As befits an election that seemed at times like it was about nothing, we’ve ended up with a result that tells us very little we didn’t already know. Justin Trudeau is still the prime minister, the Conservative Party of Canada is still torn between appealing to urban moderates and playing to its base, and the NDP is still trying to find its post-Layton identity. But while we may be back where we started politically, the road we traveled along the way was dangerously bumpy. Canadians are more politically divided, both at an individual and party level, than ever. And while part of this is a reflection of the pandemic and the toll it’s taken on our reserves of patience and charity, it’s also being fed by our political system and the players in it.
To hear some pundits, this is on the prime minister and his decision to call an election. As Andrew Potter wrote in The Line, “Trudeau has chiseled away at tried-and-true wedge issues (gun control, health care) while doing the usual Liberal suck-and-blow of pandering to Quebec nationalists while demonizing Albertans as un-Canadian. The result is that Canada is not only more divided and polarized than it was in 2019, it is more divided than it has been at any time in the last half century.”
Never mind, for the moment, that Trudeau has never actually demonized Albertans as “un-Canadian”, and that the sucking and blowing in Quebec is being done just as enthusiastically by every federal political leader. What’s more interesting is the notion that Trudeau who has been the subject of six-plus years of open hostility, paranoid and perverse conspiracy theories, and an online barrage of hatred and vitriol, is to blame for said hatred and vitriol.
Apparently it’s entirely Trudeau’s fault that federal Conservatives have spent years actively feeding the anti-expertise, anti-government forces that coalesced around the PPC and the anti-vaccine movement. One assumes it will also be his fault when the Conservative Party of Canada tries to bring those same forces back into their partisan fold — and his fault if they fail to do that.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it should. It’s exactly the same playbook that Republicans ran against Barack Obama in the United States during his eight years in office, which were also marked by a widening of the partisan divide and accusations from pundits that he was responsible. His signature piece of legislation, which gave healthcare coverage to millions of Americans, was framed as an attack on liberty and freedom by the nearly 90 per cent of Republicans who opposed it.
By the time he was done, America’s first black president was being blamed for the behaviour of those who opposed him — many of whom were doing it for reasons that went well beyond, or perhaps beneath, his legislative record. “The worst failing of the Obama presidency, as judged by his own promise to unite the nation, has been his divisiveness,” Buck Sexton (yes, that’s a real person) wrote in a 2017 piece for CNN. “His comments on climate change in particular betrayed a deep frustration with anyone who questions that carbon emissions will destroy the planet unless drastic action is taken. Mocking those who disagree with him on climate change is petty and should be beneath the President.”
Gee, does that sound familiar? After all, any number of pundits and political analysts were blaming Trudeau for gently mocking an anti-vaccine protester after he made vile comments about Trudeau’s wife Sophie, suggesting that he should have been more tolerant of the man’s intolerance.
Love him or hate him, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not to blame for the divisiveness and discord in Canada today. Look to the conservatives for that. @maxfawcett writes for @natobserver
And that’s the rub here: for a growing slice of the conservative political universe, hating Justin Trudeau is the essence of their politics. There is nothing he could do, short of resigning and leaving office, that would make them less hostile, less angry, or less divided.
That might be best for Canada right now, in some respects. But the anger machine that conservatives in Canada have built can just as easily generate and amplify hatred towards someone else, and it’s not hard to imagine how they might use it against, say, Chrystia Freeland. That’s why it’s incumbent upon them to dismantle it, if they’re genuinely interested in making our politics less divided and divisive.
That means an end to funding and support for websites like Canada Proud and the Post-Millennial, which are clearing houses for polarizing political information. That means no more winking at your far-right base with slogans like “take back Canada” or “secure the future”. And that means putting candidates like Cheryl Gallant and others who trade in far-right conspiracy theories out to pasture for good.
Fat chance of that happening any time soon, though. As Erin O’Toole indicated in his concession speech, he’s far more interested in keeping up the fight than bringing down the temperature. As Toronto Star political reporter Susan Delacourt tweeted, “it seemed like the launch of another election campaign. Which, after telling Canadians about an unwanted election for five weeks, seems odd/weird/bizarre.”
That was almost certainly because he felt the need to defend his position as the leader of the CPC, which had already been challenged in some circles. Ironically, O’Toole said that “we need to heal the divides in Canada, not risk worsening them for selfish gains.” If he genuinely believes that, he must start with his own party — and himself.