Sunny win

Print edition : November 27, 2015

Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau poses for a selfie with a supporter at a rally in Ottawa on October 20. Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/AP

Conservative leader Stephen Harper at a news conference at Calgary, Alberta, on October 19, where he conceded defeat. Photo: Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

Phil Fontaine (right), Assembly of First Nations chief, and Beverley Jacobs, head of the Native Women's Association of Canada, as they and residential school victims are given a standing ovation before Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologised for more than a century of abuse and cultural loss involving Indian residential schools at a ceremony in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 11, 2008. From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a programme to assimilate them into Canadian society. Photo: AP

Canada witnesses its “Obama moment” as the Liberals, with their sunny campaign, win a clear majority in a “strategic” vote for change.

It was a gloomy start to the election evening for Conservative incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper as results began to come in from Canada’s Atlantic States. Each riding—as the parliamentary districts are known—went to the Liberals with large margins. From Newfoundland to Nova Scotia, the Liberal candidates won with an average of 77 per cent of the vote in their favour. It appeared that Canada was going to give a landslide to the Liberals led by Justin Trudeau ( 43). By the time returns came in from the plains States of Alberta (Harper’s home State) and Saskatchewan, the Conservatives had recovered some of their dignity. The final result gave the Liberals 184 of the 338 seats, a clear majority to govern. Harper took to the podium and conceded defeat. “We put everything on the table,” he said. “We gave everything we have to give, and we have no regrets whatsoever.”

After nine years of the rule of Harper’s Conservatives, the Liberals are back in power. The general mood in the country was anti-Harper. Even Toronto’s The Globe and Mail, generally the voice of the business community, said before the election: “The Tories [Conservatives] Deserve Another Mandate—Stephen Harper Doesn’t.” But this was an unfair judgment. Harper stood in for frustration and fear at another Conservative victory. Harsh economic policies, an aggressive foreign policy and a tone-deaf social agenda dismayed the electorate. After the election, even The Globe and Mail had to admit, in an important editorial, “The Conservative government sometimes gave the impression of being at war with evidence and science.” All the problems with the Conservatives condensed into the person of Harper. He had to go. But so did they.

At the same time, the Liberals put forward a charismatic candidate, Justin Trudeau, son of Canada’s beloved Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Father and son stood for multiculturalism and tolerance, giving Canada the reputation for liberalism that had been eroded during the Harper years. Good-looking and quick-witted, Trudeau announced his victory by claiming the country, “This is Canada, and in Canada better is always possible.” Sharply, the Liberals ran to the left of the third major party in Canada, the otherwise social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP led in the elections for much of the campaign but fell prey to its worries about being controversial and being acceptable to the bankers. The NDP leader Tom Mulcair spoke of balanced budgets and responsible government. Trudeau, instead, directly talked of taxing the rich and building the infrastructure of Canada. Harper attacked women who wore the niqab; Trudeau embraced veiled Muslim women. He cleverly appealed to the better nature of the public and reaped the dividends. “Sunny ways,” he said, echoing his favourite Prime Minister from a century ago, Wilfred Laurier. The sunny campaign won.

“Canada is having its 2008 Obama moment,” the Canadian writer Naomi Klein said to me. “Stephen Harper was our George W. Bush, lasting in office for the better part of a decade. We are so glad to be rid of him.” Naomi Klein says that this is more Harperphobia than Trudeaumania. After all, Trudeau’s Liberal Party shares a great deal with the Conservative agenda. There is a temperamental difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals on war-making and free trade. But after nine years of being smothered by Harper, anything seemed better.

“The real tragedy,” said Naomi Klein, “is that this election could have been won by our social democratic party, the NDP. But by choosing a former Liberal as their leader, and racing to the political centre, the NDP made itself irrelevant and came in third.” Many fine sitting Members of Parliament from the NDP fell before the Liberal wave.

The Canadian writer and activist Yves Engler told this writer that he doubted if the bankers worried about the Liberal’s left-leaning campaign pledges. “I don’t think they care a great deal about modest increases to personal income tax or a bit of deficit spending. They definitely do not see the Liberals as a major threat. Conrad Black [one of Canada’s main media and mining barons] even effectively endorsed Trudeau.”


