Analysis

Canada Is Having an Election No One Wants

Trudeau’s risky gamble may spell his end.

By , a public historian and independent journalist originally from Montreal.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to other speakers during a campaign event.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to other speakers during a campaign event in Cambridge, Ontario, on Aug. 29. Geoff Robins/AFP via Getty Images

You could be forgiven for not knowing Canada is in the midst of an acrimonious election campaign. Canadian elections tend to be low-key, tidy affairs that are promptly wrapped up within 50 days. Canada’s 44th federal election, which takes place on Sept. 20, has barely registered in the United States or elsewhere, but what may make international headlines the following day is the unexpected ouster of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau has lagged behind Conservative Party challenger Erin O’Toole throughout much of the campaign, though some polls in the race’s closing days have indicated a slight lead for the incumbent. Now, the most likely election outcome is another Trudeau minority government, albeit with fewer seats. Another real possibility is an equally unstable Conservative minority government.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Trudeau wanted to secure a parliamentary majority so he could lead a post-pandemic recovery without having to consult or cut deals with opposition parties. But hubris got the better of him: Even though there were clear signs Canadians weren’t interested in going to the polls this year, he pushed the country into its eighth federal election since 2000—one that has now essentially become a referendum on Trudeau himself. Canada is having an election no one other than Trudeau wanted, and he may pay a hefty price for it.

You could be forgiven for not knowing Canada is in the midst of an acrimonious election campaign. Canadian elections tend to be low-key, tidy affairs that are promptly wrapped up within 50 days. Canada’s 44th federal election, which takes place on Sept. 20, has barely registered in the United States or elsewhere, but what may make international headlines the following day is the unexpected ouster of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau has lagged behind Conservative Party challenger Erin O’Toole throughout much of the campaign, though some polls in the race’s closing days have indicated a slight lead for the incumbent. Now, the most likely election outcome is another Trudeau minority government, albeit with fewer seats. Another real possibility is an equally unstable Conservative minority government.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Trudeau wanted to secure a parliamentary majority so he could lead a post-pandemic recovery without having to consult or cut deals with opposition parties. But hubris got the better of him: Even though there were clear signs Canadians weren’t interested in going to the polls this year, he pushed the country into its eighth federal election since 2000—one that has now essentially become a referendum on Trudeau himself. Canada is having an election no one other than Trudeau wanted, and he may pay a hefty price for it.

In early 2020, Trudeau had received some praise at home and abroad for guiding Canadians through the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic’s first wave. But whatever points he earned were largely lost by the end of last summer with the WE Charity scandal, in which the well-known international organization was handed a no-bid contract of more than 43 million Canadian dollars (about $35 million) to administer about CA$912 million ($715 million) of federal funds earmarked for out-of-work students.

Canada is having an election no one other than Trudeau wanted, and he may pay a hefty price for it.

Trudeau, his family, and several top-ranking members of the administration were closely linked to the charity, prompting questions of cronyism and conflicts of interest. Ultimately, Bill Morneau, a key Trudeau ally and finance minister, resigned. Trudeau prorogued parliament the next day, ending parliamentary scrutiny of the scandal. Subsequent efforts to renew the investigation later in 2020 were blocked by Trudeau’s Liberal Party, often using tactics the prime minister had sworn he would never use when he sat in opposition. The scandal was Trudeau’s third major political scandal in four years (he was also criticized for attempting to interfere with the work of Canada’s justice minister and for violating conflict of interest regulations by accepting gifts from the Aga Khan, a powerful religious leader).

Meanwhile, the government was criticized for its lackluster long-term pandemic response, and the administration faced another scandal with the resignation of Canada’s governor general—a Trudeau appointee—for workplace harassment and bullying. Still, Canadians for the most part had little interest in another election.

Trudeau knew this in the run-up to presenting his administration’s 2021 budget this spring—a hurdle that can sink minority governments. (If a minority government can’t pass its budget, it’s unlikely to survive a vote of confidence of the House of Commons.) Trudeau hoped that he could sway other parties to support his budget without having to form a coalition with them, as an opposition party would have to take the blame for triggering a snap election.

In April, Trudeau’s gamble paid off. New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh pledged his party’s support to pass the budget. Trudeau thus secured his budget and avoided an election without having to make any concessions or work with another party. Canada’s fourth minority government since 2004 was all set to function, more or less normally, for at least a year.

Yet despite the relative safety of Trudeau’s position and the unmistakable lack of interest of the Canadian electorate in an election while COVID-19 cases were ramping up, Trudeau called a snap election. With a majority government, Trudeau would be able to not only institute plans and programs for the next four years but also deal a serious blow to potential future challengers. But he may have seriously misjudged his own popularity.

