The Curious Case of Canadian Politics

On Oct. 21, Canada re-elected Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party to govern for a second term, in what was one of the most polarizing campaigns in national history. From an American perspective, this year’s election was defined by one particular moment: Trudeau wearing blackface. However, to many, this was no surprise. Scandal has repeatedly marred Canada’s Liberal Government. Amidst controversies surrounding ethics violations and criminal justice interference, Trudeau entered the campaign with record unpopularity at a dismal 32% approval rating.

Before diving into this electoral enigma, I feel compelled to mention that, despite being American, I was able to participate in this election given my unique privilege of holding dual citizenship.

With his attractive appearance, gender-balanced Cabinet and outspoken feminist beliefs, Trudeau seemed unstoppable after becoming Prime Minister in 2015 as the entire world fawned over his existence. It wasn’t until three years later when this adoration for Trudeau began to dwindle, after the first of what would be many scandals unfolded.

First, in Feb. 2018, Trudeau and his family traveled to India for what was intended to be a diplomatic visit. However, the trip was subject to intense scrutiny over colossal misjudgements made by Trudeau and his team. In addition to attracting mass ridicule over his questionable outfit choices (see photo), alarms were raised when convicted Sikh extremist terrorist Jaspal Atwal, a Canadian citizen previously indicted for attempted murder in the 1980s, attended a government dinner function. Invited by Trudeau’s delegation, he also appeared in a photo with Trudeau’s wife, Sophie-Grégoire.

One year later, in Feb. 2019, national controversy erupted when it was revealed by Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s Attorney General, that the Prime Minister illegally attempted to halt her handling over a prosecution file concerning the engineering firm, SNC-Lavalin. The company — which was being investigated over longstanding business relations with Libya’s dictatorship — was a large employer within the electorally influential province of Quebec. The Federal Ethics Commissioner determined that this meddling within the criminal justice system was a violation of the Conflict of Interest Act. However, the scandal’s magnitude amplified when Trudeau fired Wilson-Raybould from the Liberal Party as a result of her decision to publicly speak out against this flagrant abuse of power. This ignited criticism towards Trudeau’s feminist principles, as his words did not align with his actions; after all, upon disagreeing with Canada’s most powerful female Indigenous Cabinet minister, his response was to fire her.

After significantly trailing behind the Liberals in the polls for three years, the Conservative Party, led by Andrew Scheer, found itself in the lead in the spring of 2019 as a result of growing mistrust in Trudeau and his Liberal Party. In May, the Conservatives held a six-point advantage over the Liberals — a drastic turn of events. At this point, polls began forecasting a potential Conservative election victory.

So, how did Justin Trudeau and the Liberals manage to be re-elected in Oct. 2019? Welcome to the puzzle of Canadian politics.

In Jun. 2019, the Liberals began to regain polling traction while the Conservative Party’s lead started slipping, as a result of Scheer failing to produce a clear alternate vision for Canada. Despite highlighting Trudeau’s failures, vowing to repeal the Liberal carbon tax, and rolling out a laundry list of new tax credits, a succinct Conservative platform was nowhere to be found. Beyond policy, Scheer was unable to resonate with voters on a personal level, with many analysts characterizing his demeanour as passive, forced and, simply, awkward. His weak presence left him vulnerable to relentless attacks from every corner, even on issues that had absolutely nothing to do with the election.

Seeking to further their ascent in the polls, in Aug. 2019, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals began focusing their attacks against Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives on two crucial social issues — abortion and marriage equality — albeit the fact that such matters have already been decided on in Canada. Abortion has been legal without restriction since 1988 in Canada, while same-sex marriage was legalized in 2005. Despite Andrew Scheer’s historical opposition to both abortion and same-sex marriage as a Member of Parliament in the previous decade, he vowed not to let his religious views influence his politics and promised the Conservative Party would not re-open such issues.

While this article is by no means a defense of Andrew Scheer, hypocrisy must be pointed out where it exists. Regarding abortion, Justin Trudeau essentially expressed the exact same position as Scheer’s just six years ago, where he remarked that his devout Catholic faith led him to personally be pro-life, while still believing his religious views should not influence legislation. Regarding marriage equality, despite Liberal Safety Minister Ralph Goodale scolding Andrew Scheer for vocally opposing same-sex marriage in 2005, in a 1999 Parliamentary vote, Minister Goodale, himself, also voted against such legislation. All of a sudden, double standards had become the new normal in Canadian politics, but given the sensitive nature of these topics, voters were led to react by emotion, rather than evaluate the context of this disingenuous debate.

Then, in late September, just four weeks before the election, the infamous incident that gripped international observers occurred: It was revealed that Trudeau had worn blackface on not one, but three separate occasions, with the last instance occurring when he was 30 years old. American news outlets may have purported this to be a pivotal election issue. However, in Canada, the mainstream media — which recently received a $600 million ‘bailout package’ from Trudeau’s Liberal government — did an effective job at quickly minimizing the story within days. Canadian private news organizations now receive government subsidies, and many fear this funding is amounting to a loss in journalistic independence and more favorable government coverage. While it is difficult to discretely substantiate these concerns, one cannot help but wonder whether the media would have granted the same leniency Trudeau received to Scheer, had he appeared in blackface. Did I mention double standards? With the media dismissing Trudeau’s enormous blunders, the Liberals continued launching anti-Conservative attacks with minimal distraction.

In the four weeks between the blackface scandal and Election Day, there were relatively few notable emergences on the campaign trail. Liberal attacks on Conservatives continued to run on a consistent loop while Andrew Scheer remained unable to firmly defend himself. The Liberals continued rising in the polls and inched ahead of Conservatives right before the election. Despite Trudeau’s embarrassing behaviour, illegal interference with the justice system and blatant racism, he was untouchable. On Oct. 21, the Liberal Party won the election and Justin Trudeau maintained his position of Prime Minister.

Despite winning the election, the Liberal saw their majority hold in Parliament reduced to a minority. It is unlikely Canadians will have to wait four more years for an election given historic volatility of minority governments. That delivers good news and bad news to the Conservative Party. On one hand, there will likely be another imminent opportunity to defeat Justin Trudeau and the Liberals. That said, the Conservatives have to get their act together — quickly. Otherwise the Party risks continuing on the pathway to irrelevance.

UPDATE: As of Dec. 2019, Andrew Scheer, the leader of Canada’s Conservative Party, has resigned from his position. The Party was slated to hold a leadership election on Jun. 20, but due to COVID-19, voting has been postponed to August and will be conducted through mail-in ballots.

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