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Premier Ford and Prime Minister Trudeau stake out their turf for a year of culture wars

In one day last week, two notable political balloons were floated in Canadian politics: In Toronto, Doug Ford’s new Tory government in Ontario is planning to let cannabis be sold at private stores and, in Ottawa, Justin Trudeau is considering banning handguns.

A year of culture wars is coming to Canadian politics.

Mr. Ford has come to power itching to set out markers that symbolize his kind of populist conservatism, and Mr. Trudeau, gearing up his bid for re-election next year, is looking to sharpen his identity as a progressive leader.

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The two govern the two largest jurisdictions in this country, making each, effectively, the leading government figure in their respective parties. And each is set on signaling their own brand of virtue.

Much of it revolves around how much government is in your life: Mr. Ford is telling Ontarians he’ll keep those snooty government busybodies out of their lives, and Mr. Trudeau is telling Canadians he’ll actively use the levers of government to better society.

Mr. Ford has moved quickly and loudly, cancelling green-energy contracts, promising to cut the cost of Toronto’s municipal government by slashing the size of city council, and The Globe and Mail reported Friday that he’s planning to turn over the retail sale of newly legalized marijuana to private enterprise.

That last one is risky. Many worry that legalization will mean marijuana will get into more kids’ hands, so it might have been safer to keep sales in the hands of a provincial monopoly. Mr. Ford apparently prefers to send another message that, as he said this month, “I don’t believe government should stick their nose into everything.”

The size of Toronto’s city council isn’t the most critical governing issue Ontario faces, but Mr. Ford suddenly made it a big issue. Revenge on his former rivals on the council may be one motivation, but there’s a political reason to do it: It makes people notice he’s doing things differently.

He wants the coalition of voters from rural communities, small towns, and suburbs that elected him to sit up and nod. Plenty will like the thought of fewer politicians on the public payroll. Mr. Ford isn’t a fiscal conservative – he never explained how he would finance his promises – he’s a conservative populist. He was elected by folks who felt former Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government paid Hydro executives exorbitant salaries and kept expanding bureaucracy -- and he’s trying to solidify their support by showing them he’s different.

Mr. Trudeau did something similar when he took power in 2015, undoing some of Stephen Harper’s decisions.

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But now Mr. Trudeau and his Liberals have to refresh their public image. It’s hard to run on change a second time. Next year’s election election will be a judgment of Mr. Trudeau.

That’s why the PM is mulling over the traditional reset tactic – proroguing Parliament to start a new session with a Throne Speech outlining refreshed priorities. One idea under consideration, the Globe reported last week, is a ban on handguns.

That would seize on the calls for gun restrictions following the Toronto Danforth shooting a week ago.

It could be a seminal move – in theory, it would restrict the class of guns most used in urban crime.

But it’s hard not to notice the Liberals just tabled a gun bill in March, with no mention of a handgun ban. And it’s worth remembering that the details would be more complicated: Handguns are already restricted, and a “ban” would presumably come with exceptions for security guards, collectors and competitive shooters.

For the Liberals, it’s still a tantalizing notion. Twenty years ago, Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government botched the long-gun registry with costly missteps, so Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals won’t go near that idea again. But banning handguns? It might be welcomed by urban voters with crime concerns, without affecting the rifles that are part of rural Canadians’ everyday life.

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Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives might find that opposing the idea would put them offside with some urban and suburban voters. More importantly for the Liberals’ election strategy, it could win over potential NDP voters. It would be a loud signal for left-leaning voters that Mr. Trudeau is a progressive. That’s the kind of symbol they want now.

And over the next year, we can expect a lot of similarly attention-grabbing political moves, as both Mr. Ford and Mr. Trudeau look for symbols to tell voters who they are.

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