FP Guide

Will Trudeau Survive Canada’s Next Vote?

The prime minister’s rise, fall, and possible rebirth.

Justin Trudeau Canadian election blackface scandal.
Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

This month, Canadians will go to the polls to elect a new Parliament and prime minister. What had been shaping up to be a relatively staid affair has been thrown into turmoil after old photos showing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing black- and brownface were made public. The revelations forced Trudeau to make a public apology last month: “It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do, and I am deeply sorry,” he said.

As election day nears, we’ve gathered our best pieces on Trudeau and his accomplishments and shortcomings in office.

Trudeau’s prime ministership started in 2015, after his party won a surprise blowout in national elections. The “victory caught many off guard,” Foreign Policy correspondent Reid Standish wrote at the time, and it could be seen as a major victory for Canadian progressives. But “the Liberals’ return to dominance,” he noted, “has as much to do with anti-[Prime Minister Stephen] Harper opinion as it does with a well-strategized campaign.”

To be sure, Trudeau did put forward a very clear and very liberal agenda. Richard G. Miles of the Center for Strategic and International Studies points to his promises to “increase budget deficits by $25 million over the next 3 years to ‘invest’ in infrastructure and the middle class,” to legalize marijuana, and to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees.

But there were also areas of overlap between Trudeau’s campaign pledges and the policies of the conservative Harper government, according to the writer Matthew Bondy. “Both advocate for strong bilateral ties with the United States and both believe the Keystone XL pipeline should be part of that relationship. Both leaders are free traders,” and both, he concludes, “believe humanitarian considerations should animate Canadian foreign policy, whether through Harper’s maternal health initiatives or, for Trudeau, through enhanced development goals.”

Meanwhile, the new prime minister faced early rumblings that his liberalism may be more style than substance. As a diverse cabinet was sworn in in November 2015, the political writer Mitchell Anderson argued, it was “hard not to suspend critical thought in the face of such overpowering optics.” But “Canada’s progressives should always ensure there is real change behind the rhetoric,” Mitchell warned. And on that score, “the incoming government should be under no illusions that Trudeau’s winning smile will carry the day with a country weary from years of tactical politics and partisan self-interest.”

On domestic policy, Trudeau worked quickly to reassure his critics. Right away, he announced that his country would begin welcoming more refugees from Syria, to total 25,000 by Febuary 2016. Not only that, he made plans to meet them as they arrived, Standish reports. He also changed course on climate change. The new prime minister, the author Andrew Nikiforuk argues, “ended the censorship of scientists and personally played a prominent role at the recent Paris COP21 conference on climate change” (even though he did not stop promoting the development of oil export pipelines). Meanwhile, he made moves to make good on his campaign promise to legalize marijuana, Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer notes.

Trudeau started putting his stamp on Canadian foreign policy as well. He had friendly meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama, writes the Canadian political commentator J.J. McCullough. But with Obama soon to leave office, the bromance was short-lived. And, as McCullogh warned in March 2016, “none of Obama’s likely successors appears a natural soulmate for Canada’s leader. The gap separating a substantial stateswoman like Hillary Clinton from the idealistic and untested Justin Trudeau seems vast, and the prime minister has already said he has ‘nothing but condemnation’ for the divisive nationalism of Donald Trump.”

When Trump won the U.S. presidential election, U.S.-Canadian relations were thrown into turmoil. “The two leaders,” argued the journalist Michael Petrou in November 2016, “could not be more different.” Rather than refusing to work with Trump, though, Petrou urged Trudeau to see a silver lining: “[I]t’s likely that a Trump presidency will burnish Trudeau’s image at home and around the world. Canada’s prime minister has already spent his first year in office painting himself as a defender of liberal values and globalization — elevating Canada’s profile on the international stage in the process.”

Soon enough, Trump and Trudeau met, and the occasion went well enough. As Gramer and the reporter Emily Tamkin write, “Trudeau seemed to deliver a message to the Trump administration: We won’t disrespect your policies on immigration, with which we disagree, if you don’t disrespect us on trade.” But trade quickly became a sticking point in bilateral relations as the Trump administration insisted on a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump promptly slapped tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, prompting Trudeau’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, to warn of a “dollar-for-dollar response” in return. The Trump administration, meanwhile, continued to lambast Canada for its trade protectionism in the dairy sector, which, as the Quillette editor Jonathan Kay points out, was far from fake news. “It is sometimes the case in politics that even the most cynical and ignorant politician may, by sheer happenstance, stumble accidentally into wisdom. And though Canadians don’t like to admit it … this is the case with Trump’s attacks on Canada’s dairy racket.”

Eventually, Canada, Mexico, and the United States did come to an agreement on trade. As Kay explains, it made strategic sense for Canada to make a deal, although doing so would mark the end of Trudeau’s honeymoon in office.

“For more than two years as prime minister,” Kay wrote in 2018, “Trudeau’s government has seemed to defy gravity. But now there are signs that it is finally being brought down to earth. New polling data indicate that support for Trudeau’s Liberal Party government is now at just 36 percent — the lowest since the 2015 election and only three points higher than the opposition Conservatives.” At issue were a number of controversies—from the Trudeaus appearing in a parade of traditional Indian outfits during a trip to India to their attendance at a dinner with a Sikh extremist to the prime minister’s apparent intervention in a case involving the Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin.

Trudeau’s fall from grace was impressive but not wholly unexpected. As the essayist Stephen Marche put it, the prime minister’s self-immolation is “rooted in the way it came to power, through virtue optics and social media,” a political technique that “comes at a cost, and the cost is the need to appear pure.”

By early October, weeks before Canada’s national elections, Trudeau’s approval ratings had fallen below Trump’s as images of him wearing black- and brownface were made public. Suddenly, his reelection was in doubt. And it wasn’t just the string of embarrassments and scandals that put him in danger. Trudeau’s legislative failures, according to the freelance journalist Charlie Mitchell, did too. “Legalizing cannabis had excited millennials, but that same constituency saw his decision to ditch plans for a more proportional electoral system as a betrayal,” Mitchell writes. And “his purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline from Kinder Morgan for about $3.4 billion—to carry oil from Alberta to British Colombia and from there to international markets—enraged environmentalists and indigenous communities whose reservations dot the pipeline’s route.”

To be sure, it isn’t as if Trudeau’s rivals in the Conservative Party were offering more appealing fare. “All in all,” Kay notes, “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.” With the dumbing down of Canadian politics, he argues, this election “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.”

Kathryn Salam is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

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