Voters go to the polls on Monday to vote in an election so nasty, so depressing, so ugly that, honestly, Russia meddling in it might have been an improvement.
From the obsessive focus on superficial issues like whether Andrew Scheer is really an insurance wizard or not to Justin Trudeau’s blackface scandal to the distressing explosion of fake news and misinformation in the final weeks—this election has had it all, and all of it was horrible.
Elections suck. There are very few elections you can look back at and think “well, that went well.” Most are like an unpleasant party guest who won’t leave.
In 2015, Stephen Harper stumped on banning the niqab for devout Muslim women trying to obtain Canadian citizenship or get a government job. In 2006, the Liberal Party ran ads implying Harper would institute some kind of martial law. In 1993, the Tories ran an attack ad that played up Jean Chretien’s facial paralysis. In 1974, Conservative leader Robert Stanfield decided to toss the ol’ leather pumpkin around, and a photo of him hilariously fumbling the football landed on the frontpage of the paper; many think it cost him the election. [Editor’s note: maybe we should throw objects at leaders to decide elections.] The 1872 election was bought with dirty rail tycoon money.
So keep all that history in mind when I say that the 2019 election campaign might be the worst in Canadian history.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
There are no lack of problems facing this country. The opioid crisis is still killing thousands every year. The incarceration rate for Indigenous and Black people continues to rise at a disproportionate rate. The federal debt is growing and becoming more costly. Climate change is going to wreck the planet. A recession may be around the corner and we are not ready. Urban centres across the country are unaffordable. We actually lost Prince Edward Island back in July and haven’t been able to find it.
So there’s no lack of issues to worry about.
What did we hear about instead?
Scheer repeated ad nauseum that he has no intentions of bringing in new restrictions on abortion access nor would he claw back rights for LGBTQ people. And yet, that question consumed an incredible amount of oxygen on the campaign. Questions to the other leaders on how to actually improve abortion access were few and far between.
Elizabeth May got caught photoshopping out a plastic cup from one of her campaign photos, which was dumb. But, naturally, the snafu spawned a lot of coverage suggesting that the Green Party isn’t so green after all because it touched plastic. A real aha! moment. Even before we replace single use plastics with viable alternatives, I suppose, every environmentalist ought to drink straight from a watering hole like a buffalo.
Jagmeet Singh got accosted several times on the campaign trail by racist nutters, only to get asked in a media scrum to condemn “Khalistani extremism” (for the thousandth time).
Then there were the Elysian Fields of fallen candidates, snuffed because their old social media posts were deemed too inappropriate and their chances of winning too slim.
A Green candidate, who had zero chance of winning and even less of a chance of ever having a say on Canada’s abortion laws, was fired after the party discovered she was a member of this upstart Catholic Church that’s been getting some real buzz. The NDP turfed one of theirs because he used some pretty rough-and-tumble language in a Twitter spat about pipelines. The Liberals jettisoned a Montreal candidate over some past anti-Semitic comments, which he apologized profusely for with a vow to work with the Jewish community; but another candidate in Cape Breton will be sticking around despite his own racist and sexist social media posts because, as Trudeau pointed out, he apologized. So figure that one out.
These stupid sideshows aren’t novel. They’re just part of the campaign now.
To keep the plates spinning on the narrative that Scheer and his team are a bunch of dangerous yokels—and to keep scrutiny from their own merry band of imperfect would-be politicians—the Liberal Party has loaded the T-shirt gun full of “I’M WITH STUPID” shirts and fired into a crowd of civilians. Its opposition research team has pumped one grainy cellphone video after another of Conservative candidates talking about abortion and private schools. All to keep the narrative going that Trudeau = forward, Scheer = backward; everybody else is forbidden from their 2D world.
You would think getting caught doing his own racist thing would put a stop to that, but no. Even though Trudeau was found doing black-and brownface one time (ah! ah! ah!), two times (ah! ah! ah!) three times (ah! ah! ah!) he continued to make the case that Scheer was the liability because of all the backwards things he’s said and done in the past. You may think it’s hard to seriously argue that only the guy who did blackface as a party trick could deliver racial justice, but apparently Trudeau’s acting lessons were top-shelf.
The blackface affair should have had us talking about race in a thoughtful way, but no. Instead everybody got onto a debate stage and congratulated Singh for the articulate way in which he handles racists. (Did they expect him to judo chop the bastards?)
Race should have been central to this campaign. Prisons are increasingly not reflective of the racial makeup of this country, even though evidence suggests white people commit crimes at similar rates to non-white people in Canada. While we managed to talk a lot about gun crime, we completely skipped over the fact that victims of crime tend to be disproportionately Black and Indigenous. Singh spent time talking about federal action to end police discrimination against non-white communities, but didn’t get much traction.
Even when we got on to the right issues, it feels like the media and campaigns focused on the easiest part, then patted themselves on the back for a job well done. Whenever Indigenous issues have arose, debate moderators and leaders have turned almost singularity to the issue of clean drinking water and pipeline projects. While every First Nation deserves good drinking water infrastructure, that issue is just one part of an endemic, societal problem. New pipes don’t solve a century of systemic underfunding and bad government management—to say nothing of the centuries more of a genocidal government policy towards Indigenous peoples.
On Bill 21, in Quebec, every federal leader stood up to condemn the racism behind the plan to ban religious symbols for many public servants—and refused to do anything about it. Not a single leader committed to challenging the law as prime minister, even though the regulations amount to nothing less than state-based discrimination of religious minorities.
