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Trudeau Scrapes Through

A tough election night leaves Canada with a fractured Parliament.

By , a journalist based in Toronto.
A campaign sign for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is posted in front of his campaign bus outside a polling station on election day in Montreal on Oct. 21.
A campaign sign for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is posted in front of his campaign bus outside a polling station on election day in Montreal on Oct. 21. Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has proved himself an unbelievably resilient politician.

At the end of the race, which ran just over a month but felt to many like an eternity, Trudeau showed that nothing could pull him all the way down. Not a series of images unearthed of him in blackface, not an ethics scandal that split his own cabinet, not a bruising campaign that might be the most negative and desperate in modern Canadian history.

Resilient, but not infallible.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has proved himself an unbelievably resilient politician.

At the end of the race, which ran just over a month but felt to many like an eternity, Trudeau showed that nothing could pull him all the way down. Not a series of images unearthed of him in blackface, not an ethics scandal that split his own cabinet, not a bruising campaign that might be the most negative and desperate in modern Canadian history.

Resilient, but not infallible.

Trudeau came out on top in a mess of an election, taking 157 seats, a wide stretch ahead of the Conservative Party’s 121. Rounding out a diverse Parliament were the separatist Bloc Québécois with 32, the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) with 24, the Greens with three, and one independent member.

It was better than expected, but still a huge decline over his first election victory, marked by a cross-country feeling of Trudeaumania.

Even if his support at home has weakened, a few leaders in Europe will be celebrating his reelection. Losing Trudeau would have been a blow to his allies in the G-7, notably French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Trudeau’s reelection is a small win for the increasingly isolated club of liberal, internationalist leaders.

U.S. President Donald Trump was quick out of the gate to congratulate Trudeau. Any evidence of their rocky relationship appeared to be a distant memory, as Trump wrote: “I look forward to working with you toward the betterment of both of our countries!”

But Trudeau’s was hardly a resounding victory.

Trudeau’s Liberals won just 15 seats in the four provinces of Western Canada. The vast majority of his support came from Toronto and Montreal, where he got nearly a clean sweep.

What happens now is anyone’s guess. Trudeau is 13 seats short of a governing majority, meaning he’ll need to rely on other parties to stay in power.

In most parliamentary democracies, that would normally lead to a coalition deal or a confidence-and-supply agreement, where the parties would negotiate a deal for stability. Those pacts are a rarity in Canada. Liberal members of Parliament who spoke to Foreign Policy from the floor of their victory party in Montreal hinted that any formal deal is unlikely.

What is more common in Canada is an ad hoc process, whereby the governing party curries favour and makes alliances on a case-by-case basis. Individual budgets and confidence motions can be held up, nixed, or changed at the whim of the smaller parties in Parliament.

Canada saw three successive minority governments of that type, starting in the mid-2000s. Those Parliaments were raucous, generally unproductive, and were defined by political brinksmanship. They, on average, lasted about two years before the government collapsed and voters were sent back to the polls.

While there had been fears that the seat count would produce some uncertainty over who would try and form government, Trudeau’s commanding lead makes it unlikely that any other set of parties could try and take over. He will, however, need to keep his ego in check—Trudeau has not always been a good team player.

The campaign was a brutal affair from start to finish. The Liberals painted the Tories as backward social laggards—the Liberal slogan, “choose forward,” tried to drive that home. The Tories peppered the Liberals with accusations that they were out of touch and corrupt.

Slowly, though, other parties emerged through the noise. The Greens capitalized on anxiety about the climate and fears that the Liberal government wasn’t acting aggressively enough. The NDP, which had fallen to historic lows at the outset of the election, broke through to capitalize on young and disaffected voters. And the Bloc Québécois, once thought to have been largely vanquished, romped back to become the default vote for Quebecers dissatisfied with the choices in front of them.

While the election appears to have been largely untouched by foreign powers, there was plenty of skulduggery. Just before election day it was revealed that someone, likely the Conservative Party, hired a lobbying firm to “seek and destroy” their right-wing rivals, the People’s Party, whose leader Maxime Bernier was himself a former Conservative Party leadership contender.

Meanwhile—and perhaps connected—a fake news effort targeted the prime minister, alleging he committed statutory rape while teaching at a private school in British Columbia in the early 2000s. Those stories were kept alive by reporters from far-right media outlets like the Rebel Media and the True North Times, as well as the owner of the lobbying firm hired to attack Bernier’s party. The Conservative Party itself breathed life into those rumors in an official press release.

At its core, though, the election mirrored very real concerns facing most G-7 countries, from fears of recession to climate disaster.

Canada is on track to get close to the carbon dioxide reduction targets it agreed to under the Paris climate accords, though there are already intense calls to do better than those modest goals. Canada has only just begun the substantial work needed to decarbonize entirely. While the country may actually be a net beneficiary of climate change, as its frigid north becomes more habitable, its huge stretches of coastline will soon feel the impact of rising sea levels and unpredictable weather. Trudeau has pledged to hit his Paris targets, while the Conservatives paid only lip service to the cause; both the NDP and Greens put forward plans to significantly reduce Canada’s carbon dioxide output in the next decades.

