Argument

How Canadian Politics Got So Dumb

With most of the big issues settled, politicians have turned to fighting hashtag wars. Here’s why that’s dangerous.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waves goodbye as he departs a campaign stop in Niagara Falls, Ontario on Sept. 23.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waves goodbye as he departs a campaign stop in Niagara Falls, Ontario on Sept. 23. Cole Burston/Getty Images

By now, most readers will have seen the picture of a turbaned Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in brownface hamming it up with a group of women at a 2001 party in Vancouver. The old yearbook photo, first reported by Time on Sept. 18, immediately damaged the Canadian prime minister’s personal brand, which had always been based in large part on his bona fides as an enthusiastic advocate of progressive identity politics. Then, in the days that followed, two more images of Trudeau in blackface were publicized, including one of the Liberal Party prime minister singing Harry Belafonte’s song Day-O at a high school revue. The other is a 1990s-era video of Trudeau with his whitewater rafting buddies, in which the future prime minister is seen jumping around with an Afro wig, black face and body paint, and ripped pants. It caused some to ask whether the prime minister intended to present himself as Jim the slave from the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Another person in the video is seen wearing a Huck Finn-style hat.). There may be more images on the way, too, because the same prime minister who once lectured the world on toxic masculinity now says he cannot recall exactly how many times he wore blackface.

With Canada’s Oct. 21 federal election just weeks away, the timing of this scandal would appear fortuitous for opposition parties. Yet the latest polling numbers are almost completely unchanged since mid-September. In part, this is because ordinary Canadians simply don’t share the fixation on bygone thoughtcrimes that increasingly consumes the intellectual class in the United States and other Western countries. But it also might be a case of character-assassination overload: The current election campaign has witnessed so many scandals of this type that voters can’t keep up. The left’s effort to present Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives as racists in the vein of the so-called alt-right, in particular, has been fueled by a stream of years-old screenshots and social media posts. The left-of-Liberal New Democratic Party likewise has been pressured to drop one of its candidates, who can be seen in a 2016 video affixing BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) labels to Israeli-sourced merchandise on a store shelf. And in an especially bizarre gotcha moment, the Greens were caught photoshopping a picture of their own leader, Elizabeth May, holding a disposable cup, replacing the offending item with a reusable mug and a metal straw. (They then lied about it when they were caught.)

All in all, this is shaping up to be the most intellectually vacuous election campaign in Canadian history—a steady stream of pops and buzzes that seem primarily geared toward harvesting likes on social media. In the days following the emergence of the Trudeau photos, a manic Liberal war room announced a flurry of strange one-off gambits—including a pledge to give $2,000 travel bursaries to Canadian families who go camping and a one-sentence pledge to “plant 2 billion trees.” Scheer is being targeted for possibly exaggerating his bona fides as a properly accredited insurance broker under the Saskatchewan Insurance Act, which has the makings of a scandal so boring that it sounds like something invented by foreign comedians doing their usual riff on Canadian boringness. Meanwhile, New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh says his plan for dealing with Donald Trump is to simply hope the U.S. president gets impeached—a ludicrous statement coming from a man who claims he wants to be prime minister of the United States’ biggest trading partner. This is what now passes for serious campaigning in the Great White North.

But U.S. readers who dismiss all of the drama as bemusing low-stakes political farce should think again. What is happening in Canada doesn’t just present a sendup of the country’s (admittedly hilarious) parochialism. It also reveals what happens when countries run low on big things to argue about. Instead of political life simmering down into calm and rational discussion over the few remaining issues, the opposite happens: Politicians’ and pundits’ tribal instincts are channeled into invented scandals and symbolic issues with little connection to voters’ lived reality. What’s worse, because these social media-fueled controversies are aimed at smearing opponents’ ideological souls rather than their policy judgment, they tend to be even more hysterical and polarized than the substantive debates from times of yore.

Just a few decades ago, Canada was riven by a set of fundamentally important policy issues that went to the heart of its national identity: Quebec separatism, free trade with the United States, the future of its socialized health system, same-sex marriage, abortion, capital punishment, and the (now) $70 billion system of transfer payments that make up the fiscal backbone of the country’s confederated political system. Every single one of these issues has now been settled or lies dormant. In 2016, more than 80 percent of Quebecers said they think Quebec should stay in Canada. All major political parties support free trade. Conservatives have acquiesced to progressive victories in every sphere of the culture war. There do remain points of substantive disagreement between the parties on global-warming abatement and pipeline construction. But even on immigration, an issue tearing at the political fabric of numerous other Western countries, there is broad support for the current high levels of intake—with the only outlier being Maxime Bernier’s newly formed People’s Party of Canada, which seeks to limit immigration and is now polling at about 3 percent.

On one hand, this is a blessing for Canadians. Whoever wins the election—the only realistic possibilities being Trudeau and Scheer—will continue in the tradition of centrist Canadian governance, with perhaps a few symbolic tweaks to appease supporters. On the other hand, the prize they’re fighting for has been cheapened by the coarse and clownish nature of the current campaign. Trudeau, in particular, is now seen as something of a sanctimonious fraud, even by some of his young supporters, despite the fact that (as I’ve argued previously) he’s largely “gotten the big issues right.

The venerable controversies of the past—in particular, separatism, free trade, and inter-provincial transfer payments—were divisive and sometimes really did corrode Canadian solidarity. (In the 1995 Quebec referendum, separatists came within just 53,000 votes of breaking Canada apart.) But these issues also conferred structure and discipline on the way the nation did politics. Leaders were careful about what they said, lest they land on the wrong side of long-standing, well-defined regional fault lines. However, that was in the day when most Canadians got their news from print and broadcast sources that presented politics through a regional lens. Canadians are now more likely to get news from Facebook and Twitter, which serve up daily politics as just another ingredient in the larger, globalized stew of gossip and outrage. Whereas Canadian politicians once saw their mandate as rooted in geographical ridings, they now spend their days trying to stay on the right side of hashtag fashions that originate in other countries.

This trend has resulted in some distressingly surreal scenes. Earlier this year, for instance, an inquiry into the tragic problem of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls resulted in a report concluding that they the victims of an ongoing genocide taking place on Canadian soil. Although the claim itself was contentious, Trudeau himself acquiesced to the term—marking what surely must be the first instance in modern history of a national leader admitting that he has presided over the genocide of his country’s own inhabitants. But then, once that admission was made, nothing happened. One might think that an ongoing genocide within Canadian borders might be treated as a more important election issue than, say, camping subsidies or the Saskatchewan Insurance Act. But neither Trudeau nor any other party leader seems anxious to discuss it. And it has become obvious that the only reason it was discussed in the first place was so that politicians and pundits could score points on social media in the 15 minutes they had before Canadians moved on from genocide to actor and musician Jussie Smollett, intellectual provocateur Jordan Peterson, and Brexit.

Canadian politics once seemed to have resisted the forces of populism ushered in (or reflected by) Trump. But optimism no longer seems warranted. The tone of Canada’s current election campaign suggests the degeneration of political culture being experienced in many parts of the world may have more to do with the impact of social media than with any particular set of issues. It’s a sad and distressing trend that will remain with the country no matter who leads the next Canadian government.

Jonathan Kay is a Toronto-based author and journalist. He is a former managing editor at Canada's National Post newspaper. Twitter: @jonkay

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