Some years ago a couple of Canadians invented a whistle which produced its sound without using a pea. Therefore it worked every time, with no risk of it jamming when you needed to blow it in an emergency situation.
This was a major technological advance, similar to the difference between a bicycle and a motor car. So the inventors took prototypes to trade fairs all over the world and obtained plenty of orders, as it was obvious to everyone how much better this product was. But when they tried to sell it at home the reaction from their fellow Canadians was, “if this is as good as you say it is, why hasn’t it already been done in the States or Britain?”
It is this national inferiority complex, rather than any intrinsic quality of Canada itself, which makes it possibly the least-reported of the old G8 countries. Few people outside its borders know or care about its politics or concerns. However that may be about to change!
A combination of circumstances has just given Canada, the country of no known enemy, an opportunity to lead an ever-growing global movement in a very positive direction. It is too big and too important a country to have its future dictated by how it meets this challenge. But many other countries will be affected by the steps it can now take, and may well find this a very good thing.
Out of the shadows
If you ask most non-Canadians to name a Canadian Prime Minister they won’t be able to name more than one or two. But the one everyone remembers is Pierre Trudeau, the long-serving Liberal leader who stepped down as far back as 1984 and died in 2000.
Trudeau was perhaps the only Canadian Prime Minister to make an international name for himself and give his country a global profile. It wasn’t always for the right reasons: his wife Margaret, many years younger than him, was often in the headlines for pulling stunts like smuggling drugs in the Prime Minister’s luggage. But he was recognised as a man of importance in his own right, with achievements behind him and something to say, rather than the person who just happened to be leader of this big country at a given time.
Since Trudeau’s day his centre-left Liberals have been in and out of power, but have only won due to splits in the right-wing vote. The Progressive Conservative Party (PC), the historic opponent of the Liberals, was destroyed in the 1993 election after nine years in power by losing seats to the more right-wing Reform Party and the Parti Quebecois, the Quebec nationalists. This handed the Liberals victory without massive support from Quebec for the first time, and they managed to maintain it, though not always with a majority, while the right realigned.
In 2006 the new Conservative Party of Stephen Harper displaced the Liberals by uniting disengaged former PC supporters and the “prairie populists” of Reform. At the same time the Bloc Quebecois vote began to swing to the social democrat NDP, Canada’s traditional third party. Both these parties combined the crusading appeal of protest with a tradition of getting things done in office. The Liberals were what everyone was protesting against, and at the same time a less attractive tradition, so they were squeezed from both sides like the PC had once been.
At the last Canadian Federal Election, in 2011, the Liberals were reduced to third party status with a mere 34 seats, the NDP becoming the official opposition. So what did the Liberals soon do to return to the Golden Age of Trudeau? They made his eldest son, Justin, party leader.
Trudeau Junior has the glamour of the Trudeau name and also a remarkably youthful appearance for a man of 43 with three children. His actual policies have been deliberately kept vague – he talks about “listening to ordinary Canadians” rather than saying anything of his own, and invokes the memory of his father wherever he can gain advantage from it. But he is also associated with trendy causes in the youth, sport and environment fields which no one actually opposes, making him the acceptable face of a once-discredited line of thought.
But most importantly Justin Trudeau has a profound understanding of an inexorable political law. This can be called the “Law of Natural Constituency”, and states that each political party, in each country, has a basic character it can never deviate from in the long term. It can gain a lot of votes for some years by adopting a different character, but eventually that fashion will pass and the party will suffer an almighty fall, which it can only arrest by going back to its roots and its traditional support.
Trudeau knew that however popular Stephen Harper was at a given time his US-style social and fiscal conservatism was alien to Canada. Sooner or later people would get tired of it, and when that happened the Conservatives would have nothing left. On October 19th that is exactly what happened.
In the longest campaign in Canadian history the Conservatives appeared to be holding fairly steady and the NDP initially led the way. Instead Trudeau’s Liberals gained 148 seats, surging to an overall majority from a distant third place. Very few parties anywhere have achieved this feat in a single election, and with the mere scale of such a victory, Trudeau has put Canada at the centre of a movement which spreads far beyond Canada’s borders.
Into the light
Analysis of the voting figures shows that the number of people who voted Conservative remained steady, at over 5 and a half million. But this actually represented a fall of over 7 percent, as turnout was significantly higher this time round. The vast majority of new or returning electors voted Liberal, seeing in Trudeau exactly what others once saw in Harper and the NDP: the passion of an up-and-coming protest movement and the assurance of tradition, represented by memories of Trudeau Senior.
