Canada and the Politics of Hope


Last weekend I travelled to Canada, the land that has given us magical things like poutine, discount pharmaceuticals and Ryan Gosling. My visit coincided with the Canadian Election. Americans may imagine that Canada’s elections are boring, which is a reasonable sentiment for a country who has all the creativity required to name their national holiday ‘Canada Day.’ This is regrettable, since this election may be perhaps the most significant in Canada in the past generation. Canada uses a parliamentary system of government. Representatives are elected from one of 336 districts, called ‘Ridings,’ and the party with the most representatives forms the government with their leader serving as Prime Minister. For the last decade, Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party have been in power. Harper’s tenure has been beleaguered with a sluggish economy, and he faced tough opposition heading into this election. Harper ran on promises to continue his policies; cutting spending, removing environmental protections, cutting taxes for the rich and combating Islamic terrorism. Harper, with his penchant for ‘take no prisoners’ politics and rampant use of negative ads, was a dangerous opponent.

The New Democrat Party (NDP), headed by Tom Mulcair, ran on a left-wing socialist platform. Mulcair, despite beginning the race as the frontrunner, was eclipsed by Justin Trudeau's resurgent Liberal Party. Trudeau ran on a center-left platform, proposing tax cuts for the middle class and small businesses, but a slight rise in taxes on the wealthy. Trudeau proposed running a short term deficit in order to invest in rebuilding Canadian infrastructure, which would help revitalize their economy. Trudeau also promised entitlement reforms, support for free trade, and a commitment to protect the environment. Trudeau is the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who is widely viewed as Canada’s most influential Prime Minister. Trudeau, with youthful charisma and moderate policies, secured a come-from-behind win on Monday that ended the Harper decade, restoring the Liberals to power.

What difference does this make? A great deal. For Americans, Canada is our number one trading partner. A strong Canadian economy means a stronger American economy. Further, Trudeau has proposed working more closely with the U.S. than his predecessor had, particularly on environmental issues. More than a change in policies for Canada, Trudeau’s victory changes what is possible for America.

This election, moreover, shows us an encouraging example of how politics should work. No matter what you may think of his fellow conservatives, the Canadian political milieu was worse off for Harper’s tenure as Prime Minister. Harper weakened benefits for the poor while cutting taxes for the rich, turning the $14 billion surplus left by the Liberals into a $150 billion deficit. Harper strong armed representatives into voting his way, threw out any opposition in his government, silenced scientists who reported his policies were hurting the environment, and tried to reduce ballot access to seniors, the poor, and First Nations Peoples.

Perhaps most alarming has been Harper’s appeals to Islamophobia. In an attempt to secure the support of voters worried about the rise of ISIS and distrusting of Muslims, Harper pandered to their baser fears. Harper’s government passed a law banning women in government and women taking citizenship oaths from wearing the Niqab, a full body scarf worn by Muslim women. Since then, he created a telephone hotline for citizens to call to report “barbaric cultural practices.” Citing risks of Muslim infiltration, Harper only accepted ten percent of the migrants he originally promised. Harper’s laws have helped foster his own fears and prejudice within his populace: over half of anti-Muslim hate crimes in Canada have occurred in the weeks since Harper spoke out against the Niqab. Just earlier this month, a pregnant woman was beaten in the streets of Montreal by teens for wearing a niqab. To be clear, this kind of codified prejudice against Muslims is happening, not in Myanmar, but in Canada, the national incarnation of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. Women  pressured to wear the Niqab may be a problem, but punishing those who choose to wear it is not the answer. This was simply putting politics before people.

Perhaps Canada could use a Conservative as their Prime Minister, but Harper was not the man for the job. He may have been one of the worst things to have come out of Canada, and we’re talking about the country that spewed out both Celine Dion and Justin Bieber. Harper demonized and divided. In order to win, he had to play to voters’ more prejudiced and cynical natures, and was far more comfortable tearing someone down rather than building a people up. The Canada he left behind had more debt and less of its natural beauty, a Canada where indigenous peoples were left behind and Muslims were left to despair. In short, Mr. Harper’s Canada was just not that Canadian. While he thrived with cynicism, the Canadian people were willing to shed their cynicism. The people chose to reward the candidate who, with his moderate views, has vowed to bring parties together, not the one who tore them apart. The people chose the politics of hope. “We beat fear with hope, we beat cynicism with hard work.” Trudeau said on election night. “We beat negative, divisive politics with a positive vision that brings Canadians together. Most of all we defeated the idea that Canadians should be satisfied with less, that good enough is good enough, and that better just isn’t possible. Well, my friends, this is Canada, and in Canada better is always possible.”

Trudeau may fall the fate of other would-be world-changers, and prove to be out of his depth, but I choose to be hopeful, hopeful for Canada and for America. The Trumps, Carsons, and Sandersea of the world should take note: demagoguery has an expiration date, the people are smarter than you think, and optimism wins. Move over, Ryan Gosling: the best thing America can steal from Canada is the politics of hope.