The more I think about it, the more I’m coming around to the opinion that yesterday’s election – and in fact the entire election campaign – was one of the most remarkable in my experience of Canadian elections, stretching back to Brian Mulroney’s first win in 1984. To be sure, the outcome wasn’t dramatic, although it will be challenging (as it always is) to make a minority Parliament work. And the campaign itself was focused on low-stakes issues, as opposed to, say, the civilization-threatening menace of the climate emergency.
But it’s the very ordinariness of the campaign that is the most telling for where Canada as a country is at the moment. As a country we are, at least institutionally, in a very good place.
Consider the following:
- The People’s Party of Canada failed to elect a single MP. Its leader, Maxime Bernier, lost his long-held seat, driven out by dairy farmers irate about his anti-supply management stance. Unlike in the US and UK, economic self-interest defeated straight-up xenophobia. Talk about your unexpected consequences of economic protectionism. There’s a ceiling on how far xenophobia will take you in Canada.
- For all the talk of the nastiness of this campaign, this time around there was nothing to match Stephen Harper’s 2015 proposal for a “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line.
- For that matter, that the Conservatives elected Andrew Scheer as leader in 2017, rejecting the Trumpist Kellie Leitch, is a very good sign, since far-right populism causes its greatest damage when it takes over a political party. That didn’t happen.
- Also (ironically) a good outcome: that Maxime Bernier was the runner-up in that 2017 race. At the time, it was not clear to anyone how anti-immigrant he would go. So that the Conservatives had a normal, libertarian conservative (as they understood him at the time) as a runner-up was also a good sign, the better news being that he lost (in part thanks to those same dairy farmers) and didn’t have the chance to take the Conservatives full Trump.
- Dealing with the climate emergency is no longer the politically poisoned chalice it was when Stéphane Dion proposed a carbon tax in 2008. We have a national carbon tax. More reforms are almost inevitably on the way. One suspects that even the Alberta-based Conservatives will have to adapt to this reality, or risk returning to their region-locked Reform Party roots.
- Our big media players remain mostly responsible. When your closest analogue to Fox News is a website, you’re in good shape as a country – for all our focus on social media, TV is still king if you want to influence people.
Even the divisions that the next Parliament will have to deal with are old hat for a country bound together by regional jealousies, resentments and hatred of Toronto. A resurgent Bloc Québécois looking to protect the interests of a “distinct society”? That’s kind of Quebec’s deal. “Western alienation”? Again, been there, done that. I seem to recall that we elected as Prime Minister someone who wanted to put a “firewall” around Alberta. Welcome to Confederation: These problems come with the territory.
That isn’t to say that Canada has become a post-racial paradise – Quebec’s Bill 21 remains in force; people shrugged off Justin Trudeau in blackface, and Indigenous Canadians continue to be treated horribly, and horribly unjustly – or that Canada will rise to the economic and climate challenges it faces.
My only two points are that, first, this was a very Canadian election, reflecting distinctly Canadian strengths, weaknesses and prejudices. Canada does not fit well into the narrative of a wave of global anti-democratic and far-right racist populism. Something worth thinking about, for those laser-focused on the idea of such a wave.
Second, institutionally, our democratic political and social systems are working pretty well: we are nowhere near the kinds of collapse at play in the US and the UK. This is neither something to shrug off as boring and unimportant, nor is it something to become complacent about. It’s a huge accomplishment, and one that is reinforced by every normal, boring election. It’s also a necessary condition to deal with our long-term climate, racial and economic issues.
In 2003, a bunch of us were travelling through Russia. In Kazan, a city in central Russia characterized (at least at the time) by the surreal juxtaposition in close proximity of beautifully maintained boulevards and seemingly bombed-out streets, we passed a guy selling books by the side of the road. Our friend, Mark MacKinnon, as is his wont, struck up a conversation in Russian with the bookseller, and the topic of Canada came up. The bookseller congratulated us on having just been awarded the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and exuded glowing enthusiasm for Pierre Trudeau, whose visit to the Soviet Union had meant a great deal to people in the Soviet Union. “How are things in Canada?” he then asked.
“Nice but boring,” Mark replied.
“Ah,” he said, “I would take nice but boring.”
Canada: the boring country. May it ever be thus.