For a decade, Stephen Harper remained Canada’s prime minister largely through a combination of opposition ineffectiveness, fear mongering about crime and terrorism, and his ability to convince enough Canadians that their economy was doing better than others.
In the election last October, he was unable to enlarge his roughly 30 percent base among the electorate and suffered a humiliating defeat from voters soured by his government’s perceived anti-democratic measures, mean attitudes, and scorn for the media.
More than 17 million Canadians (68.5 percent of eligible voters) voted—the highest participation rate since 1993. With a comfortable majority of 184 seats and with Liberals elected across Canada, Justin Trudeau won an undeniable national mandate for change.
The election was described by New York Times journalist and Canadian ex-pat Guy Lawson as “nothing less than an existential struggle over what it means to be Canadian. On one side, there was Harper’s vision of a nation in an age of terror, in a world afire with conflict. On the other was Trudeau’s moderate liberal belief that the world is not riven by an epic clash of civilizations, and that cultural and religious and linguistic differences and openness are Canada’s strength.”
The Liberal agenda is ambitious: funding infrastructure projects with deficits to stimulate the economy, supporting programs to reduce childhood poverty, investigating the disappearance and murder of more than 1,000 Indigenous women between 1980 and 2012, introducing a rigorous carbon-capture policy, democratic reform, and legalizing marijuana.
Trudeau appointed his cabinet members from a wide range of cultural communities and made a point of choosing equal numbers of men and women. Nearly every initiative contrasts with those of the previous administration. Trudeau has become the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and Youth, inverting the significance of a post Harper saw as marginal.
Government scientists, forbidden to talk with the media—presumably in case they might contradict Harper’s skeptical view of climate change—are now encouraged to share research. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated recent remarks by the new Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who linked economic growth with environmental sustainability.
A new relationship between the United States and Canada began last November at the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila, when Trudeau and Barack Obama talked for the first time. In a period of Middle East chaos, Russian aggression, and an assertive China, Washington in reality has no relationship more important than that with Canada, one of its largest trading partners, a peaceful neighbor, and an important ally in global affairs.
Harper’s foreign policy put him at odds with Obama on, among other issues, the Iran nuclear treaty and Israeli–Palestinian relations. In domestic affairs, Harper strongly favored the Keystone XL pipeline, which Obama resisted and finally rejected two weeks after the Conservatives lost the election. He has since invited Trudeau to a state dinner in Washington on March 10, the first honoring a Canadian prime minister in 19 years.
On national security, Trudeau’s critics say he’s a lightweight. However, he asserts that Canada is no longer defined by its European history but by a multiplicity of identities: “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada … There are shared values—openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard … to search for equality and justice. Those qualities are what make us the first post-national state.”
Referring to Canada’s decision to pull CF-18 fighter jets out of the mission fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Kerry diplomatically offered last week in Quebec City that he is waiting to hear more about Canada’s plan, but is confident it will make a “significant contribution” to the American-led coalition.
Canada is on track to accept 25,000 refugees from Syria. A U.S. Senate committee will hold a hearing this week titled “Canada’s Fast-Track Refugee Plan: Unanswered questions and implications for U.S. National Security.” Many witnesses invited to testify have already publicly challenged Canada’s Syria refugee policy.
Ambassador Gary Doer of Canada sent a letter last week outlining nine security measures the Canadian government has taken—five specifically related to the Syrian refugee program, and four involving regular border cooperation with the United States. He told the Republican-controlled committee, “No corners, including security screening, are being cut in order to achieve the government’s objectives.”
Although the Liberal government is at the beginning of an uncertain yet unabashedly optimistic journey, there is clearly more alignment between it and U.S. Democrats than with the previous Harper Conservative government. It will be interesting to see—presuming the Democrats keep the White House later this year—how this alignment will translate into more cordial bilateral relations as both governments face the challenge of responding to their respective, and sometimes competing, national interests in global politics.
David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chretien’s Cabinet, he was secretary of state (Africa and Latin America) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”