Canada back on track? Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wins unprecedented election

Justin Trudeau at the 2015 Pride Parade Toronto.
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Justin Trudeau at the 2015 Pride Parade Toronto

It was a roller-coaster of an election that redefined what was possible in Canadian politics. On October 19, when the votes were counted, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau ousted Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  What does this historic election mean for Canadian progressive politics? 

It was a roller-coaster of an election that redefined what was possible in Canadian politics.  On October 19, when the votes were counted, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau ousted Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  The election was unique in many ways.

For starters, the election campaign was 78 days long, the longest since 1872 and about the same length as the last two federal election campaigns combined.  

It also may have been the most expensive election in Canadian history. Prime Minister Harper and the ruling Conservative Party had been in power for nine years and had, by far, the most money going in. By calling a 78 day election, Harper doubled the campaign spending limits and gave the Conservatives an important advantage.

In mid-August, as the election was starting to heat up, the “left-of-centre” New Democratic Party (NDP) had an almost 10 percent lead in the polls over the Liberals and the Conservatives. It looked like the NDP was poised to form government at the federal level for the first time in Canadian history.

But on election day -- October 19 -- the “centrist” Liberals catapulted themselves from 34 to 184 seats of the total 338 seats in Parliament. It was the first time in Canadian history that a party had gone from third party status to a majority government in a single election. The Conservatives’ seat count was slashed from 159 to 99 seats, and the NDP, left with only 44 seats, had suffered a crushing defeat. Elizabeth May, leader of the federal Green Party, was returned as the only Green Party Member of Parliament. 

Two weeks from now, the new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, will announce his new cabinet. As the son of former Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, the Trudeaus represent Canada’s first federal dynasty.

Almost ten years of Conservative Party rule under Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a very, very long time. There are a lot of young adults that have never really known a Canada without the Conservative government and a lot of people outside the country have come to expect certain things that are now likely to change. Here is a bit of a primer, with an emphasis on Canada’s role in the world.

Climate Change and Energy

If you are at a United Nations climate change negotiation and you see the Canadian delegation coming, you no longer need to run in the other direction. The days of Canada showing up with the sole objective of undermining the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are over (for now). Prime Minister Trudeau has promised to breathe new life into Canada’s role at the negotiations and he intends to bring opposition parties as well as provincial premiers with him when he goes to Paris for the UNFCCC negotiations in December.

The new Liberal government will likely restore funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy, increase investments in public transit, and restore many of the environmental policies and procedures that were gutted by the Harper government.

Four years from now, there will probably be some kind of price on carbon in every province in Canada.  Yet, Mr. Trudeau has been painfully vague about what that will look like and still refuses to commit to specific greenhouse gas reduction targets, saying he will discuss it with the provinces first.

So this is good news in general for action on climate change, but this is also still Canada. Mr. Trudeau, like almost every other political leader in the country (including the leader of the federal Green Party) is not yet willing to state the obvious: It is impossible for Canada to do its fair share to fight climate change and allow the oil operations in the Alberta tar sands to expand as projected.

During the election campaign, Mr. Trudeau expressed his support for the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada through the U.S. and argued that Prime Minister Harper’s abysmal environmental record had sabotaged Canada’s ability to secure support for such oil pipelines. While that may be true, it misses the point. Canada’s oil industry does not have a public relations problem, it has a pollution problem. The reckless expansion of oil production in Alberta is simply inconsistent with a world that is trying to phase out fossil fuels over the next 40 years. A lot of Canada’s oil is going to have to stay in the ground and, unfortunately, there are almost no Canadian leaders willing to be open and honest about this, including (so far) Mr. Trudeau.

Expect this basic contradiction to continue to characterize energy and climate change policy in Canada.

Gender and Reproductive Rights

Our new Prime Minister has unambiguously stated that every Liberal Member of Parliament will be expected to support a woman’s right to choose and that half of his new cabinet posts will be filled by women. During his time in office, Prime Minister Harper prevented his more socially conservative MPs from fundamentally opening up the abortion issue in Canada, but he also slashed funding for women’s rights and health organizations and prevented a lot of Canadian international assistance from supporting reproductive rights in the global south. This should all change.

Indigenous Rights:

Mr. Trudeau has committed to launch a national inquiry into the more than 1200 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. He has also committed to implement the recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an exhaustive inquiry into the shameful policy of essentially stealing aboriginal children from their homes and putting them in government or church-run residential schools where they were often systematically abused. A former Supreme Court justice, upon reviewing the findings of the Commission, acknowledged that Canada’s actions were a form of “cultural genocide”.

The new government will likely be much more supportive of international treaties that promote indigenous rights.  Yet it is still an open question whether the incoming Prime Minister is prepared to establish a truly nation-to-nation relationship with Canada’s significant aboriginal population.

Syrian Refugees

Prime Minister Trudeau has said that: “Canada must immediately accept 25,000 Syrian refugees, stop dragging its heels and understand that we must once again be the country that we like to think of ourselves as”.  And while it’s safe to say that there has always been a gap between reality and “the country that we like to think of ourselves as”, Mr. Trudeau says his government will invest $100 million to speed up refugee processing and another $100 million to support the relief efforts of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Evidence Based Decision-Making

The war on science in Canada is hopefully over. Government scientists will not be as muzzled as they have been, the Liberal government may actually be interested in the advice they get from their civil servants, and Trudeau has promised to restore the long form census (a detailed mandatory census document that Prime Minister Harper abolished).

Peace and Security

You can no longer assume that Canada is going to pick up its guns and rush into battle every time the United States decides to invade another country. Don’t rule it out, just don’t count on it. Prime Minister Trudeau has committed to refocus on training local forces and ending Canada’s bombing mission against the Islamic State (ISIL). Who knows, Canada may even go back to embracing its emphasis on UN peacekeeping, but we’ll see. There’s reason to believe that Canada may also embrace international disarmament efforts by joining the Arms Trade Treaty, for instance. Where Canada will be on nuclear disarmament is a more open question.

Electoral reform

In 2011, more than 60% of voters voted for parties with more progressive social and environmental platforms than the Conservative Party of Canada, but Prime Minister Harper still secured a majority of the seats in Parliament. When voter turnout was taken into consideration, the Conservative majority was based on only about one in four eligible voters. This was the secret to Conservative Party success over the past nine years. A candidate had to win the most votes in a given electoral “riding”, or jurisdiction, but they did not have to win a majority of the votes (the so-called “first past the post” British electoral system).

So the Conservatives would campaign to the far right, let the more progressive parties split the vote between themselves, and win the election.  

Canadians grew increasingly fed up with the situation, as well as the failure of the parties to do something about it. For perhaps the first time, they were ready to vote strategically in huge numbers (i.e., vote for the party most likely to beat the Conservatives) and, in the final weeks of the campaign, it was the Liberals who were best positioned to benefit from the trend.

During the campaign, all of the opposition parties, including the Liberals, were in agreement that some kind of electoral reform was necessary. Mr. Trudeau promised that, if elected, this would be Canada’s last election with the current “first past the post” electoral system. In many ways, this was his single most important campaign promise.

Nine years of Conservative Party rule has made it clear that Canadians want an electoral system that more accurately reflects the voting intentions of its citizens. The millions of Canadians who rallied to the Liberal cause in the hopes that they could defeat the Conservatives are counting on the Liberals to deliver on this critical issue.  If the Liberals fail to deliver, they will be judged harshly.