Every time we got close to a thoughtful discussion of any issue of substance, everyone appeared to get skittish and ran off. The Conservatives’ climate policy would actually increase the country’s CO2 emissions over time, but whenever he was pressed on the issue, Scheer would blow glitter in your eyes and promise magic technology would fix everything. His inability to explain how he would balance the budget was similar. Trudeau’s climate plan wouldn’t actually get Canada to its Paris targets, but he is going to put a tree in everyone’s home whether you like it or not. The NDP wants to crack down on tax havens but their plan relies on magic tax elves tracking down the offshore billionaires. The Greens’ Indigenous policies were farcical.
It might have helped if we had more debates. But, prior to the election, Trudeau passed a law regulating how the “official” debates take place. It was a pretty transparent attempt to choke off the number of debates, but it didn’t quite work. A number of news organizations organized rogue debates anyway—Trudeau boycotted them (except for one in Quebec, because Quebec). So that meant we had just one English-language featuring all the major party candidates. But, because of the try-and-please-everyone rules, Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party went and qualified and we were all poorer for the experience.
So, with six leaders onstage, it was a clusterfuck. It was made only worse by the decision to have five moderators—most of whom seemed capable of getting the leaders to stop shouting over each other. The whole thing was incoherent. Good job, Trudeau.
So the election wasn’t going well anyway. Then, like most things, the internet made it worse.
The scourge of far-right nuttery was already pretty pronounced by the time the election was afoot, but when the variety of well-funded right-wing advertisers began churning out their anti-Trudeau memes it really got the frenzy going.
A constellation of media sites peddling stories aimed at taking down the Liberals fed content into the machine. Spencer Fernando, True North Media, The Post Millennial, Rebel Media—all blasted out stories and videos more concerned with hurting the prime minister than with advancing any kind of conservative cause. That just made everything all the more personal.
So maybe it wasn’t a surprise that, with two weeks to go, the rumours began. Patient Zero was ex-Liberal, current-fabulist Warren Kinsella who suggested to his small cabal of readers that the Globe and Mail was set to publish a big takedown of the prime minister in its Saturday paper.
Saturday came and there was no scoop—some Kinsella stans didn’t find the paper on the doorsteps that morning and were convinced of a plot. Others, thinking it was delayed, demanded to know where their Sunday edition was. (The Globe does not have a Sunday edition.)
The story that began to form around Kinsella’s know-nothing pot-stirring was that Trudeau, back when he was a teacher at West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver, had been fired for having sexual relations with a student, a parent—or both.
Those rumours were enough to push reporters to investigate the idea. The Globe, and others, did the footwork in Vancouver and ultimately came up with nothing. Asked directly about the unfounded rumours, Trudeau categorically denied them and confirmed no non-disclosure agreement had been signed; the story simply wasn’t true.
But that didn’t stop the conspiracy. Many invented the idea there had been a gag order imposed by the courts, that there was some grand conspiracy afoot.
The Conservatives, in a truly unhinged decision, joined the fray, actually sending out a press release asking, “Why did Justin Trudeau leave his teaching job at West Point Grey Academy?”
And the noted faked news huckster behind The Buffalo Chronicle was happy to supply all sorts of fake receipts to back up the nonsense. True North and the Rebel—two outlets whose funding remains opaque—jumped into the fray and started quizzing Trudeau about the bullshit after the English-language debate.
This was catnip to the weirdos and conspiracy theorists. Suddenly every yahoo with a Facebook page or Twitter account was telling every other yahoo that Trudeau was a statutory rapist and there was a plot to cover it all up.
So a mean nasty election took a dark turn.
Then, just a week before election day, Trudeau got on-stage at a rally in Ontario, more than an hour late, wearing what was obviously a bulletproof vest under his shirt. He was flanked by RCMP officers with rifles in their bag—the hallmarks that there hadn’t just been a threat, but a credible threat.
The conspiracy machine sprung to life all over again, with even mainstream journalists musing that the RCMP outfits were proof that private security had been hired. Some of the nuttier agitators began suggesting it was all a false flag—orchestrated.
In the online troll lounges, lots of ogres openly wished someone had managed to shoot him.
This election has been miserable, and everyone deserves blame to varying degrees.
Every issue has ended in stalemate. Scheer has pledged a suite of plans that are, for the most part, neither conservative nor feasible. Singh and May have put forward policies that are wildly expensive and insufficiently thought-through, but at least take seriously the problems facing the country. And Trudeau has stood in the middle, rejecting any serious action on big issues while slurring Scheer’s campaign as backwards. He has repeated “we have to do more,” while refusing to do more. He keeps saying “choose forward” while standing perfectly still.
Trudeau thinks we’re too idiotic to have the things we want, and that he has to be the one to give us what he knows we need. Scheer thinks we’re stupid enough to believe his climate plan is a plan for the climate. Neither deserve to govern the country.
I wrote in March that there was no leader or party that would spark joy for the average voter. I’m rethinking that.
Singh has figured out how to be a politician in recent weeks, and it’s showing. May hasn’t always been credible, but she’s always been earnest. Former Liberals Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott are running a heartening campaign to show that partisanship isn’t a benefit to democracy, it’s a liability. Even Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, his support for Quebec’s Bill 21 notwithstanding, has run a perfectly coherent campaign based on advocating for his nation’s priorities.
Maxime Bernier, too, should be sent to Parliament. No, not the troll who doesn’t believe in climate change, the other one.
This weekend, newspapers are going to spit up endorsements of Trudeau and Scheer, laying out their myriad of obvious faults capped up with a “but…” that is doing more work than it ought to. Ignore them. Roll a joint with the pages. Make a little newspaper boat.
The best outcome from this absolute stubbed toe of an election is a Parliament full of serious people from an array of parties. It seems unlikely that there can be a government without the Liberals or Conservatives, but delivering them the fewest seats possible seems like a pretty good way to clap back against a campaign that has made us all stupider for having survived it.
Follow Justin Ling on Twitter.