In this busy year of news, one that has continued with such ferocity that it has made a mockery of the idea that nothing much worth reporting happens in summer, it would be easy to continue to think of Canada as the heaven where, as the Talking Heads frontman David Byrne would have it, “nothing ever happens”. There has been no Canadian spring, the country’s finances are shockingly sound, our journalists have played nice and our soldiers are no longer involved in combat operations in Afghanistan. Dignitaries staying at our hotels do not mistake the chambermaids for kinky visitors and our MPs, who do not fiddle their expenses much, keep what photographs they may have of their private parts to themselves. Damn it, when Vancouver rioted in June after the city’s ice hockey team lost to Boston in the worst-played series final in memory, it was family and friends who turned the miscreants in – that is, when the good-natured rioters did not head down to the station to confess. In Canada, we can’t manage much of a scandal of any kind, though this summer in a rural part of Quebec, historically home to odd cults, neighbours did have to call the police after they heard repeated screams from a farmhouse. Three women were found wrapped in mud, plastic and blankets and had to be taken to hospital, where one died from her unfortunate “earth-healing therapy”. As Barack Obama wrestled with impending default, Canadian newspapers were calling for the regulation of spas.
It is easy to mock. And yet, quietly, these past five years, a very different Canada from the one in which I grew up has emerged. The New Canada is a “warrior nation” that favours combat over peace operations and big industry over the environment. Having put an end to the country’s draft dodger legacy by sending a few sorry US war resisters home, the present government publishes, in American style, a list of most wanted “war criminals” and plans to deport 1,800 illegal immigrants speedily. It has designed an “Anti-Human Trafficking Act” that makes scapegoats of the miserable and has made whatever opportunity it could muster, in the past couple of years, out of ships arriving with beleaguered immigrant Tamils (aka terrorists) who “jump the queue”. It has let Omar Khadr, convicted of killing a US marine in a firefight in Afghanistan when he was 15, languish in detention in Guantanamo despite a decision by the country’s Supreme Court that his rights were being transgressed. It has made the presence of a member of the military at the swearing-in of new Canadian citizens mandatory. As the self-styled party of law and order, the Conservatives are planning mega-prisons. They also hope to do away with the hated national gun registry, the legacy of a Liberal bill introduced in 1995 in the murderous wake of Marc Lépine – a psychopath not dissimilar to Anders Behring Breivik – who killed 14 female students and injured 14 other people in a rampage at the University of Montreal during which he yelled: “Down with women!”
The Conservative hatreds are many – and in their persistent display lies an indication of what is, despite the party’s majority at the May general election, after five years of trying, a lingering sense of insecurity in a country that is essentially liberal by nature. So, for the Conservatives, the project of the transformation of Canada is ongoing, which means constantly finding new ways to revile the Liberals and their myths and icons that our brilliantly controlling prime minister, Stephen Harper, and his right-hand man, the minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, have despised for so long. Out with peacekeeping. Out with benign multiculturalism. Out with the obnoxious relativism of the country’s charter. In with the war. In with the police. In with the good old-fashioned qualities of Presbyterian hard work and merit that liberal Canadian talk about rights, rather than responsibilities, put in the shade for a decadent, not enlightened, half-century.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the great Liberal prime minister who led Canada between 1968 and 1984, but for an interregnum of nine months, is the figure repeatedly held up to the Conservative Party faithful as a reminder of the slack, tolerant, more empathetic country that, at any point, we might dangerously revert to being.
The target, always, is Trudeau and the liberal generation that, worse than being in a position of power for the better part of four decades, had huge fun as it did so. Canada’s military lobby blames the Liberal Party for running down the armed forces by having them made “peacekeepers”, and for striving instead towards an exuberant and inclusive idea of Canada, epitomised by Expo 67 in Montreal. The Liberals are hated by Conservatives for their multicultural policies and for making the country a haven for dual-passport-holding, quasi-Canadian freeloaders as well as (Kenney again) for their “bloated bureaucracies of the nanny state”.
The great irony is that the Conservatives now employ more government workers than their predecessors ever did; and if indeed Canada has escaped the 2008 recession and the aftermath that has been ruining just about every other G20 country, it is entirely because of Keynesian spending and the healthy balance sheet and sound fiscal policies (in particular, tough regulations binding Canadian banks) that were inherited from the Liberals back in 2006. But no matter. Trudeau is a symbol of a Canada that the Conservatives have dispensed with, yet it just won’t go away.
