Litmus Test for Closing the Canadian Mind
Canadian Pacific Railroad map, 1935. ≥
TORONTO — In the prelude to the first televised debate of the 2015 Canadian election in August, Justin Trudeau donned red boxing gloves and sparred for a group of reporters and photographers. It was a signature attention-snatching manoeuvre for Trudeau, the handsome Liberal leader who looks a decade younger than his 42 years.
The son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the fils had capitalized on the family brand to achieve instant popularity when he became Liberal leader in 2013. Then a series of gaffes caused by a propensity to talk first and think later, coupled with the effect of pre-campaign attack ads from the governing Conservatives — “He’s just not ready” — cost Trudeau a once sizeable lead in the polls. So as the campaign began, few predicted that Trudeau’s energetic, media savvy style of campaigning would eventually scramble the odds in Canada’s longest federal election campaign.
The outside world is barely conscious of Canadian politics. After all, despite its massive, often forbidding topography, Canada is a demographic pimple on the globe. Some 33 million people, about 7 million of whom speak French, live next door to the American behemoth, a nation of close to 350 million.
Despite its geographic nordicité, Canada’s population is decidedly urban — with the majority living in a long, narrow strip near the American border. Burgeoning suburbs of new immigrants, primarily from Asia, sprawl around cities like Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives successfully wooed such suburban ridings to build a majority in 2011. The mission of his opponents is to win them back.
“The Closing of the Canadian Mind” might have been a revelation to New York Times readers who presumed Canada to be a kinder, gentler version of the US.
The few outside Canada who take an interest have perhaps heard of Harper. As used to be said of a former Canadian prime minister, Mackenzie King, “no one seems to like him very much.” However, like King, who was in power for close to 20 years, the conservative Harper wins elections despite his apparent lack of charisma, empathy and policy deficits. In the late stages of this campaign, Harper enjoys a narrow lead over the Liberals in an aggregation of polls.
Harper is notorious to his opponents for his casual attitude to climate change, his championing of the oil industry, his “law and order agenda” and an overzealous need to control information which has led him to muzzle government employees as well as some members of his caucus.
Antipathy to Harper runs high among his opponents and commonly leads to anti-Harper rhetoric and occasional journalistic excess. One such attack by the Canadian writer Stephen Marche appeared in The New York Times as the election was launched. “The Closing of the Canadian Mind” might have been a revelation to Times readers who presumed Canada to be a kinder, gentler version of the US. Marche railed against a Prime Minister who he believes to be out of step with Canadian traditions. The screed delighted Harper’s opponents in Canada; its journalistic failings were overlooked. For example, the article claimed Harper was avoiding his opponents in electoral debates. In fact, Harper agreed to an unprecedented five debates — two in English, two in French and one bilingual.
Canadians revel in a generally unwarranted sense of moral superiority — particularly over Americans. As the national myth goes, Canadians are steadfast peacekeepers, admirers of ethnic diversity and prudent guardians of the environment, but these liberal nationalist sentiments often fly in the face of the facts. Canada punched above its weight in both World Wars of the twentieth century and joined wars in Korea, Afghanistan and the current campaign against the so-called Islamic State.
In regard to diversity and multiculturalism, at this point in the campaign Stephen Harper has benefitted from his government’s opposition to allowing immigrant Moslem women to wear the niqab veil at their Canadian citizenship ceremony. The position seems to be working for Harper, despite a court ruling in the women’s favour. As for the environment, Canadians are not good global environmental citizens. The country’s record on abating carbon emissions is very weak. And Harper is not the first PM to flinch over climate change: a Liberal government signed the Kyoto Accord as a photo op without the intention or capacity to implement its provisions. Liberals who attack Harper fail to point out that Canadian carbon emissions rose during their last term in office, despite that government’s adhesion to Kyoto. However lamentable it may be from a global perspective, Harper’s position at least had the intellectual honesty of admitting Canada’s reliance on the carbon emitting oil and gas industries.
