How Canadians Learned to Stop Worrying and Vote for Justin Trudeau
After a long, strange, and scandal-filled campaign season, Canadians gave the Liberal Party a massive, unexpected victory.
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Smoke 'em if you got 'em, b'ys, because Justin Trudeau is our new prime minister. Soon you'll be able to pick up a pack of joints on your way down to the local brothel/assisted suicide emporium.
God knows we're going to need it.
Mostly, though, thank the risen Christ it's finally over. It's over, it's over, it's over. After 11 weeks of wading through madness, bullshit, outright lies, and at least one surreptitiously captured video of a man pissing into a coffee mug, the 42nd general Canadian election can finally be put to rest.
A week is a long time in politics, and they're even longer in an election campaign. Multiply that by a social media–powered news cycle and an electorate with the attention span of a goldfish, and you can appreciate why July 2015 feels like it belongs to another lifetime. The next campaign should come with a warning: Contact a doctor if your election lasts longer than six weeks.
Pat yourself on the back for surviving 80 days of partisan bloodletting. Meanwhile, if you need me, I'm going to be hurling my smartphone off the High Level Bridge.
I'm still trying to process it. No one would have called a Liberal victory—let alone a majority—even a month ago, but here we are. The day after what would have been his father's 96th birthday, Justin Trudeau is moving back into his childhood home. The NDP are humbled and Tom Mulcair is probably curled up in a ball somewhere listening to Morrissey. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have been beaten back to their Western and suburban strongholds and Stephen Harper is living out his worst-case scenario.
I'm not sure if it's safe to say our long national nightmare is finally over, or if it's only just getting warmed up. But either way, I think I know how we got here.
A NEW HOPE
A long time ago (I'm sorry, but did you see the new Star Wars trailer?), in a country far, far away, it was early August. Stephen Harper had just called a monster of an election campaign against Thomas Mulcair and the NDP. Between kneecapping themselves among progressive voters by supporting Harper's Bill C-51 surveillance legislation and taking a beating from the "just not ready" ads playing every ten minutes on Canadian television, the Liberals were lurching toward another shitty finish as the third party in the House of Commons.
The New Democrats were still high from their shocking springtime provincial victory in Alberta, and the Canadian public was finally ready to imagine having an NDP prime minister. Mulcair was in striking distance of 24 Sussex, and there was no shortage of Conservative scandals to give the NDP machine grist for its mill. History was beckoning. Thomas Mulcair was going to lead finish Jack Layton's drive and finally bring the party of Tommy Douglas to power in Ottawa, ushering in a new golden age of subsidized daycare and a modest raise for federal employees making the minimum wage.
But Stephen Harper isn't an idiot. The Tories were fully aware they'd have to jump a few self-erected hurdles on the road ahead, but it was nothing the war machine couldn't handle. The long campaign was itself supposed to be the first and deadliest line of attack: bleed their opponents dry so that they'd hobble across the finish line in October, unable and unwilling to play the game of brinkmanship that comes along with a(n expected) hung parliament.
Outwit, outlast, outplay. An election campaign is basically Survivor.
Plus, they needed to start strong in order to head off coverage of the Mike Duffy trial. Remember Ol' Duff? His trial kicked back into high gear for a week in August and we discovered that Harper was apparently sitting in his office repeatedly screaming "I CAN'T HEAR YOU" while literally everyone else in the PMO was trying to work out how to sweep Duffy's expenses under the rug. (The PMO's lawyer at the time of the scandal, Brian Perrin, would later claim the Tories had "lost the moral authority to govern.")
Reminding Canadians of Harper's many personal connections to the unholy trinity of Senate corruption—Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau—only played into Mulcair's hands. No one has any idea how they'd actually do it (they can't), but the NDP have long campaigned on abolishing the awful piece of shit we call the Senate. And it's hard to resist that sentiment when you're watching PMO staffers parade through a courthouse on charges of conspiracy.
And then, after a slow few weeks of warming up on the hustings, all hell broke loose. Every newspaper in the country ran a photo of a dead toddler washed up on a Turkish beach and suddenly everyone in Canada gave a shit about the Syrian refugee crisis. Except, apparently, Stephen Harper.
The Tories had started opening spaces for more than 11,000 Syrian refugees back in 2013, but only 2,500 had actually arrived by early September (2015). Trudeau and the Liberals immediately vowed to take in 25,000 refugees by January 1, although no one has any idea how they would pull this off. The NDP pledged to bring in 46,000 refugees over four years if elected to office, although—in what would become a running theme throughout his campaign—Mulcair came under pressure activists within his party to go a lot further.
