Canada’s Left Kingmakers

With Justin Trudeau losing his majority, Canada's left-wing New Democratic Party could hold sway in the new parliament – just after its most socialist campaign in decades.

Justin Trudeau, the Economist’s boy wonder whose charming good looks and progressive bona fides once took the world by storm, suddenly doesn’t look so shiny anymore. Barely surviving through a significant corruption scandal as well as the now infamous blackface photos which made international headlines, Trudeau emerges from this election with his majority broken and his reputation diminished. The question for Canada’s Left is, what comes next?

Justin Trudeau’s political project has always been about offering the semblance of progressive change while robbing it of its substance and impact. Martin Lukacs’ recent book, The Trudeau Formula, describes this as a tactic to co-opt the genuine pain and desire for reform from working people and turn it into an empty spectacle that doesn’t upset Canada’s ruling class. This is why Trudeau has tried to have it both ways: a tax increase on the top 1% which really ended up being transferred to the top 10%; a declaration that his government’s most important relationship is with Indigenous peoples while going to court to deny compensation for residential school survivors and indigenous children who were discriminated against; and committing to meeting the Paris climate targets while purchasing and approving a pipeline expansion which would ensure that they are never met. In the final year of his mandate, this careful balancing act began to fall apart.

Trudeau was suddenly engulfed in the SNC-Lavalin scandal, in which his office placed tremendous political pressure on his Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in a court case to help Quebec-based construction giant SNC-Lavalin avoid international corruption charges for bribery in Libya, including paying for sexual services for Muammar Gaddafi’s son. Trudeau fired his Attorney General for refusing to comply with these orders, and then booted her from the party caucus once she became a whistleblower. This scandal turned what seemed like an easy re-election for Trudeau into the fight of his life. It also exposed how Canadian politics works: one set of rules for working people and another set for the rich and powerful.  

Trudeau’s interference in the prosecution was motivated by partisan politics. He was hoping to avoid a major employer in the province of Quebec going under while his provincial Liberal ally Phillipe Couillard was trying to hold onto government in that election. As it happened, Quebec did vote for a right-wing nationalist government, whose signature policy is Bill 21 – which made international headlines by enshrining discrimination against religious minorities in the public sector. Ostensibly billed as the ‘secularism law,’ if someone wears a hijab, turban, kippah, or other religious symbol they are no longer allowed to be employed in public service jobs, such as school teaching. Infamously, Quebec’s Education Minister met with Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and declared that she would only be allowed to teach in Quebec if she removed her headscarf. This law has 64% approval in Quebec, and Premier Legault accused federal parties of intending to intervene in the court case during this recent federal election. This stoked nationalist sentiment which likely led to the surge in support for the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois, taking them to the third largest party in Parliament.

Central to the story of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first term was the grand bargain he formed with the province of Alberta, home of the tar sands. But this situation had dramatically changed by 2019. After surprisingly breaking over 40 years of continuous conservative rule, the newly elected left-leaning NDP government offered Trudeau a pact – they would collaborate on implementing a Canada-wide carbon tax in which Alberta would participate in exchange for the political support of approving a new export pipeline from landlocked Alberta to tidewater. With the collapse in oil prices causing an Albertan recession, oil companies began massive layoffs while still raking in enormous profits. The loss of these jobs fuelled public anxiety that began to see the pipeline not just as a symbol, but as the key to jobs and prosperity. This led the Notley government to put significant pressure on Trudeau to nationalise the pipeline and guarantee its delivery once private financiers fled amid political uncertainty of it being blocked by protestors and the provincial NDP government in British Columbia. Yet, no matter how much Trudeau bent over backwards for the oil industry, the Conservatives won seats campaigning against him for not going far enough. In the 2019 election Trudeau lost every Liberal seat in Alberta and Saskatchewan, creating a growing sense of unease about the resurgence of Western Alienation. 