In this, Canada has conformed to a global type. Elections all over Europe are seeing parties of protest doing well against a political establishment which has lost credibility simply because it is the political establishment. People don’t like the financial crisis, foreign wars with little basis and the creeping Americanisation of their countries, whoever is in charge, left or right.
Protest parties alone don’t generally gain power, despite the success of Syriza in Greece, but if they also have tradition behind them they can achieve the sort of huge victory seen in Canada. Countries which have paid no more than the required respect to Canada for the last thirty years will have to sit up and take notice. They will also have to notice the policy positions Trudeau has adopted – many of which have never been spelled out simply because they do not have to be, as if you support his youthful vision, they are the positions you naturally take.
Canada has had strained relations with the US for a number of years, largely as a result of former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien refusing to send troops to join the 2003 invasion of Iraq without United Nations sanction. Although some Canadian troops did take part in that conflict, support for subsequent US military actions has been mixed: though remaining a US ally, it also refused to join George W. Bush’s missile defence programme under the Liberals.
Harper’s Conservatives increased the Canadian contribution to the mission to Afghanistan and turned a blind eye to the torturing of detainees there, and also withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, which is disliked by the US as it prevents the unlimited greenhouse gas emissions which are associated with intensive industrial activity. But this has not been enough to stop the US branding Canada as “soft”, and encouraging Harper to attack his country’s Moslem population on the grounds that Moslem = Terrorist.
Trudeau has promised to repair relations with the US, but implied that he will do this by making his country more “Canadian”. His repeated appeals to the feelings of individual Canadians, which have been successful, suggest he can do this because he seems to know more about them than the closeted previous rulers did.
Canada is traditionally an open and inclusive society, although some French Canadiens and many native peoples may disagree. The policies of the US and the Harper administration are seen as inconsistent with the real nature of Canada, whatever that is, and more about ideology than people. The same claims are made about their own countries’ political establishment by the protest parties which are gaining ground everywhere, and US actions in the international arena are ultimately what give that position popular support. Canada is big enough to lead an international reconfiguration of thinking, not the current resistance to it, and its people have given the country a mandate to do so.
Similarly, the growing lack of confidence in the political establishment of all countries is driven by the view that the ideas they inflict on people are fundamentally flawed. These ideas are not spelled out in detail to most electors, and fully understood by even fewer, but the manner in which they became accepted has left electors the victims of a confidence trick.
Western economics, taught and practiced at all levels by people who graduated from the same few schools, has left everyone struggling to survive in a world which once expected eternal progress, having seen it since World War Two. This has brought home the fact that the economic ideas which have crashed and burned us all are not the only ones which exist, and others have worked just as well, if not better, in previous generations. But no one is allowed to say this, because a mafia has taken over the field.
If a budding economist doesn’t accept certain views and publicly denounce others, Chinese Communist Party-style, they will never gain a qualification in the subject or be allowed to work in economics – not because their ideas don’t work, but because they are not approved of. The same is true in intellectual areas such as how to deliver public services, what should be taught in schools and the relationship between the state and established religion. Ideas have been imposed or discarded not on merit, but because some unaccountable person says they should be, without the results giving a reason why.
Trudeau’s successful appeal to the views of the Canadian people provides massive support for the growing view that the man or woman in the street is wiser than their politicians, and that their politicians have become a dangerous “state-within-a-state”. Such ideas are the basis of all liberalism, and now leave Trudeau’s party as a global standard bearer of them, given the size of his country.
Beyond the stars
Whether Trudeau Junior fulfils what his victory promises remains to be seen. His own merits have yet to be determined. But the machinery of politics has, almost by accident, thrust him and Canada into overnight global leadership.
The Western world is discarding its failed leaders, their ideology and the whole system they are held to represent, rightly or wrongly. There are now far more overtly protest-based parties in the parliaments of NATO countries, trying to achieve fundamental, systemic changes in the orientation of their countries in response to popular concern, than any living voter has seen.
Now a nation as important as Canada has a government which has been elected on the same basis, with tradition rather than mere protest behind it. This gives it the moral authority to get things done. Justin Trudeau probably can’t believe his luck. If he follows the aspirations of his people, which he seems to know very well, to their natural conclusion the rest of the world may not be able to believe its luck either.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.