Many believe that Monday’s election exposed deep divisions within Canada. Ontario Premier Doug Ford called it “difficult and divisive.”
This is not so. The election revealed that Canada has rarely had fewer divides either between regions or political parties.
There are discontents, yes, and warning signs that should not be ignored. But although this election left many frustrated and annoyed at the status quo ante result, the level of consensus on national priorities is really quite remarkable.
Consider relations between Canada and Quebec, which have been fraught since before Confederation. The English-language debate confirmed that no national party is willing to challenge the government of Quebec in its relentless push for autonomy.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh all chastised a moderator who asked Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet how he could possibly defend “discriminatory laws” that restrict the outward display of religious symbols and entrench French as the province’s sole official language.
In fact, no national political party is prepared to challenge legislation that most Quebeckers consider necessary to protect their distinct language and culture, but which would be considered by many to be discriminatory elsewhere.
The Conservatives, had they been elected, would have agreed to give Quebec greater control over immigration in the province. Sooner or later, Quebec will get that power. The social contract between French and English Canada appears to be sealed: The province can go its own way, so long as separation is off the table.
Ardent federalists of past generations, especially Pierre Trudeau, would have fought such devolution. But “Justin Trudeau is not his father,” Daniel Béland, a political scientist at McGill University, said in an interview.
This generation of federalists is inclined to respect the near universal will of Quebeckers for something approaching self-government. “We are still part of Canada,” Prof. Béland explained. “But we have growing policy autonomy to do our thing.”
At least one Western premier believes the election was a divisive waste of time. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe called Monday’s vote “the most pointless election in Canadian history.”
“The Prime Minister spent $600-million of taxpayers’ dollars and five weeks further dividing the country to arrive at almost the same result as where we started.”
But Mr. Moe’s government recently signed on to the Liberal $10-a-day child-care plan. Alberta and Ontario are expected to likely join as well, at which point Canada will have enacted a major new national social program.
Though Conservatives continue to dominate in the West, the Maverick Party, which hoped to generate a wave of populist protest in the same way Reform did in the 1980s and 90s, made little impression. Western alienation played less of a role in this campaign than in the election of 2019.
On policy, the political parties in this election were more aligned than at any time in recent memory. The Conservatives offered a more progressive agenda; the Liberals were already seriously progressive, and the NDP was the NDP.
How aligned were they? Had Mr. O’Toole won government, he would have scrapped the Liberal child-care program, replacing it with one of his own. He would have scrapped the carbon tax, replacing it with one of his own. He would also have increased funding for health care, with a particular emphasis on mental health, introduced portable pensions for gig workers and banned puppy mills.
Any Liberal government could – and probably will – adopt a large chunk of the Conservative platform.
Yes, the People’s’ Party of Canada increased its share of the popular vote, to 5 per cent. In many countries that use proportional representation, that would entitle Maxime Bernier and other candidates to sit in the House of Commons. And though their views on vaccination, immigration and global warming are anathema to most, including this writer, they deserve a voice. Nonetheless, they remain a fringe within the Canadian political spectrum, one that needs to be confronted with logic, facts and an appeal to common sense.
This country has never been more united in purpose. Federal and provincial governments acted in unison to fight the pandemic, protect workers and businesses and procure and deliver vaccines. Almost every province has or will soon have some form of vaccine passport that residents must show to enter many businesses or entertainment venues. A large majority of Canadians support these passports and other mandates, such as employers requiring workers to be vaccinated before returning to the workplace.
On immigration, Canada is on track to accept more permanent residents this year than at any time in its history, despite travel restrictions. The population becomes more diverse every year. Yet no major national party is calling for cuts to immigration levels.
The Conservatives went from opposing to supporting a price on carbon because polls show most Canadians consider global warming a major issue and want Canada to lower emissions.
While the Supreme Court in the United States appears to be headed toward striking down Roe v. Wade, which protects a woman’s right to have an abortion, every major federal party leader in Canada declared they were pro-choice in this election, which reflects the views of a large majority of Canadians.
When the Conservatives mooted the possibility of removing restrictions on some semi-automatic weapons, on the grounds that the rules were capricious and contradictory, the backlash was so swift that Mr. O’Toole reversed himself within days.
The Conservatives also took heat for proposing greater involvement by the private sector in the delivery of publicly funded health care. Lost in the noise is the truth that every major political party supports medicare, and has now for decades.
Deficits used to be a divisive issue, but they have become less so. Jean Chrétien’s Liberals accepted in the 1990s the conservative arguments that Ottawa had to balance its books. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, with Liberal support, incurred deficits to fight the 2008-09 financial emergency. Deficits were an issue in the 2019 campaign, but this time out the only distinction was that the Liberals have no plan to return to balance, while the Conservatives proposed returning to balance in a decade.
Unfortunately, while both governing parties continue to promise reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples, neither has succeeded in achieving it, though both are gradually moving toward an implicit recognition of an Indigenous right to a deciding say over major resources projects on lands they claim.
There are differences, of course. Conservatives seek a more confrontational approach toward China. Conservatives are more likely to favour the private sector, though Mr. O’Toole sounded like an editorialist for the Daily Worker when he declared, “too much power is in the hands of corporate and financial elites who have been only too happy to outsource jobs abroad.”
Some within the Conservative Party believe Mr. O’Toole went too far left on some social and environmental issues. But he only went as far as any party must go to line up with public opinion. Once the pandemic ends, Grits and Tories may disagree more sharply on taxation and spending. But that’s down the road.
The United States has become so polarized it threatens to tear itself apart. Parties of the far right have become increasingly powerful in Europe. Canada is nothing like that, as the election proved. Our politicians howl over picayune differences. Elections are fought over the best way to deliver a new government program, rather than on whether such programs should exist. The consensus on everything that matters is deep and profound.
It’s been a very long time since we were this united, if ever.
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