Though the official campaign began with the Liberals in the lead, they quickly lost ground to the neophyte Conservative Party leader, O’Toole. Trudeau may have hoped to exploit his primary rival’s inexperience as party leader (a position he’s only had since August 2020). Trudeau was also keenly aware of the divisions within the Conservative Party that arose from policy shifts made without consulting party higher-ups, such as advocating for carbon pricing after condemning the federal carbon tax. In Trudeau’s mind, perhaps, the Conservative effort to move back toward the center was exposing internal divisions.

Trudeau failed to understand just how much O’Toole could ultimately capitalize on Canadians’ lack of interest in going to the polls. Although it’s highly unlikely the Conservatives will form a majority government, there’s more than a 20 percent chance they could form a minority government. They could also partner with either the Bloc Québécois or NDP, both of which are further left than the Liberals, to form a coalition government.

That would be unlikely, but not absurd. Unlike in 2019, when NDP leader Singh stated that he wouldn’t form a coalition government with the Conservatives under any circumstances, he hasn’t said as much this time around (nor has Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet). Meanwhile, O’Toole has somewhat moderated the Conservative Party’s positions. Despite their ideological differences, all three parties share a desire to see Trudeau booted from office.

Furthermore, what people really failed to anticipate was that calling this election would boost Canada’s far-right party, the People’s Party of Canada, which crashed and burned in the last election. Taking their cues from south of the border, Canada’s QAnon followers have largely lined up behind former Conservative Party leadership candidate (and former cabinet minister) Maxime Bernier, who founded the People’s Party. Bernier’s far-right big-tent party is unlikely to even win a seat, let alone form a government or opposition party.

But his followers have nonetheless made an impression—not least by pelting Trudeau with gravel, forcing the cancellation of Trudeau’s campaign rallies, and convincing an unfortunate number of otherwise level-headed pundits to wonder aloud whether, despite the boorish behavior, the party deserves a seat at the table. In an election remarkable chiefly for its lack of new ideas or fresh thinking, the referendum on Trudeau has wound up giving a lot of attention to those representing Canada’s worst inclinations—something Canada’s establishment news media was all too happy to boost.

Some conservative commentators are sounding the alarm that Bernier’s bounding popularity may split the conservative vote and ultimately help Trudeau. But it’s the actions—or lack thereof—of far more mainstream conservative Canadian politicians who may provide Trudeau with an unlikely late-stage assist.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s declaration on Sept. 15 that his province is in a state of emergency driven by a fourth wave of COVID-19 may both end his own career and topple conservative leader O’Toole, who has praised Kenney’s largely hands-off handling of the pandemic. Kenney’s “open for summer” plan and over-reliance on rapid testing while refusing a vaccine passport system that was adopted by other provinces made a bad situation worse.

Trudeau’s gamble may prove how disconnected Canada’s political elite is from the mass of its citizenry.

(Among Canada’s 10 premiers, Kenney has consistently polled dead last for his handling of the pandemic and was essentially absent from the federal campaign.)

Trudeau has wasted no time since the declaration, arguing that O’Toole has already demonstrated he’s not fit to lead the country through what remains of the pandemic.

It’s unlikely this in and of itself will be enough to shift Trudeau’s fortunes and deliver him the majority government this entire effort was meant to secure. The Trudeaumania of 2015 and 2016 was largely a product of Canadians having grown tired of the arrogant paternalism of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Trudeau’s progressive golden boy image was only reinforced by 2016 and the contrast with the winner of the U.S. presidential election that year.

The honeymoon is now over. Trudeau has reneged on key campaign points that were broadly appealing—including backtracking on tax hikes on the wealthiest Canadians and promising to spearhead electoral reform—and has weathered major scandals that remind Canadians they traded in the arrogance born from winning elections to that derived from being a member of a political dynasty.

A last-minute appeal to Canadians from former U.S. President Barack Obama to vote for “his friend” Trudeau—and an endorsement from former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—hints strongly at campaign directors pulling out all the stops to remind Canadians that even if they’re ambivalent about Trudeau, he’s the preferred candidate of neoliberal global elites.

On Monday, we’ll find out if that kind of star power has any pull left. There’s a chance, albeit an increasingly slim one, that Trudeau’s gamble will only prove how disconnected Canada’s political elite is from the mass of its citizenry.

Taylor C. Noakes is a public historian and independent journalist originally from Montreal.

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