Omer Aziz is the author of the forthcoming book, Brown Boy: A Story of Race, Religion, and Inheritance. He was a policy adviser to the minister of foreign affairs.
Elections are about stories, goes the old cliche, and like many political aphorisms, this contains a measure of truth. Citizens lucky enough to live in a democracy get the opportunity to tell the people in power whether they have the right to keep governing. In this election, the Liberal Party was given a renewed mandate but without the majority that would permit them to act as they please. The electorate served as a check on untrammelled power. Mr. Trudeau will have to choose now whether he moves forward with humility or arrogance.
Three numbers in particular reveal the mood of the country to me: that the Liberals won the lowest share of the popular vote of any winning party in history; that more than half of the country supported a party with a progressive agenda; and that nearly five and a half million Canadians voted for a party that was not one of the two main options. Frustration and discontent have spread across the land.
Indeed, there seemed to have been two separate elections that happened: one between the Liberal Party and Conservatives, and another election between the Liberals and the progressive alternatives – the Greens (who fared badly), the NDP (who did well, given the circumstances) and the Bloc (who had a strong showing). The splitting of the vote among the latter determined the outcome of the former. All these Canadians voted knowing that their preferred party would not form government, but still wanted to send a strong message to Ottawa. Beneath the dissatisfaction of the populace, though, there is a storm gathering on both the national unity front and over fundamental values.
Mr. Trudeau must recognize that his main opposition won more votes than he did, helped in large part by the anger in Alberta. There is a general crisis taking place in the West, one that will hit people as hard as the deindustrialization of the U.S. Midwest. The absolutism on the progressive side – no more pipelines – runs up against the economic reality on the ground. A major confrontation over federalism awaits. Some Conservative politicians warned of a threat to national unity if Mr. Trudeau was re-elected. We are about to see whether this was hyperbole or a prediction.
To the Liberals’ left, history was being made. It was not a primary headline in this campaign that Canada was witnessing its first visible minority of a major party “standing” for election, as parliamentary old timers and South Asians still say. Here was a man, turbaned and bearded, with no roadmap to follow, whose very appearance made him a target. Almost everyone applauded the dignity and grace with which Jagmeet Singh rose to the occasion.
On the question of Quebec targeting religious minorities, all the party leaders were in agreement that they would not interfere. I know something personally of the tortured dilemma Mr. Singh was in, needing to win votes in the province as a visible minority, and forced to plead with the very people who would discriminate against him. He looked Quebeckers in the eye at every opportunity and told them, “I share your values.” It was all for nothing. Polite pundits may not say the r-word, but there is a clear line that should be drawn between a province that is singling out religious minorities, and the wholesale rejection of the NDP in Quebec.
There is a fundamental difference between Quebec’s aggressive approach to secularism and policing of religion, and the Canadian tradition of protecting minority rights, from which Quebec has chiefly benefited. Canada, and its prized Charter of Rights, enshrined into the constitution by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, is headed down a collision course with Quebec over what the Canadian identity represents. Mr. Trudeau will have to decide how much longer he can waver on the absolute protection of minorities from discrimination. He will either go down as a champion of minority rights, or as the prime minister who sold out.
What we learned over the past 40 days was how repulsive our public discourse has become, and how ill-equipped we are to deal with the major challenges confronting us. Almost nothing was said about opioid overdoses this election, which killed one Canadian every two hours last year. The leaders were incapable of having a civil conversation on how to manage the economic transition to a green future, and what will happen to those left behind. Not a word, either, about the people working hard to join the middle class whose livelihoods will soon be wiped away by automation. If this is the best we can do, the country will become ungovernable.
The story of this election is not a pretty one, and years from now, will be remembered either as the blundering first step towards disunity, or the moment when political leaders finally put responsibility to the country before blind partisanship. Time will tell. The next move is Justin Trudeau’s.