Amidst much of this disruption over the past few years, Canada’s labour party – the New Democrats – were asleep at the wheel. Former leader Tom Mulcair had recently crashed the party’s seat count from official opposition. The NDP went from polling in first to a third party rump by running an uninspiring centrist campaign in 2015. This led to his brutal eviction from the leader’s office at the following party convention and the subsequent puzzling decision to keep him on as figurehead while the leadership race dragged on for seventeen months. In came new leader Jagmeet Singh, the first minority ethnic leader of a major Canadian political party in the country’s history. He came from the Ontario Legislature as deputy leader of the provincial party and won by out-fundraising and out-mobilising his rivals. But he did not hold a seat in the federal parliament for nearly a year before winning one in a by-election. This led to nearly two and a half years of stagnation where the helm was virtually rudderless. Inevitably, frequent public disagreements between the new leader and his caucus on official party positions followed, as well as a series of gaffes. Meanwhile, Mulcair became a pundit on national television and spent all his time sniping at his successor. This lack of direction led to anemic fundraising and a collapse of organisational capacity on the ground, which in turn resulted in the party having trouble even finding enough candidates to run in all 338 constituencies. To further the internal problems, British Columbia elected an NDP government in 2017 which pledged to block the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline through to its port – sparking a public trade war between the BC and Alberta provincial NDP governments in which Singh refused to take a side.

This led to polling numbers that led the mainstream press and party backrooms to believe the 2019 election would hit the NDP like a brick wall. It was even suggested that Canada’s labour party would lose its ‘party status’ by dipping below 12 seats – killing off privileges such as a parliamentary research, staff budget and designated opportunities to participate in many parliamentary functions such as question period. But, astonishingly, the NDP turned things. They released a 100-page platform which was the most left-wing that the party had stood on since the 1980s. Entitled “A New Deal for People,” it included expanding public health insurance to cover everything from dental care to prescription drugs, a Green New Deal, the elimination of public transit fares, a wealth tax on those with fortunes above C$20 Million and the most ambitious social housing construction programme in Canadian history. While imperfect, Singh used the popularity of the platform as momentum to go on to win the only televised English leaders’ debate. His quip that “you don’t have to choose between Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny” (referring to Trudeau then to the Conservative leader’s climate plans) soon went viral. His response mid-way through the campaign to Trudeau’s blackface scandal, where he talked about his own experiences with racism, also resonated. Another clip of Singh’s measured response to a man who told him, “cut off your turban, you’ll look more like a Canadian” also went viral. As young voters began a solid shift from the Liberals to the NDP late in the campaign, Singh became perhaps the first major party leader in the western world to release a Tik Tok – racking up more than 1.3 million views in a day.

Many of these moments throughout the campaign came together as soaring personal approval ratings for Singh, but that support unfortunately did not materialise as votes at the ballot box. The Liberals lost their majority and the popular vote to a Conservative sweep of Western Canada while the NDP fell from 39 to 24 seats mostly due to an insurgent Bloc in Quebec and a failure to make inroads in Ontario. There are several reasons for this – the lack of an organisational base due to the extended leadership interregnum; a surge in the Bloc Quebecois vote that stole many of the party’s seats in Quebec, sometimes with barely concealed racial appeals; a concerted fear campaign run by the Liberals in the final week with appeals to ‘strategic voting’ to keep the Conservatives out of office, supported by leading figures in Canada’s labour movement. Canada’s largest private sector union, Unifor – whose leadership rubs shoulders more often with the Liberal party than the NDP  ran robocalls in swing NDP-Liberal districts promoting strategic voting – code for ‘Vote Liberal’. 

While the NDP must look long and hard at why they were not able to break into targeted seats in urban areas such as Halifax and Toronto, the leftward shift has electrified the party and must be defended. Singh’s last-minute surge in popularity was as a response to the populist proposals the party amplified and put forward – unabashed calls to tax the rich, take on the fossil fuel giants and pharmaceutical industry. His down-to-earth charisma differentiated him from his scripted opponents. Several inspiring socialist MPs also made it into the House, including Matthew Green, Leah Gazan and the return of Niki Ashton – opening a window to movement further leftwards.

In the new minority Parliament, Singh has returned with fewer MPs but with more power. Trudeau may need support from the NDP to command a majority – meaning that the NDP has a historic opportunity to extract concessions from the Liberals. Historically, this is how Canada’s welfare state was built. The minority Parliaments of 1963-68 brought Canada the 40-hour work week, single-payer public health insurance, public pensions and even the modern Canadian flag. The Minority in 1972-74 brought in major election finance reform and public sector involvement in oil and gas, and the 2004-06 minority saw a massive boost in healthcare spending, thanks to concessions extracted by the NDP. Singh has laid out his six priorities in this minority Parliament which include forcing through a historic expansion of the social safety net, a wealth tax and real action on climate change. Rather than disappointing election results, it is by the achievement of these objectives that Singh’s leadership ought to be judged.