And they’re off! The Canadian election began this morning at about 10:00, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Governor General Julie Payette – Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Canada – to dissolve Parliament and call for a new vote. All I can think of is Anne Murray.
Not the great Canadian chanteuse herself, whose 1971 hit “Snowbird” became the anthem for Canadian seniors who sit out the winter in Boca Raton timeshares every year; more the Anne Murray of the CBC sketch comedy series CODCO. In particular, I remember a parody ad for an Anne Murray album which the announcer promoted with the slogan “as Canadian as a cheese sandwich and a glass of milk.”
So, I’m thinking that this election, set for October 21 – ten days before Great Britain gets pitched over the edge of Europe into the unknown – is about as Canadian, and about as exciting, as a cheese sandwich and a glass of milk. Make no mistake, Canadian federal elections are rarely as gripping as the epic, existential contests that have characterized American, British, and Israeli politics for the last few forevers. This election excites me even less than usual.
The problem is that I don’t really like like any of the parties, or their leaders. None excite me. That will come as a surprise to my American friends, of course, virtually all of whom regard Prime Minister Trudeau as the most right-swipeable politician in the world, a combination of John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama with McDreamy’s hair. They remember that press conference, almost four years ago, when he presented his cabinet to the Canadian media. A reporter asked why it was important to have equal gender representation in his government, and the prime minister replied – with an arched eyebrow evoking the memory of his father – “because it’s 2015!”
That was a big moment and, in the years since, as Americans put a pussy-grabbing mad king in a position where he could enrich his family, despoil the environment, and imprison children in concentration camps, and as the normally-sober British took every opportunity to plunge their lives into chaos, finally electing Pennywise the Clown to guide them into the horrors of the abyss, it made Prime Minister Trudeau look pretty damned good. I remember standing at a demonstration (one of many) against Trump’s Muslim immigration ban in 2017, listening to chants of “hey-hey, ho-ho, we want a president like Trudeau.” I get it; the smiling, good looking, rainbow-sock-wearing, pro-immigrant, Gen-X Canadian prime minister looks like a pretty decent guy. Hell, I even like that about him!
But he has been something of a middling prime minister – all form and very little substance. Most of my Canadian friends, when pushed, will say things like “at least he’s better than Stephen Harper.” That is not a great compliment; saying a leader is better than Harper, who was prime minister from 2006 to 2015, is a little like saying that a restaurant is better than Denny’s.
Prime Minister Trudeau, whose Liberal Party won a parliamentary majority in 2015 and could thus have enacted pretty much its entire legislative agenda with very little fuss, basically did nothing. Sure, pot legalization is great (and it might explain why some Canadians have forgotten all of the other stuff), but what happened to electoral reform, investment in job training, and pretty much anything to do with First Nations rights?
In fairness, the Trudeau government has been very good on immigration and, in this age of xenophobia and racism, that is a big deal. But the way it jumped into bed with the Oil Patch and pipeline builders, turning its back on a promise to ensure First Nations oversight on energy development on their sovereign territory, and committing to petrodollars at a time of looming environmental catastrophe, is inexcusable. And that very-Canadian SNC-Lavalin scandal, while not really much of a scandal, does point to – shall we say? – a certain flexibility in the prime minister’s commitment to honesty.
The problem for me is that none of the other choices are much better, and some are far worse. The New Democratic Party, Canada’s erstwhile social democrats, would normally be my go-to party. I was a member, in fact, until they chose the Beard to be their leader and decided that socialism was inconvenient. But the NDP seems to have reverted to its old habits; not socialism, which it still finds inconvenient, but its overwhelming eagerness to fail miserably at election time. It used to be a joke that the NDP was Canada’s third party because its candidates were virtually guaranteed to come in third in every constituency. There was a brief moment where they seemed like contenders… And now the old “Orange Machine” can’t even find enough candidates to run for every seat in Parliament.
I like the NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, I really do. He seems like the kind of guy who I could sit down with to discuss criminal justice reform and human rights. But, like so many NDP leaders before him, from the days when “we’re number three!” was the party’s official slogan, he doesn’t seem like much of an, I don’t know… leader. He has all the enthusiasm for social justice of a social worker – fun fact: two NDP leaders in recent memory were social workers – without the means of attaining it.
The Green Party of Canada is actually running ahead of the NDP in some part of the country, which isn’t that surprising, since the latter kind of stopped standing for anything specific in 2012, and the Canada’s Granola Tories are really good about being unspecific. I mean, they’re all about the environment, which is a good thing and, to be honest, probably the biggest issue in the world right now. But they don’t seem to be about anything else. In fact, the party’s whole pitch is that it is neither left nor right, which suggests that the issues that divide left and right – you know, economic equality, human rights, immigration, racism, that kind of thing – are somehow irrelevant. Party leader Elizabeth May, in fact, has done a very good job of avoiding to being pinned down on pretty much everything. It’s hard to get excited about a party whose platform consists of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
The Conservative Party of Canada which, before it merged with the White-Christian-values and prairie-populist Reform Party in 2003, used to be known as the Progressive Conservative Party (not actually a contradiction) is even worse. Much worse. Imagine if you could take all of the xenophobic, libertarian, toxic-masculinity and stupid conservatism of a Trump rally, give it a pinkie-ring and some Canadian manners, and you would get the CPC. It stands for everything that Americans think Canadians are against: restrictions on reproductive rights, environmental despoilment, racism, militarism, tailgating, guns, and God.
The Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, is a kind of a caricature of a conservative apparatchik. He has never held a job outside of politics – or even outside of what would become the CPC – having worked for the Reform Party and its successor since he was 19. As a result he spouts opinions that might have made perfect sense to Preston Manning or Stockwell Day (really, you should google these guys), but seem quaintly out-of place in the 20th century, let alone the 21st. In his first term as a member of Parliament, he compared same-sex marriage to counting a dog’s tail as a leg in a debate on marriage equality. That was in 2005 but there is no evidence that he has changed his mind since then. Indeed, the way he keeps twisting to avoid making a direct statement about anything suggests that he has not.
“I have fears that a leader with no vision other than short term economic solutions or merely being in opposition to the status quo is dangerous,” The Typescript’s contributing editor Paul Olioff says from Montreal. “Andrew Scheer’s clueless mug and grade-9 history presentation delivery and shallow attempts to seem folksy disgust me. In some ways he seems more reactionary than Harper and less in control of his own ideology.”
Unfortunately, the Conservatives have widespread support in suburban and rural Canada and because of what Canadians call “the rural math” – geographically large, sparsely-populated rural constituencies are over-represented in Parliament – that could make them contenders. And this is the party of provincial premiers Jason Kenney in Alberta, and Doug Ford in Ontario. The latter is the college-dropout brother of the late, crack-smoking mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, who seems to be trying to keep his brother’s memory alive by simultaneously driving Canada’s largest province into bankruptcy while gutting social service and education. It’s a neat trick.
“Doug Ford’s Keystone Kops Conservative government in Ontario immediately put into effect all sorts of regressive legislation and cuts, with no planning or foresight, that they then had to back away from, making detractors and supporters alike believe they scribbled out their policies on napkins an hour before the press conference,” Ottawa-based writer Mark Shainblum observed. “A government supposedly for the middle class suddenly caused chaos for almost anyone relying on pharmacare, special needs programs for children, and student loans, while being focused on clueless idiocies like ‘buck a beer.’”
It doesn’t get much worse. Except, in this election it does, because the Conservatives have been joined on the far-right by the People’s Party of Canada. Make that the far-far-right. The PPC is what you would get if Marine LePen and Steve Bannon got together to organize a party that would appeal to the very worst racist, sexist, selfish white people you could find. It is a party of stupid. However, Party leader Maxime Bernier knows that his kind of stupid appeals to some Canadian voters. The government of his native Quebec recently passed Law 21, a restrictive and patently-racist ban on (non-Christian) religious clothing that would be thought extreme in Alabama, but is enormously popular among Quebec’s mouthbreathers. Bernier wants those votes.
The PPC is an explicitly and avowedly antifeminist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant party. It the kind of party that would normally only win a local election on a rainy day in some place like Erzgebirgskreis (which is a real place) with a 20 percent turnout. Weeks before the election was called, they ran billboards across the country featuring Bernier’s face alongside the slogan “Say No to Mass Immigration.” There was a public outcry, and Bernier was forced to take down the signs, but he and his minions doubtless believe that it is the kind of thing that will appeal to some voters, which is correct.
The really scary thing is that Canada’s southern neighbor elected the populist crypto-fascist – if not outright fascist – Donald Trump to the presidency three years ago, and Canadian politics has historically followed the cycles of American politics. Canadians elected Conservative John Diefenbaker in 1957 after 22 years of Liberal government, only five years after Americans elected Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower after 20 years of Democrats. Neo-conservative forerunner Ronald Reagan won election in America in 1980, and Canada elected its own neo-con prime minister, Reagan’s buddy Brian Mulroney, in 1984. Harper became prime minister in 2006, five years after George W. Bush won a presidency that gave us the Forever War and energized Christofascism, and he stuck around for nine years!
You can see why I’m worried.
On the other hand, many of the voters who will cast their ballots for the PPC would normally vote for the slightly-more-polite bigotry of the Conservative Party and, in Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, where the candidate with a plurality of votes in a given constituency gets to be its Member of Parliament, and that could actually be a good thing. If enough people vote for the PPC in those rural and suburban constituencies and take support away from the Conservatives, the Liberals could come up between the split and win some of those seats.
The polls show the Liberals and the Conservatives in their usual tie at about 35 percent, with the other four parties (including the Bloc Quebecois) splitting the rest – and the Liberals are on the upswing. Although many pundits expect Prime Minister Trudeau to lose his majority, the odds are that he will manage to hold on to a minority government. This is when a party has the most seats in Parliament, but not a majority. In this situation, the governing party – the Liberals – would have to rely on the votes of other parties – probably the NDP and maybe the Greens – to pass legislation.
So the Liberals would have to deal with demands from those other parties in order to continue to govern, and this might not be so bad. Both Singh and May, for all of their shortcomings, could hold Prime Minister Trudeau’s feet to the fire on the environment and First Nations issues. Without the convenient fig-leaf of a parliamentary majority, he would have nowhere to hide.
In fact, since Confederation in 1867, some of Canada’s best governments have been minority governments. Much of the legislation that built Canada’s national healthcare system, for example, was passed by minority governments like Lester Pearson’s Liberals in 1966 with support from the NDP (and its predecessor, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation). This election might be interesting after all, and it might end up resulting in the most Canadian government imaginable.
As Canadian as a cheese sandwich and a glass of milk.