Arguably the country’s greatest modern statesman (the other contenders, Lester B Pearson and Wilfrid Laurier, were Liberals, too), Trudeau is remembered elsewhere for a dandy pirouette at Buckingham Palace and a wife with a fondness for Rolling Stones, but he is remembered in Canada for defeating, or at least allaying, Québécois separatist ambition. However, in the fossil-fuel-rich west, seat of the country’s Conservative Party, Trudeau made the egregious mistake in 1980 of imposing the National Energy Programme. This was a self-sufficiency plan that put a lid on oil and gas prices for the benefit of the rest of the country following the Opec fuel crises. Ever since, the federal Liberal Party in Alberta has been put on a par with, say, Pakistan’s security forces.
The year 1980 may seem a long time ago, but in western Canada it is not. Young men and women from economically beleaguered “have not” provinces such as Nova Scotia and, with its failing manufacturing base, Ontario, commute thousands of miles to work amid the oil sands of the fantastically wealthy province. Ten minutes after arriving, they take on the region’s atavistic hatred of the Liberals, in the name of a policy that was started and ended before they were born – one that Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal Party’s last failed saviour, was hardly about to pursue. Trudeau’s is a spectre that has done the Liberals no favours, either.
Solicited in 2006 from his post at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University to run for the leadership of the Liberal Party, Ignatieff was supposed to have been Trudeau’s latest, winning incarnation. Perhaps it was a harbinger of the plan not going quite right that when, one election late, he finally became the party leader, the New York Times featured Ignatieff in its Fashion and Style section, rather than the Magazine, to which he had contributed as a writer for years. Ignatieff inherited a party that had succumbed to a sort of flesh-eating disease. Hastened by the indignation, disbelief and shock of Liberals that they were not still the “natural governing party”, the rot came on in 2003 after the resignation of Jean Chrétien, the last prime minister to have led the Liberals to a majority.
Seeing the end of their cushy ride, rife with the corruption that comes from too many years of entitlement, many Liberal luminaries quit rather than face having to toil from the opposition benches, adding to the veneer of arrogance the party had acquired. After four nearly uninterrupted decades of Liberals in office, and despite the fears they might have had about Harper’s neo-Conservative “secret agenda”, many Canadians believed that it was time for a change. Paul Martin – who, as Chrétien’s minister of finance, was credited with having developed the cautious policies that have made Canadian banks exemplars of adroit fiscal policy – came and went. Quickly. So did Stéphane Dion, a well-meaning but bumbling and ineffectual leader who, against expectations, defeated Ignatieff’s first attempt at the party leadership as a newly elected member in 2006.
In December 2008, after Harper prorogued parliament rather than face questions about the army’s transfer of detainees to Afghan police, who did not play nice, Dion led a coalition of the Liberals, the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Bloc Québécois to make his case to the Canadian people, with what is possibly the worst promotional video ever shot by a politician anywhere in the world. Dion’s amateur moment slammed the door shut on any possibility of a Liberal return to government that year, and in from the side stepped Ignatieff. Throughout that year’s election campaign, he had supported Dion about as warmly as Tony Blair did his old chum Gordon Brown. At last, the fight card read Ignatieff v Harper.
The stage was set for what might well have become a fascinating contest between two Canadas. A cagey Harper represented a mostly rural Canadian constituency that, on the one hand, was historically ill-disposed towards anything foreign but, on the other, was also eager to prove itself a country in its own right, able to sit at the table with the big boys through means such as a fighting army, the right of citizens to carry a gun, and the quasi-Soviet societal engine of Albertan oil. In the other corner sat Ignatieff – educated, sophisticated and patrician. To the ordinary Canadian, he invoked every second-rate British schoolteacher or actor who, for a couple of centuries, had arrogantly passed himself off as Lord Muck in a country that he imagined knew no better. Yet Ignatieff nevertheless provided Canadians, as Trudeau with his inimitable style had done, with standards to aspire to. He was someone who, even with his fickle humanitarian views, notably on the role of Canadian soldiers and on the use of torture as a means to an end, embodied the thoughtful, internationalist society that Canada had prided itself on being since the days of Prime Minister Pearson, who won a Nobel Prize for his diplomatic role in the deployment of the first UN peacekeeping force during the 1956 Suez crisis.