With Trudeau seemingly hobbled and Harper widely despised, the official opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) held a narrow lead as the election began in August. It appeared the party led by Montreal lawyer and political veteran Thomas Mulcair might become Canada’s first prime minister leading a social democratic party. However, with one week to go before the election, polls suggest that the NDP have dropped behind both Harper’s Conservatives and Trudeau’s Liberals.
Mulcair had built his reputation with a hard-edged prosecutorial style in parliament that scored points on Conservative government patronage and in opposition to Bill C-51 — anti-terrorism legislation that many legal experts believe compromises civil liberties. Mulcair’s party claimed the law unduly infringed on civil liberties, and Canadians, at least temporarily, seemed to agree.
The NDP campaign decline may be the result of poor tactical decisions. Rather than a vigorous parliamentarian, once the campaign began Canadians were introduced to “calm Tom.” It appeared that party strategists decided to tone down both Mulcair’s rough edges and de-emphasize his explicitly social democratic measures, such as the party positions on national day care and a proposal to gradually add the cost of prescription drugs to the national health plan. In sports parlance, the NDP tried to sit on its lead rather than continuing to attack. It appears to have cost them dearly.
In a maladroit attack, Mulcair reminded Justin Trudeau of his father’s responsibility in the 1970 affair.
Conversely, Justin Trudeau has campaigned with his gloves up and swinging. A forgiving English language media enthralled with the Trudeau mystique generally overlooked Liberal support for Bill C-51, as well as several inconsistencies between the party’s pre-electoral positions and its campaign planks. Trudeau reversed Liberal policy by offering Canadians temporary deficit financing to prime the pump of the national economy. The gambit crowded the suddenly cautious NDP as Mulcair insisted on balanced budgets, perhaps as a means to fend off anticipated attacks by both Conservatives and Liberals declaring that the left leaning NDP would be poor economic managers.
The debates, which concluded on October 2, buttressed Harper’s support and built that of the Liberal Trudeau at the expense of Mulcair whose parliamentary verve was initially cloaked in his deliberate chairman of the board approach. By the fourth debate, it appeared the NDP had realized its mistake. Mulcair became more aggressive and by that inadvertently assisted Trudeau.
Mulcair went after Trudeau for supporting Harper’s Bill C-51 and in doing so linked the Liberal support to an especially illiberal moment of Liberal political history: the harsh application of War Measures legislation and suspension of civil liberties by Trudeau père during a terrorist crisis in October 1970. In a maladroit attack, Mulcair reminded Justin Trudeau of his father’s responsibility in the 1970 affair. Incredibly, Mulcair seemed unaware that his personal attack coincided with the anniversary of Pierre Trudeau’s death — September 28, 2000. Justin Trudeau seized the opportunity, yelling — fairly — that he was “incredibly proud” to be Pierre Trudeau’s son, so instead of effectively linking Justin Trudeau to Harper’s unsavoury anti-terrorism legislation, Mulcair handed the young Trudeau an opportunity. Many analysts deemed Trudeau’s riposte his finest moment in the campaign, and he changed the dynamic of the race at the NDP’s expense right then and there. The moment may be remembered as the kill shot to the NDP’s dream of power.
