Canadian election: scholars on what the rest of the world needs to know

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau greets supporters. Jim Young/Reuters

Canadians voted yesterday to toss out Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party in favor of newcomer Justin Trudeau and the Liberals. The change in leadership in Canada, the US’ biggest trading partner, has important implications in the US. We asked three scholars to comment on what they see as notable about the vote.

Canadians picked empathy

Peter John Loewen, University of Toronto

The Canadian election was unquestionably a landmark.

Justin Trudeau won a massive majority, the mirror of which was the collapse of the New Democratic Party. This closes a chapter on Stephen Harper’s nine years in power, though not completely.

Throughout the election, colleagues and I conducted the Local Parliament Project, a daily representative poll of 600 to 1,200 Canadians. We asked a lot of questions, among them voters’ impressions of the leaders and expectations of the outcome. Trudeau’s victory is attributable to two factors.

First, voters’ impressions of him improved throughout the campaign. While he was always strong on character traits – empathy and trustworthiness – he was weaker on competence traits – especially the trait of being a strong leader.

Second, voters’ expectations about which party was most likely to defeat Stephen Harper coalesced on the Liberals in the last two weeks of the campaign.

Trudeau’s victory was thus a result both of voter coordination and of his own hard work. But this is just beginning.

There is a paradox at the center of Trudeau’s policy promises. He has turned the page on balanced budget orthodoxy, instead embracing the belief that government can take an active role in the economy through infrastructure construction at the cost of fiscal deficits.

On the other hand, he has accepted the prime minister’s basic belief that government should not create social programs but instead send cash directly to those in need.

His election represents both change and just more of the same.

Peter John Loewen serves as Director of the Centre for the Study of the United States at the Munk School of Global Affairs. He is currently the Assistant Editor of the Canadian Journal of Political Science.

The niqab won!

Jim Wallace, Boston University

Canadian voters agreed with Liberal Justin Trudeau’s position on the Muslim veil. He pledged to uphold the ruling of the federal courts that Muslim women did not have to remove their veils while swearing the Canadian citizenship oath.

The controversy began in 2011 when Conservative Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney initiated a policy forbidding Muslim women from having their faces covered during citizenship ceremonies.

The niqab policy blew up during the 2015 federal campaign when Prime Minister Harper made it an election issue. He said the Conservative government would seek to stay the court order and force Muslim women to uncover their faces. Later, he declared that if reelected, he would consider banning all federal employees from wearing a niqab.

During the 78-day campaign, the niqab became a hot-button issue. It was the focus of furious political ads, tweets and debate talking points. Harper was attacked for using the niqab to distract from the real issues of the economy and the government’s performance.

The niqab was a proxy for complex issues troubling the Canadian electorate – Bill C-51, the Conservative anti-terrorism bill; ISIS and global terrorism; Islamophobia; the Syrian refugee crisis; and the Quebec immigrant controversies.

Even more, Canadians were repelled by the politics of fear over the niqab. Canadians made clear they wanted a government that reflected Canadian values of kindness, inclusiveness, diversity, acceptance of immigrants and multiculturalism.

Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau repeatedly highlighted these values in his victory speech.

In his closing words, he made a clear allusion to the niqab controversy, telling the story of a Muslim woman he met on the campaign trail. He then declared:

You and your fellow citizens have chosen a new government. A government that believes deeply in the diversity of our country. We know in our bones that Canada was built by people from all corners of the world who worship every faith, who belong to every culture, who speak every language.

To wild cheers and applause, Trudeau concluded, “My friends, we beat fear with hope… . We beat negative divisive politics with a positive vision that brings Canadians together.”

Clearly Canadians agreed.

The niqab began as a flashpoint, became a turning point, and ended as an exclamation point.

Jim Wallace has worked for over 30 years as a religious leader, government consultant and political advisor in the United States and Canada.

More of the same for big oil

Geoffrey McCormack, Wheelock College

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Gregoire. Jim Young/REUTERS

Justin Trudeau is the son of Canada’s 15th prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who managed governmental affairs during key moments in Canadian history such as the oil crisis of 1973 and the growth of the environmental movement.

Like his father, Justin Trudeau has inherited a struggling economy and a population increasingly concerned about the environment – especially the tar sands controversy.

Since emerging from the Great Recession, Canada has been afflicted by stagnant employment and sluggish growth. The economy was kept from serious trouble by high oil prices and booming demand for Albertan crude in global markets. But the sweet crude turned sour at the beginning of this year when oversaturated markets forced the price of oil below US$50 a barrel. As a result, corporate profits took a momentous hit, and the economy slipped into recession for the first time in six years.

Business profitability and economic growth in Canada are firmly welded to Alberta’s drilling rigs and mega-mining trucks. Over a fifth of the country’s capital equipment is sunk in mining, oil and gas extraction.

The oil industry is also the country’s chief contributor to greenhouse gas emissions – a burden that is borne by the world’s population. Alberta’s tar sands are a stark reminder of the clash between profit and the environment.

It seems many Canadians were driven to the polls by a seething “Anyone but Harper!” sentiment.

The election was uninspiring for its lack of alternatives concerning the economy and the environment, despite Trudeau’s modest deficit spending plan. The future of the petrochemical industry was conspicuously absent or only sheepishly addressed by the three big parties during the election campaign.

As contenders for the helm of the Canadian state, these parties have demonstrated their commitment to ensuring that it fulfills its role as guarantor of optimal corporate profitability and economic growth.

In the context of Canadian capitalism, that means digging more holes, pumping more oil, and laying more pipelines to get crude to market. Like the Conservatives before them, the Liberals can be expected to prioritize the interests of corporate Canada above the interests of working people and the environment.

Geoffrey McCormack is the coauthor of The Servant State: Overseeing Capital Accumulation in Canada, examining Canada’s unique experience during and since the Great Recession. At this time, he is completing a second book that explores the economic history of Canada over the last five decades.