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Canada's back

The situation called for someone to champion Canada. Justin Trudeau did just that -- he took the highroad and Canadian voters followed. 

Susan Crean
4 December 2015
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sworn in at Rideau Hall, November, 2015.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sworn in at Rideau Hall, November, 2015. Demotix/ Jaclyn McRae-Sadik. All rights reserved.To most Canadians, the unexpected Liberal majority in last month's election didn't come as a surprise so much as deliverance. You could almost hear it, several million people exhaling with relief at the news the Conservatives had lost. Not a single Conservative MP left in the Atlantic region or the North, only twelve in Quebec, two in Vancouver, and one in greater Toronto where Finance Minister, Joe Oliver, and Citizenship and Immigration minister Chris Alexander both lost their jobs. Add to this the Liberal two-seat breakthrough in Calgary where none have been elected since the sixties, and the largest national turnout in twenty-two years (just shy of 70 percent) with significant increases among youth and Indigenous voters. The final tally: Liberals 184, Tories 99, New Democrats 44.   

Decisive though these numbers seem, no one was taking the outcome of this election for granted. On one side there was an incumbent prime minister seeking a fourth term, a long shot at the best of times. With a backlog of scandals  (the fraud trial of one Conservative senator began during the campaign) and a depleted front bench (as talent like Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird departed early), Stephen Harper had  little going for him beyond a stalwart base. His loyal thirty percent. Facing him were four opposition parties vying for the rest of the vote.  

The main contenders were the Liberals and the NDP. However, the real menace was the spirited pack of free-floating undecided voters, united in their distrust for Harper. No one had any clue where they would descend. "I'm a lifelong Conservative," an old friend phoned to tell me, someone with Alberta cattle credentials and deep connections to the Party. "And for the first time I'm an undecided voter, " she moaned, though there was no prevarication about what she was voting against.

Conservatives in trouble

Long before oil prices went into freefall in early 2015, the Conservatives were in trouble on a multitude of fronts besides the risk of putting all their economic eggs in the Oil Sands. A long list of contentious changes to laws, policies, and programs had elicited an equally long list of protests and court challenges. Veterans pointed out the disconnect between the glorification of the fighting forces and the lack of support for soldiers returning from the Afghanistan mission with long-term illnesses. Since 2002, fifty-nine have committed suicide after returning home, compared to the 152 killed in action. 

The litany continued as government scientists were prohibited from speaking publically without permission (and an approved text), as the mandatory long-form census was cancelled prompting the resignation of the chief statistician, as tough-on-crime laws with provisions for mandatory sentencing were passed even though crime statistics were declining, and as the government lambasted the judiciary for its "activist" decision-making even as the courts became the one place where opposition to Conservative laws and decision-making could prevail. It was a judge who forced the government to bring back Omar Khadr from Guantanamo Bay (where he'd been held ten years since being captured by the Americans in Afghanistan at the age of 15), and the Supreme Court which had to rule out an ill-chosen Harper appointee to the top Court.        

Chief among alienated communities were the Indigenous peoples whose relationship with the federal government went from bad to worse-than-ever during the Tory years. After making an official apology for the tragedy of the Residential school system (where Native children were abused, terrorized and cut off from family, language and culture,) the Government had nothing to say when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its preliminary report last spring.  Responding to the crisis of unclean water in remote communities it sent in auditors. And when calls were made for an inquiry into the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls -- more than 1200 between 1980 and 2012 by official police (RCMP) count -- it flatly refused. Everything needed was being done, Harper insisted.  "We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon, we should view it as a crime."  

The deaths and disappearances continued; Harper turned a deaf ear to the unfolding tragedy. This seemed of a piece with his uncommunicative and controlling style of governing whereby the prime minister's office told everyone, including ministers, what to say. Here was a prime minister who favoured omnibus bills that included all manner of subtle and not-so-subtle changes to other statutes -- and then curtailed committee deliberations so thorough consideration was impossible. A prime minister who disparaged the media, ordered candidates not to attend all-candidates meetings and refused the usual national televised debates, a prime minister who made important speeches abroad where questions wouldn't be asked, and who was unafraid of proroguing Parliament when in a political jam. This he did two years in a row, the first time to prevent opposition parties from forming a coalition, the second time to avoid a non-confidence motion over the scandal of detainees in Afghanistan.

In short, this was not a government to be slowed down by democracy. Even before winning his majority in 2011, Harper's cabinet was ruled in contempt of Parliament for withholding information relating to the budget.  And this was the very history that made so many people seriously apprehensive about another Tory government. A fear that was on display the day Senate page Brigette DePape walked onto the Senate floor to face the Governor General David Johnson as he read the Throne Speech holding a red traffic sign reading "Stop Harper".