Except that the opponent Harper feared – the bright, haughty, unapologetic intellectual – never showed up. Ignatieff was on the defensive from the start. He was leading a divided party, as Dion had done before him, that was constantly calling for an election but always scared of losing and ducking the gun at the last moment, making noisy stands only to back down, again and again, exhausting voters who felt – new immigrants especially – taken for granted by the Liberal Party that had represented them for so many years. The Conservatives, so deft at rousing enmities, did whatever they could to augment Canadian suspicion of a man who’d lived abroad for decades. He had described himself, in a foreword to his Massey Lectures (the CBC equivalent of the BBC Reith Lectures), as feeling like an “alien” in his former homeland, and while resident in the United States had implied he was American. He had spoken of Canada, when he did, disparagingly.
Ignatieff countered by trying to pass himself off in a folksy, hoi polloi way. In 2009, with Obama installed in Washington, he bragged about chums at the White House who would take his calls, but was humiliated when Harper obliged him to accept a hurried chat with the president at Ottawa Airport as Obama left after his first official visit to the Canadian capital.
That same year, in contrast to the honesty of The Russian Album, Ignatieff’s memoir of his tsarist ancestry on his father’s side, he published True Patriot Love. It is a pandering, disingenuous book about the maternal, Canadian side of his family and a thinly veiled attempt to prove his nationalist bona fides (in a first for him, it was not published outside Canada).
There had been a moment, after Harper won the 2008 election with a second, tenuous minority, when Ignatieff behaved quite effectively like a scathing headmaster, demanding that the prime minister report to him every three months on the state of the country’s finances in the face of the accelerating recession. But then, like Dion, on too many questions – the war in Afghanistan, Quebec’s position in the confederation, the green economy or the conduct of Canadian mining companies operating abroad – Ignatieff conceded ground to Harper rather than prompt an election. It was impossible to see how the Liberal position was much different from Harper’s.
To the charge of the Conservative television attack ads that “He didn’t come back for you”, Ignatieff could only respond earnestly, rather than ridicule Harper’s demagoguery. And to the Tories’ rants insisting that the country needed economic stability, raising the spectre of a coalition that would include separatists and socialists, Ignatieff replied that he would never lead one. He never questioned why talk of coalition politics should be irksome to a country that has always made a point of negotiation, nor pointed to the British example, not yet tarnished. Only in the final moments of the 2011 campaign did he throw off his accumulated constraints, but it was all too late.
In the first of two televised election debates – one in English and the other in French, the NDP leader – Jack Layton, was supposed to have been a player on the sidelines. His was the third party, bound to lose seats as Canadians prepared to choose between the two old contenders, the Conservatives and the Liberals, with the Bloc Québécois taking its usual majority of seats in the French-Canadian province. But Layton, an angular, handsome man with a bald pate and a trim silver moustache, pared expertly. The NDP leader was also recovering from a hip operation. He was a walking advertisement for a Canadian health-care system under Conservative attack, and inadvertently he was endearing himself to Quebeckers because he was using a cane, as the former provincial Parti Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard, a sentimental favourite in Quebec, had done. Tellingly, he was referred to in la belle province as “Jack”, the first name of Québécois folk heroes from Kerouac to Villeneuve. Ignatieff pressed repeatedly, but did so with a hectoring air that Canadians do not like, and Harper was able to appear like a weary parent instructing the children. It was Layton, however, who delivered the killer punch after Ignatieff hollered at his indignant Conservative opponent: “This is a debate, Mr Harper. This is a democracy.”
“I’ve got to ask you, then, why do you have the worst attendance record of any member of the house of parliament?” Layton said, pointing out that the Liberal leader had missed 70 per cent of the votes in the House in 2010. “If you want to be prime minister, you’ve got to learn how to be a member of the House of Commons first. You know, most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion.”
There was no recovering. He’d been doing a lot of travelling around the country to meet Canadians, Ignatieff might have said, but didn’t. Instead, the charge stuck.
Still, few were prepared for the extent and the nature of the Liberal defeat on 2 May. In a house of 308, the party was reduced from an
already low 77 seats to 34, the smallest caucus in its history. Ignatieff lost his own riding. Yet the big surprise was neither the Conservative rise nor the Liberal loss, but the wild surge of the NDP, riding a Quebec protest vote to a record 103 seats, becoming the official opposition for the first time in its history. Quebeckers had turned to the NDP en masse, awarding the party 59 of the province’s 75 seats and reducing the Bloc Québécois, its teamsters in Ottawa, from 49 seats to non-party status. The majority had voted, in presidential rather than parliamentary style, for Jack, without even bothering to consider who the local candidate was. The Conservative Party won 166 seats, securing the first Harper majority in four attempts as the left-of-centre vote split between the Liberals and the NDP in many Ontario and British Columbia ridings. As with so many Canadian governments, however, the Conservatives encountered a big hole of support in Quebec, where even Gilles Duceppe, the Bloc Québécois leader and thorn in Canada’s side, lost his seat as Ignatieff had done.