Liberal advocates in the English press smelled NDP blood and swarmed the party with a litany of stories writing them out of the race. This is questionable, given that an aggregation of polls suggests the NDP position, while indeed third, remains very close to the two other parties. All the same, there is no denying that a new wave of ‘Trudeaumania’ has pervaded English Canadian journalism. Some scribes have even succumbed to an apparent man crush on the dashing Justin. Jonathan Kay of The Walrus, a Canadian feature magazine, had collaborated with Trudeau on a pre-campaign as-told-to autobiography. Late in the campaign, Kay, rather than recuse himself due to his professional association with Trudeau, wrote a glowing profile of the Liberal leader. Kay’s article was an amateur psychologist’s portrait of Trudeau as a sensitive yet thick-skinned survivor of a childhood caught in the crossfire of his father’s political fame and his mother’s mental illness. Worse was yet to come for Canadian letters. A partisan nadir was reached with the publication of Ian Brown’s profile of Trudeau in The Globe and Mail, a daily from Toronto that likes to regard itself as English Canada’s paper of record. Brown’s piece, which featured several highly artistic black and white Kennedy-esque photos of the handsome Trudeau, was the sort of free media the Liberals could only dream of. Brown’s bro'mantic excess disguised as political journalism was a grievous editorial gaffe by a generally editorially responsible paper committed in the last phase of a very close three-way race.
Tom Mulcair, Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau. >
Since confederation in 1867, Canada has been ruled almost exclusively by Conservatives or Liberals. Both are centre-right parties rooted in a defense of capitalism, private property and individual rights. Although Liberals will falsely claim otherwise, there is very little to separate them from Conservatives in the longue durée of Canadian history. Negative, unequal media coverage of the NDP, particularly in English Canada, suggests that Canadian élites are reverting to the default position of a binary Conservative/Liberal choice. Perhaps Canadians simply cannot fathom national government by a centre left party, despite electing several credible NDP governments in the provinces.
Even likely NDP allies rocked the boat in the current campaign — particularly with the Leap Manifesto: a demand for radical environmental and economic change presented primarily by wealthy figures in the cultural industries at the Toronto International Film Festival. In its overreach the Leap Manifesto is not a realistic prescription for political power in 21st century Canada; its advocates’ agenda might have been served by putting a shoulder to the NDP campaign. The Canadian left has been traditionally weakened by a tendency to prefer being the nation’s conscience rather than its leader, and the content and timing of the Leap Manifesto was the latest manifestation. Progressive NDP policies on national daycare and pricing carbon were overlooked by the media and the NDP’s potential allies alike.
As the race winds down, the election is too close to call, but the contest for government appears to be between Conservatives and Liberals. Polls suggest that the NDP will remain the majority party in its chateau fort of Québec, although Mulcair’s acceptance of the court ruling permitting the niqab has hurt him among the province’s secularists. Numerous suburban ridings around Toronto and Vancouver are places where the Liberals think they can turn their 2011 rout into victory in 2015.
A political enigma, Harper stands posed to become the most perennially successful Western leader not named Angela Merkel.
In this election, both governing Conservatives and Liberals supported Bill C-51. Both also support the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport heavy crude oil from northern Alberta bitumen deposits to the United States. Keystone has become a touchstone for Canadian and American environmental movements. Hey, even Hillary Clinton opposes it. However, the Conservatives and Liberals lead the polls in supposedly eco-friendly Canada. Go figure.
A political enigma, Harper stands posed to become the most perennially successful Western leader not named Angela Merkel. Yet many Canadians are alienated by his policies. He has built a loyal following of perhaps no more than 30% of the voting population. Electoral math requires that he bring in an additional 5-7% in order to maintain power. Harper has unequivocally raised the stakes in stating his opposition to women wearing the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, and even as workers in the Canadian civil service. Current polling data suggests that Harper’s tough talk seems to be working.
Agreement in the last week of the campaign over the sweeping Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal which Harper champions might give the Conservatives the final push they need. The NDP’s Mulcair opposes the deal and Liberal Trudeau is on the fence.
Debates over veiled women in public spaces and an international trade deal that would ease market access for multinationals present a fundamental electoral litmus test for Canadian progressive values.
JAMES CULLINGHAM is a professor of journalism and history at Seneca College and documentary filmmaker with Tamarack Productions in Toronto. He is executive producer of The Pass System a 2015 documentary about the historic segregation of Canadian First Nation peoples. Cullingham holds a Ph.D in Canadian and Latin American history. TamarackProductions.com @JamesCullingham