An iconic Canadian political cartoon depicts a separatist Quebec premier, fresh from election victory in 1976, saying, deadpan: “OK. Everybody take a valium!”
That’s not bad advice in 2019. Canada’s reputation is for “honest trading, good skiing conditions,” in the words of the late novelist Mordecai Richler. But the recent election results point to something else — Canada as a morass of regional resentments.
There’s talk of Western separation – Wexit it’s called, naturally – as Prime Minister Justin TrudeauJustin Pierre James TrudeauCanada's Trudeau apologizes for vacation on first Truth and Reconciliation Day Unvaccinated Canadian government workers to be placed on unpaid leave Canada marks first 'National Day of Truth and Reconciliation' MORE’s efforts to combat climate change left his Liberal Party shut out of energy-rich Alberta and Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, sons and daughters of the forces of 1976 – their party now is more nationalist than separatist – fought the Liberals to a draw in Quebec.
But crisis? This is the natural state of affairs. Canada was built atop fault-lines; linguistic and regional primarily.
We get by. To manage, Canada is one of the world’s most decentralized federations. More than three-quarters of government spending is doled out by provinces and municipalities versus less than half in the United States and less still across the rest of the industrialized world.
It was Trudeau’s father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who thought this unnatural, warning of a day when the prime minister’s role would be as “head waiter to the provinces.”
So, what does the present prime minister do now in a parliament where he holds only a plurality of seats instead of the solid majority of the past four years? How does Justin Trudeau stay afloat and try to bring together a polarized country when opposition politicians put the blame solely on him?
As with any good plan, it involves tactics and strategy — tactics regarding Trudeau’s behavior, strategy regarding his government’s policies.
Trudeau has admitted that he tries to stay above the fray. He’ll have to get his hands dirty.
There are things only a prime minister can settle, especially with leaders of the other parties who, together, control the workings of power, such as parliamentary committees. He’s starting as he should by talking with each of them one-on-one to learn their priorities and to try to game out an agenda, as well as by talking with provincial and municipal leaders.
He needs to continue to listen more, and possibly speak less. His carbon tax might have been more palatable to Western Canadians if he hadn’t mused too about a future without oil. (Energy is Canada’s largest export.) Westerners argued that Trudeau would never suggest something similar about, say, Ontario’s critical auto industry.
It’s unlikely that Trudeau’s government will be voted down imminently. The main opposition party, the Conservatives, may re-start what they do best: internecine warfare. The other parties have financial troubles or think they’re probably at their high-water mark.
So, Trudeau likely has at least two years to set himself up for a shot at another majority government. What should his agenda be?
- More home, less away. Trudeau likes the international stage, but he draws fire for liking it too much. He must focus on the machinery of government in Ottawa, the dull capital. Canada’s global presence may not slide, but his own likely will.
- Accelerate infrastructure development. Trudeau’s plan to increase much-needed spending remains popular, but projects have been rolled out too slowly and are too often politically-driven. The Conservatives erred by wanting to spend less. Trudeau should choose better and spend faster, especially on transit in major cities, like Toronto.
- Get the pipeline built. Energy and the environment are spoken here as if they’re one long word. This is quixotic to partisans on each side. But to political realists it’s the only path forward: A permanent carbon tax is possible only with calibrated oil development, especially by expanding a key pipeline to the West Coast (and on to Asia, which pays more than U.S. markets).
- Stay the course on Aboriginal development. Trudeau’s rhetoric set expectations too high, but Canadians are recognizing the impact of their colonial history. Even now, while Canada ranks among the top countries on the UN Human Development Index, Aboriginal Canadians rank with the likes of Venezuela and Azerbaijan.
- Be serious about competitiveness. Canada’s technology sectors are growing but the economy remains too dependent on resources. And too few companies are global. The Liberal government should open protected markets and cull regulations, which can vary among provinces.
- Advance the next social program. Canada was an early adopter of government-funded health care. But the system is looking creaky as costs rise faster for prescription drugs, which aren’t generally covered, than for visits to doctors and hospitals, which are. The Liberal Party has promised action for years; now’s the time.
- Discretion is the better part of valor. Trudeau is being urged to intervene in a court challenge of a Quebec law banning public servants – such as teachers and police officers – from wearing religious symbols on the job. The law is popular in French-speaking Quebec for protecting secular values but is unpopular among English-speaking Canadians for undermining religious freedoms. Trudeau should step gingerly.
Trudeau’s election victory – though one that plays in a minor key – will require of him a newfound discipline of power. Act Two is just beginning.
Drew Fagan is a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.