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Ideas | David Shribman

Canadian elections are short, civil, and to the point. Why not ours?

heather hopp-bruce/globe staff | adobe

MONTREAL — Nobody exceeded the time limits. Nobody interrupted another candidate. Nobody spewed canned attack lines. And when it came time for the next person to talk, the contenders for Parliament — the shock troops of the campaign to determine the prime minister of Canada — cordially passed the microphone, one to another.

This is a Sunday night in Canadian campaign season — different in tone, pace, substance, and character from the raucous, coarse, gritty, permanent campaign Americans are conducting below the border.

Those differences reflect Canada’s history, culture, languages, and character. But at a time when the United States and its northern neighbor are both conducting vital leadership elections, the contrast serves to illuminate some of the characteristics of our own politics. In this regard Canada — second only to Russia in land mass, a self-consciously diverse nation that jealously guards its distinctiveness on the North American continent — is not so much a mirror image of the United States as it is a window into understanding American politics.

There are, or course, important structural differences in the two countries’ political systems. Americans elect their president through the Electoral College but have a chance to make a direct statement favoring either the Republican or Democratic candidate. Canada has multiple parties and its prime minister is, to oversimplify, the leader of the party that commands a majority in Parliament.


“We get to elect our president, and Canadians don’t get to elect their prime minster directly,’’ said Christopher Kirkey, an American who is the director of the Center for the Study of Canada and Institute on Quebec Studies at the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh.

“Americans find that odd, a real disconnect. But it speaks to the way powers are shared in Canada. The separation of powers in Canada is less among the institutions of government than it is between Ottawa and the provinces.’’


I’m a political correspondent who has covered American elections since the Richard Nixon years for The Boston Globe and a handful of other leading newspapers. And though I am a joint citizen of the two countries, this Canadian leadership contest has been a jolt to my experience and expectations. The differences, of course, grow out of the different fundamental cultural characteristics of the two countries.

This Canadian campaign is short, relatively civil, focused. After revelations that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has worn blackface and brownface, there was, to be sure, much attention to the personality and character of the Liberal Party leader. But the focus also was on the role of race in Canadian society, with sober discussions about the measures needed to combat intolerance and the restitutions required to provide equal opportunity and, above all, dignity, to all Canadians, especially Indigenous peoples.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned alongside local Liberal candidate Andrea Kaiser in Niagara Falls last month.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned alongside local Liberal candidate Andrea Kaiser in Niagara Falls last month.Cole Burston/Getty Images/Getty Images

Canada is a wealthy country with a welfare state but without the tensions — regional, class, wealth — that prevail in the United States. The government plays such a big role in Canadians’ daily lives and in the nation’s economy that it is able to redistribute wealth geographically and among classes in a way that in a general sense ameliorates some of the tensions that animate American politics.

“We regulate our public lives here to assure fairness as opposed to having the free market approach you have in the United States,’’ said Drew Fagan, who teaches at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto and has worked in government for both Conservative and Liberal ministries. “We are always here looking for a balance. This is a country of compromise, and a country that has in its bones the role of regulations and government to keep the country together. That goes way back in our history. We may be similar in many ways, but this is a distinguishing difference.”


In a way Canada — so alike the United States on the surface, at least the way Americans often see it — stands as a rebuke to its continental neighbor. That is an integral part of Canadian history and of the Canadian character. Indeed, by the end of the 19th century it was clear that the United States was bordered by what W.L. Morton, who edited a landmark 19-volume history of Canada, described as “an independent nation as free, as well-organized and as stable as itself, but founded on an explicit but final rejection of American institutions.’’

The most dramatic contrast in the two countries’ election processes may be in the length of their leadership campaigns.

“Here the election starts and then it is over,’’ said Peter Donolo, communications director for former Prime Minister Jean Chretien. “In 2000 we had an election in five weeks and we got the results. You guys had your election in November and didn’t have a winner till December.’’

Former congressman John Delaney of Maryland began his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination nearly 1,200 days before the American election. The Canadian election campaign will last a mere 41 days; the whole thing will have taken less time than it took the Toronto Raptors to move through this year’s NBA playoffs. During the entire Canadian election period, the American campaign will have moved from Iowa and New Hampshire to . . . more trips to Iowa and New Hampshire. Delaney has done more than 218 events in Iowa alone, senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has done 82.


“Canadians,” said Daniel Beland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, “simply don’t understand your long American primary system.”

Nor do they understand the amount of money that floods into American campaigns. Here corporate and union donations are prohibited. There are no Koch Brothers in Canada, no George Soros. The wealthy may vote in higher numbers than the poor, but they do not have the influence in Canadian politics that they do in the United States.

“The absence of money in Canadian politics is one of the distinctive characteristics of our politics,” said Tom Creary, who served as chief of staff for two Canadian ministries and who was the founder of the American Chamber of Congress of Canada. “Money doesn’t corrupt politics here the way it does to the United States. Politicians here are not beholden to their donors and can be free to defy special interests.”