The country’s infrastructure deficit is substantial, and there are concerns that critical infrastructure, such as the bridges and tunnels of Canada’s major cities, need upgrading in the near future to avoid catastrophic failure. There is a substantial housing crunch in Canada’s cities, and public transit isn’t being built nearly fast enough. The Liberals talked a big game on building up Canada’s cities, while the left-wing parties focused on housing and affordability.

Canada’s economy is humming along but, like the United States’, it appears to be running on some level of magic. While it managed to smooth out problems with Washington, Ottawa is still locked in trade disputes with Beijing and Riyadh. Gross domestic product growth is strong, employment numbers look good, and interest rates have stayed low—but those fundamentals seem to be supported by strong consumer confidence. There are concerns that one knee-jerk decision in Washington, or a debt bubble bursting somewhere, could lead to things turning south quickly. Trudeau’s plan to keep infrastructure spending going, coupled with a plan to reduce working-class taxes, isn’t likely to hurt that.

Health care played a prominent role in the campaign. The NDP campaigned hard on expanding Canada’s national health system to include drug and dental benefits. Agreeing to that costly upgrade is likely to be a big demand from leader Jagmeet Singh when they enter Parliament. Singh, along with Green leader Elizabeth May, also committed to more action to fight the opioid crisis, which has hit Canada hard.

While worldwide anxieties over immigration haven’t entirely taken hold in Canada, there have nevertheless been concerns over tens of thousands of border crossers coming from the United States. Many of them have trekked from Central America and come to Canada over fears that Trump’s policies would make their asylum applications doomed to fail in the United States. The Bloc Québécois has promised to try and win more autonomy for Quebec on immigration and refugee intake, and their strong performance makes it likely Trudeau will listen. Quebec has sought to reduce immigration levels and vet newcomers more aggressively to ensure their language and culture aligns with Quebec’s. That leaves fears that xenophobia may become official immigration policy in Canada’s second-largest province.

A French-style secularism law in Quebec also proved deeply divisive. The law forbids many public servants, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols on the job, and bans niqab-wearing women from accessing some social services. While the federal leaders denounced the law, not one firmly committed to fighting it in court. The separatist Bloc Québécois nevertheless accused the other parties of wanting to override Quebec’s special autonomous status within Canada. That bled into a wider campaign about giving Quebec more independence within the country.

It seems that, no matter where Trudeau looks, winning support from the other parties could prove difficult and costly.

The geographic divide in the results were indicative of those disparate concerns. On the eastern and western coasts, worries about climate change led to a strong showing from the Greens and NDP. In British Columbia in particular, the Liberals did horribly, in part because of Trudeau’s recent decision to purchase the stalled Trans Mountain oil pipeline, which Ottawa hopes can bring Albertan oil to port and, eventually, to Asian markets.

In oil-rich Alberta, however, frustration with the Trudeau government is endemic, even with the pipeline project going ahead. Every seat turned to the Conservatives but one—a young, urban riding which broke for the NDP. The prevailing feeling is that Trudeau has abandoned the West. His carbon pricing scheme is deeply unpopular there.

The Bloc Québécois won throughout Quebec, while the NDP performed well in northern ridings with large indigenous populations. One Vancouver riding even sent an independent MP to Ottawa—Trudeau’s former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, whose refusal to go along with a plea deal for a Quebec engineering firm accused of corruption in Libya led to her demotion and eventual firing from the Liberal Party.

The Liberal vote, in the end, was efficient, and the party benefited by three- and four-way splits in some ridings. Even though the Liberals came a point behind the Conservatives in the popular vote, with just 33 percent support, the Liberals sit on a commanding plurality of the seats.

When he was first elected prime minister, Trudeau swore that the 2015 election would be the last under Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, concluding that it made for governments that don’t represent how the public voted. Trudeau went back on that promise and scuppered plans to change Canada’s voting system—luckily for his party.

As both the NDP and Greens are fervent supporters of changing the way Canadians vote, it will be hard to continue justifying an electoral system that is not proportional in some way.

While all the leaders promised that they would head into Parliament with a plan to work on the various problems facing the country, Monday night offered little evidence that such a constructive House of Commons was in the cards.

As Singh spoke to his election night party in Burnaby, just outside Vancouver, TV coverage cut to a split screen, showing Tory leader Andrew Scheer heading through a throng of supporters in Regina, Saskatchewan. Seconds later, Trudeau started making his way to the stage in Montreal.

Leaders normally coordinate to let each other deliver their victory or concession speeches on election night. That communication broke down in the wee hours of the morning, leading to all three leaders speaking over each other.

In their speeches, Trudeau and Scheer both sounded like they hadn’t quite left campaign mode. It seems likely that Canada will be heading back to the polls sooner rather than later.

Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto.

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