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Whether it’s Quebec vs. English Canada, West vs. East or young vs. old, unity is hard to find in the 2019 federal race – and it may still elude us afterward

Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail

John Ibbitson is a writer-at-large at The Globe and Mail. His latest book is Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, co-authored with Darrell Bricker.

Election campaigns sometimes open our eyes to realities we’d rather not see. The current campaign, which wraps up this weekend, has revealed a Canada fractured along lines of geography and generations.

Quebeckers reject English Canada’s multicultural consensus. The West is angry and estranged from the Centre. And younger, more progressive voters resent the baby boomers’ entitlements.

A hung Parliament could deepen these divides. Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives appear able to win over more than a third of Canadians.

There has never been a time when both of the two major parties were so deeply and equally unpopular on the eve of a federal election.

Federal election 2019: The definitive guide to the issues and party platforms

Putting together a government that can obtain a majority of votes in the House on confidence measures could mean concessions to the resurgent Bloc Québécois or New Democratic Party that would leave some Canadians feeling even more estranged.

“I really believe that this election campaign, results notwithstanding, has deepened the cleavages, broadened the gap, between regions of the country,” warns Brad Wall, the former premier of Saskatchewan.

“[Liberal Leader Justin] Trudeau is playing with dynamite, and he doesn’t even know it,” says Eric Montigny, a political scientist at Laval University.

“Young people care about climate change, they care about issues of social justice and inequality,” says Sara Asalya, who established the Newcomer Students’ Association at Ryerson University. “These are issues that really impact them as young people, while older people care about affordability and incomes and tax cuts and those things.”

It’s a mess.

Nov. 4, 2015: Mr. Trudeau and then governor-general David Johnston sit for a group photo with the new Liberal cabinet.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Four years ago, Mr. Trudeau arrived in office as Liberal Prime Minister with, in retrospect, unreasonably high expectations. Finally, his supporters believed, Canada would join the fight against global warming. Finally, Ottawa would renew and expand social programs after a decade of Conservative drift. The Liberals would repair the frayed bonds of democratic governance and, for the first time since Confederation, treat Indigenous Canadians with the true nation-to-nation respect that was their right.

Except no one knows what nation-to-nation truly means, and a lack of progress on other fronts has soured relations between the Liberals and many First Nations.

And while the Liberals talked a good game on climate change, they accepted the modest targets adopted by Stephen Harper’s government. During the campaign, when Mr. Trudeau promised that a re-elected Liberal government would do even more to fight global warming, the NDP replied in a news release: “You. Bought. A. Pipeline.”

On the questions of pension reform, improving health care and, most controversially, adopting a carbon tax to reduce emissions, the federal Liberals treated the premiers the way Liberals so often do: as junior partners in the federation, subject to punishment if they refused to go along with Ottawa’s latest nation-building exercise.

Voters noticed. Provincial Liberal governments went down to defeat in New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. Today, there isn’t a Liberal government in power provincially west of Nova Scotia. Five premiers are at war with Ottawa over the carbon tax.

Mr. Trudeau noticed, too. On Tuesday, in Fredericton, he reflected: “Everything I tried to do in the last four years has been focused on bringing the country together. Yet we find ourselves now in a more polarized, more divisive election than even the 2015 one."

Bloc Québécois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, right, talks with Conservative leader Andrew Scheer at the Oct. 10 French-language leaders' debate.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Meanwhile, the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois, which had been written off as a political force, has risen miraculously in recent weeks, threatening to displace the Liberals as the most popular federal party among francophone Quebeckers, especially outside Montreal.

Prof. Montigny points out that, while most Quebeckers no longer support outright sovereignty, they remain what he calls “autonomists” – determined to see Quebec exercise the greatest possible control over its affairs.

From 1993 until the past election, they generally preferred to be represented in Ottawa by a political party that had a strong mandate to speak on their behalf, but that was not part of the government – first the Bloc, and then the NDP. Only in 2015 did most ridings send Liberals to Ottawa as part of the government.

Quebeckers may now regret the decision. Liberal interventions in areas of provincial jurisdiction have alienated many Quebec voters.

And now, Mr. Trudeau is saying that, if re-elected, the Liberals may intervene to support a legal challenge to Bill 21, which bans the wearing of religious symbols such as turbans and hijabs for some Quebec public servants.

In protest, Prof. Montigny says, Quebec voters are increasingly turning to the Bloc. “The message from the Bloc is ‘Don’t mess with us. Let us decide what is good for us within our jurisdiction.’” However nativist and discriminatory Bill 21 may appear to English Canadians, in Quebec it remains a highly popular assertion of secular principles in the public square.

Buttons at a Trudeau rally in Montreal support the Liberals (whose campaign is 'Choose Forward,' or 'Choisir d'avancer' in French) and oppose Quebec's religious-symbols law, Bill 21.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A Conservative supporter wears a button reading 'Never elect a Trudeau again' at an Oct. 4 campaign event in Ottawa featuring Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.Chris Wattie/The Canadian Press

In the Prairies four years ago, Albertans elected four Liberal MPs, and the Liberals won a plurality of seats in Manitoba.

In this election, the Conservatives could take every seat in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and most in Manitoba. They are also strong in British Columbia, once you get outside downtown Vancouver and the southern half of Vancouver Island.