But the Conservatives weren't going to budge. Amid some totally sane concerns that refugees were coming over to the Canadian heartlands as ISIS sleeper agents and/or planning to live like kings by abusing our welfare system, Harper was adamant that he would not throw open the floodgates to the teeming unwashed masses, despite our continued commitment to bombing the beejesus out of the region in our never-ending war on terror.
Then it came out that the PMO was tampering directly in the refugee claims process, auditing applications and fast-tracking Christians ahead of Sunni and Shia Muslims. Eventually, the wave of public outrage pushed the Tories to promise a further 10,000 refugees over four years if reelected.
But the damage was done—for the first time in a long time, the Tories were knocked off their game. Stephen Harper had long built his public profile around an image of cool, measured rationality in the face of his "hysterical" opposition. But in the aftershock of young Aylan Kurdi's graphic death, the shrewd accountant-in-chief now looked like an unfeeling monster.
No one on the Conservative campaign was seriously worried, though, initially. It was still early days, and there was plenty of time to turn the ship around.
They planned to do this by doubling down on the xenophobia.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
As far as the NDP was concerned, everything was coming up Milhouse. Between a still-floundering Liberal Party and a Conservative government struggling to tread water, it was time to make their long game pay off.
Even before Jack Layton's untimely death after the 2011 Orange Wave swept the NDP into official opposition, the party had long been engaged in a clandestine civil war over whether to shed its socialist skin in a bid for "electability" or try to hold its place as the lodestar for progressives in Parliament. Layton's greatest virtue is that he could do the former while appearing to do the latter. And after he died with the keys to the kingdom within reach, the party establishment decided to bet the house on Blairism.
Fortunately, the NDP had a guy who was up to the job. A veteran cabinet minister of Quebec's National Assembly (and the federalist trenches of the 1995 referendum), Thomas Mulcair was tailor-made for the gig. He gave the NDP the cool, pragmatic, emphatically "non-ideological" image they felt would sell them to the "mainstream" Canadian electorate. He would be the man to bring them "out of the 1950s"—part of his leadership pitch in 2012 was to get Canada's social democrats away from talking about the working class.
So when the campaign conversation finally turned to the economy (and whether Canada was in a recession, technical or otherwise), the NDP figured they had their chance to show how Serious and Pragmatic and Adult they were by joining the Conservatives in promising a balanced budget (and small business tax cuts) come hell, high water, or all the funding they'd promised for a laundry list of social programs. Meanwhile, the Liberals said they'd be OK with running a deficit for a few years in order to fund new infrastructure and grow the economy "from the heart out."
Suddenly, we were in a bizarre situation in which the Liberals could (credibly, in the eyes of the electorate) accuse the NDP of being sellouts—the cardinal sin of any self-respecting lefty.
The Liberals were making the NDP's identity crisis a campaign issue. They dug up old videos of Liberal Tom Mulcair praising the sublime beauty of Margaret Thatcher and enthusing about the bulk export of Quebec's fresh water. Somehow, the Liberals started to look more progressive than the liberalized NDP.
All of this culminated in the middle of September when a cadre of left-wing artists, activists, and assorted intelligentsia issued the LEAP Manifesto, which—despite being reported in the National Post as the spiritual successor to Lenin's The state and Revolution—was a rather bloodless plea to shift the Canadian economy from fossil fuels, raise taxes on the rich, and seriously reconsider the political veneration of "free trade." The aim was to build a powerful grassroots network that would force politicians seeking office to confront LEAP and its demands, but all it's really accomplished so far was pushing Mulcair further into the partisan crossfire.
Despite the NDP establishment's official distance from it, the LEAP Manifesto cut two ways. Because it was supported by a number of prominent Dippers, Harper used it as proof that the NDP campaign was unspeakably radical and that Mulcair was a secret communist. Meanwhile, for basically the same reasons, Trudeau's team flipped the script and claimed it was proof that Mulcair and his entourage were secret Thatcherites bent on destroying social democracy.
Whatever he may or may not be behind closed doors, Mulcair was not-so-secretly fucked.
In the middle of all this of all this, the biggest subplot of #elxn42 was that, thanks to old social media posts, we discovered a fair chunk of the candidates seeking office were—refreshingly!—fucking lunatics. I know every election since 2007 has been billed as "the social media election" but this actually was the social media election: the election in which all of the bullshit posts we've made on the internet since we were part of a House, M.D. fan community on LiveJournal finally started coming back to haunt us.