A week before the election, Raouf Badra, a Tunisian migrant to Canada, waits for the defeat of Harper. He will vote for the Liberals. I ask him why he does not vote for the NDP, which, on paper, is to the left of the all the other mainstream parties. “Bloc Québécois is the most racist,” he says. “Then Harper and the Tories. They are bad. They must lose.” Harper had recently attacked the niqab and launched a hotline for concerned citizens to call and report “barbaric cultural practices”. The Conservatives’ threat to strip citizenship from dual nationals and to deport anyone who was disliked turned off voters like Badra. They had come to Canada for a better life, not to be battered around. It was “anyone but Harper” for Badra and others like him. The NDP, he said, was not sufficiently capable of defending immigrants. That is why he would vote for the Liberals.

Much was made in Canada of the idea of “strategic voting”, voters who wanted Harper out decided to forgo their main choice (NDP or the Green Party) and instead voted for the Liberals. Four young students in Toronto told me the day after the election that they voted for the Liberals entirely because they could not bear another Harper term. Katherine said that although she came from a Conservative family, she believed that this time even her parents voted Liberal. Arvind, who is an engineer in Mississauga, would have voted for the NDP but he was turned off by Harper’s attack on Islam and voted Liberal to ensure his defeat. It is not clear whether it was “strategic voting” that defeated Harper or voter turnout, which increased by 7 per cent (largely, it is assumed, made up of younger voters).

Sunera Thobani, who was the president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in Canada and now teaches in British Columbia, said it was not merely racism that made people turn against Harper. He had already lost his base as the economy faltered. The niqab issue was a last ditch-effort which “signalled his desperation”.

Sunera Thobani agrees that Trudeau took “a strong stance on the niqab issue, which worked in his favour, but it should be remembered that the Liberals supported the anti-terrorism measures of the Conservatives”. The implication here is that the Liberals helped set the context for the growing Islamophobia in Canada.

Protests by the indigenous, or First Nations, communities in Canada has picked up over the past few years. In 2012, a group of women formed the Idle No More platform to protest against Harper’s new law that allowed mining and tree cutting in Canada’s forests. Environmentalists and First Nations activists saw these measures as an assault on the land and peoples. The protests were innovative—with flash mobs in shopping malls during the Christmas season of 2012 and then sit-down protests that shut the Trans-Canada highway. As part of the protest, the Council of Canadians National Chairperson Maude Barlow and Naomi Klein returned their Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medals.

Idle No More put the question of First Nations back on the agenda. What they had not initially addressed, but which came to the fore soon after, was the murder of over a thousand First Nations’ women since 1980. Pictures of women holding signs that read #AmINext on Twitter produced a visual display of First Nations’ women worrying about this unsolved epidemic. Harper had said, dismissively, of the missing women, “It isn’t really high on our radar.”

The reaction to Harper was swift, more hashtags, more protests. “I want to thank Harper,” said the lawyer Tanya Kappo of the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation. Harper, she said, “forced us as indigenous women to take our place instead of waiting for the place to be made for us”. Perry Bellegarde (53), chief of the Assembly of the First Nations, voted for the first time this election. He voted Liberal. Bellegarde believes that the First Nations do not come under the formal jurisdiction of the Canadian Parliament. This time, he felt something positive might come from a Trudeau government, which had promised $2.6 billion for First Nations’ education. Ten First Nations members will take their seats in Parliament, a record number. Among them is Robert Falcon-Ouellette (38), who made his acceptance speech in English, French and Cree.

The future

Naomi Klein worries that once the new government takes over little good will come. The “social movements will need to stay mobilised”, she said, “putting pressure on the Liberals to do more than was promised on the election trail”. Sunera Thobani agrees. But she worries that this might not be possible. Trudeau has promised that women will make up half his Cabinet. This will satisfy sections of the population. “With the decline of the vibrant, anti-racist and anti-immigrant women’s movement in the country,” Sunera Thobani said, “the women in the Liberal Party will face very little pressure to advocate on behalf of any but the most privileged women within Canadian society.”

The day before Trudeau’s inauguration, on November 4, the First Nations of Ottawa (Canada’s capital) and Gatineau will hold a rally on Parliament Hill to support the women of Val-d’Or, Quebec. The town, named the City of Gold for its mining history, is in the midst of a crisis over allegations that the police abused First Nations women there.

The protest is organised by Bridget Tolley, an Algonquin woman from the Kitigan Zibi reserve. “Maybe Trudeau will remember the last protest before he gets sworn in as Prime Minister,” said this grandmother of five. She is ready to keep up the pressure.

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