Is Trudeau on the verge of a shocking reversal of fortune?

Is Trudeau on the verge of a shocking reversal of fortune?
© Aaron Schwartz

Q: Why did the Canadian cross the road?

A: To get to the middle.

Along with quips about readymade apologies and the weather, the stereotype of colorless Canadians who avoid extremes (as certainly as Americans embrace them) is a common way to explain what makes Canada and the United States different.

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But Canadian Prime Minister Justin TrudeauJustin Pierre James TrudeauA third-party Green candidate is greatest threat to Democrats Forget Greenland — Trump should offer statehood to these Canadian provinces How Justin Trudeau can make his second act a success MORE knows well that moderation is no laughing matter. He’s fighting for his political life before Monday’s election and it’s Canadians’ seeming embrace of internal divisions – as much geographic as ideological – that’s putting Trudeau’s job at risk four years after he waltzed to power with the mantra “sunny ways, sunny ways.”

Asked recently what he regretted most, Trudeau suggested that he hadn’t succeeded in forging a common sense of national aspiration. “We find ourselves more polarized, more divided in this election than in 2015. I wonder how, or if, I could have made sure we were pulling Canadians together.”

Canada, it is commonly observed, has more geography than history. It’s a country marginally bigger than the United States but with just 37 million people spread across six time zones. The economy of Western Canada, dependent on natural resources, has little in common with central Canada, which is now services-based. Then there is the issue of language. French-speaking Quebec is suspicious of “les Anglos” elsewhere, and vice versa.

Trudeau managed to overcome these fissures in 2015, winning seats in Western Canada, where his Liberal Party usually loses, dominating Ontario, winning back support in Quebec and sweeping every seat in Atlantic Canada. His liberalism, at a time of growing populism and nativism, made him a global icon (and won him the endorsement of Barack Obama this week). But it was largely Trudeau’s potential to forge national solutions that caught Canadians’ attention.

Canada’s natural state of division appears to have caught up with him, however. Two examples are most important as Trudeau fights a three-pronged battle against the center-right Conservative Party, the left-wing New Democratic Party and the nominally separatist Bloc Quebecois. (The Liberals or the Conservatives have dominated elections since Canada’s founding. But polls show they now enjoy the support of not even one-third of voters each, with the rest going to the other parties.) 

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Climate change: Trudeau imposed a carbon tax. It’s not high enough for Canada to meet its Paris Agreement obligations, but it’s come under attack nevertheless from numerous provincial governments, which view it as just another tax grab by an overspending federal government. Meanwhile, Trudeau also sought to assuage energy-rich Alberta by backing expansion of a key pipeline to the West Coast.    

Trudeau was seeking to forge a middle path — a carbon tax and a pipeline. But he’s likely to lose seats he now holds in Western Canada to the Conservative Party, which opposes the tax. And he’s likely to lose seats too to the New Democrats, the choice of millennial voters who’ve made climate change their priority and aren’t impressed by Trudeau’s “pipeline politics.”

Laicite: The French word, which translates as “secularity,” encapsulates Trudeau’s Quebec dilemma. Quebec’s nationalist provincial government recently banned most public servants – teachers, police officers, bureaucrats – from wearing religious symbols on the job, just as is done in France. The law is popular among French-speaking Quebecers, who view it as protecting secular values and the “neutrality” of the state.

But to English Canadians, the law is seen as violating freedoms guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – Canada’s equivalent to the U.S. Bill of Rights – and is deemed particularly intolerant of religious minorities.

The Bloc Quebecois, by rallying to the side of the Quebec government, has leapt in the polls and is challenging the Liberal Party for Quebec dominance. Weeks ago, the Bloc was deemed all but dead. The obituary was premature.

Trudeau has accomplished much in four years. He made the tax system fairer by increasing taxes on the wealthy and reducing them on the poor and middle-class, especially families with children. He legalized assisted suicide and cannabis use. He renegotiated NAFTA in the face of an erratic U.S. president who denigrated Canada in ways the United States hasn’t done before.  

Trudeau also has had his failures: The budget deficit is higher than promised, his pledge to reform the electoral system went nowhere and he’s been hurt by scandal. Backroom machinations to protect SNC-Lavalin, one of Canada’s few global corporations, proved to many Canadians that his promise to do politics differently was empty. The recent emergence of photos of Trudeau in blackface early in his professional life damaged the personal reputation of someone viewed as one of the world’s few “woke” leaders.

In 2015, Trudeau appeared destined for nothing less than two full mandates in power. Now, he’s tied with the Conservatives in the polls and may be on the verge of a shocking reversal of fortune.  

The center of the road can be a dangerous place.

Drew Fagan is a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.