This Election Brought Out Canada’s Worst

Almost alone among the advanced democracies, the country has been bypassed by reactionary populism.

A Canadian flag, slightly darkened by the light, waves in the air.
Mark Spowart / Getty

Updated at 10:20 a.m. EST on October 24, 2019

Justin Trudeau didn’t lose the Canadian federal election outright, but he had about as bad an outcome as possible short of that. His Liberal Party lost 27 seats in the House of Commons. More ominously, his share of the popular vote dropped 6.5 points, from 39.5 percent in the 2015 election to 33 percent in this year’s. Canada’s Conservatives, who came second in the seat count, won the largest share of the popular vote, 34.4 percent.

Trudeau’s party suffered these losses despite a generally favorable economy in Ontario and Quebec, the heartland of the Liberal Party. This formerly bright, shining face of hope and change was weighted down by ethics scandals and an embarrassing sequence of personal missteps. Those missteps are famous around the world: Trudeau was captured on camera wearing blackface multiple times before his entry into politics. The scandals are not often remarked upon outside Canada, but they matter inside. Trudeau violated conflicts-of-interest rules to accept an expensive vacation and intervened in a criminal case to protect a business corporation with close ties to his party.

The Conservative slogan, “Not as advertised,” bit deep and drew blood.

What buoyed Trudeau was an issue of rising importance globally and in Canada: climate change. Trudeau’s government took painful policy action on climate change, imposing a carbon tax. Conventional political wisdom might have predicted doom. Instead, even Conservative canvassers found as they knocked on doors that Canadians were willing to pay for environmental benefits. Trudeau’s pollsters must have heard the same message. The second substantive sentence out of Trudeau’s mouth on election night hailed the result as a vote for “strong action on climate change.”

Canadian Liberals are left to wonder whether their message would be served by a less scandal-tainted messenger. Canadian Conservatives must reckon with the power of the climate-change issue even in an energy-producing nation like Canada. All Canadians and all friends of Canada should worry whether the country will retain its enviable record as a bastion of democratic stability in a destabilizing world.

Trudeau will now try to strike a deal with the left-wing New Democratic Party to support his government, as a previous NDP supported his father’s government from 1972 to 1974. That last partnership ended badly for the NDP, and today’s New Democrats are likely to demand a high policy price in exchange for their votes. That price will drag the Trudeau government away from the policy center, opening even more room for the Conservatives under the careful leadership of Andrew Scheer. If the softening U.S. economy drags Canada down with it, Justin Trudeau may find his second government even bumpier and more contentious than his first.

Whatever their other differences, Canada’s Liberal and Conservative governments achieved a remarkable record of governing success from 1995 to 2015. They reduced the country’s once-terrifying budget deficits. They navigated deftly through the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. They held at bay Canada’s most dangerous internal threat: separatism and regional alienation.

Justin Trudeau’s first government has revived those dangerous threats—and the outcome of Monday’s Canadian election paints the map with the colors of their return.

One of the night’s biggest winners was the Bloc Quebecois party, the party of Quebec nationalism. The Bloc erupted into prominence in the early 1990s. In 1993, it won 54 of Quebec’s 75 seats and actually qualified as the second-largest party in Parliament. In the more stable 2000s, though, the Bloc suffered a long, slow fade. It lost official-party status in 2011 and dropped to its lowest-ever share of the Quebec vote in 2015. Quebec seemed at last to have fully committed itself to the Canadian national political system, dividing its votes—as other Canadians did—among Liberals, Conservatives, and the left-wing New Democrats.

Justin Trudeau’s first government revived the Bloc. As so often with Justin Trudeau, this mistake originated not in any policy decision, but in an act of performative politics. On January 28, 2017, Trudeau’s Twitter account posted this tweet:

“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada

Trudeau did not intend those words to signal any particular action. In the shock of Donald Trump’s election, Trudeau and his team saw an opportunity to position themselves as the shiny faces of global progressivism. Trump had tried to impose a ban on Muslim refugees—so Trudeau extended a welcome. Despite the example of Germany in August 2015, when a careless tweet from that country’s migration agency triggered a surge of 1.2 million people across German borders, Trudeau seems not to have intended his tweet as anything but political marketing. Canada made no preparations for a refugee surge in 2017. Where would such a surge come from anyway?

The answer materialized within hours. The surge appeared from the most unexpected direction: from across the U.S. border. Thousands of people living illegally in New York City began taking buses to Plattsburgh, New York, then hiring taxis for the $75 drive to the Canadian border. There, with their luggage, they walked into Quebec to claim the welcome Trudeau had promised. By summer 2017, they were arriving in Montreal at a rate of 250 people a day.

More than 14,000 people walked across the U.S.-Canadian border in the first nine months of 2017, almost all of them into Quebec. Nearly half of these unauthorized immigrants were Haitians, hoping to join family and friends in Montreal. But Quebec has long had an uneasy relationship with immigration. French-speaking Quebecois have historically mistrusted immigration as an English-Canadian plot to submerge their language and culture in an ever-growing English-speaking majority. (That Haiti is a Francophone country did not prevent opposition from forming.)

