The Opening of the Canadian Mind?

With Election of Trudeau, Ideology Loses

After several weeks of holding its breath, Canada has exhaled, and the pent-up gust has blown Stephen Harper right out of the prime minister’s office. Following a nasty and lengthy campaign (lengthy by Canadian standards, that is, though at seventy-eight days a mere blip in U.S. terms), voters tossed out the Conservatives and replaced them with the Liberals, led by the young Justin Trudeau, son of longtime Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

The breadth of the Liberal victory, in what was expected to be a close race, is impressive. Of the 338 seats in the House of Commons, the Liberals took an outright majority of 184 (54 percent), to the Conservatives’ 99 (29 percent) and the New Democrats 44 (13 percent), with smaller parties accounting for the rest. But the story of this election is far more interesting than the mere data. Trudeau’s victory resoundingly closes what many observers view as a dismal era in modern Canadian politics. As journalist Stephen Marche said in a New York Times op-ed titled “The Closing of the Canadian Mind,” “the Harper years have seen a subtle darkening of Canadian life.”

Marche understates the reality; in fact, the darkening was far from subtle. The former Ontario premier Bob Rae put it more eloquently—and acerbically—in his book, What’s Happened to Politics?, when he lamented that under Harper “Canada has become a posturer, a poseur, a political game player... a right-wing gas bag, shouting from the sidelines.” Dissatisfaction with this development rumbled for months before the election call, when a flood of books on Harper appeared, bearing such ominous and revealing titles as Harperism: How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada; Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know; Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover. Scores of articles and essays by political scientists, respected political columnists of all stripes, humanities professors, members of the judiciary, native leaders, artists, government statisticians, environmental scientists, and disgruntled members of the federal civil service all had their say on Harper’s stewardship of the country. None was complimentary.

Even Harper’s biographer, John Ibbitson, whose political sympathies dispose him to think well of the Harper legacy, wrote that “No prime minister in history and no political party have been loathed as intensely as Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party.” And Harper himself, in a eulogy for Jim Flaherty, his onetime finance minister, noted that “Jim, as fiercely partisan as he was, was also genuinely liked and respected by his opponents—liked by his enemies. That’s something in this business—something I envy. I can’t even get my friends to like me.” The respected Globe and Mail political commentator Jeffrey Simpson likens Harper to Richard M. Nixon, calling him “a loner... who felt rejected by his society’s cultural, economic, and political elites, and who nursed a lifelong resentment against them.”

But when 70 percent of a national electorate opts to unceremoniously toss out a party and its leader, following three successful elections and a decade in office, the rejection is much more than merely personal. The Harper government’s demise resulted from comprehensive failures in policy and governance, amplified by prime-ministerial arrogance. Persuaded that Canada’s political system was cumbersome, Socialist, and anti-libertarian, Harper sought to reshape the political landscape of the country. Scorning scientists who argued for carbon emission controls, he pulled back from the country’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocols; he publicly warred with the federal Supreme Court over judicial judgments and appointments to the bench, and betrayed the loyalty of subordinates by choosing damage control over solidarity under fire.

Canada prefers its politicians to be more pragmatic than ideological. This is one reason why the social democrats, the New Democratic Party (NDP), have had difficulty forming a national government. Having achieved status as the official opposition in the 2011 election—which Harper won with a majority—the NDP was no longer the “third party.” It entered the current election cycle with great hope, a dynamic and fiercely intelligent leader, Thomas Mulcair, and the prospect of national sympathy for the left bolstered by Harper’s polarizing tactics. Mulcair is a lapsed Catholic and a visceral social-justice advocate, much like New York mayor Bill DeBlasio. Marked by several polls as an eventual winner, Mulcair managed to blow his lead and his party’s status. His public declaration that he would balance the budget shocked many of the NDP’s core voters, who felt betrayed by what they saw as his embrace of tired Tory policy.

In contrast, Justin Trudeau, the fresh new forty-something leader of the Liberals, promised several years of deficit budgets designed to stimulate a stagnating economy. In so doing, Trudeau outwitted the social democrats, laying claim to one of their economic nostrums. He also refused to match the dirty-tricks strategies of the increasingly desperate Tories, while inspiring younger voters with his cool deportment and invoking the memory of his storied father. Pierre Elliott Trudeau was the scourge of Quebec nationalists, and he promised what the nation was aching for: change.

The younger Trudeau, unlike Mulcair, is a devout Catholic, and he and his wife, Sophie Grégoire, are solid parishioners who are raising their three small children in the church. Yet for all that, Trudeau chose to take a step his father would not have taken: he insisted that all Liberal candidates subscribe to the official prochoice platform of the party. Dissent was not an option. Many worried that by not allowing for a moral exemption Trudeau turned the big-tent Liberals into a secular ideological redoubt; the party, they reasoned, would take a palpable hit. It didn’t. It won big time.

It’s interesting to note that of all the major-party leaders, Harper is actually the most religious. But his religion is private and not especially theological—a simple, individualistic piety—and he furthermore stoutly resisted the intrusion of religion into any aspect of national governance, having seen how polarizing religious questions have become in the United States. And in fact, nothing proved more galvanizing in this election than a religious issue: the national dustup over the niqab. A group of Muslim women had contested the government’s ban on face coverings at citizenship ceremonies; when the Federal Court of Appeal agreed, the government then appealed the court’s decision. In the process, Conservatives derided Muslims by referring to “barbaric cultural practices,” creating a wedge issue that fueled inter-religious antagonism. McGill University scientist Sheema Khan boldly confronted the government, decrying its willingness to vilify Muslims. “Never in fifty years have I felt so vulnerable,” Khan wrote, charging that “the Conservative message is: You are Muslim, you are the ‘other,’ you can’t be trusted and you will never belong.”

In the end, it was clear that the Conservatives had overplayed their hand; with a few regional and cultural exceptions, the country balked at its divisive tactics. And now Canada has a handsome and energetic new leader, scion of a noble political family, and is poised to recover something of its color, following a decade spent in bland. The bell of change has been rung, and rung loud. Famed for their niceness, Canadians have not said good day to Mr. Harper, but good riddance.

Published in the December 4, 2015 issue: 

Michael W. Higgins is Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought, Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, past president of two Canadian Catholic universities, and co-author of the forthcoming Impressively Free: Henri Nouwen as Model for a Renewed Priesthood.

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