They also are not preoccupied with the social questions that predominate in American general elections. Issues such as abortion and gay rights, perennially divisive topics in the United States, are not issues here. They may be subjects of conversation but not of political decision; they are regarded as settled matters. Indeed, alone among industrial nations, Canada has no law governing abortion whatsoever — and it seems unlikely that any government is going to retouch the issue.While campaigning in New Brunswick Thursday, Andrew Scheer, the Conservative Party leader said he personally opposes abortion but repeated earlier assertions that he would not reopen the issue if he becomes prime minister.


That overarching sense of civic and civil accord can be seen, too, with climate change — a contentious issue in the United States but less so here, where there is a consensus that the issue is serious and urgent. That general agreement comes despite the fact Canada is among the highest per-capita energy users in the world — its residents consume 10 percent more energy than Americans — and its leading export is oil from Alberta. Indeed, resource extraction is one of the leading employment and export sectors.

Moreover, Canadians are unusually dependent on air travel and automobiles, a reflection of the vast distances that they must travel in a relatively unpopulated land. Though Nike Ottawa estimates that 11,698 people in the capital bike to work — one of them Catherine McKenna, Trudeau’s minister for climate change, who makes a display of riding her bicycle to the office, even in winter — nationwide those who live 15 miles from the center of a metropolitan area spend an average of one hour and 23 minutes a day in an automobile, according to StatisticsCanada.

Even so, in the Montreal political session the other night the environmental debate was not over what is causing climate change, or whether global warming is a “fraud” or a Chinese plot but instead over how best to address the climate crisis. The Green Party’s candidate coincidentally bears the name Robert Green — the party’s candidate in a neighboring district is named Daniel Green — and he boasted that his candidacy represented “the only party with a credible plan to meet the climate change requirements” set out by the Paris Agreement. His Conservative and Liberal rivals disputed that contention, though politely.

Border security is an issue on both sides of the 49th parallel, but generally Canadians are more welcoming of immigrants, especially from Syria. For generations, the Liberals were the party of new Canadians, but in recent years the Conservatives have deftly stolen that mantle from the Liberals.

“Elsewhere in the world, and especially in the United States, conservatives are against immigrants, but not here,” said Malcolm Bird, a University of Winnipeg political scientist. “By emphasizing the importance of the family, being tolerant of religious diversity and speaking of fiscal prudence — reducing taxes, austerity — the Conservatives have realized that this is the future of our politics. This is not the way Donald Trump is going.’’

President Trump has even been dragged into TV ads during the Canadian campaign.
President Trump has even been dragged into TV ads during the Canadian campaign.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/Getty Images

The two countries’ distinct differences on foreign policy also are reflected in their elections.

Much of that difference derives from trade policy, which is why Trump’s disparagement of Trudeau at the G-7 conference at the Manoir Richelieu in Quebec last year cut so deeply. Canada still sells three-quarters of what it makes to the United States and has a minimal defense obligation because it is a ‘’free-rider’’ on national security. That dates to August 1938, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt joined William Lyon Mackenzie King in Kingston, Ont., and offered Canada a security pledge that endures to this day.

That pledge, which frees up Canada from most obligations for its own defense, allows the country to pay for social programs, including health insurance, that in the United States would add to the budget deficit or prompt new taxes, issues being addressed by the Democratic presidential candidates. Even so, Canadians have a distinctly different view of their role in the world.

“There is a broad consensus among Canadians that we go out into the world and do good works and bring people together,” said Jeremy K.B. Kinsman, a veteran diplomat who was Canada’s ambassador to Great Britain, Russia, Italy and the European Community. “Both major parties have done that in roughly equal measure. We are all about national unity, not division.”

One important element of Canadian politics has little resonance in the US: the special status occupied by Quebec and by the French language. One of the controversies in the country today regards a Quebec law banning many public servants from wearing visible religious symbols. This divides the devout from the secular; Muslims and Jews (some of both wear head coverings) from Christians; Quebec from the rest of Canada; and urban dwellers from rural denizens. The party leaders here are shying away from taking positions on the measure, which has the support of a majority of voters only in the provinces of Quebec and Alberta.

There is, however, one topic that predominates in both Canadian and American politics from coast to coast and from the American border to beyond the Arctic Circle: Donald Trump.

The 45th president is even mentioned in a Liberal Party ad that aired recently in the manufacturing region of southwestern Ontario. “We stood up to Donald Trump on trade when the Conservatives wanted Canada to back down,” said foreign minister Chrystia Freeland, a Liberal cabinet member, as the visual image showed Trump and Trudeau at the White House.

The president is immensely unpopular in Canada; some Liberal political strategists are urging Trudeau to introduce Trump even further into the campaign and to exploit his differences with the American leader, whose comportment is deplored here and whose personal style is regarded as offensive.

“We don’t like a politician to be overexposed,” said Dolono, the former prime ministerial communications director. “We don’t need the prime minister in Canada to be seen every day for us to know that he is doing his job. The perpetual election cycle in the United States — you’re always positioning yourself to run or raising money — creates a perpetual motion machine that we don’t have here. This election proves it.”

David Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, teaches at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at Montreal’s McGill University.