|October 23, 2019|
A divided North
|Celebrating his election victory in Montreal early Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thanked his voters for backing him for a second term.|
"From coast to coast to coast, tonight, Canadians rejected division and negativity," Trudeau said. "They rejected cuts and austerity and they voted in favor of a progressive agenda and strong action on climate change."
But Canada's election results demonstrated a nation more divided than Trudeau seemed willing to admit. He narrowly managed to maintain power, with the Liberal Party winning enough seats for him to form a minority government. But his Liberals lost both the popular vote and their majority in parliament --- losing more than 20 seats nationwide and winning no seats in Saskatchewan and Alberta. In Trudeau's home province of Quebec, dozens of seats went to the separatist Bloc Québécois.
Sylvia Bashevkin, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, told Today's WorldView that "the election results are pretty consistent with popular thinking."
"Canadian voters seemed to want to give Liberals the messaging that they hadn't earned another majority but that they weren't prepared to cast their futures in the hands of the party from the right," she said.
A series of scandals and missteps led to a rough campaign season for Trudeau, and his failure to win enough seats to form a majority government offered a stark contrast to the prime minister's easy win four years ago. In 2015, he swept to power promising to serve as a progressive alternative to his predecessor, Stephen Harper, a Conservative who, after about a decade in power, faced mounting discontent.
At the time, progressives in Canada and around the globe quickly embraced Trudeau, whose father had also served as prime minister, as the new darling of their cause. He was an environmental advocate and self-declared feminist who named a gender-diverse cabinet and welcomed refugees, even hugging Syrian asylum seekers at the airport as he handed each of them a new winter coat.
In 2017, just six months after President Trump took office in Washington, Rolling Stone printed a magazine cover with a close-up of Trudeau's face next to the words, "Why can't he be our president?"
But for many Canadians, his charm wore off. Some were exhausted by what was perceived as his excessive showmanship. On one trip to India, he embarrassed many Canadians when he and his family paraded around dressed in traditional Indian clothes, posing for extravagant photo ops.
Then other bits of his platform seemed to start falling apart. Last year, after pushing for environmental progress, he spent $3.4 billion on a controversial oil pipeline. In August, an ethics watchdog ruled that he had violated conflict-of-interest laws when his team pressured former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, to make a deal with engineering firm SNC-Lavalin. Wilson-Raybould, Canada's first indigenous attorney general, was then moved out of her role, which, The Washington Post reported, was "widely seen as a demotion."
And then, last month, old images emerged of him in brownface and blackface, further tarnishing his carefully crafted persona as a leader particularly sensitive to diversity and inclusion. He apologized, but his critics and opponents said the photos and video were evidence Trudeau was unfit to lead Canada.
As Canadian journalist Jen Gerson argued in an op-ed for the New York Times, Trudeau may have held onto his seat this week, but the election really should not have even been a fight to begin with. On the campaign trail, the Liberal Party "tried to capitalize on a growing sense of insecurity among Canadians during the election by portraying the Conservatives as racist Trump-lite populists," she wrote. "However bad this tactic made the Conservatives look, it did as much to highlight the Liberals' key weakness --- that if Canada is facing some kind of ascendant far-right threat, this lightweight who wore blackface may not be the one best equipped to meet it."
Trudeau declared in his victory speech early Tuesday that he has a "clear mandate" for a second term. But now that he will no longer enjoy the power of a majority in parliament, analysts say he's set up for what could be a much more difficult run than he is used to.
"Majority governments in Canada have phenomenal power," said Jonathan Rose, associate professor of political studies at Queen's University. "You can pretty much enact any bill you want. What's different now is obviously he'll rely on other parties, but more crucially, the committees which examine all legislation will now not have a majority."
"It's going to be much tougher for him to govern," Rose said.
Bruce Heyman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Canada during President Barack Obama's second term in office, said that "being a minority government will force him to constantly work for compromises, for running the budget, for legislation," and added that minority governments often don't last more than a few years.
Still, even if it took two hands for Trudeau to hold onto his seat Monday night, his camp still had some cause to celebrate. The Liberals may have been downgraded to a minority government, but they ultimately fared better than Trudeau's political rival, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who was intent on removing Trudeau from office. As the votes rolled in, Scheer said that even if they didn't manage that feat, the results show "Conservatives have put Justin Trudeau on notice."
President Trump offered his congratulations to Trudeau on Tuesday, saying "Canada is well served" by his win. (Just last year, he called Trudeau "dishonest" and "weak.")
And at a time when populist movements are gaining traction around the globe, Canadian voters may have denied Trudeau the strength of a majority government, but they also squarely rejected the rhetoric of Maxime Bernier, a former Conservative who now leads the far-right People's Party. Bernier and his party didn't win a single seat. He ran a controversial campaign, at one point facing major criticism after he called Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg "mentally unstable."
"We have been facing this conservative, more isolationist, less liberal democratic order of things, elections taking place and decisions against democracies, globally," Heyman said. "Justin Trudeau was able to push back against this populism wave."