This Election Brought Out Canada’s Worst

This Election Brought Out Canada’s Worst

Justin Trudeau didn’t lose the Canadian federal election outright, but he had about as bad an outcome as possible short of that. His Liberal Party lost 27 seats in the House of Commons. More ominously, his share of the popular vote dropped 6.5 points, from 39.5 percent in the 2015 election to 33 percent in this year’s. Canada’s Conservatives, who came second in the seat count, won the largest share of the popular vote, 34.4 percent.

Trudeau’s party suffered these losses despite a generally favorable economy in Ontario and Quebec, the heartland of the Liberal Party. This formerly bright, shining face of hope and change was weighted down by ethics scandals and an embarrassing sequence of personal missteps.

Those missteps are famous around the world: Trudeau was captured on camera wearing blackface multiple times before his entry into politics. The scandals are not often remarked upon outside Canada, but they matter inside. Trudeau violated conflicts-of-interest rules to accept an expensive vacation and intervened in a criminal case to protect a business corporation with close ties to his party.

The Conservative slogan, “Not as advertised,” bit deep and drew blood.

What buoyed Trudeau was an issue of rising importance globally and in Canada: climate change. Trudeau’s government took painful policy action on climate change, imposing a carbon tax. Conventional political wisdom might have predicted doom. Instead, even Conservative canvassers found as they knocked on doors that Canadians were willing to pay for environmental benefits. Trudeau’s pollsters must have heard the same message. The second substantive sentence out of Trudeau’s mouth on election night hailed the result as a vote for “strong action on climate change.”

Canadian Liberals are left to wonder whether their message would be served by a less scandal-tainted messenger. Canadian Conservatives must reckon with the power of the climate-change issue even in an energy-producing nation like Canada. All Canadians and all friends of Canada should worry whether the country will retain its enviable record as a bastion of democratic stability in a destabilizing world.

Trudeau will now try to strike a deal with the left-wing New Democratic Party to support his government, as a previous NDP supported his father’s government from 1972 to 1974. That last partnership ended badly for the NDP, and today’s New Democrats are likely to demand a high policy price in exchange for their votes. That price will drag the Trudeau government away from the policy center, opening even more room for the Conservatives under the careful leadership of Andrew Scheer. If the softening U.S. economy drags Canada down with it, Justin Trudeau may find his second government even bumpier and more contentious than his first.

Whatever their other differences, Canada’s Liberal and Conservative governments achieved a remarkable record of governing success from 1995 to 2015. They reduced the country’s once-terrifying budget deficits. They navigated deftly through the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. They held at bay Canada’s most dangerous internal threat: separatism and regional alienation.

Justin Trudeau’s first government has revived those dangerous threats—and the outcome of Monday’s Canadian election paints the map with the colors of their return.

One of the night’s biggest winners was the Bloc Quebecois party, the party of Quebec nationalism. The Bloc erupted into prominence in the early 1990s. In 1993, it won 54 of Quebec’s 75 seats and actually qualified as the second-largest party in Parliament. In the more stable 2000s, though, the Bloc suffered a long, slow fade. It lost official-party status in 2011 and dropped to its lowest-ever share of the Quebec vote in 2015. Quebec seemed at last to have fully committed itself to the Canadian national political system, dividing its votes—as other Canadians did—among Liberals, Conservatives, and the left-wing New Democrats.

Justin Trudeau’s first government revived the Bloc. As so often with Justin Trudeau, this mistake originated not in any policy decision, but in an act of performative politics. On January 28, 2017, Trudeau’s Twitter account posted this tweet:

“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada”

Trudeau did not intend those words to signal any particular action. In the shock of Donald Trump’s election, Trudeau and his team saw an opportunity to position themselves as the shiny faces of global progressivism. Trump had tried to impose a ban on Muslim refugees—so Trudeau extended a welcome.

Despite the example of Germany in August 2015, when a careless tweet from that country’s migration agency triggered a surge of 1.2 million people across German borders, Trudeau seems not to have intended his tweet as anything but political marketing. Canada made no preparations for a refugee surge in 2017. Where would such a surge come from anyway?

The answer materialized within hours. The surge appeared from the most unexpected direction: from across the U.S. border. Thousands of people living illegally in New York City began taking buses to Plattsburgh, New York, then hiring taxis for the $75 drive to the Canadian border. There, with their luggage, they walked into Quebec to claim the welcome Trudeau had promised. By summer 2017, they were arriving in Montreal at a rate of 250 people a day.

More than 14,000 people walked across the U.S.-Canadian border in the first nine months of 2017, almost all of them into Quebec. Nearly half of these unauthorized immigrants were Haitians, hoping to join family and friends in Montreal. But Quebec has long had an uneasy relationship with immigration. French-speaking Quebecois have historically mistrusted immigration as an English-Canadian plot to submerge their language and culture in an ever-growing English-speaking majority. (That Haiti is a Francophone country did not prevent opposition from forming.)

Trudeau represents a Montreal riding, or district; his government is acutely sensitive to Quebec’s concerns. Startled by the consequences of Trudeau’s tweet, the Canadian federal government struggled to reimpose something like order on the country’s boundary with the United States. It warehoused Haitian asylum-seekers in dormitories in an unused hospital on the site of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. But, under Canadian law, the asylum-seekers were entitled to work and to health coverage during the many, many years that processing their cases from beginning to end would take.

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