IT’S NOT THE image Americans would associate with a Canadian federal election: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his bespoke suit stretched tight by hefty and conspicuous body armor, surrounded by a phalanx of bug-eyed uniformed tactical officers.
He wasn’t campaigning near Canada’s supposedly porous southern border nor in a war zone, but rather in the quiet Liberal Party stronghold of suburban Toronto. Trudeau was 90 minutes late and unaccompanied by his wife, the result of a security threat serious enough he probably should have canceled the rally altogether.
David Shribman, the estimable political journalist, wrote a piece for the Globe’s Ideas section earlier this month suggesting that Americans have a lot to learn from Canadian democracy.
But his assertion that Canadian elections lack the toxicity so prevalent in the American political arena may be more an expression of what Americans would like to see in Canada than a representation of what’s actually become of Canadian politics.
While Trudeau proclaimed this most recent election one of the “nastiest in Canadian history,” there’s ample evidence to suggest this is more norm than exception to the rule. And if they’ve long been nasty, Canadian elections are growing increasingly vacuous, too. This latest one was a lot like an episode of Seinfeld — it wasn’t about anything in particular and most of the main characters spent their time defending their failures and fibs.
Doubtless many Canadians breathed a sigh of relief Monday night when it became clear Trudeau would hang on as prime minister — better a lackluster liberal than a paleoconservative in centrist’s clothing. Better still that neither the libertarian xenophobe Maxime Bernier nor any member of his upstart populist party got a seat in Parliament. That’s about the extent of the good news.
Trudeau will head back to Parliament with an inherently unstable minority government, while Andrew Scheer, leader of the Conservative Party, will stay on to lead the official opposition. Both will court members of the remaining parties; one to buttress the government, the other to sink it and return Canadians to the polls. Forty years ago, a Conservative minority government lasted just nine months in office. Canada has had seven federal elections in just the last 19 years.
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CANADIAN DEMOCRACY SUFFERS from a combination of long-standing, unresolved constitutional issues, inter-regional antagonism, a generally dysfunctional politics and — most troubling of all — entrenched racism. That includes systemic discrimination against people within Canada and overt xenophobia towards just about anyone who’d want to move there. And lately, Canada has experienced a dramatic shift toward right-wing populism at the provincial level and a surge of far-right hate groups nationwide.
The security incident in Mississauga that required Trudeau to wear body armor is unfortunately indicative of the hysterical hatred common among Canadian conservatives toward the prime minister. Despite his best efforts over the past four years to be something of an amicable and pragmatic centrist, Trudeau has managed to disappoint and disillusion Canada’s left while simultaneously becoming the nightmare boogeyman of Canada’s increasingly unhinged right.
Did you know Justin Trudeau stopped the presses of Canada’s largest newspaper to prevent it from reporting a sexual relationship with a student while he was a private high school teacher? That Sharia is the new law of Ontario? That American-backed anti-pipeline protesters have sabotaged Canada’s oil and gas industry?
You’d be correct in assuming that all of these stories are complete and utter nonsense. But Canada’s fake news has gained remarkable traction, with an assist from mainstream Canadian media.
The latter two conspiracy theories have received considerable ink in Canada’s largest newspaper chain, Postmedia, which in addition to publishing Canada’s only national newspaper, owns every daily in nearly every city west of Toronto.
Among the Alex Jones-like headlines they have turned out about the supposed American conspiracy to shut down Canada’s tarsands oil industry: “Researcher exposes money trail behind US-based campaign to kill the oilsands”; “How foreign-backed anti-oil activists infiltrated Canada’s government”; “The Great American conspiracy to sabotage Canadian oilpatch.”
Though these theories are easily debunked they’re also defended by many of the country’s leading think tanks, nearly all of which are inter-connected through third-party political action groups and the Koch-supported Atlas Network, and whose endless stream of dubious, non-academic research is popularized by pundits, politicians, social media, and even the former attorney general of British Columbia.
If this all sounds very familiar, it should. Politics in Canada — like many so-called liberal democracies the world over — has moved right in the wake of the current American president’s ascendancy. Even if Scheer’s apparent ties to GOP strategists can’t be definitely proven, his campaign manager is a former board member of Rebel Media, Canada’s leading supplier of far-right wing paranoia masquerading as journalism.