Anything-but-Harper

The anti-Harper sentiment did not abate over the four year mandate. By the time the writ was dropped last August, it had hardened into an Anything-but-Harper movement accompanied by much desperate talk about strategic voting and coalitions. Going into the election the Tories faced a combination of has-beens and wannabe's.  The Liberals were rebuilding under Justin Trudeau having botched two comeback attempts and sunk to thirty-six seats and third party status. The New Democrats, however, had become the official opposition for the first time in history mainly because voters in Quebec unexpectedly deserted the Bloc Québecois for the NDP and its charismatic leader Jack Layton.  There was no guarantee this switch was permanent or that Layton's successor Tom Mulcair would rise to the occasion, but  the possibility of forming the government was still real, and at the start of the race the NDP were ahead in the polls. Furthermore, optimism had been given a boost in May when the snap election in Alberta swept out the provincial Conservative government after forty-four years in power, and swept in Rachel Notley and the NDP.   

Playing for time (and higher campaign spending limits) the Tories set the campaign for a marathon seventy-eight days, the longest in history. They figured on wearing the opposition down and depleting their coffers, but instead they gave everyone time. Justin Trudeau had time to hone his leadership skills, and Canadians had time to get to know him. (He probably has the world record among heads of state for selfies taken with constituents, which says a lot about his ease and openness.)  There was also time for the anti-Harper sentiment to play itself out and refocus.  In the last weeks the narrative shifted, moved by the shared feeling Canada was no longer the country it used to be. A country that welcomes refugees,  looks after its own, cares about the environment, and prefers the role of peacemaker to powder monkey on the world stage.

The anxiety about electing another Tory government spoke directly to this sense of loss. "Dear Canada," read one note projected on a downtown wall.  "You've been gone too long, and we really miss you. Please, come home." Instead of voting against something, people took to talking about what mattered, and what inspired them about the country. Maybe it was the photo of little Alan Kurdi dead on the beach in Bodrun, Turkey, or Zunera Ishaq's grace in fighting the Harper government's attempt to ban wearing the niqab at her Citizenship ceremony. She took the government to court, won once, and won again when the government appealed and the judge threw its case out. (So in the end, Ishaq got her citizenship in time to vote.)

Not since 1988 had a groundswell of public opinion mobilized during an election to reshape debate and recast the question. Back then it was opposition to Brian Mulroney's proposed Free Trade Agreement with the US which was discussed in terms of big picture questions like sovereignty, cultural and economic autonomy. The "No, eh" side carried the popular vote though Mulroney won the election, and the FTA was signed into being in January 1989. This time the flashpoint also had to do with peoples' sense of themselves and of Canada. They looked at Harper and his government and didn't see themselves, much less their better selves. They saw mean-spiritedness, suspicion and negativity. 

One way to read the Liberal landslide is as a reflection of the bloody-minded determination of the electorate to move Harper into the past tense. In this sense it was a conservative move on many people's part, and strategic. It cost the NDP (and Parliament) dearly in the number of very talented MPs defeated, and saw history repeating itself with the Liberals campaigning to the left and the NDP to the right. As is often said, the Liberals can get away with saying things what would draw a backlash were the NDP speaking. So it was Mulcair who committed to balanced budgets, and Trudeau who promised deficit financing for infrastructure. A third perspective sees Trudeau's win as a rejection of the combative style and staid content of the old school politics.  So when he announced his cabinet, sticking to a promise of gender parity as promised, his answer to the inevitable question was "Because it's 2015."

A good day

In the month after the election, the country has been in a giddy mood. Trudeau moved quickly to un-muzzle the scientists, to reinstate the long form census, and to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year. There is more to read in the election tealeaves, of course. In rejecting Harper and the politics of division, Canadians went out and elected ten Indigenous MPs one of whom, Jody Wilson-Raybould is now Minister of Justice. And seventeen Sikhs, which makes Punjabi the third language of Parliament and Harjit Sajjann from BC the Minister of Defence. And in naming his cabinet, Trudeau paid attention to language as well as diversity, so signalling to the world with a minister of the Environment and Climate Change, a minister of Science, and a minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs that Canada is back.

October 19 was a good day for democracy in Canada even though it left progressives anticipating the inevitable Liberal slide to the right once in power, and wishing the NDP had not hedged their bets so narrowly. The situation called for someone to champion Canada. Justin Trudeau did just that -- he took the highroad and Canadian voters followed. 

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