Has Canada fallen out of love with liberalism or just with Trudeau?
Human rights and Canadian values are coming up against hard reality of voting
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau: the country is split along regional, political and economic lines, between east and west, between urban and rural. Photograph: Dave Chan/AFP
Canadians have just voted after a 40-day campaign that was marred by misinformation, dishonesty and even old images of the prime minister in black face. The major contenders all lacked national vision, demonised their opponents, and were more intent on building walls than bridges. It became a case of voting against rather than for and, throughout it all, one had to wonder if Canada was as progressive and liberal as many believed.
Canadians pride themselves, especially prime minister Justin Trudeau, that Canada is a post-national state, where diversity and multiculturalism are celebrated, gender equity is practised, and the rule of law and equality for all are sacrosanct.
The major leaders all emerged diminished, perhaps none more so than Trudeau. Shortly after becoming prime minister in 2015, his approval rating approached 70 per cent, a feat not seen often in Canada. It collapsed to 28 per cent earlier this year and now stands at about 35 per cent, making him less popular among Canadians than Donald Trump is with Americans and, like Trump, he claimed victory with fewer votes than his main rival. Two-thirds of Canadians voted against him.
Trudeau remains as prime minister but is dependent upon others to get things done. He lost 20 seats and support of much of rural Canada
Trudeau had promised “sunny ways” and the future looked bright. He appointed the first gender-equal cabinet, followed with a generous means-tested child-support programme, legislated assisted dying, and legalised cannabis. He introduced a carbon tax to confront climate change and promised reconciliation with indigenous peoples.
However, his purchase of a pipeline to move Alberta crude west angered many as did his firing of Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s first indigenous attorney-general, for insisting on criminal prosecution of a major Quebec engineering firm that Trudeau allegedly opposed. Trudeau kicked her and another strong feminist minister out of the party, casting doubt on his commitment to feminism and reconciliation. He also broke his promise on electoral reform and deficit spending and was cited three times for ethical violations.
Trudeau remains as prime minister but is dependent upon others to get things done. He lost 20 seats, was completely shut out in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and lost support of much of rural Canada outside of the Atlantic Provinces. Within minutes of the vote, a petition circulated in western Canada calling for separation. And, for the first time in more than a decade, disenchantment with Trudeau led to the revival of the separatist Bloc Québécois, which sent 32 members to the national parliament to protect Quebec’s interests. The nation is fractured, the election outcome hardly a victory for Trudeau.
Was the result just a rejection of political leaders or does it have significance for Canadian pluralism and liberal values? Canadians should be worried
Even with support for Trudeau plummeting, the other parties could not muster enough support to unseat him. Conservative Andrew Scheer, his main rival, topped the popular vote at 34 per cent, much of it garnered in the oil-rich west, where anger over Trudeau’s dithering on pipelines reached a feverous pitch, but he could not cobble together a platform with appeal outside his largely rural base. A practising Catholic, Scheer could not offer a simple explanation that he would respect the law on same-sex marriage and abortion while keeping his faith out of the public realm. Such a simple message would have reassured many worried about social conservatism. Nor would he walk in a gay-pride parade. He was captive to self-interested right-leaning elements and never constructed a national agenda to appeal to angry voters anxious to defeat Trudeau.
Similarly, Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the New Democrats, who Canadians told pollsters they liked, had a disastrous result, dropping 4 per cent in the popular vote and losing 15 seats.
Was the result just a rejection of political leaders or does it have significance for Canadian pluralism and liberal values? Canadians should be worried. The major leaders refused to denounce Quebec’s regressive Bill 21, a new law aimed primarily at hijab-wearing Muslim women in Quebec but one that bans all religious symbols in the public service. Trudeau said Quebec had the right to test immigrants for “Quebec values” and, like Scheer and Singh, he refused to condemn the illiberal legislation in fear of alienating Quebec voters where the ban enjoys widespread support. The pandering raises serious questions over how leaders behave when basic human rights and Canadian values meet the hard reality of securing votes.
Canada’s political leaders waffled and failed on a number of other policies, including climate change, the number-one issue for Canadians. Even with Trudeau’s carbon tax, voters get more dollars in a rebate than they pay in the tax. He promised to legislate targets to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 but admits he has no idea of how this might be achieved. Scheer has no policy to address climate change.
In an era when civil discourse is slipping away from the democratic world at about the speed the ice is melting in Canada’s north, there is a general feeling among Canadians their politicians have failed them. Just a few short years ago, Trudeau promised to govern differently and voters were happy with that. Today, the country is fractured along regional, political and economic lines, between east and west, between urban and rural, as it has not been for decades, and there is every indication that political pandering will intensify as politicians try to heal the divides they largely created. If so, Canada’s commitment to progressivism and liberalism might be the first casualty.
Raymond Blake is Craig Dobbin professor of Canadian studies (visiting) at University College Dublin