Remember that story about Trudeau trying to cover up a sex scandal when he was a high school teacher? This gem came from the Buffalo Chronicle, an American website that’s mediocre at covering the Greater Niagara Region yet somehow has the inside track on a wide variety of career-ending scandals plaguing the upper echelons of Canada’s government. Even though the Chronicle is the journalistic equivalent of a diploma mill, the story was picked up by the Conservative Party and all its downstream social media partners.
This is hardly the behavior of a robust democracy.
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THE PROBLEMS IN Canada are unfortunately not limited to media consolidation, fake news, and the manipulation of social media to achieve political ends. These are the symptoms, not the cause, of Canada’s degenerating democracy.
Far more significant is the racism and hatred that’s been simmering gently on the back burner for generations, now fully unleashed as Canada’s right looks south for its inspiration. The crisis on our southern border began when people started fleeing America to take their chances with Canada’s refugee system, fearing certain deportation in what was once the land that welcomed the tired, the poor, and those yearning to breathe free.
The acceptance of so many refugees produced a brief moment of national pride and some ham-fisted comparisons to the Underground Railroad. But it wasn’t long before Canada’s “civil and cordial” politics degenerated into coarse Conservative talking points. First they were irregular migrants, then they were queue-jumpers, then they became illegal and now, at least according to party leader Scheer, they’re possibly members of MS-13.
Canada’s crippling racism problem should have been front and center throughout the election. Instead the whole conversation focused on how it affected Trudeau, who had dressed up in blackface and brownface as a young man and has a stubborn adult tendency toward ethnic dress-up.
That at any given moment 70 or so Indigenous communities in Canada remain on permanent boil water advisories, or that there are anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 missing and presumed murdered Indigenous women and girls, or that people of color are regularly and disproportionately harassed by the police in Toronto and Montreal never came up.
There’s perhaps no better demonstration of the intersection of Canada’s ascending racism and its lackadaisical leadership than how its six party leaders have addressed the highly controversial decision by the government of Quebec to legalize overt discrimination against religious minorities in the public sector — barring certain public employees from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. That is, none of the party leaders have come out strongly against it, preferring to dodge the issue by pointing to the apparently delicate sensibilities of the Quebecois. This spinelessness is as characteristic of Canadian politicians as it is of Americans.
And if you think the electoral college is bad, consider that Canada’s first-past-the-post voting system effectively voids any vote that doesn’t go to the winning candidate in an electoral riding (the equivalent of a congressional district). Canadian governments can be formed with as little as a quarter of the population’s support, and the executive and legislative vote is one in the same, the national leader being chosen only by registered members of the party, not the public at large. Canada’s Senate, the chamber of sober second thought, is entirely appointed. Electoral reform has been proposed and promised for over a century, but as long as it reinforces and sustains elite rule, it’s dropped as soon as a government is formed. Political dysfunction and anemic voting rates are among the few constants in Canadian politics.
Issues that were once firmly behind us — legalized abortion, gun control — are being resurrected by local lobby groups with financial ties (and a rhetorical base) firmly rooted in their American equivalents. They claim they’re only asking questions, but in practice it’s just another step in the normalization of all of Canada’s worst instincts.
Canada cannot — must not — be the ideal for the American left; American progressives must aspire to do much more and be far better. Canada’s successes are unfortunately overshadowed by its many failures — failures that continue for the most part unchallenged by a political aristocracy that has evolved over successive generations. A Canadian federal election is hardly inspiring; quite the opposite. It reminds us of all the broken promises, the entrenched dysfunction, the sleaze and slime that form the foundation of the nation’s politics.
America has already picked its worst possible president and in so doing may have finally broken its own dysfunctional politics. It’s always darkest before the dawn, and Americans have an incredible ability to induce radical progressive change from time to time. Canadians, by contrast, are handicapped by their own exceptionalism, inflated egos, and widespread malaise. Rather than put Canadian politics on a pedestal, Americans should be both more knowledgeable of Canada’s politics and far more critical of its glaring failures.
Canadians simply won’t take their shortcomings seriously until they elicit the scrutiny of Americans.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story referred to the “Kochs’ Atlas Network.” The Kochs are one of several funders of the group.
Taylor C. Noakes is a journalist and public historian from Montreal.