Many Western voters interpret the Liberal determination to reduce carbon emissions as an attack on their economy. Yes, the Liberals approved the Trans Mountain pipeline, even purchasing it when the previous owners balked in the face of environmental and Indigenous opposition.

But the pipeline hasn’t been built, and other Liberal measures, such as the carbon tax and the ban on tanker traffic off of B.C.'s northern coast, speak to Liberal indifference toward Western priorities.

Brad Wall, then Saskatchewan's premier, walks past Mr. Trudeau at a 2015 news conference in Ottawa.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Mr. Wall invites voters in Central Canada to perform this thought experiment: Imagine if the federal government, in order to meet Canada’s commitment to the Paris targets on global warming, decided to tax and regulate the manufacturing sector out of existence. Ontario’s automotive and auto-parts industry would be restricted and then phased out. The same with aviation in Quebec. Too bad about the hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and the crippled economy, but don’t you know there’s a climate emergency?

That’s how Prairie voters feel, when progressives in Central Canada blithely talk about “winding down” the oil and gas sector that powers their economy.

As Mr. Wall points out, the International Energy Agency predicts continued global demand for fossil fuels for many years to come.

“We don’t understand why the rest of the country wouldn’t say, ‘Well, the world needs oil, better that it come from Canada, where we are trying harder and with more success to be environmentally responsible,’” than from other, heavier polluting countries, he said in an interview. “But that’s not what we’re hearing.”

The former leader of the Saskatchewan Party is no Western separatist. But “I hear from people all the time who are questioning the relation the West has with the rest of the federation.”

And if a hung Parliament leaves the NDP, and possibly the Green Party, demanding even greater restrictions on petroleum production in exchange for their support, anger in Alberta and Saskatchewan could combust.

Demonstrators take part in the Sept. 27 climate strike in Montreal.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The third divide is not regional, but generational. Young voters turned out en masse in 2015 in support of Justin Trudeau’s message of hope and change, driving turnout to levels not seen since the early 1990s.

But purchasing a pipeline, backtracking on promises of electoral reform, making little progress on Indigenous issues, forcing two powerful women, one of them Indigenous, out of the caucus over the SNC-Lavalin affair, has shaken the confidence of younger voters in this government. The revelation at the beginning of the campaign that Mr. Trudeau once liked to dress up in blackface only made things worse, says Ms. Asalya, of the Newcomer Students’ Association at Ryerson. “I think many of them are very disappointed.”

Jagmeet Singh’s NDP has profited from their disaffection. But Paul Kershaw says he believes the national political parties still underinvest in priorities for younger voters, privileging older voters more in policy choices. “That’s because millennials may have the numbers, but their turnout rates are still not as high as that of the aging population,” says the political scientist at the University of British Columbia and founder of Generation Squeeze, which promotes youth participation in politics.

A political party that truly embraced the concerns of younger voters, he says, would tax property more heavily, reflecting the good fortune of older voters who got into the housing market when homes were more affordable. A government with intergenerational consciousness would not accumulate debt that younger voters must one day pay off in order to improve services for older voters, while underinvesting in child care, parental leave and other policies that matter to the generation raising young children.

The Liberals, NDP and the Greens all propose to provide increased income security for an aging population, including some form of pharmacare, a social service disproportionately used by older voters, to be paid for from young workers’ taxes.

But the Conservatives are no better, Prof. Kershaw adds, with their reluctance to confront global warming, “which young people see as an existential crisis."

Jagmeet Singh of the NDP and Elizabeth May of the Greens take part in the Oct. 10 French-language debate.Adrian Wyld/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

One solution to the problem of intergenerational inequity would be moving to proportional representation, since progressives outnumber conservatives among younger voters, but their vote is split among the Greens, NDP and Liberals. Mr. Trudeau’s broken promise to end the first-past-the-post voting system especially rankles.

But PR could also lead to the rise of anti-immigrant MPs. Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party appears to have fizzled, but another leader and another party might do better. Some polls now suggest that a majority of Canadians would like to see fewer immigrants coming into Canada.​

So what happens after Oct. 21? Unless voters shift decisively in the coming days, no party is expected to win a majority of seats, leaving both the Liberals and the Conservatives scrambling to find the votes needed to survive a Throne Speech.

That may mean, in exchange for Bloc support, promising even greater autonomy for Quebec in the spheres of immigration, taxation and culture, along with a promise to drop any thought of joining the Bill 21 court challenge.

It might also mean abandoning the Trans Mountain pipeline as a condition for NDP or Green support. If that happens, Mr. Wall fears for the future of the West inside Canada.

And the NDP and Greens may well compel the Liberals to introduce PR legislation as a condition for their support.

Canada remains a far more stable, open, tolerant and outward-looking country than America under Donald Trump or Europe in an era of rising nativism. Unemployment here is low, the economy and population are both growing. Most Western nations would give anything for the social stability Canadians enjoy.

But regional tensions are on the rise. And now the generational divide threatens to estrange older Canadians from younger.

Which party is more likely to unite Canadians, and which to divide? That’s something to keep in mind when you vote.

More from John Ibbitson: How character attacks drag all parties down

John Ibbitson and the most recent Nanos polling data highlight the same point; that focusing their campaign airtime on character attacks have hurt both the Liberals and Conservatives equally.