Justin Trudeau Is Thirsty for a Majority in an Election Nobody Wants

Banking on his COVID success, the Liberal leader wants a majority government he was denied in 2019. Here’s everything you need to know about voting for Justin Trudeau.
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau smiles after announcing snap elections for Sept. 20.
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau smiles after announcing snap elections for Sept. 20. Photo by Dave Chan/AFP via Getty Images

This is the first in a series of political party profiles for the 2021 Canadian federal election.

In a move that surprised no one, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has called a snap election after weeks of big political announcements, including $10 a day child care, and more than a year’s worth of mostly praise for his handling of COVID-19. While the decision to call an election during a pandemic is likely an attempt at a power grab—Trudeau currently rules a minority government—we’re simply tired, and recent polls show the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) is closing the gap. 

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A short campaign will give the Liberals an edge over other parties scrambling to prepare for the snap election on Sept. 20. Trudeau will have to avoid disaster for 36 days, unlike in 2019 when old photos and videos of him wearing blackface came out just a week into the campaign. The Liberals were reduced to minority status that time around, after being elected with a majority in 2015.

A video the party released Saturday, titled “Relentless,” hints at campaign themes of unity and inclusivity, showing Trudeau at a Black Lives Matter protest and a Pride festival and using various slogans with the word “forward.” 

But Trudeau’s scandals have continued. He faced his third ethics investigation last summer over his family’s ties to WE Charity. His

trustworthiness will be questioned, while he can expect attacks from the right for generous pandemic spending and from the left for falling short on promises of pharmacare and clean drinking water on First Nations.

Economy and jobs

Canada’s economy has gained back most jobs lost during the pandemic, up to 18,884,000 after adding 94,000 in July, but still ​​sits 246,000 behind February 2021’s pre-pandemic numbers.

The federal government kept many Canadians fed and housed through the pandemic with the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, paying out $74 billion to people laid off because of COVID-19 (up to $2,000 per person a month for up to 28 weeks). This drew predictable criticisms from right-wing pundits who said it was too much money. Service industry bosses complained the payments were making it harder to find low-paid workers. 

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It’s important to note the Liberal government actually spent more on business subsidies through the pandemic—including $89 billion from the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and $49 billion from the Canada Emergency Business Account.

To encourage people to get back to work, Trudeau has expanded the Canada Workers Benefit, a refundable tax credit for people who are working but earning a low income. The Liberals claim the expansion will help 1 million more workers and help lift 100,000 out of poverty. 

Trudeau continues to position himself as a champion of the middle class, with programs aimed at making family life more affordable, including a $30 billion plan for $10-a-day child care across Canada.

The Liberals plan to implement a national $15 an hour minimum wage by the end of the year—a big jump for Saskatchewan, where it’s set at $11.45—and party delegates have voiced support for a universal basic income pilot project. 

Climate change and environment

Canada’s Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson was mocked for a perplexing show of mental gymnastics last week when he said the country can’t afford to fight climate change without revenues generated by the Trans Mountain pipeline. This try-to-please-everyone approach may not save the world from climate disaster, but Liberals hope it hits a political sweet spot.

The party has committed to making Canada net zero by 2050, partly by taking more gas-powered vehicles off the road. The plan includes $15 billion for public transit and a ban on new combustible engine-run cars by 2035 in favour of electric, hybrid, and hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Canada had agreed at the 2015 Paris climate talks to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, but at an international summit in April, Trudeau upped the ante and pledged a 40-45 percent cut. Emissions are down 23 per cent since 2005 when measured against the size of the economy, but they actually went up 0.2 percent in 2019.

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The 2021 Liberal budget proposes $17.6 billion in new investments for a “green recovery.”

Oh, and Trudeau said he’ll have 2 billion trees planted before 2030. 

The party’s carbon tax, every Conservative premier’s favourite punching bag, doesn’t appear to be a make-or-break issue for most voters.

Indigenous affairs

Trudeau talks a good game on Indigenous issues, but his actions send conflicting messages.

The federal government committed $320 million last week for programs to help Indigenous communities search burial sites at former residential schools, and to support survivors after the horrific discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves. Meanwhile, the government is ignoring calls to drop two court cases it is fighting to deny compensation for Indigenous children who were taken from their families.

Trudeau pledged in 2015 to end all boil-water advisories on First Nations by March 2021, but a month after the original deadline, 52 long-term drinking water advisories remained in effect on 33 First Nations. The Liberals say they have ended 108 drinking water advisories but will need until 2023-24 now to reach their goal. 

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The Liberals plan to spend $18 billion over the next five years to “support healthy, safe, and prosperous Indigenous communities, close gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and advance meaningful reconciliation.”

COVID and health care

The Liberal government acted swiftly to support Canadians left jobless by COVID-19, at first giving automatic approval for Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payments of $2,000 a month, with a caveat that those not eligible would have to pay it back. 

Trudeau was slower to the punch on the vaccine rollout, after falling behind in contract negotiations with pharmaceutical companies and then leaving clueless provinces to handle the rest. By April of this year, the U.S. had almost doubled Canada in first dose shots. But Canada caught up quickly, and as of Aug. 14 had the highest vaccination rate of all G20 countries. Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced last week the government will make vaccines mandatory for all federal employees and commercial air travellers.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh will hammer Trudeau on his failure to keep a 2019 promise of a national pharmacare program, while the Liberals will take hits from Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole for pressuring New Brunswick to fund abortions at a Fredericton clinic. 