God, there were so many scandals. There was the Liberal who tweeted (as a teenager) that some guy should blow his brains out during a disagreement on the internet. There was the NDP candidate who defended the really weird dick joke she made on a photo of Auschwitz by claiming that she didn't know what Auschwitz was. There was the other Liberal candidate who got drunk in 2009 and tweeted about how women were bitches and whores. There was a Conservative who had a YouTube channel filled with videos of him crank calling and/or sexually harassing people. There was another Liberal (from BC, natch) who was a cancer truther and claimed marijuana could cure domestic violence. And, of course, there was the Conservative candidate who was busted by CBC's Marketplace in 2012 for pissing into a coffee mug at a customer's kitchen—easily the crown jewel of the federal election.
It was a hell of a ride. And bittersweet, too. This is probably the last campaign in which we'll see such a rich tapestry of flawed, human weirdos on our ballots. Between the PR-ification of everything and Parliament's self-selection of poli sci/business nerds, it's likely that in the future only the blandest, beige-est knobs ever assembled will bother standing for election.
There's a small chance that as younger people age and more of the electorate has grown up online, we'll collectively get cooler with people posting dumb shit on the internet when they were legally children. God knows that if Twitter existed when I was 15 I would be writing this from an undisclosed bunker out on the Uruguayan pampas. But then again, this is Canada, and we invented boredom, so don't hold your breath.
While Canada's left-ish parties tore themselves to pieces, the Tories were working on a new strategy. At the Globe & Mail leaders' debate on the economy in mid-September, when pressed about his handling of refugee claimants in Canada, Stephen Harper asserted that everything his government did was in the best interest of "new and existing and old-stock Canadians." For the first few days afterwards, there was still some debate about whether this was an unfortunate Freudian slip or a deliberate dogwhistle aimed at galvanizing (white) Canadians against the conniving (brown) Others.
A week later at the French-language debate, it became obvious that it had been the latter. Harper pulled out a proposed ban on the niqab at citizenship ceremonies in order to bludgeon the NDP to death in Quebec. Nevermind that less than a handful of women have ever worn a niqab at a citizenship ceremony or that these women identified themselves to officials beforehand or that this was totally irrelevant to any real issue of substance that around which a federal election should revolve.
No. The Conservative campaign decided that this election was going to be a referendum on Muslim women. And, God help us, for a good while it seemed like it was going to work.
RETURN OF THE JEDI
As the election neared the home stretch, the Tories traded their Islamophobic dogwhistle for a giant vuvuzela strapped to a megaphone that also shot bees at people. They announced the creation of a "Barbaric Cultural Practices" tipline to encourage you to snitch on your neighbors if you suspect they are praying at weird hours or eating too much shawarma (literally impossible). The prime minister even mused about bringing in a blanket ban on niqabs in the public service, even though this situation had arisen literally zero times in the the last 148 years.
Basically, Harper went all-in on a strong plurality of Canadians being overwhelmingly, irrationally distrustful of Muslims. The election had suddenly gone from paying lip service to real issues—the economy, healthcare, education, the environment—to one totally oriented around a question of values and image. The Conservatives were forcing voters to ask: What kind of country do you want Canada to be? And what kind of people do you want Canadians to look like?
Ironically for the Tories, turning the election into a contest over values played right into Justin Trudeau's hands.
There are a lot of things to say about Trudeau the Younger and the party he leads. Not all of them are good—especially on the substantive policy front. But one thing you can't deny is that the guy talks a damn good game about values and ideas. Whatever else he may or may not have inherited from his father, he certainly got his gift for Grand Vision. (It also didn't hurt that the bar had been set so low by the Conservative attack machine that he couldn't help but come off as a bit of a colossus just for, as PMO communications director Kory Teneycke put it, "showing up with his pants on.")
But charisma and low expectations alone don't explain why, in the dying days of the campaign, change-minded voters started flocking to Trudeau—especially since, despite their "Real Change" slogan, there isn't a lot about the Liberals that speaks to change of any depth. They're one of the longest-governing parties in the history of liberal democracy, headed by the son of one of its longest-serving leaders, stacked to the brim with technocrats and wannabe corporate cronies like Dan Gagnier.
Part of it was definitely some strange feeling of nostalgia for the first round of Trudeaumania, sure. And part of it was a creeping sense that, with the NDP floundering in Quebec, it was better to back the (perceived) country-wide winner. But a big part was the question of values, and on this point Justin Trudeau is the most earnest of the bunch.
