Justin Trudeau faces challenge of uniting a divided Canada
Toronto - “Canada is back,” Justin Trudeau declared after his election victory in 2015. Now, after a bitter campaign, Mr Trudeau’s Liberal party is back again, but he begins his second term as the head of a minority government facing a fragmented political landscape and deep regional tensions.
In an election that was expected to be close, Mr Trudeau’s Liberals won 157 seats, falling 13 seats short of winning a majority in the House of Commons. In the 2015 poll, the party won a more commanding majority with 184 seats.
The prime minister’s chief rival, the Conservative party led by Andrew Scheer, won 121 seats, an improvement on their 2015 result but short of what it had hoped. A week ago some polls had the Conservatives positioned to win the most seats, though not an outright majority.
Two parties hold most of the remaining seats — the left-leaning New Democratic party’s seat count fell to 24 from 39, while the Bloc Québécois, a separatist party that champions sovereignty for Quebec, more than tripled its seats to 32.
Despite waning enthusiasm for Mr Trudeau, voters ultimately were not persuaded by Mr Scheer’s pledge to slash taxes and spending, balance the budget and scrap the national price on carbon. Throughout the campaign Mr Trudeau warned a vote for the NDP would pave the way for a Conservative government, a scare tactic that appears to have worked.
“The Liberals will be pleasantly surprised by this outcome,” said Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. “The Conservatives can only be depressed. A lot of people felt uncomfortable with Scheer, and Trudeau was the beneficiary of that.”
Mr Scheer tried to put an assertive face on his party’s underwhelming performance, saying they had put Mr Trudeau “on notice” — although he himself is likely to face questions about his inability to unseat the prime minister.
Even so, the results are widely regarded as a rebuke of Mr Trudeau’s first term, in which he and his party fumbled through controversies and self-inflicted injuries, including two rulings that Mr Trudeau violated federal conflict of interest laws. During the campaign, photos and a video emerged showing Mr Trudeau wearing brownface and blackface make-up as recently as 2001.
That Mr Trudeau could not hold on to his majority was telling. Canada’s economy is performing well, with unemployment near a four decade-low and wages rising, conditions that should have paved the way for a stronger showing at the polls.
He came under attack not only for the mis-steps but also for the way he and his party papered over them. Complaints of entitlement and hypocrisy came even from some Liberal supporters, and critics pointed to Mr Trudeau’s dismissive attitude to those who disagree with him.
Yet as the leader of a minority government, Mr Trudeau will have to adopt a more conciliatory style to stay in power. If he loses a confidence vote in the House of Commons, the government will fall. The lifespan of minority governments in Canada tends to be between 18 months and two years.
Despite the tenuous position of his government, Mr Trudeau did not seem chastened in his speech to supporters late on Monday. “You are sending our Liberal team back to Ottawa . . . with a clear mandate,” he said to cheers.
The reality is Mr Trudeau’s new minority government immediately faces the challenge of a fractured nation coming out of Monday’s vote.
The Bloc Québécois, the nationalist party born out of Quebec’s sovereignty movement in the 1990s, has come roaring back after losing official party status — meaning that they have at least 12 members in parliament — in 2015.
In his election-night speech, Yves-Francois Blanchet, who became the first Bloc leader to win a seat in the House since 2008, said his party would be the “voice of the Quebec nation” and said “as soon as possible, in its own way, Quebec can choose to have all the attributes of sovereignty”.
While he said his party would work with the Liberals on measures that were favourable to Quebec, the Bloc would block any move “to put more oil across Quebec”.
That was a direct shot at Alberta’s oil sands and a protracted fight between the two provinces over building a transcontinental pipeline to move crude to eastern Canada.
Complicating matters is the fact that the Liberals have now been shut out of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, with Conservatives sweeping nearly every district. Anti-Trudeau sentiment, which was already at its most ferocious in the west, has only deepened.
Danielle Smith, a former Alberta politician turned broadcaster, said that Mr Trudeau had “launched a separatist movement in Alberta” with his re-election. On Tuesday morning the hashtag #Wexit — which refers to the idea of the west separating from Canada — was trending on social media.
“Trudeau’s re-election is going to tear Canada in half,” read one popular tweet. “Good job Quebec. You’ll get your separatism desires. The west is leaving.”
Managing the twin realities of western alienation and Quebec resentment are just two challenges facing Mr Trudeau. Experts say the Liberal government will have to proceed on an ad hoc basis, seeking support for its policies from various parties at different times, including the Conservatives. Trade-offs and compromises will be the norm.
“The Trudeau government is going to keep on the track it’s been on as if it got a majority,” Mr Wiseman from the University of Toronto predicted. He also thought it was unlikely that any party would risk toppling the government so soon after one of the ugliest elections in a generation.
“Any party that forces an election right now would be punished by voters,” he said.