Trudeau represents a Montreal riding, or district; his government is acutely sensitive to Quebec’s concerns. Startled by the consequences of Trudeau’s tweet, the Canadian federal government struggled to reimpose something like order on the country’s boundary with the United States. It warehoused Haitian asylum-seekers in dormitories in an unused hospital on the site of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. But, under Canadian law, the asylum-seekers were entitled to work and to health coverage during the many, many years that processing their cases from beginning to end would take. The numbers grew and grew: more than 20,000 in 2018. In summer 2018, the Montreal Gazette interviewed Francine Dupuis, the head of a government-backed refugee settlement agency in Montreal. “It’s unheard of,” she said of the cross-border surge. “In 30 years, I’ve never seen this kind of volume or intensity.”

As the asylum-seekers arrived, Quebec nationalism revived. In October 2018, a nationalist party won a landslide victory in the Quebec provincial election, winning 74 of 125 seats, crushing the incumbent Liberals. In reaction to the federal government’s settlement in Quebec of thousands of Syrian refugees, the provincial government passed a law banning public employees from wearing religious symbols at work—a law aimed above all at the wearing of hijab, although it also included Christian crosses and Jewish yarmulkes. Fearful of the reaction he had stoked, Trudeau avoided direct comment on the Quebec law at the time and during the recent election campaign. The Liberals held their seats in urban Montreal. But exurban and rural regions swung hard to the Bloc Quebecois, whose platform called for letting Quebec control the number of immigrants and refugees who settle in the province. Quebec has joined the rest of the developed world in the new politics of defensive identity.

Canada’s prairie provinces also have an uneasy relationship to the federation. Their economies are based on products—oil, gas, timber, grain, beef, pork—that they sell into international markets at international prices. Their access to those markets is controlled by a federal government that has often shifted costs onto the west to serve interests in Ontario and Quebec.

In 1993, the most powerful protest movement ever seen in Western Canada rose to power on the slogan “The West wants in.” Abjuring separatism, they hoped to leverage the growing wealth and population of the west to gain attention in Ottawa. Stephen Harper’s Conservative governments of 2006–15 were strongly western-based. When Justin Trudeau ousted Harper in 2015, he managed to win four seats in Alberta, an impressive result for a party long mistrusted in the west.*

Alberta in 2015 needed hope and change. The global price of oil had plunged in 2014, casting the province into crisis and recession. The price of oil recovered in 2018. The economy of Alberta did not. Oil from the landlocked province must move to markets on pipelines. The Canadian pipeline network has lagged. The Harper government had failed to build new ones. Trudeau promised he would succeed where Harper had failed.

Yet the politics of pipelines did not become any more permissive after 2015 than before. Alberta and the prairie west wanted more pipelines. Environmental groups opposed them. Native groups wanted to be paid to agree to them. Trudeau’s own party saw little point or advantage to them; suburban Toronto had more votes, and it was prospering. Why waste political capital on Albertans who would probably revert to the Conservative party in 2019 no matter what Trudeau did?

The result on election night 2019: Not a single Liberal was elected to the federal House of Commons in Alberta or Saskatchewan. Liberals even lost three of their seven seats in Manitoba, historically friendlier ground for the party.

More ominous still: Like Democrats in the urban United States, westerners now confront a voting system that appears to systematically discount their votes. Despite winning more votes than the Liberals, they won 36 fewer seats in the House of Commons.

Such outcomes are always theoretically possible in Westminster-style systems. But they have not occurred often in Canadian federal politics. The democratic intuition that more votes should yield more power has usually been honored by the Canadian federal electoral system. But as Canada has evolved from a three-party system into the present five-party system (Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats, Bloc Quebecois, and Greens), the voting system has failed to keep pace. The west may want in, but it has been locked out. The federally appointed Canadian Senate, unlike its counterpoints in Australia and the United States, does not effectively protect regional interests. (I’ll note here that my sister Linda Frum serves as a Conservative senator from Ontario.)

Finally, the 2019 outcome has also destabilized one of the most dangerous fault lines in Canada: the divide between the indigenous communities and everybody else. The Trudeau government made a priority of what it termed “reconciliation.” In practice, that has meant granting indigenous communities even larger veto rights over natural-resource development, while proffering symbolic concessions and recognitions of native claims. Public meetings in Canada now almost invariably open with a statement of acknowledgment, verbal recognition that the meeting is occurring on land formerly held by indigenous people. Trudeau convened a national inquiry into unsolved killings of indigenous women that formally accused the Canadian government of “genocide.”

These moves were dramatic. They offended many in the non-indigenous world, particular the “genocide” accusation. (As the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported in 2015, in almost all cases, indigenous women are killed by an intimate or someone else known to them.) At the same time, Trudeau’s government failed, in fact, to reconcile anybody to anybody. Support for the Trudeau government among indigenous Canadians plunged from 40 percent in 2015 to 20 percent in 2019, a recent poll suggested. Trudeau started a revolution of rising expectations and then fell victim to it, opening the way to more radical politics among native people.

Almost alone among the advanced democracies, Canada has been bypassed by reactionary populism. That exemption was the product of both sound policy and good luck. Justin Trudeau’s government gambled with the policy—and counted on Canada’s luck. Trudeau’s personal future will be decided as Liberals quietly apportion the blame for the big vote drop from 2015 to 2019. His country’s fate will depend on whether Trudeau can resist being dragged to extremes by coalition partners eager to score whichever political victories they can get, while they can get it.

* An earlier version of this article misstated the number of seats that the Liberal Party won in Alberta in Canada's 2015 election.