TORONTO – The outcome of the Canadian elections is as predicted. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were consistently predicted to form a minority government.
There was one shock, however, in the resurgence of the Bloc Quebecois, a one-time separatist party, a one-time official opposition and, most recently, a near extinct volcano.
With 32 seats (up from 10), the Quebec nationalists are now a strong regional force in national politics, a party whose only mission is to protect what public opinion in the province of Quebec sees as its interests.
Simply put, they will defy the imposition of national norms and interventions in how Quebec manages its own affairs and seek to maximize the province’s interests in all aspects of national policymaking. In a minority parliament, they will have a disproportionate presence.
Conservatives go regional?
Interestingly, the Conservative Party’s sweep of Alberta and the prairie provinces also colors it as a regionally focused force.
Along with the Bloc Quebecois, Canadian national politics is thus now hostage to two “provincial nationalist” parties.
The Liberals, too, have become what their critics will describe as a regional party, relying on a caucus that in the majority represents central Canada.
Trudeau’s great failure has been his inability to create a vision and program of “Canadian nationalism” to offset the “dis-uniting” trend that is grabbing hold of the country.
In a real sense, this new political landscape threatens to leave Canada adrift at a particularly challenging time. Few of the current front-burner issues are amenable to a solution in the “national interest.”
Two deep fissures now dominate the political landscape: One is Quebec’s progressive or repressive decision (depending on how one sees it) to ban religious symbols (read: hijabs and burkas) worn by public servants.
In Quebec, this very popular measure has been presented as a move to emancipate Muslim women. It is thus regarded as a step fully consistent with the process of “laicisation” in what had been one of the most repressively Catholic societies in recent modern times.
Outside Quebec, the measure is widely seen as xenophobia in action. The Canadian federal government is caught between a rock and hard place. It has to decide whether to challenge the provincial government on human rights grounds or “abandoning human rights” by leaving the issue to be sorted out in the courts (which, sadly, it will not be).
Resolving these tensions will require a subtlety and skill of management for which the last Trudeau government showed modest signs.
The second great national Canadian debate surrounds the construction of a pipeline across the Rockies (and east to Quebec) as a destination for Alberta oil.
Feelings run very deep on both sides of this issue, pitting an increasingly militant environmentalist “Rest of Canada” against a disproportionately resource-dependent Alberta.
It doesn’t really help that this particular province is historically prone to sometimes overheated but understandable demonstrations of alienation from the rest of the country.
Add to this mix the potential for explosive conflicts on the ground among aboriginal groups, local activists as well as coastal eco-communities, and you can see a hugely delicate and splitist challenge shaping up for the federal government.
It doesn’t make meeting this challenge any easier that the Liberals, who will continue to govern, now don’t have a single MP from either Alberta or Saskatchewan in their caucus.
A coalition for Canada
With only a minority of seats in the Commons, the new government will need at least the forbearance of the minor parties to govern. Both the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP (Canada’s democratic socialists) are viscerally, and hypocritically, anti-pipeline.
Little wonder then that predictions of a national schism are in the wind.
While pipelines and burkas are likely to dominate the national discourse, other delicate issues, including the unmet expectations of aboriginal groups for more power, autonomy and resources that had been a hallmark of Trudeau rhetoric will need attention to avoid violent expressions of that disappointment.
The need for federal reform
Reforming the Canadian federation is also way overdue. A country of just under 37 million people is now governed by 11 provincial governments, each of which is intent on protecting their own economies against each other.
Though many Canadians refuse to admit it, a weak federal state makes us a country of innocents wondering around in a dangerous world. A commitment to meet the world on its own terms will be essential to our sovereignty and prosperity.
And yet, the need for a vigorous form of national solidarity is noticeable in its absence in the public discourse.
Spun positively, the next government will have a major opportunity to build a policy agenda around this imperative for national strength and cohesion to succeed in the global economy.
What conclusions could those abroad draw from these elections?
Canadians by and large have voted strategically. Some opted for stability, some for the Liberals as a lesser evil, some for regional interests, some for specific causes (especially the environment).
All of Canada’s political parties in the 2019 national elections had similar anodyne platforms and branded themselves as civilized champions of the middle class.
The good news is that we Canadians have not yet descended into authoritarian politics. The People’s Party, the one splinter which could have been seen to embrace open xenophobia (probably unfairly), was completely wiped off the political map.
There is no guarantee that the civil style of politics for which Canada has come to be known will last. The kinds of tensions noted above could easily be exploited by politicians intent on doing so.
Troublingly for the Liberals, the just concluded elections may have shown the limits of “nice guy” leadership, which has been Justin Trudeau’s trademark.
The saving grace for Trudeau in that regard is that Andrew Scheer, his defeated Conservative opponent, has also adopted that approach, in marked contrast to Stephen Harper, the last Canadian prime minister from Conservative ranks.
Both leaders’ failure to articulate robust, compelling ideas hurt them.
If Trudeau fails to develop these very soon, it could well be fatal in the next election, especially if the opposition Conservative party chooses to be led next by a person who does show these qualities.
The famed Canadian niceness may be a thing of the past, and perhaps necessarily so. We live in a dangerous world and can no longer rely on the luxury of being rich enough and far enough from the front lines to make our way in it.
George Haynal is a senior fellow of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, and a former head of the Policy Planning Staff of the Canadian Ministry Of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
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