.

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