Time was, a contest over Canadian values—at a historical moment when the progressive cause is on the upswing in the English-speaking world—would have been the NDP's strong suit. Time was, no one could match the NDP's ability to give a rich rhetorical expression to the full depth and promise of the Canadian dream. But this time, the party establishment opted to forego its idealism and try to beat Stephen Harper at his own game.
It turns out that this was a mistake on the level of a Greek tragedy. In a contest over what it means to be Canadian, neither Tom Mulcair nor Stephen Harper could hold a candle to the crown prince of Canada's philosopher kings.
As the NDP continued tanking and the "change" vote coalesced around a single alternative, Stephen Harper was suddenly faced with his worst nightmare: losing to a resurgent Liberal party, led by a Trudeau family scion.
By all accounts, this made the Tories lose their shit.
Suddenly Harper was turning up at campaign rallies with a box of props that looked like they'd been poached from the set of The Price Is Right to underscore that no, really, Justin Trudeau is going to break into your house and steal your money and/or children. Then he showed up in a television commercial, awkwardly leaning against a desk and frantically assuring us that this election is not a popularity contest but please guys just vote for me. Then Toronto's Ford brothers started coming around and everything degenerated to the level of self-parody.
The Conservative campaign started coming apart at the seams. Even though almost every national newspaper in the country endorsed the Conservatives (the Toronto Star endorsed Trudeau), it sparked a media mutiny. The Globe and Mail endorsed the Conservatives but called on Stephen Harper to resign. Lord Felon Conrad Black appeared in the National Post to beat the fuck out of the prime minister and endorse the Trudeau Liberals. Laurentian WASP icon Andrew Coyne quit his editorial job at the Post in protest of its endorsement and voted NDP. Even card-carrying Tories were jumping ship, and the prime minister was finally left alone.
Well, not quite alone. On the second-last day of the campaign, Harper—tough-on-crime, hard-nosed, "pot is infinitely worse than tobacco" Harper—was photographed in an awkward hug with Robert fucking Ford and family in what might be the darkest photo of the entire campaign.
Being alone might have been better.
THE DUST SETTLES
And now, suddenly, we're faced with a Liberal majority government. I'm not sure anyone would have predicted this a few days ago, except the most delirious partisans.
It's hard to say at the outset what the fallout will be. The complete collapse of the New Democratic vote is nothing short of a shocker. The general consensus was that they'd come in third, but even the stingiest estimates put them above 60 seats in the House of Commons.
What shall it profit a man, if he should gain the whole world, but lose his soul? I'm not sure, but lord knows the cost is heavier still if he should end up losing both. I expect Thomas Mulcair is taking a long, scathing look in the mirror right now. It's hard to feel sympathy for the party establishment after such a disappointing campaign, but my heart goes out to all the party activists who have to spend the next four years picking up the pieces of Jack Layton's broken dream.
I won't pretend I'm sorry to see the piece of shit go, but all things considered, Stephen Harper had a pretty good run. He played the parliamentary game better than most and will leave a lasting mark on every fabric of the Canadian tapestry, for good and for ill. I have no idea how long beyond his tenure the CPC's marriage of Reformers and Progressive Conservatives will last, but if it does survive, the union is a testament to the man's many gifts. He's leaving some big shoes to fill and after a decade under his iron fist, the talent pool is shallow.
So now we're stuck with the Liberals for the next four years. They've made a lot of promises over the course of this campaign and it's not clear how many they'll actually be able to keep—I'm not getting my hopes up that a prime minister who just won a surprise majority is going to be in any rush to overhaul the electoral system. We're getting a human face slapped on Bill C-51, the shadowy Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and yet another government eager to sidestep the bitumen-belching elephant in the room in the interests of strip-mining the oil patch. Just how many of us have buyer's remorse after enthusiastically voting Liberal as our "anyone but Harper" option will come out in the wash, but there's nothing we can do about it now.
Prime Minister Trudeau II spent a lot of time campaigning on cleaning up the government and reforming the way Parliament works after a decade of being brutalized by Harper. It's easy to talk a big game from the comfort of the Commons' back corner, but it's another to actually hold the reins of power. Justin Trudeau will need an inner strength to throw all the bullish trappings of the modern PMO back into the fires where his father forged them almost 50 years ago. Time will tell if he's the man for the job.
Ready or not, here he comes.
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.
- Social Media
- JUSTIN TRUDEAU
- VICE Canada
- Stephen Harper
- Conservative Party
- Vice Blog
- Liberal party
- Drew Brown
- Drew Brown VICE
- Federal Election 2015
- Tom Mulcair
- majority government
- balanced budgets