by Paul Weinberg
Justin Trudeau’s center-left Liberal party established a solid win in the October 19 Canadian election in face of wedge politics. In seeking a fresh mandate after ten years in office in Ottawa, Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party waged a vigorous campaign tinged by Islamophobia and post-9/11 terrorism fears.
“We beat fear with hope,” Trudeau said in victory speech. “We beat cynicism with hard work. We beat negative, divisive politics with a positive vision that brings Canadians together.”
There is an immediate change in tone coming from the new prime minister, says Benjamin Shinewald, former senior policy advisor in the Privy Council Office under both Harper and his predecessor Paul Martin. Shinewald echoes the criticism by Harper’s political opponents and former Canadian diplomats that Canada, under the Conservatives, had lost its bearings by forsaking its previous role as an honest broker in the world.
Harper had also sold participation of Canadian fighter pilots in the US-led bombing campaign against Islamic State (ISIS or IS) positions in Iraq and Syria as a way to defeat the Islamic terrorists in the Middle East before they start playing havoc with Canadian lives at home.That position did not deter either of the two Canadian center-left parties, the Liberals and the New Democrats (NDP) from questioning the effectiveness of this military venture by Canada.
“First, the new Liberal government will change Canada’s role in the fight against ISIS from bombing missions to training for local troops on the ground,” Shinewald told Lobelog. He continued:
Second, there will be huge change in tone, including vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinian territories. Canada’s voice has been so divisive and alienating the last ten years across a wide variety of international matters. We can accomplish more and advance our interests further with more honey and less vinegar. Thus, while our underlying bedrock support for Israel will remain firm, I fully expect that the shrill approach will be replaced by one which is empathetic and supportive.”
A Close Election
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals did garner 184 seats to achieve a majority government in the House of Commons compared to 99 for Conservatives and 44 for the NDP in a constituency-based electoral system.
An estimated 70 percent of Canadians opposed to Harper’s conservatism abandoned the NDP (the original frontrunners in the 78-day election campaign) for the Liberals. The latter had carved a more convincingly positive left-wing stance with a promise to ramp up of infrastructure spending for neglected Canadian cities in terms of roads and new public transit. In contrast, and despite their political differences, the Conservatives and the strangely Tony-Blair-flavored NDP both adhered to an austerity-minded platform of balanced budgets and strict fiscal prudence.
But as the popular vote demonstrates—39.5 percent for the Liberals versus 31.9 percent for the Conservatives—the election was close.
Exploiting Post-9/11 Fears
In his 10 years as prime minister, Harper had staked out a hard-edged conservatism that emphasized low taxes and tough draconian security legislation. His government unleashed the police and Canadian Security and Intelligence Service agents throughout the country and sought judicial approval for activities against suspected terrorists that were possibly extralegal and arguably contrary to the Canada’s constitutionally entrenched Charter of Rights.
During his tenure in office, Harper had married post-9/11 fears of terrorism and suspicions of Islam with fulsome support for the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu that attracted a varied constituency of conservative-minded Canadians, more liberal-thinking Jews, and French-speaking Quebecers.
“Absent any truly national question to serve as an ideological organizing principle for this election, our prime minister effectively just plucked one randomly from populist conservatism’s post–9/11 fever swamps,” says Jonathan Kay, the editor of the Walrus Magazine and a conservative commentator who is also critical of Harper.
Kay reflected that the Conservatives had just gone too far in dredging up subterranean suspicions about Muslims in general in Canada.
Harper sought to apeal to his political base of roughly one-third of the Canadian population with such measures as focusing on the entry of non-Muslim refugees from Syria, even though the majority happens to be of Sunni Muslim origin and similarly in distress. He also pushed for a complete ban of the niqab—the full head and face covering worn by very few Muslim women—in the federal government civil service.
And his party promised the establishment of a new snitch line to encourage the reporting to the police of culturally barbaric practices such as honor killings, which are already illegal under Canadian law.
At one point in a speech during the election Harper referred to “old-stock Canadians,” but declined to back down in face of criticism.
“The streak of nativism that runs through the modern Conservative Party, expressed in this campaign by thinly veiled attack on Muslims, is politically dangerous,” stated Tom Walkom in an October 22 column for the Toronto Star. “It can and did backfire—particularly among so-called ethnic voters in the 905 [telephone area code] region outside Toronto.”
But Walkom warned his readers that although Harper may be out of office and politics his ideas live on in some dark corners in Canada: “But the essential Harperist credo on the need to take an uncompromising stand against terrorism at home and abroad rings true for many voters.”
Trudeau and the Middle East
Tom Woodley, the tireless president of the Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), anticipates that the new Trudeau government will be more generous in welcoming a larger number of Syrian refugees into his country. But he is less optimistic about substantial changes on the matter of Israel and Palestine.
Woodley describes as “scary” how Trudeau, in a pre-election interview on October 14 with The Canadian Jewish News, echoed the statements of Harper and Netanyahu in dubbing Israel’s critics in the progressive community, including the BDS movement, “the new anti-Semitism.”
Trudeau said the following:
I’m all for freedom of speech and expression in Canada, and we need to be sure we’re defending that. But when Canadian university students are feeling unsafe on their way to classes because of BDS or Israel Apartheid Week that just goes against Canadian values. And I have said so, not just in news interviews, but in person on university campuses.
In his successful bid for the Liberal party leadership in 2013, Justin Trudeau got a “C” from the CJPME for his stance on Israel-Palestine, which was still better than the two other losing candidates in the contest. The organization concluded that it was difficult to get specifics on where Trudeau stands on Israel and Palestine, beyond his assertions that the Harper government has been “polarizing the debate” domestically and using it as a “political football” to pressure other parties.)
The report added that “as a sitting MP, Justin Trudeau missed many opportunities to present a clear and compelling vision for Canada and the Middle East.”
Photo of Justin Trudeau by Alex Guibord via Flickr
Paul Weinberg is a Hamilton, Ontario-based freelance journalist whose work appears in rabble.ca, Outlook, and the Monitor, a publication of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.