Into Quebec came a flotsam of rookies that neither the party administration nor even the candidates had expected to win. Among them were former separatists, a successful candidate who had spent the campaign in Las Vegas and several who had never visited their ridings.
The NDP “Orange Crush” nevertheless transformed parliament into the most representative elected legislature anywhere. More than half of the NDP members are women. The party includes an aboriginal Canadian, Canada’s first Tamil MP (an important change, given the way the Conservatives vilify Tamil immigrants), a couple of former punk rockers, a 27-year-old bar manager who had her son when she was 17, the McGill Four (a quatrain of students from the popular Montreal university who won seats in Quebec) and a 19-year-old, Canada’s youngest ever MP. Pat Martin, a carpenter and veteran Dipper who became NDP spokesman on agriculture in May, said: “There are not enough grumpy old white guys. I feel quite isolated, marginalised by all these young, energetic, attractive, intelligent people . . . We’ll have to make sure we don’t insult anyone by assuming they are staff or parliamentary pages.”
But Canada’s electorate is volatile, and not just in Quebec, and it would be a mistake for either the Dippers or the Conservatives to believe that Ottawa’s new panorama is permanent, or that the Liberals have squandered irreversibly the middle ground from which Canada has historically been governed. A cautionary tale, to which few Tories are paying heed, is that of 1993, in which the Progressive Conservative majority of Kim Campbell, Canada’s first and only female prime minister, was reduced from 151 seats to two. The Liberals have been punished for their arrogance, but after three consecutive defeats they may be seen to have paid their dues. The critical Quebec vote has always been volatile but is also adept at serving the needs of the province, electing Liberals to Ottawa and separatists at the provincial level and watching the returns accrue from deals made between the two sides.
Quebec’s representation in Ottawa has had many incarnations. There is no question that Quebeckers were fed up with the Bloc, the most recent embodiment of Québécois separatism (or “sovereigntism”, as it has come to be known). The anglophone Canadian media’s pronouncements in the days after the election however that the Quebec independence movement was dead and that the province “wanted in” to federalism were, however, premature.
And, for the first time in decades, there is the possibility in Ottawa of an effective opposition, though the NDP, with four years to prove that it belongs, is so far off to a wounded start. At the NDP convention immediately following the election, the confident party rejected all talk of a leftist merger with the humbled Liberals but was unable to drop the socialism from its constitutional lexicon, or to amend its troublesome resolution that, in any Quebec referendum on sovereignty, a mere 50 per cent plus one would constitute victory.
Then, in July, the NDP’s hero, Jack Layton, needed to step aside for treatment of a second, grave cancer, and it turned out that the acting leader he had hand-picked, the former union boss Nycole Turmel, was a member of the Bloc Québécois until just months before the election. The gaffe contributed to a general sense that the NDP surge was so great that the party’s leadership has no clear idea of who is in its camp.
Meanwhile, Bob Rae, the Toronto MP and former Ontario premier who is now acting as “interim” Liberal leader – he lost to Ignatieff in the third round of the 2006 leadership race and was passed over when Ignatieff was appointed in the truncated 2009 contest – is the most articulate speaker in the House and is proving that his party is not quite dead. To his side is another Trudeau, Pierre’s appealing 39-year-old son Justin, who augmented his own reputation on the hustings in May.
But as always, power makes its own exertions. At least for the time being, the Conservatives appear to be behaving more like Liberals on various fronts. They have pledged support for health care and, sensing Canadians’ weariness of war, speak more mutedly about Afghanistan. Toronto, usually a Liberal bulwark snidely ignored by Tory Ottawa, has finally elected Conservative members (the party won 29 out of 44 seats in the Greater Toronto area), bridging the urban/rural fault line that is Canada’s unspoken class divide. A lot of the old Tory rhetoric about “cultural elites”, and the party’s grass-roots suspicion of cities as ghettoes of lawlessness, activism, pot-smoking and gay marriage, cannot hold. Many of the new immigrants to Canada, who have by and large settled in commuter suburbs, are already in the Conservative fold, and now the urban centres and their crucial ridings are within reach.
It’s hard these days not to see the long future of a Conservative Party digging in its heels, though it may well turn out to be a party more liberal in nature. The news, in Canada, is that we can’t help but revert to being ourselves – and that may be tedious to some.
Noah Richler’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About War” will be published in September by Goose Lane Editions