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Crime and security

Canada designated Proud Boys, Three Percenters Aryan Strikeforce, and other far-right organizations as terrorist groups this year, recognizing a growing threat of white supremacist violence.

Not usually a party to campaign as “tough on crime,” the Liberals banned 1,500 models of assault-style firearms last year in the wake of a Nova Scotia shooting rampage that left 22 dead. 

The move caused major backlash among firearms owners, and some critics argued it was useless because it’s not a ban on all semi-automatic rifles and gun owners will be allowed to keep their newly banned firearms if they want.

Trudeau is also pledging $312 million to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canada Border Services Agency, and Public Safety Canada for legislation to protect Canadians from gun violence and fight gun smuggling and trafficking. 

Housing

Trudeau said last week that plans are coming to address rising housing costs, noting the cost of owning a home is out of reach for many living in Canadian cities. A recent RBC report said housing affordability is the worst it’s been in more than three decades, with the average house priced at $717,000. In Vancouver it’s more than $1.3 million.

”Young people aren’t facing a housing problem; they’re facing a housing crisis,” Trudeau said. 

The Liberals are targeting offshore investors with a national tax on vacant residential properties owned by non-Canadians, in a bid to limit speculation that can drive up home prices. The party is in the middle of a promised 10-year, $20 billion investment in social infrastructure, prioritizing affordable housing and seniors’ facilities. 

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Drugs

Trudeau will forever be remembered as the prime minister who legalized cannabis, but his government has resisted calls to decriminalize other drugs as opioid deaths spiked in B.C., Alberta, and Ontario through the pandemic.

But his stance on decriminalization seems to be softening, and the Liberals introduced legislation in February to cut down on drug crime prosecutions and address the over-incarceration of Black and Indigenous peoples.  Bill C-22 would prioritize treatment over prosecution and abolish some mandatory minimum sentences.

Student issues

The Liberals plan to raise the minimum annual income someone must make before having to start paying off their student debt from $25,000 to $40,000, for people living alone. 

The government implemented a six-month moratorium on student loan repayment during the pandemic and a one-year suspension of interest accrual for 2021-22, and now plans to extend the interest accrual waiver until March 2023, affecting about 1.5 million Canadians. 

The Liberals doubled Canada Student Grants for the 2020-21 school year, a gesture the party plans to extend to the end of July 2023 at a cost of $3.1 billion over two years. 

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Foreign policy and immigration

Last week, in response to violence and chaos consuming Afghanistan as the Taliban takes control of the country, the federal government announced it intends to take in up to 20,000 additional fleeing refugees. The Liberals previously rolled out an immigration program to accept interpreters who worked with the Canadian military and other government agencies, which was criticized for being exclusionary and complicated. 

Trudeau has recently taken heat for not specifically condemning recent Israeli airstrikes that killed hundreds and wounded thousands in Palestine. Singh has called on the federal government in May to stop selling arms to Israel. 

Trudeau has been trying to attract more permanent residents to Canada to rebuild the labour force, with a goal of admitting 401,000 new residents in 2021. The country had reached 184,000 by the end of July.

Women

Trudeau, a self-avowed feminist, famously appointed women to half his cabinet positions when he was first elected. His feminist credentials have been challenged at times, particularly in 2019 after kicking two prominent women out of caucus. 

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He has promised to focus on the “she-cession” that has seen women especially hard hit by the pandemic, saying, “To build a fairer and more equal Canada, we must ensure a feminist, intersectional recovery from this crisis.”

A new task force on “Women in the Economy,” led by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, will advise the government on ways to address gender imbalances made worse by COVID-19. Freeland, who has spoken of a “feminist agenda,” says the Liberals’ national childcare plan will be part of a three-year stimulus package worth up to $100 billion. 

Miscellaneous

Trudeau’s success could come down to how upset Canadians are with the timing of the writ drop. While voters are never enthusiastic about a snap election, critics argue it’s irresponsible and dangerous to put Canadians through an election when Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam warned days ago the country is in the midst of a fourth COVID-19 wave.

Trudeau said the election will give Canadians a chance to approve or disapprove his pandemic recovery plan, which he said will require a strong majority mandate to pass. He said the minority parliament had become toxic and dysfunctional, but opposition parties say that’s not the case. 

Best-case scenario

Canadians are overwhelmingly satisfied with the Liberal party’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic rebuild plan, with some residual goodwill from all those CERB cheques. Albertans, disillusioned by their scandal-ridden conservative premier, either swing Liberal or to the fringe right, giving Liberals an extra seat or two out west. Trudeau gets his majority and no longer has to make compromises with the pesky NDP, Greens, and Bloc Québécois. 

Worst-case scenario

It’s likely the Liberals end up with another minority government, making this whole exercise an expensive waste of time. But a Conservative win is very much plausible, especially with COVID-19 adding obstacles to voting, and given that lower turnouts tend to favour conservatives. If the Conservatives run a smooth, gaffe-free campaign and Canadians are largely apathetic, Trudeau’s early election call could prove an arrogant and costly blunder.

Follow Kevin Maimann on Twitter.